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Tyler

And Speaking Of Souls... [S-Class Artifact]

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The tunnel had been inconsistent from top to bottom (rather, bottom to top), widening at some places and narrowing fairly tight in others. It was the best Enid could do with the resources she had. And it was a pitch black climb for most of the journey until she rounded a steep bend and found herself staring up into daylight. It was a beautiful and physically painful sight after navigating in the dark and dimly lit passages for so many hours. For however long it had taken to walk those halls, it was a mercifully brief climb to freedom.

One by one the remainder of their (somewhat diminished) expedition party emerged to the surface at the base of what had once been great, gnarled and resilient looking tree, the branches of which hardly moved against the brushing wind. They were still in the pass, and still among the brush, but finding their caravan proved easy enough now that they could move and navigate freely. There was little time to waste, and the pirates were only one step ahead. Either they would reach the peak of the mountain's shadow tonight, or the two parties would come upon the same point the following evening. Either way, the only practical path back to civilization was to return the way they came, and their paths were bound to cross eventually.

The night passed and with dawn came a dry heat and the promise of misery. At least, that's how Enid felt about it. They were moving into the desert now, under a harsh sun that was almost invigorating before it started to burn. The witch had wrapped her light blue scarf over her head and across her face, and as uncomfortable as it was to breathe through the light fabric, it was still better than being directly under the sun. She followed Abigail when they approached the oasis, but instead of looking for tracks in the sand, she rattled what looked like bones in her palm. She tossed them into the air and caught them with one hand, looking into the formation they'd made in her hand as though it meant something. If danger were near, the bones would tell her as much. Then again, danger was what they were chasing; it was inevitable whether it was near or not.

“Miss G- Duchess, I mean. What do you plan to do if the pirates retrieve the treasure before we do?” It was an obvious enough question, but one they hadn't discussed since their initial departure. At this rate, it was the more likely scenario.

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"That makes things embarrassing for me," Arthur admitted with a scoff and sheepish chuckle, noting the nature of the exit that Enid's magic had created. Naturally, he expected to simply carry the bodies out of the dungeon they'd found themselves trapped in. However, the sentiment was probably too hopeful. Things rarely turned out so perfect. Crouching low, the mage gently laid the bodies down as if he meant to leave or burn them along with the pirates. A grin spread across his lips as he accepted the new challenge. "But I am a mage, Duchess..." the mutant replied, standing up straight as he reached into his robes for materials, "So I suppose I'll solve this problem with magic."

He allowed his words to hang cryptically in the air, watching whilst Enid and Abigail exited the Forge. Quickly, the mage first aided Henderson in lighting the corpses of the pirates aflame. With little materials, the mage spoke unintelligible words of power and took in a sharp breath, his chest expanding like a wyrm before expelling a torrent of flames from his mouth. It set the bodies ablaze and gave them a time limit in which to solve the issue of the other two corpses as the room began to fill with foul-smelling smoke. "Mention the details of this spell to no one," Arthur told Henderson as he stood over Darwin and the researcher. The mutant began to chant aloud, the verses of an incantation flowing past his lips as his teeth seemed to sharpen into a monstrous smile. He bit into the wrist of his left hand and pulled away as blood spilled gruesomely over the bodies of the fallen. His energy spiked as his spell came into fruition, his resonance (aura) appearing as a white and black flame that waved around like a candle in the breeze....

Moments later, Arthur and Henderson made the climb out of the Forge with black smoke on their heels. The climb had been easy and they didn't bring the bodies with them. There was something different about Arthur, however. His left hand was wrapped in bloody bandages and two hand-sized wooden statues hung from cordage around his neck. The mutant had used his necromancy to transmute the corpses into a pair of mortuary statues. Temporary coffins that would preserve the bodies. None save Enid would know the drawback of such an intervention and Arthur wasn't telling.

As they reunited with the rest of Abigail's men, as they traveled through the desert, as they camped overnight, and even as they trekked through the oasis. Arthur was under attack, the ghosts of Darwin and the researcher shrieked involuntarily in the horror and confusion of death. They begged the mage for respite. Darwin begged Arthur to keep the Duchess safe while the researcher begged for vengeance. Their burden was truly the mage's to carry.

