It was midnight by the time I found their base. It was a warehouse a little ways away from the main road, but not too far off that it was invisible behind the trees. It poked out just enough for me to find it after an hour of searching. Once I did, I laid low, and began to investigate.
“Man, the boss was pissed at us when we could only get the girl. But I don’t understand, don’t we want the woman instead? She’d fetch us a better price right now.”
“No, you idiot. With all the slave revolts in the Free Lands, nobody wants regular slaves anymore. Especially since Boleria banned slavery to avoid getting sacked, it’s only a matter of time before other cities follow suit. I even hear the Chalstics Confederacy is voting among their cities on whether they should do the same.”
“So what’s the point of doing this? Wouldn’t it make both worthless? Y’know, the only people that would buy kids were from Besha, and most of their cities had been taken over by the slaves. It’s kind of funny, actually. They’re calling themselves the Chained Lands—”
“Exactly. Without Besha, there’s nowhere else to get child slaves. But there has always been a market for it in the other parts of the Free Lands, and they will take whatever they can get even if they have to pay more.”
“But isn’t that illegal? I thought only Besha allowed that.”
“Everything we’re doing is illegal, you dimwit. Did that weird bird man hit you that hard on the head yesterday?”
“He’s the Plague Doctor. And no, I told you, he didn’t touch me.”
“Because you ran away like a coward.”
“I think you’re being very rude to me right now—”
…aaaand investigation done. There was no reason for me to listen any longer. They said it outright: they were selling slaves.
And other illegal activities, I presumed. But I had no evidence for any of that; not like evidence mattered, since I was not some sort of detective.
I was just going to go in, grab Hannah, and get out. That was Plan A, at least. The ideal plan where I did not have to get my hands dirty, letting the guards take care of this gang after I report it to them.
Of course, a lot of things could go wrong with that plan— from the guards not wanting to arrest them, or from me getting killed— which was why I had a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D…
Each plan was tailored to the different possible scenarios where something went wrong; not that I hoped anything would go wrong, I just had to be cautious. I had backup plans for those too, but it was not as detailed as my first set of contingencies. Not that any of these plans were more than vague outlines of what I was going to do.
My final plan— Plan Z— was my last resort. And that involved me running away and pretending to forget everything that happened here. Maybe even knocking myself in the head a few times to get amnesia so I would have a clear conscience.
But as of right now, the plan was to just sneak in. So I stealthily made my way around the trees, to the side of the building, trying to keep out of view of the two lookouts out front.
The warehouse was not as massive as anything like Fort Conon— which was almost a mini castle. But it was still a large building that could easily hold a hundred people in it without crowding over.
Not that I expected there to be that many people inside; I assumed some of the rooms were for sleeping, others for storage, a kitchen, and things like that. So its size only played into my favor, since it would make sneaking in easier—
“Hey, what was that?”
Well, fu— I mean frick.
I remained as still as I could, hoping not to rustle the bushes anymore than I already did. I was not extremely bad at sneaking, but I was not good at it either. Very few situations warranted it, although I still remembered some of the lessons Karna had given me about it.
I hoped the two men would go away, thinking it was the wind or something. But as my luck would have it, they did not.
They edged closer slowly, drawing their weapons as they did. One of them had a pistol, while the other only had a sword at his side; I could not care less about the former, but the gun actually posed a problem if he fired a shot right now before I even did anything.
Time for Plan D.
I stood up, and raised both hands. I lowered my hood— I was wearing my previous outfit which was suited for sneaking and not my bright purple day clothes— and called out.
“Stop! Don’t shoot!”
The two men tensed, raising their weapons. I was prepared to dodge out of the way in case he still shot anyways. But the man with the sword breathed a sigh of relief.
“What? It’s just a little girl. You got me all worried for nothing.” He sheathed his sword, and made a shooing gesture. “Go away, girl. Play somewhere else.”
“Why would a child be out here in the middle of night to play? You’re an idiot,” the other man retorted, still keeping his pistol out, but no longer tense at the situation.
“I dunno, maybe she got lost?”
“Why would she be—” The man with the gun’s eyes lit up, and he lowered his weapon. He turned to me and put a hand out. “Ah, are you lost, little girl? My companion here seems to think so. But it’s dangerous out there. We can bring you inside to stay for the night.”
