The pistol barked sharply in his hand. A bullet caught one of the moving shadows, eliciting a shriek from the creature as it writhed and crumpled to the ground. The figure’s essence seemed to run off in all directions like water made entirely of twisting ebony tendrils before dissipating among the leaves of grass in the clearing. He swiftly turned to the right, sighting down the weapon’s short barrel and tracking another creature. This one hissed at him then turned to flee. He gritted his teeth and squeezed the trigger again, the gun snapping back in his firm grip. The second creature joined its brother, falling to the ground in a pool of cloying black shadow.

                He glanced down at the girl he had unceremoniously dropped; with tears in her eyes, she was curled and shivering at his feet; her thin arms were wrapped around her legs, her forehead pressed to her knees. Her thick brown hair fanned out behind her, blossoming with apple blooms. The flowers, pale and pink, unfurled, then quickly withered, and finally burst forth with bright red fruit before his eyes. He couldn’t help but feel the guilt that flooded through him at the sight, but he had to first deal with the rest of the creatures.

                He turned his gaze back to the tree line where a few of the shadow-beings still lingered among the boughs. He raised his pistol once more, not taking sight, but instead simply taking a few more shots into the darkness. The ones that had chosen to remain hastily retreated from the outskirts of the clearing. The crack of the pistol echoed through the trees like thunder before finally settling atop the canopies in a blanketing silence. He pivoted to scan the entire clearing once more. He saw a brief flash of shadow out of the corner of his eye, and he spun to face another one of the shadow-beings, but the thing was gone before he had even raised his gun. He felt uneasy, almost as if he was still being watched, though no threat was left among the thick copse of trees that surrounded him.

                 He sighed and lowered his pistol to his waist when nothing continued to move. Could he have broken any more regulations than he just had? And where was his rifle? He missed the comforting weight of the weapon on his shoulder, and he hated that it must have been lost somewhere in the dense forest when he fell from out of the sky. He grumbled to himself and walked over to the crater at the center of the clearing. Peering over the edge, he saw the stranger that had brought all the shadows to them. It was struggling to clamber up the face of the deep crater, a long band of gleaming metal strapped to its back. It looked to be human, male, but he couldn’t be sure. He decided that he didn’t trust it, but it could hold information; he’d already broken a dozen rules, so why not a break few more? The thing could prove to be useful. Reaching down, he gathered a handful of the thing’s armor in his fist and lifted it from the pit.

                “Hey, thanks for the--” its words were cut short and replaced with a yelp as Engle threw it from the rim of the crater and onto level ground. It landed a few feet away with a loud gasp, and its head cracked sharply against the ground in a plume of dust. It stirred only faintly and groaned. Engle walked over to it, kneeling down to loom over the thing. It was definitely some sort of man, yet his features were too sharp to belong to a normal human-being. The tops of the man’s ears were not entirely curved, but instead tipped upward in small, rounded points. He wore a strange type of lightweight armor that shifted in a maelstrom of colors every few seconds. It reminded Engle of what it might look like to watch a moving picture through a piece of clouded glass. Engle slid the long weapon out from underneath the man. It was a thick piece of metal that glowed faintly in the sunlight and rang with a chime as it was unsheathed. Throwing the long blade a ways away, he turned back to the man.

                Engle wasted no time. “Who are you, and why are you here?” he demanded.

                “What?” When the being opened his eyes, they were a dark, stormy grey. His steely eyes wandered, not focusing on anything for a moment. He groaned again.

               Engle growled. “I said, who are you, and why are you here?”

               The man squeezed his ashen eyes shut and shook his head briefly. “I-- I was running.”

               “That’s evident. Why are you here?”

               “Help. I needed help.”

               “Help with those things?”

               “Yes. I couldn’t take them all by myself. I thought tha--”

               Engle grabbed the front of the man’s armor and pulled him up, partially supporting his weight. “What are they?”

               “Assassins. They were sent after me.”

               “Why? What did you do?” he demanded. If this man was a fugitive, Engle couldn’t afford to trust him. The last thing he needed was a knife in his back.

               “Nothing!” the man spat at him.

               “Don’t lie to me,” Engle told him, his voice a deadly calm whisper. “They were after you for a reason.”

               “I did nothing,” the man replied just as evenly, his eyes narrowing to slits.

               He was wasting time. Engle brought his pistol to the side of the man’s head. The man’s grey eyes widened significantly, and he struggled frantically in Engle’s grip.

               “Listen,” Engle shouted, “I just saved your sorry ass from those things! Tell me what you did or, I swear, I will not hesitate to pull this trigger. I’ve wasted too much time already to be squandering what little I have left.”

               The man stopped struggling and looked at Engle with hatred in his eyes. “I defended my honor. Nothing more.”

               Engle curled his fist even tighter into the man’s armor. However, he faltered when the ground under his feet began to churn. He lost his balance and let go of the man as his feet sunk into the roiling soil. The being took the opportunity to roll away from Engle, but did not get far before his feet, too, sank into the ground. A shriek shook the air as great tendrils curled and coiled from the ground, twisting around the two men’s feet. Engle tried to rip the tendrils from his ankles, but they kept growing, spiraling around his calves and up his legs. Roots burst from the soil to lock around his wrists, wrenching them to his sides and causing him to drop his pistol. He cried out as the tendrils continued to grow around his chest in thick snarls. When they reached his neck, they stunted their growth and held him solidly in place.

               The girl now stood before him, fury burning in her emerald eyes. Thorns, dark and jagged, sprouted from her skin, running up her legs and arms and framing her small face along the jawline. Rotten apples dotted the ground at her feet, already gathering dark clouds of insects. He heard the other being over to his left. He gritted his teeth and shouted, “I don’t give a damn about your honor! I just broke about every law and regulation there is! Now, because of you, I’m behind schedule!” The being began to argue with him, but it was lost to his ears. “Damn it, I didn’t ask to be thrown into this mess!” he yelled once more. He struggled to free himself from the roots merely out of frustration, knowing that it was a futile effort. He couldn’t afford this delay. Lyric was waiting for him!

The End

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