"I've got a headache," he remarked to Enid, having left his rucksack in the vehicle and only carrying his newly filled waterskin. Arthur cast a quick cantrip, causing the water within to practically freeze. The mage took a refreshing drink, keeping his senses sharp. 

@Lady Gilaen @Tyler

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Henderson kept his mouth shut after witnessing Arthur's actions, but that did not mean he was undisturbed by it. It was almost as disturbing to see his comrade in the form of a wooden figurine as it was to see him a bloodied corpse. At least he was dead and free of his body either way, or so the marine thought. He didn't realize that the transmutation had somehow brought the spirits of the dead into communion with the mage, or he might have opposed the act. Contrarily, however; Abigail cared little for the why or the how, so long as the bodies were not a burden to the rest of the expedition.

Into the desert they went, and by the oasis they stopped. Whilst the mage complained of a headache, and the witch tossed bone fragments in an effort to predict any upcoming danger, Abigail and her men forged grimly ahead, intend to find the hopefully clean springwater to refill their canteens. She would not be surprised if the pirates had poisoned it, however.

“Miss G- Duchess, I mean. What do you plan to do if the pirates retrieve the treasure before we do?” came a question, intended for the leader.

"Then I will hunt them all the way back to Ursa Madeum if I have to. I do not intend to let them escape to start using the artifact on our ships out at sea." she replied, "You will of course be paid for leading is this far, and more if you continue beyond, but I will not require you to chase them all the way out of Taen with me. But I will keep following their trail until I've finally caught up with them."

Were the witch to look down at that moment, she would see her bones were aligned to indicate immediate and present danger. As if to emphasize the point, there was a faint rustle in the underbrush just to her left. Something was watching them!

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Enid nodded to one side and shrugged. She supposed that was the obvious response, but what more could be expected? It would be such a waste to come all this way only to leave empty handed, but what more could they do? She and Arthur had been hired to guide them toward the treasure, and they'd more or less fulfilled that contract to the best of their ability. Honestly, parting ways after this would be a relief whether or not they got what they came for (though it would sting their pride a bit if they failed).

“Your determination is inspiring.” the witch commented in a sarcastic tone. Then again, maybe it was just her usual flat tone taking the sincerity out of her words.

Enid tossed the bones again, casting Arthur sideways glance as trailed after them toward the oasis. “I'm sure you do..” she replied, trying her best not to look at his bandaged wrist. She pulled her scarf down to her chin and fell in step with her wizard companion, keeping her voice low as she spoke. “It was a reckless thing, what you did yesterday. Did you even sleep?” There was a moment's pause before she looked back down at the bones in her palm, and when she did, she stopped.

As if on cue, there was an unusual rustle in the bush to the left of her. Without thinking, Enid drew her wand and pointed it at the source of the noise, but her companion was both quicker and more perceptive, moving on the target before the witch even had a chance.

“We're not alone!” she called out for the others to hear.

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Arthur followed along with the rest of the expeditionary group, his boot-clad feet sinking into the sands of the oasis as they moved along on their route. As the others discussed the pirates, the mutant tried to ignore the conversation, temporarily hiding his sullen look and tone of voice which was fortunately mostly obscured underneath the tints of his sunglasses and the wrappings of his scarf which cascaded from his pith helmet. He couldn't help himself, however, for his (mostly) secret communion with the spirit of one of their murdered victims made the topic quite touchy for the black mage. "Trust me," the mage interjected into Enid and the duchess' conversation with a dangerous voice, a tone keen on the possibility of violence, "If we run into them, you won't have to pursue them across Taen. I'll resolve things definitively."

If his face had been visible, they would have seen his wolfish gaze narrow into dagger points, staring about like a predator as he walked along Enid's right-hand side. Even with his clothing obscuring parts of his face, Arthur knew that Enid would recognize the psychology of his behavior, and likely understood that he wouldn't be satisfied until they met the pirates in battle and the spirits of the fallen were allowed to pass on in peace. "No more reckless than I usually am," the mutant replied in a sulky whisper, "I'll be able to sleep once I've completed this Death Offering...."