“What are you doing?” The first man asked, confused.
“Be quiet. I’m just trying not to scare her off and bring her to safety,” the other man explained, not-so-subtly.
A flash of recognition finally came across the man with the sword’s face. He then nodded hurriedly, and approached me too.
“Come on, little girl. It’s dark out, and there are animals and Monsters that are super scary in this woods. If you come with us, we can protect you.”
I took a step back. “What if I don’t want to?”
“What? Why wouldn’t you want to— listen, we’re trying to help you. Just come with us and—” The man with the gun tried grabbing my arm, but I backed up more. His brows snapped together, and he reached for me with both hands. “I said come here—”
I sliced his arm off.
Or at least, I tried to. The dark gray dagger was sharp, but not enough to easily sever a moving limb. Instead a huge gash appeared on his gun arm, causing him to drop the weapon.
“What…?” The man with the sword stared on in utter confusion as his partner clutched his arm, screaming.
That was all he got out before I plunged my blade onto his chest. He doubled over, opening his mouth to scream some more, but I quickly silenced with a final swing.
It was only at that moment, did the man with the sword react.
He pulled out his weapon, and charged me.
I kept my distance from him for a moment, right until he swung at me. It went wide. He overextended trying to hit me as I leaned back. Then I stepped into his guard, and stabbed.
The blade nicked some flesh. Blood dripped off the tip of my dagger, but the man managed to dodge in time. He brought his sword down at me again, and this time, I could not get away from it in time.
I brought my dagger up and parried the strike. But he did not let up. I continued deflecting flurry of attacks as I tried to get out of his reach. He was incessant. He swung wildly as I took another step back, barely moving my head out of the way from the tip of his blade.
I took that as an opening to close the distance and strike back. The man raised his sword to block my attack, but it never came. It was a feint. A false attack.
I moved laterally around him, finding his back. He whirled around, swinging as he did, and I ducked under it. I moved closer once again as if I was going to stab him. He was about to dodge again—
When I kicked him in the balls.
The man did not immediately crumple over, incapacitiated. Rather, he simply staggered for a moment, but otherwise bore the brunt of the hit. However that moment was all I needed.
I jabbed my dagger straight into the man grabbing his sword hand as he tried for a counter. It plunged into his stomach, and he screamed. The man only managed to struggle for a second, before I finished him off by slicing up.
The jagged edge of my blade left a huge opening, and blood gushed out. I felt the man’s arm go limp, as his sword clattered on the ground.
He was dead.
I finally let go of him, as blood continued to pool up on the dirt floor. I glanced between the two dead bodies, and flicked the blood off my dagger. I let out a sigh.
I did not feel the need to throw up. It was not like the situation with Victor at all— I didn’t even know these people. I had seen plenty of people die even before I killed my former friend. And although I still found it disgusting, I had lost the urge to vomit from seeing it even before then.
But I killed them.
There was nothing else to note; the deed had been done, and if it was my second or third time doing it, maybe my heart would have continued racing for a while longer. But the Free Lands was not a kind place; traversing through it alone as a kid attracted a lot of unwanted attention which sometimes turned deadly. So after a minute, the adrenaline stopped pumping, and I was calm again.
I kept my dagger out as I made my way to the warehouse. I was wary of making too much noise, since I was not sure if anyone was even awake other than these guards. And if everyone was asleep, I was hoping they did not wake up due to the sounds of fighting. Because maybe then I’d be able to go back to Plan A— the original sneaky plan.
I did not like Plan D; if anything, I would have liked to avoid Plan D as much as possible. Unfortunately, I knew from firsthand experience that things never went the way I wanted it to. And it did not. I heard footsteps coming from just behind the front door, and tensed up immediately.
Plan D it is.
The plan for if I screwed up immediately. Plan ‘Destroy everything with magic and leave no one alive’. Plan ‘I Don’t want to do this, but I have no other choice’.
Or some other stupid name like that; it was just the fourth plan I came up with— accounting for the fact that I could not fight an entire gang of thugs with just my dagger alone, I made this plan.
I raised a hand, and felt the magic gathering around it. The spell circle was just about to form as the door swung open.
There was a loud crackle, followed by a flash coming from behind me The man on the other side of the door did not even have time to react. A beam of light went straight through his brain, and he dropped dead.
