“There’s Always Someone Stronger…”

The real Captain Zarth came striding through the hole in the wall, mace resting on his shoulder, hide shield raised. “Escaping from prison is a felony,” he said calmly. “So is stealing from the Gnasher’s armory.”

 

He pointed his mace at the gathered Pilgrims. “The penalty for these crimes combined is death,” Captain Zarth explained. “Obviously.”

Corax hissed between his razor sharp teeth and threw himself at Zarth.

 

Zarth turned and raised his shield; Corax’s Sickleblade rebounded off the thick hide, quivering in his claws.

 

Zarth grunted loudly and swung. His mace whistled through the air, a wind-parting blur. Corax flew backwards, slamming into the wall behind Uuco and shattering it.

 

Golden sunlight streamed through the new hole in the wall. Uuco raised a hand to shade his eyes as he got to his feet. “Hidden Gods!” he cursed. “If this keeps going, we won’t be able to call this armory a room anymore!”

 

“Or the ceiling will fall and crush us,” Lady Ira replied, staggering to her feet. She drew her short sword and tossed its sheath aside. “V’vendy, Ira, Uuco,” she said urgently. “Grab your weapons and follow; we must take this fight outside!”

“Right!” V’vendy shouted enthusiastically. Rintha hesitated, but nodded begrudgingly. They both scrambled to retrieve their weapons.

 

Rintha twirled his leather sling around his wrist and slung his bag around his shoulder. V’vendy plucked her bow from the ground and spread her fingers wide. A gale stirred through the hole in the wall, lifting white feather-fletched arrows from the ground and depositing them in the Deathweaver’s hand.

 

Captain Zarth tilted his head to the side. “You shouldn’t give orders so obviously, Lady Ira.” He sprang forward, punching towards Ira with his hide shield. “Now I know who to kill first!”

 

“Dragon Face–“ Ira started to say.

 

The masked-wrestler let out a mighty roar. Purple smoke sizzled and rose from his flesh. He charged Captain Zarth, hunching his shoulder forward and tackling the Gnasher in the side.

 

“Good Captain!” Dragon Face bellowed as he smashed Zarth into a wall. “Forgive my intrusion…but I’ve always wanted to test a Gnasher’s strength!”

 

“Let’s go!” Ira urged, stepping up to the edge of the hole in the wall. “You too, Uuco,” she added, casting a sharp glance in his direction.

 

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Uuco grumbled, grabbing his tablet from the ruined table and slipping his arms through its rope straps. “What are we doing again?”

 

“Jumping,” Ira said, stepping forward and plummeting down the side of the Gnasher’s temple.

 

“Oh!” V’vendy said in realization, stepping off the side as well.

 

Uuco’s eyes widened. “Oh!” He exclaimed. He smiled, the ends of his waxed mustache twitching upward. “Hold your horses!” he exclaimed. “I’m coming!” He dove off the side head-first, hands extended like a swimmer.

 

“Wait!” Rintha shouted, extending a hand towards Uuco as he fell. He clenched his teeth. “These Pilgrims are too crazy for my tastes,” he muttered, looking over his shoulder.

 

Zarth and Dragon Face’s feet kicked bronze blades and stone chunks across the room as they grappled, veins standing out on their arms as they pressed against each other.

 

“Such tension!” Dragon Face exclaimed with joy, thrusting his mask-clad face closer to Zarth. “Such sublime power!” He chuckled heartily. “Your muscles can match me, the great Dragon Face! Truly the tales of Gnasher Battle Fury were not exaggerated!”

 

Zarth grinned, lips peeling back from his teeth in a feral, ravenous fashion. “The Great Dragon Face?” he asked.

 

Dragon Face nodded vigorously. “Mm!” He grunted, pushing Zarth back a step.

 

Zarth threw his head forward, smashing his skull into Dragon-Face’s copper mask and denting the delicate designs. “I’ve never heard your name!” He shouted.

 

“On the other hand…” Rintha muttered. He turned back and jumped through the hole in the wall, plummeting down the side of the temple.

 

As Rintha fell, a vortex of wind and dust swirled into being around him, catching his body and lowering him gently down. He landed on the rooftop next to the others, flat terracotta tiles crunching against his feet. V’vendy lowered her hand, gasping in relief; the wind died down, and the flickering purple lights around her feather hair crackled into nothingness.

 

Corax lay on his side, nestled within a crater of cracked, upturned roof tiles. He groaned softly, raising his head. The shimmering, emerald-red feathers running along his head and spine were rumbled and tangled in places.

 

“Hey yuh guys,” he slurred, blood trickling from between his razor-sharp teeth. “Did we win?”

 

“Not yet,” Lady Ira replied with a sigh. She reached towards her waist, fingers reflexively grasping the empty space where her harp wasn’t. “Hidden Gods,” she cursed. “That harp of mine was like a second limb to me. V’vendy?”

 

“Right here!” V’vendy exclaimed, stepping up. Together they each grabbed one of Corax’s arms and helped him to his head. V’vendy took a moment to run fingers through Corax’s ruffled feathers, straightening them out.

 

“Your feather coat is really pretty,” V’vendy remarked, patting Corax along his back. “You really need to take care of it better.”

 

“I’d like that,” Corax admitted, shaking his head back and forth to clear his senses, “but I’m not sure how; I’ve only had this body for a few days, after all!”

 

“I use this lotion made from lion fat,” V’vendy said brightly, raising her hand to fondle the white feathers on her scalp. “It keeps the vanes and shafts supple and moist, especially in dry climates–“

 

“Ahem!” Lady Ira said, coughing into her closed fist.

 

V’vendy and Corax fell silent and turned to face Ira.

 

“Let us review,” Lady Ira said gruffly, tapping her unsheathed sword impatiently against her thigh. “Captain Zarth has immense vitality, a skull-shattering swing, and a potent shield.” She scowled, her face darkening. “The Lady Ira doubts he would have engaged us before sending someone to wake his followers up. If we can’t beat him quickly, we’ll be swarmed by a mob of Gnashers just like before.”

 

Ira raised her head, frown curving up into a subtle smile. “However,” she added. “Zarth did us the courtesy of giving us time to rest in his dungeon. And like the temple we stand on, a strong warrior needs a strong foundation.”

 

Ira turned her gaze towards Uuco and raised her eyebrow.

 

“Hmm?” Uuco said. “What is it?”

 

Ira kept raising her eyebrow.

 

“What?” Uuco asked again, blinking in confusion. “I don’t get it! Give me something to work with here!”

Ira sighed heavily. “Go for his feet, Uuco.”

 

“Oh!” Uuco remarked. He rubbed his hands together, a grin sprouting on his face; sparks trickled down from between his palms. “I can do that!”

 

Crashing and clattering noises echoed from the hole in the armory wall overhead. A loud, piercing war cry rang out, echoing through the morning air.

 

Dragon Face flew out of the hole in the wall, hurled back with great force. He flipped mid-air and landed on the roof in crouch. He slid backwards a few paces, sandals grinding row after row of tiles to dust.

 

“Dragon-Face!”

 

“My comrades!” Dragon Face exclaimed, rising up; his sculpted copper Dragon Face was warped and half-crushed, fine details like fangs, nostrils and wings smashed into unrecognizability. “After exchanging blows with Captain Zarth, I’ve come to believe he might be stronger than me!”

 

Dragon Face smiled, revealing teeth stained with blood. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

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