While they conversed quietly, Arthur came to an abrupt halt when the faint sounds of rustling brush reached his sharp ears. His eyes shot open behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses and his heart began to pump rapidly as his body burst into instant and decisive action. Before Enid called out to the others, the mutant was already rushing past the witch, and stepped in between his partner and the bush to her left. Fortunately, there weren't any of Abigail's men in the way, leaving the underbrush open to the mage's attack. Arthur spoke a phrase in a strange language in an amplified voice, echoing across the expanse of the oasis as he took a deep breath. Suddenly, his chest and throat expanded inhumanly and swiftly returned to normal on Arthur's exhale as a long torrent of flames rushed from his open mouth and washed over the dry brush with violent intensity.

Their enemy wanted to get the drop on them, but they couldn't have foreseen the duchess' hiring of outside help. Much less, the help of mages like Arthur and Enid!

@Tyler @Lady Gilaen

 

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Abigail gave a sidelong glare at Enid's sarcasm, but said nothing to it. The two magic-users were soon talking to each-other instead, so she instead focused on their task at hand, which was refilling their water provisions. Suddenly, Arthur rushed off and breathed fire into the woods, while Enid cried out that they were not alone. That was proven true when the screams of a man on fire were soon filling the tiny jungle oasis. Realizing their cover was blown, about a little over a dozen or so pirates immediately emerged from cover, some armed with firearms, some with crossbows, but most with cutlasses or other melee weapons.

"'Member, it be fifteen gold a head, mateys! The duchess be worth a hundred alive!" one of the pirates barked, in an effort to motivate his brothers.

Abigail promptly drew her revolver and shot one of the charging men, while the marines with them tried to aim their rifles. Unfortunately, the fight was already in close quarters, and the pirates had the advantage in that regard. Of course, there was the aforementioned fact that they weren't expecting Arthur and Enid, who had already sprung their trap early. But not all of the pirates were muggles, for at least a few of them had learned some rudimentary spells. One actually had a wand and appeared to be a novice mage himself.

"Alert the caravan!" Abigail barked at one of the marines, who then turned to run back the way they came, before Abigail thought better of it and stopped him, "Wait, they're probably expecting that! Hold here and the sound will alert them."

Just as she finished speaking, one of the pirates came flying in and swiped at her head, though she easily ducked under the swing, while lunging forward, bringing herself up right in front of the man as he was still following through. Subsequently, her revolver was easily shoved into the man's gut and fired, before she disengaged and kicked him away. More were still coming though, and it sounded like there were more waiting elsewhere in the trees and underbrush...

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No sooner had Enid called out than the pirates were upon them. Their numbers were surprising, almost overwhelming, but they were uncoordinated and over eager. The one called out to his mates with enthusiasm and the witch couldn't help but feel offended at his words. “Only fifteen gold?” she muttered, dropping to one knee as she drove the sharp end of her wand into the ground, “I'm worth more than that..” As the greenish, thorn-looking wand dug into the sand, a similarly green spike shot up from the ground several yards away under the oncoming pirates' feet. One of them yelped in pain as the ground spike drove up through his boot, then disappeared back into the sand when the witch withdrew her wand. She stuck it in the ground again, repeatedly, sending spikes up through the earth beneath running and stumbling feet.

A few of the pirates limped now, and some hesitated to charge on blindly, but they were still descending upon their small scouting team. Enid pulled her weapon from the ground and stood, backing toward her partner as she prepared herself to engage with their attackers. “What kind of death offering did you have in mind?” she asked, picking up their conversation where they had left off.

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Arthur locked his jaw closed, bringing an abrupt end to the stream of flames that he had breathed upon their ambushing enemies. With the brush aflame, dark smoke wafted into the sky which served as a signal for the other marines in their expeditionary force along with the sounds of battle itself. Though seemingly impressive, Arthur's spell had only managed to kill one pirate, leaving the others free to charge from down range, closing the distance on the mage and the others in an instant. The mutant reached into his robes and rifled through one of the pouches on his harness, retrieving a diminutive item that looked like a black tooth pick from afar. It wasn't.