Ears still ringing, I spun around to see where the shot came from.
A figure stood amongst the trees, his black clothes blending in with the darkness. But even though I could not see his face, I knew who it was.
The Plague Doctor.
He lowered a rather ornate looking revolver, and quirked his head to the side.
“Need some help?”
I warily backed up as the Plague Doctor approached me.
“There’s no need to be so tense,” he said, raising an arm placatingly, “I’m here to help.”
“And how would I know that? How do you even know what I’m here for?”
I was not sure if that was the correct response; I might have been paranoid instead of simply acting cautious, but I asked the question anyways. I was not sure if he saw anything, but if he even saw the slightest sliver of my magic, I could not trust him.
“Well that is a difficult question.” The Plague Doctor took a step forward. The pale silver moonlight illuminating his mask and revealing its birdlike features. Its long beak swayed from side to side as he shook his head. “Perhaps it was bold of me to assume, but I recalled your presence at the orphanage. I presumed we were both here to return Ms Hannah to her home, by force if necessary.”
I had expected something like that: either Ms Sharity or Eaton would have sought him out after what he did for them the other day. However…
“So you saw a little child and thought she was here to fight a gang of thugs?”
“That is a rather poor way of putting it,” the Plague Doctor remarked. “What I saw was a girl carrying a bloodied weapon, while standing over the bodies of two dead men, and that was what I based my inference off of. Although technically speaking, you are correct: I can only guess as to why you’re here.”
“And this is completely normal to you?” I asked, raising a brow.
“It does seem a little odd. However, I have seen stranger sights during my time.”
His answers made it quite clear he knew something was up. Which, somehow, made me more relaxed than anything; I would have been all the more leery of him if he pretended he did not suspect a thing. I finally decided to let my guard down by a little bit.
“I see,” I said, nodding, “well I wouldn’t be against getting some help.”
The less potential blood on my hands, the better. And he might even have had a better plan to rescue Hannah than me. Still facing the Plague Doctor, I carefully walked over to one of the bodies, and picked up the pistol from earlier. Going to need this if I can’t use magic.
“So, what do you suggest we do?” I asked the question. “There’s probably dozens of thugs in there. Do we just sneak in and grab Hannah, or…?”
The Plague Doctor casually shrugged.
“If they did not already wake up from the sounds of you fighting, then they surely would have awoken when I arrived.”
He waved his revolver in the air to indicate it. Then he lowered it with one hand as he brought his other hand up— still holding his signature cane— and slid a bullet into the chamber. With a click, he spun the barrel back into position and flourished it back into its holster.
“I don’t believe subtlety has been an option since.”
“Thought so,” I sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Indeed,” he concurred, raising his weapon and pointing it into the building.
A figure— no, several figures appeared behind the doorway; they were already armed and ready for combat. I whipped out my pistols and aimed at the first thug who was shouting and pointing at us. But before I could fire my weapon, the Plague Doctor finished his sentence.
“That we should, shouldn’t we?”
Then he fired his gun, and a blinding light flashed for a second. The yellow beam of light once again zipped straight at the thugs, accompanied by the thunderous cracking noise from the gunshot. Two thugs who were standing in front of each other fell, a gaping hole the size of a fist appeared on their chest, as the bullet continued past the both of them, burning itself through the wall in the back.
I flinched at the sound for a moment— but I collected myself soon enough and immediately ran for cover. The other thugs were also momentarily stunned by the powerful attack, but just like me, they immediately sprung to action.
“It’s that Plague Doctor!”
“Kill those bastards—”
The Plague Doctor fired another shot, silencing one of the thugs as they began firing back. He skipped to the side. Twirled out of the way from the gunfire. Raising his cane to block one shot that almost nicked his side. Then stopped at the other side of the door from me, behind cover.
He was graceful. Like a figure skater in the rink. Not every one of the thugs had a gun— in fact, there were just over a dozen of them currently in the room, and less than half had a long ranged weapon. But in spite of that, I was entranced by the Plague Doctor’s movements.
I had seen Karna zig zag his way out of a hail of bullets and arrows. I had also seen Victor escape from hundreds of guards coming at him all at once. But the elegance of the Plague Doctor still stood out to me.
Well, it stood out to me as much as it could at this moment.
