The armored man was screaming, red smoke billowing out of his face as his skin puffed up and came off in foamy chunks whenever he touched it. His men were screaming with him, rushing up around and hovering over him but too afraid to touch in case whatever was eating him alive transferred to them. Their eyes switched between staring in horror at the disintegrating face and chest of their leader and glancing accusingly at Iri, who had frozen up completely and was clutching his other glass of acid. They were shouting at him in an accent so thick that he had trouble making out what they were saying, although it could have been the blood pumping through his ears warping the sound. He really wanted to join in on the screaming. Instead, as the momentary paralysis faded, he began to cackle loudly. It was a sound that stretched the entire distance between a laugh and a wail.
His plan had worked. The acid had stopped the men in their tracks. He had hit their leader, and now their morale was crumbling as surely as the man he had just killed. There was no doubt that he had killed him. Acid this strong, so far away from any neutralizing agent or even a proper water source, it meant an agonizing death from sepsis that could take days or weeks. Iri had never even struck someone in anger before, but now he had doomed this man to an fate he couldn’t even imagine. Actually, that was not exactly right. He could imagine every excruciating detail of it. His plan had worked, and since he did not know how to deal with the sheer horror and exhilaration of it, he tried to express both at the same time. That cackle was the last straw for the panicking attackers.
They began to back out at roughly the same time that their leader collapsed to the floor and started to roll around. He had clearly realized that his ministrations was making his skin come loose, and was now desperately trying to hold his face in place. Several minutes passed where his and Iri’s screams mixed in a macabre duet before he finally went silent. Iri sobbed out the last snorts of his insane laughter, and wiped the drool from his mouth with his sleeve. The room was empty except for the two of them, but he could still hear shouting and the sound of crashing furniture from the main hall, clearly the sounds of fighting. It seemed the bandits were attacking anyone who happened to be in the tavern.
Iri put down the glass of acid on a nearby table, and went to check on the man who was writhing on the floor. He didn’t really want to touch him, which meant his search of the man took the form of gingerly poking him and then flinching away until he finally found what he was looking for. Tucked into a leather sheath was a long, poorly crafted dagger. The club that the man had been wielding was far too big for Iri to hold comfortably in one hand, and he wanted to have a hand free if he needed to use the acid again. A dagger on the other hand was just perfect, even if the size of this one teetered on short sword territory. He took a moment to appreciate is luck. This amount of worked steel was expensive, even in the city.
Hefting the blade in one hand, he struggled to his feet under the weight of the keg on his back. He glanced at his glass, and decided against taking it with him. The thought of being knocked over while carrying a potent corrosive in an open container was not appealing, and he meant for this excursion to be strictly reconnaissance. Better to leave it so he knew where it was and could reach it when needed.
He had to be careful to check that someone wasn’t waiting just outside to hit him over the head, but all such ideas were dispelled when a resounding crash shook through the entire building. It was enough that he felt it, but not enough to knock him off balance, so he quickly moved to the railing of the platform outside his room. It gave him an excellent view of the main hall below. A fresh gouge in the floor lined by ruined chairs and tables started at the destroyed from door of the inn and ended in a pile of rubble that had once been the bar. There were people scattered along the trail, patrons and assailants both, struck by whatever had hurtled across the room.
Some of those who had been hit by the projectile hadn’t made it, flung off into grooves in the floor of their own by the force of the impact. Bloody trails that ended on hardened obstacles – walls, or other stone structures. Others were scrambling to their feet clutching daggers, swords and cudgels and looking around with bewildered eyes. Whether they had been friend or foe before the quake, they were all just strangers now.
Eventually, just like Iri, they all ended up looking toward the heap of debris at the bar. It was impossible to tell how fast time moved in situations like this, but the moment seemed to stretch along interminably until the debris finally shifted, and Auri stood up out of it. At first it looked like she was favoring one leg, standing slightly askew, but she soon straightened and he thought he could see something shift underneath her clothes. She paused briefly to take in her surroundings, taking stock of the situation and, as he had, coming to the conclusion that the numbers heavily favored the attackers. She had not noticed him though, focusing instead on the largest group of attackers in the room.