Whispering words of power, the mutant undid the polymorphing spell that kept the item in its tiny state, causing it to expand and lengthen into the mage's prized long sword. Bogatyr was an impressively large weapon, fitted with a 42 inch blade and waisted grip meant for two hands. The blade's steel was the color of the darkest obsidian; a menacing sight as Arthur took the weapon in both his hands and aimed its narrow tip forward and down towards the ground. The stance kept much of his body open to attack, but it was deceptive. In this stance, Arthur was like an iron gate. Steadfast and immovable.

A pirate charged Arthur, lunging forward with a thrust of the criminal's cutlass, aiming to pierce Arthur through the chest. However, as the cutlass' tip made its approach, the mage lifted his sword high, striking the cutlass from below and forcing the shorter blade into an overhead position as the mutant followed suit with his own weapon. Arthur transitioned seamlessly from the parry into an overhead high guard, immediately taking advantage of the opening he'd created in his opponent's own stance. The mage wound his arms in a clockwise direction, sending his blade in a crosswise cut that lopped off the pirate's raised forearm.

The pirate fell back, screaming and clutching at his horrific injury as bright arterial blood squirted from it in gruesome spurts. Leaving his sword in a hanging guard near his head, Arthur turned to look at Enid as she joined him. "What do you mean?" the mage asked, "As always, the dead have unfinished business that they want me to attend to." 

@Tyler @Lady Gilaen

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Abigail wasn't sure what the mages were talking about, but she didn't have time to concern herself with it. She fired off the rest of her revolver shots, killing one pirate and wounding another, before holstering it and drawing out her smallsword. Her blade was thinner than a cutlass, and best suited for thrusting, though it wasn't so thin and flimsy as a rapier was, and it was very skillfully forged to give it perfect balance and prevent it from shattering in a duel with bigger swords. Even so, it somewhat limited her dueling to focus on defense until a piercing opportunity presented itself.

Despite that, Abigail showed herself a skilled swordsman, far outmatching the pirates individually. But that just meant they started double-teaming her, hoping to capture her alive to be brought before their boss. The duel was a good test of her abilities, as she had to shift back-and-forth rapidly, parrying strikes or ducking attacks, while avoiding the obstacles the oasis foliage offered at every turn. Finally she gained the advantage over one of the pirates, locking her blade with his, then suddenly reaching forward and grabbing his face with her hand. Channeling all her anger into her simple, but innate magic ability, she began to superheat his face through her hand. The first pirate flailed and screamed as his skin began to melt under the intense heat, giving Abigail the opportunity to pull her sword free of the saber-lock and block several attacks by the second pirate. Finally, as the the first pirate began to weaken in her grip, she threw him into the second, causing both to stumble backward into a tree. She then lunged forward and skewered them both at once, stopping only once she felt the top of her sword touch the tree beyond. She then whipped it out and turned to absorb the rest of the battle.

The mage appeared to be a bigger threat than anticipated. Already he had cast several simple, but effective, petrification spells on some of the marines, freezing them in place and leaving them defenseless against the pirates, who slew them without concern for honor or fair-play. She would have shot him, but her revolver was empty in her holster, and he was too far for her to reach him on foot before he would have a chance to hex her as well.

"The kill their mage! Now!" she barked at her own magic-users, as she pivoted to engage another pirate, carefully positioning herself so that he would be between her and the enemy caster, and thus blocking his line-of-attack.

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Enid paused at her partner's response, then shrugged, “Fair enough.” Just then she felt the faintest breeze from a swishing blade as it passed narrowly before her nose. She'd been holding her wand aloft when a pirate sporting a cocky grin cut right through it, leaving the sharpened tip to fall point-ways into the sand. She could feel a stinging pain emanate from the wand's grip as she stepped back to avoid the next swipe. She should have been surprised, and in a way she was, but the look in her eye (and it was only in her eyes) wasn't one of shock, but offense. How dare! She thought. Not how dare the pirate, but how dare her trusty wand choose now, NOW of all times to go to pieces on her. You're stronger than that..I mean, quite literally.