I poked my head out of cover, and fired two shots into the room. My first shot just barely missed a moving target, while the second struck a thug on the stomach. He was wounded, but still standing. He raised his rifle and fired multiple shots back as I ducked back behind the wall.
“That’s quite the number of them, isn’t it?” the Plague Doctor remarked as a bullet barely whizzed by my head; he sent another shot into the room, and a thug fell dead.
Following his lead, I fired several more shots into the room without looking, then peeked out to fire three more. A bullet struck a man on the leg, bringing him to his knees, before another buried itself into his chest.
He collapsed to the ground. Not dead, per se. But I was certain he was bleeding out.
“Good shot, you must have had quite a lot of practice with that weapon, haven’t you?”
“Thanks,” I said, wincing as a bolt of energy barely grazed my shoulder. I grasped the light wound, and looked at my bloodied palm. “But could we maybe do the talking later? I’m not a big fan of dying, and I think that’s looking like a real possibility right now.”
“Of course.” The Plague Doctor nodded his beak-like mask. He nonchalantly began inserting bullet shells into his revolver as the thugs edged closer to the door.
I hugged my back against the wall, giving him a sidelong glance “Don’t you have six bullets in that or something?”
“Close. But I can have up to eight shots in it.”
“So why do you have to keep doing that?” I nearly shouted.
“Because,” he said, getting up and reaching into his coat, “I need all of the bullets in the chamber to do this.”
The Plague Doctor held two vials out in a single hand. One with a sloshing orange liquid, and the other with… something gray inside of it? He took the first one— the vial with the orange liquid— and hurled it into the middle of a group of thugs approaching us with their swords and axes. The glass bottle cracked upon landing on the ground—
And it exploded.
Not like some sort of molotov cocktail bursting into flames. And not like a grenade that sends out a small dusty shockwave along with shrapnels. But like a mini explosion— the kinds that came from real bombs, but just downsized into a radius of several feet.
My eyes widened and the ground shook as the group of thugs were flung across the room like ragdolls. Their bodies were already burnt, and they fell dead or half dead on the ground. The other thugs were also in shock, and in that moment, the Plague Doctor uncorked his second vial and rolled it into the room.
A plume of gray smoke began pouring out of the small bottle. It came out fast; as if it was being funneled through a much bigger opening than it actually was. The smoke obscured my vision, blocking the view of almost everything in the room. I fought off the urge to cough, covering my mouth from inhaling the gas. But the people inside— indoors— were not so lucky.
I heard several people immediately start coughing due to the smoke, and the gunshots stopped coming. I tried to seize the opportunity to start firing back, but I could barely even make out anything through the haze.
“Step back, young Miss,” the Plague Doctor said, walking up beside me. “You won’t be able to see past the smoke.”
He hefted his gun up, and put a foot through the door. I looked at him inquisitively.
“And you can?”
“This smoke was designed to obscure vision to the naked eye. But with a certain lens,”— he tapped his gloved finger onto the glass opening on his mask— “it would be like nothing was even there.”
The Plague Doctor fired a shot. The bullet parted the smoke where it went. The gray gas flashing yellow for a moment. The gunshot ringing my ears. But in that brief opening, I saw a figure collapse in the distance.
Then the Plague Doctor took more steps forward, entering the room fully. He flicked his hand to another target— one that I could not see— and pulled the trigger. Again, the same thing happened. A moment of intense light. A small hole forming in the haze. And a thug dropping dead.
Again, the Plague Doctor fired. And again, another man died.
He piroutted around, looking across the room, firing bullet after bullet. People fell everywhere he aimed. Like a sharpshooter, he never missed his targets.
He fired another shot, and the same thing happened. But this time, instead of a person on the other side, I saw a box.
It took me a second to register what happened. First, the bullet burrowed through the wooden crate, splintering bits of wood all over the ground. Then blood splattered all over the wall beyond the box, as I heard a shout.
He shot through their cover!
Another three shots rang out. The smoke was mostly cleared at that point, having stopped pouring out of the vial, and being dispersed by the powerful gunshots. All that was left were the sounds of the clinks of bullet shells bouncing on the ground, and a… groan?
I turned to the direction of the noise; a man laid bloodied against the wall. He was shot through the stomach but he was still alive. The only one left alive, for that matter.