Iri had never actually seen a kozan fight before, and his vantage point promised the view of a lifetime. Auri picked up her pace as she strode across the room to where the men were standing. As soon as she was content with her range, she abruptly stopped and threw her gauntleted arm forward. Instead of sending her fist flying, however, her arm split apart at the shoulder and dissolved into hundreds of silver threads that were cast out into a shimmering web over the entire area before her. Their ends all touched just in front of the man at the far back. As soon as they had all met, a twisting knot appeared at her shoulder and shot forward so fast it was hard to define whether it had really moved, or if it had somehow just changed its position without any actual motion. In the blink of an eye the sparkling filaments were nowhere to be seen, snapped back together to roughly the shape of her gauntlet. It was stretched to several times its usual length, and was a lean and winding thing rather than the elegantly detailed piece of armor she normally presented.
She was holding the last man by the throat in a skeletal metal hand, pressing him back against a nearby column so high his feet barely touch the ground. Her arm contracted back to its usual appearance as she approached. It shortened in pace with her steps and grew thicker in bristling pulses that flowed across its surface, leaving behind more and more of the articulated design he was used to. The other men around her stood fixed and unmoving for a tense instant, then wavered and collapsed into chunks that spilled to the floor in messy thuds. Auri did not stop moving until she was face to face with the man she was holding. When she let him go, a steel ring was left around his throat, shackling him to the stone.
“This one lives,” she said as she turned to the others in the room, only looking at those who were not obviously aligned with their attackers. Numbers that had heavily favored the enemy were now far more balanced, and the spectacle had given the other patrons a chance to arm themselves. Looking up to Iri, she caught his eye and opened her mouth to say something. Whatever it was became lost as the world began to spin and he tumbled fell backward, a blinding pain flourishing in tandem with the rise of a keening whine in his skull.
Air whooshed out of his lungs as the gunpowder keg hit the floor and dug into his back with the full force of his fall, and the world began to spin and blur. He was not finished fully appreciating the landing before he felt someone on top of him, trying to grab hold of his arms and twist the dagger from his grip. He reached up to take hold of his arm, to try and wrench it free of the hands that were holding him, but a knee on his chest kept him from twisting into any real sort of leverage. The barrel on his back made it harder to move, but it also made it difficult for his attacker to pin him completely. Still unable to see clearly, he was trying to visualize how the person or people attacking him must be standing. He figured that given where the knee was placed, it only made sense for there to be a supporting leg somewhere near his hip.
The weight was slowly pressing the air from his lungs, and he was losing the fight for the blade in his hand. He pulled his legs up as far he could, and tried to kick to his side where he was hoping he would hit a leg, but there was nothing there. It could not be the wrong side, so the person attacking him had to be positioned higher than he had thought. He exhaled sharply and kicked his legs straight, trying to push his assailant off balance. It worked, and his extended legs caused the powder keg’s lower edge to act like a fulcrum, tipping him into a sitting position and toppling his attacker off him and into the railing. The resulting fall wrenched his dagger from both their grips and Iri was left gasping to catch his breath. With the world coming at him in blurred pulses and bright spots, trying to follow where the dagger had fallen seemed hopeless. Instead of going for it and entering what would inevitably be another grapple against a stronger opponent, he got to his feet and made for his room. While still clouded, his vision was clear enough for him to see the doorway, and he reached for the door to slam it shut before he remembered that it had been broken into pieces minutes earlier.
Trying to blink the sight back into his eyes, he attempted to determine where his glass of acid was. He knew he had placed it on a smaller table near the wall, and began to hesitantly maneuver his way there. The ringing in his ears was still drowning out all the other sounds, and he had no idea how close his attacker was. Thinking about it made him want to move faster, and he cursed himself as he stumbled on the unconscious body on the floor. Nearly trampling the poor man in his attempt to regain his footing, he knocked his hip into the table he had been looking for, and he could tell he had knocked over everything on it. He leaped back in a panicked attempt to avoid getting any of the spilled liquid on him, and crashed back into the body on the floor, this time falling on his side on top of it. His hearing was coming back faster than his vision was clearing, so he heard the man come through the door before he saw him.
As he started to cough on the acrid smoke that lingered from the first encounter, and that was now rolling off the tabletop in thick waves, he wondered whether coming into the room was a mistake. Perhaps he should have just taken his chances with wrestling for the dagger. He actually wanted to cry when his hand closed around a sturdy wooden grip. The wooden club was still on the floor. Retching one final time before he could stand up, he swung the weapon up onto his shoulder and gripped it with both hands just in time to see a dark-skinned man step through the doorway. Bleeding from a wide cut on his forehead, it was clear the man had not come out unscathed from their scuffle either. More perplexing yet, he did not seem to be holding the dagger, instead just gripping a small blackjack in one hand. That mad cackle began to rise in his throat again as relief washed over him. Unfortunately it did not have the same effect as it had before, this time the approaching thug merely smiled menacingly.