With a flick of her wrist the magical, plantlike implement grew back into shape, topped with a fresh, needle-sharp end. Another swipe caught her scarf and left it dangling loosely in two pieces around her neck. The witch made to thrust the end of her thorny weapon at her attacker only for him to step back and evade it. Or he might have, if the wand held its shape. Instead it extended, puncturing through the pirate's belly. It didn't go far (it couldn't outside of stone and soil), but it was as sufficient a sword as it was a wand. She pulled away from the first pirate as he doubled over, and moved on to the next.

So it continued that the Duchess, her soldiers, and the adventurers fended off the onslaught until Abigail called out, turning their attention to the enemy mage. When the moment presented itself, Enid stuck her wand (sword?) into the sand, and as before a greenish spike came up from the ground beneath the mage's feet. This time, however, it continued growing in a thick, coiling tendril that made to wrap itself around his legs and feet in order to hold him in place while the duchess' soldiers charged after him.

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The mutant unwound his arms, bringing the hilt level with his abdomen and extending the blade's narrow point in front of him, threatening any who dared to enter his range. Arthur turned his gaze as a pirate assaulted Enid, driving her backwards with whirling cuts from his sword. He nearly wheeled about to strike the new enemy from behind, aiding his companion. However, a second pirate came to to the aid of his compatriot, lunging in the engage with the mage's sword. Arthur met that pressure with pressure of his own, pressing laterally against the pirate's cutlass as they crossed blades.

The black mage advanced on his lead leg and lifted the hilt of his sword, his lower hand changed its grip, cupping the long sword's pommel and transitioned into his Two-Horned guard. He held the blade in a rigid fashion, making it nearly impossible for the pirate to prevent the thrust that the mage leveled on his face. The blade's tip passed through the pirate's skull easily, killing the man as Arthur framed his right foot on the pirate's midsection and kicked him away while wrenching his blackened blade out.

Meanwhile, Enid had dispatched her opponent and returned to his side, casting a spell against the enemy mage who had been making a mess of their companions. Arthur followed with an attack of his own, not leaving it up to the Duchess' men to finish the pirate mage off. The black mage rummaged through his harness and crushed a vial of thermite dust in his hand, speaking a string of short incantations in a strange tongue as he did so. The mage extended his arm in a punch, his limb suddenly stretching out towards the wand-wielding pirate's abdomen in a serpentine manner, and crossing the great distance in a near instant. As it did, his second spell came into effect as his arm was wreathed in a black, metallic like second skin and burst into flames as his fist impacted the pirate.

The force of his blow was suddenly tripled and the explosion would tear a hole in the mage pirate's stomach, sending the pirate toppling to the ground, gore spraying in nearly every direction. The attack drenched Arthur's attacking arm in blood and blown up viscera. A downside which became very apparent once the mage's arm stretched back to its normal size and the armored skin dissipated into a black mist.

"Do you have anything with more oomph?" the mage asked Enid, "If we hit them as hard as we can, we may be able to disperse them long enough to reunite with the rest of the duchess' forces."

@Tyler @Lady Gilaen

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By now, only three of the original group of seven marines were still alive, and of those three, only one was not petrified. But on a the flip side, the pirates had also lost most of their original ambushing force by now. There were six of them left, and though they had managed to surround the four remaining members of the Duchess's party, they were now a bit skittish about attacking directly. Even if they had the numbers advantage, they saw how deadly these enemies could be up close. Instead, they switched to the ranged weapons, mostly flintlock pistols, and pointed them all at once.

"Throw down yer weapons!" one of the pirates barked, looking a tad nervous as he spoke, "Er we'll shoot!"

"A little more oomph would be splendid right about now." Abigail stated over her shoulder.

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The witch looked on as the pirate mage more or less exploded from the impact of Arthur's fist. It was a sight; Impressive and entirely too messy for her personal preference. By this point the ground around them had become dark and reddish, and fresh speckles of blood joined what remained of the old stains the witch's robes had acquired the previous day.