The Plague Doctor sauntered over to the man feebly clutching himself where his stomach used to be. The Plague Doctor bent over, pulling something from under his coat as he did.
“Do you want this?” he asked, dangling a glowing healing potion in front of the man.
The man could not form any words. He was gasping for breath and barely alive. But he managed to gather enough strength to nod his head slowly.
The Plague Doctor emptied a quarter of the healing potion over the man. He sat up, inhaling a sharp breath—
Then began coughing in pain.
“Most of your wound has healed. Enough for you to survive. Now if you promise to leave and find a proper job, and tell me where the girl is, I will let you live.”
“I— she’s upstairs! In the second room to the right of the stairs!” the man quickly sputtered out.
“Very good,” the Plague Doctor said, satisfied. “And how many more of you are there in this building?”
“We’re not very big of a gang— I only joined when the country continued raising its taxes even after I lost my job! There’s only a dozen more of us in there. Two dozen maybe. I… I don’t know! Please let me go!” he pleaded desperately.
“I will. That was part of our agreement, was it not?”
“Thank you, oh thank you!” the man exclaimed. He pulled himself to his feet and after a moment’s hesitation, made his way out of the door. “I promise I’ll be good! I promise I won’t do this anymore—”
The man collapsed as the Plague Doctor struck him on the back of his head. He fell, unconscious. But still alive.
“What was that for?” I asked, inclining my head to the side. “You’re not going to let him go?”
“I am. Just not this instant.”
“Because I don’t know if he’s telling the truth,” the Plague Doctor answered. He gestured at the unconscious man, then towards the outside. “For all we know, Ms Hannah might not even be here right now. They could have taken her somewhere else.”
“I see,” I said, realizing what the Plague Doctor meant. A memory flashed in my head, and I added in to his point. “And the gang might actually be big, right? He might have gone to get more gang members if he was lying. Ambush us as we’re about to leave or something.”
“That’d be the worst case scenario. So it’d be safer to just leave him here, for now.”
That made sense to me. I eyed the quickly dissipating gas and the small crater where the first vial exploded. “So, you’re an Alchemist?”
The Plague Doctor reloaded his weapon as he answered.
“I see,” I said, casting a glance at a glowing vial hidden in his coat pocket. “Was that how you cured the Noxeus?”
The Plague Doctor paused. He was halfway sliding a bullet into his revolver, but stopped right as the tip entered the chamber. “Does it matter?” he asked, finishing the movement.
“Mhm?” I made a weird sound. “If you have a cure, or antidote, or whatever for it, why not share it? Don’t you want to help everyone you can?”
I was making an assumption based on the fact that he was a plague doctor who was apparently going around philanthropically helping everyone. Whether or not that’s true— I did not know. But I was going to find out now.
I closed and opened my eyes in rapid succession. “Huh?”
The Plague Doctor raised his shoulders and arms to the side. “I don’t feel like I would give you any answer that would leave you satisfied. It would be like if I asked you— a child— what you were doing out here trying to fight a gang of loan sharks and kidnappers. You would either give a vague response, or tell me an outright lie.”
“What? I— I mean…” I trailed off.
I could not really deny that since he was telling the truth. Sighing, I stopped pressing him on the matter.
“Could you at least tell me your name? I’d think calling you ‘the Plague Doctor’ the entire time would get tiring after a while.” I put a hand out, and smiled. “I’m Melas, it’s nice to meet you.”
The Plague Doctor hesitated; he stared at my outstretched palm, scrutinizing it for a few moments. Then he slowly took it.
The Plague Doctor jerked, and pulled me towards him. I lost my balance, almost falling to the floor. “What?!” I yelped.
There was a loud bang. A small blast came from the side—
But it did not reach me. My gaze flung up, as I saw the Plague Doctor holding up his cane: the mana crystal at its tip glowing, and a yellow domed barrier covering us.
The smoke from the explosion cleared up at the front of the barrier, and through the translucent shield, I could make two dozen figures standing down the hallway. At the very front of them was a gruff man holding a glowing blade in one hand, and a small round bomb in the other.
He grinned savagely.
“Since we’re doing introductions, I’ll join in: I’m the boss around these parts, and you’re on my turf.”
Then he threw the bomb, and it exploded.
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