“What you laughing for, wazee?” A thick accent garbled the words so badly that he had trouble making them out, and there was that stupid word again. “You are too small for such a big stick.”
There was no questioning that the man was absolutely right, but there were not a lot of options open to him. Gritting his teeth, Iri raised the club and swung. His opponent did the same.
Iri felt the bone in his arm crack and shift. The other man was much, much faster than he was. His two-handed grasp on the club failed immediately, the sudden loss of grip and momentum of his swing send the weapon veering off course and thumping to the floor. He had never actually considered that the sensation of a fracture would be so articulated, but he didn’t even have to look at it to know his arm was ruined. Then the pain kicked in, and he would have vomited if it wasn’t for the adrenaline. As it was, he was barely able to jump back to avoid a follow up swing aimed at his head, dragging the club behind him. The swing had still caused the other man to jump back to avoid it, but there was no doubt about who had the upper hand, and the man’s growing grin meant he knew it too.
“You see, wazee, it was never a fight.” Iri kept retreating in step with the man’s advance, until the back of his knees struck the bed.
“Fuck you,” he spat while swung the club back up to his shoulder. He wasn’t going to be swinging the heavy old thing like he had before, he could barely lift it at all. The only response was laughter, and as his enemy slowed his walk to a tauntingly leisurely pace, Iri took the opportunity to saddle along the bed so he could buy some more space to fall back on.
“Such a mouth, wazee. Are insults all that you have left?” He was being played with now, he knew. At least the time they spent talking meant time he was not being bludgeoned to death. “You should try to beg for mercy.”
Iri was disappointed by his own inability to come up with a clever comeback. He couldn’t just shout insults, however. He had to buy some time until he could figure something out. “What is with this fucking wazee shit anyway? Use real words when you insult people, I don’t fucking speak rag trash!”
“Rag trash,” the man tasted the words and his grin began to fade. “You are very funny mister ‘alchemist’. I must take you alive, but there are many things I may still break.”
Iri had to admit, despite his broken language, the man had a kind of dry wit about him. It made him like the man a lot better, and feel a bit worse about the notion of a plan that was slowly taking form in his head as it finally began to clear. All he needed was a distraction, and he had a feeling one was on the way. Auri should have made it up here by now. Since she had not, he expected that whatever she was facing outside was more imminent. That meant the odds were pretty good that the room was about to go through another tremor. Whatever she was fighting out there had to pack a hell of a punch, but it would do for a diversion. He just had to draw this out long enough for her to get smacked around some more. That idea did not make him feel any better.
“You saw what I did to your boss.” Nodding toward the unconscious man near the door, Iri met the man’s eyes. “Back off, this doesn’t have to get ugly. Uglier.”
The thug cast a glance back toward the body of his boss and scoffed, then opened his mouth to speak as he looked back to Iri. He was just in time to see the end of Iri’s underhand swing as the club landed in his crotch with enough force to knock him off balance. Whatever words he had been intending to say were lost in the gurgles and squeals that followed. Iri thought he actually heard him cry for a second, before he eventually managed to end the man’s suffering with a number of awkward blows to the head. Swinging a club this size with one arm was difficult to begin with, and the shock and adrenaline that had let him do this while his broken arm hung uselessly at his side were beginning to wear off. When he was satisfied that the thug was dead or unconscious, he let the club drop out of his hand and sagged down on the bed.
His gut wrenching at the thought of Auri being in trouble, and his nose burning from the chemical fumes that permeated the air in the whole room, he still did not really know where else to go. Grabbing a hold of one of the curtains from the bed’s frame and tearing it down, he started trying to make an improvised sling for his broken arm. For once, he was happy he was left handed, otherwise this would have rendered him entirely useless. There had to be something he could do to help his sister, some angle of attack neither of them had considered that would let him give her a hand. He was nearly finished binding his arm when the building not only shook, but rattled so violently that he would have fallen if he hadn’t already been sitting down. That had not been the quake of a door being blown in, nothing short of a wall being knocked down could have done that. The shouting from the main hall had turned into screaming. Whatever it Auri had been fighting outside, it was inside now.