Enid uprooted her wand, allowing it to diminish to its usual size before tucking it neatly away on her person. She didn't seem especially alarmed at the firing squad aiming right for them, but stepped just behind her companion anyway. “Oomph?” she echoed the word after both Arthur and Abigail looked to her for a solution to their present predicament. She looked back from one to the other in turn, searching for their meaning, holding her breath a moment before letting it out in a huffed sigh.

“I don't do oomph..” she muttered, but reached into her robe all the same. The witch produced what looked like an empty waterskin until she gave it a quick shake and it ballooned up to the size of..well, an inflated balloon. All this she did as quickly as she could before stepping away from Arthur and pitching the corked balloon as far as she could between themselves and the enemy. Which was to say, not quite far enough. It hit the ground a few feet ahead of the pirates and barely bounced before rolling to a momentary stop. Except it wasn't still. The skin of the balloon rolled and stretched and expanded until it burst open with an ear-shattering 'POP', followed by an unmistakable buzzing sound. A swelling cloud of tiny, angry bees burst forth from their popped prison, and there seemed more of them than could ever be contained in just the one bubble.

“We should go.” she said to the duchess as she turned tail to run. The bees would not discern between friend and foe.

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Arthur stared down at the gore that drenched his hand as it was recalled back to his side, his hardened aura disintegrating away in the wind as a blackened mist. It didn't matter how thickly he wrapped his limbs in his own Resonance, the nastiness always remained. The mutant thought it was a good thing by his own reckoning. A mage shouldn't be allowed to separate the magic he creates and the carnage that might follow if they aren't wise. He couldn't be a pacifist either as his indecision could also lead to carnage; a carnage visited upon himself or worse: his allies.

Having trained out the voices around him, he came back to his senses as Enid tossed her balloon at the men that surrounded them on one side. A look of terror and recognition crossed his features, and the mage wheeled around to deal with the other pirates who had surrounded them. They needed to be dealt with as they covered their escape route from the bees who were certainly going to be exploding from Enid's insect-bomb. Arthur stepped forward, placing himself between his allies and the armed pirates. Speaking in a dark tongue that had his tongue sizzling blasphemously, the mage took a deep breath and let loose possibly the most ferocious and monstrous roar that any of them (save Enid) had ever heard; a column of destructive wind followed that roar, aiming to strike the pirate to his right head on with enough force to knock him away and flat on the ground.

Arthur swiveled his head to left, training his torrent on wind on the remaining two like a swiping blade as he moved from right to left. If he managed to knock the pirates away, the mutant bellowed with a lingering growl, "Run!"

If his companions indeed ran, the mage waited until the passed him by before he fetched the two petrified solders and followed after Enid and the others at a labored sprint. But a sprint nonetheless.

@Tyler @Lady Gilaen

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It was quickly proving a wise decision to hire on the mercenary mages, even if their strange quirks annoyed Abigail from time to time. What might have been a successful ambush quickly had been prevented, and now they were moving full speed back to the caravan. She was somewhat amazed, though she quickly got over it, how Arthur was able to lift two fully grown men and haul them along. She wasn't going to complain though, as it would be a waste to lose good marines when they could be saved.

However, while they had managed to get away from the first group of pirates (who were following now, but rather cautiously after the damage they'd sustained), they had only moved from one threat to another. As they neared the caravan, the sound of more gunshots and clashes of steel. Once they emerged from the trees and into the clearing, they found more pirates exchanging fire with the caravan guards. Some of the pirates were in the jungle, firing from cover, while a group were on horseback, weaving through the halted trucks and jeeps, slashing at guards with their cutlasses. 

"We've got a flanking advantage here." Abigail pointed out their relative position to the bushwackers in the treeline.

They were directly to the left of the ambushing pirates, meaning if they cut into the treeline again and off their makeshift path, they could cut down the gunmen at close range and relieve the caravan defenders. Then they could focus on the horsemen last. However, with Arthur carrying two petrified men, and with the enemy hot on their tail, going on the attack might not be plausible.

"What's your situation? Do we need to split up? You take those two to the trucks while the rest of us attack?" she asked Arthur directly, though she as she spoke, she pulled out her revolver again and began shoving fresh bullets into it.

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