"That was some brilliant escape plan."
Keena was pulling off leaves and needles that were struck to her arms. "That's the last time I listen to your advice. Where did all this tree sap come from? Ugh! I need a hot shower…"
"It worked, so I'm not complaining." Rei said, while brushing a few twigs out of her hair.
Bard had pine needles sticking out at random places in his clothing, giving him a scarecrow-like appearance. He pulled out a pinecone that was wedged in the sound hole in his lute.
"True, I'm sure it could have been worse." Bard spoke in harmony with the strings as he re-tuned them. "And if you'd like, I could join you with that shower~♪."
Keena sneered. "Stay about one-hundred yards away from me."
Bard laughed. "So what's your plan now, Rei?"
"Move toward the south somewhere. But I don't know how far south of Olympia City to go. We'll need to go the long way around. But the problem is, I doubt Ladon stationed himself within walking distance of the city. Getting a ride to a place we don't even know where exists is not going to be easy by any means."
Keena thought for a moment. "So you're pretty much going to be retracing your steps, only just skirting around all the cities and towns you've been through?"
"That's my idea anyway. I already know we can't go back to any of those cities, they'll be staked out for sure. Last thing I want to do is run right into soldiers that are waiting for me. Do you have any suggestions, Bard?"
"Hmm. Well by now I'm sure EVERY city would have patrol units waiting for you to visit. The first step is to plan out our entire intended route, as well as a backup route, so we can avoid populated areas as much as possible, and still be able to find suitable places to eat and sleep. Knowing the road ahead of you is key to budgeting your time wisely."
Keena looked stunned. "That was surprisingly helpful, Bard."
"Of course." He smiled. "It's the same concept as dating multiple women at once."
Keena frowned. "Oooh, I take it back. You're a sly fox, Bard."
Bard cringed slightly. "Ah, but you're the one who's quite the foxy lady."
"Don't. Associate me. With that animal. Ever."
"Oh? Why ever not? After all, you're wearing the racy and provacative clothing."
"You think I wear what I do to give philanderers like you a show? I grew up a knife fighter, and always have been. So I dress in non-restrictive attire. Does that make enough sense for you?"
"Hahaha yes, I'm aware. But that doesn't change the 'foxy' aspect, now does it?"
"…now I'm not sure if I should feel offended or not…Thanks, I guess."
Rei was tapping her foot. "Are we going to stand here and discuss our outfit preferences, or 'use our time wisely'?" She said, while glaring at Bard.
"Oh, do please pardon me. And I'm suddenly reminded, how are you feeling now, Rei?"
"It's almost completely healed. Be less concerned about my health and more about where we need to be going."
"Well, where is it you're wanting to go? Let's have a look at your map, shall we?"
"I think that can wait." Keena said. She was looking behind her. "Anyone care to go truck surfing?"
"Truck surfing? What?" Rei seemed as confused as ever.
Keena pointed. A semi was driving down the dirt road toward them. A large trailer was hitched behind it.
"It's a method I use often for transport. Grab on and get on top. Simple. Just mind the hover jets under it, or they'll blow you away."
Rei thought for a moment. "It's a good idea, but I don't think I can grab onto a moving vehicle. I've never done this kind of thing before."
"Don't worry, I'll help you. It's not as hard as it sounds. Just stay right behind me. First we need to stay under cover in the woods, and then I'll explain the rest."
The truck hovered at a moderate speed. As it hovered close, Keena sped out, with Rei following closely. She jumped and grabbed onto a rail near the back of the trailer, and reached out with her other hand. As soon as she felt Rei's hand close around hers, she pulled her up.
"Hold on tight!"
Keena leaned around the back and waved. Bard waved from the other side.
"He's on. Now work your way toward that ladder and climb up!"
Rei shifted toward the ladder in the middle of the trailer. She climbed up and Keena followed. Bard climbed from the other side.
Rei released a sigh. "That wasn't so bad. At least now we're really moving."
Bard folded his arms. "Yes, but it seems we aren't the only hitchhikers here…"
A figure clad in heavy blue armor sat in a lawn chair at the front of the trailer. He held a saucer in one hand and a teacup in the other. Another figure stood to the right of him. He looked identical to BH3294 Model G, but held a strange rifle in his hands instead of Windblades. The blue armor-clad spoke.
"Ah, I see you took the bait quite nicely. Could I interest you in a cup of tea?"
Bard's expression brightened. "Why I'd love --"
Rei slapped his hand as he reached out. "What do you mean 'bait'? How did you know what we were planning?"
"I know how you fugitives think." He stood up and threw the teacup to the side. Strapped on the back of his Andromedae armor was a TRI-O-AVATAR. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm a hunter, and you're my prey. Do I need to repeat that?"
"So you're after that bounty? That's what this is about?"
"Yes and no. I'm not the one after you. I've got a client who's offering more than the price on the poster. The only bad side is I have to work with these clowns."
"Affirmative. The Marshal's instructions are absolute. You are to be apprehended at all costs."
"Who is this 'Marshal' guy you people keep going on about?"
"Lord Marshal of the great Magnum Cha--"
The Andromedae-clad barked. "Don't tell them more than they need to know!"
"So you're with Ladon? Where is he hiding?"
"You don't need to know that."
"Who are you people?!"
"Who I am won't matter in the next five seconds. And I call him Dickhead. You can call him that, too."
"Serial number invalid. I am BH3295 Model J."
Bard didn't seem to realize the severity of the situation. "Oh! Nicknames! Can I call you Freezie Pop?"
The Andromedae armored individual chuckled. "That's cute. Light them up, Dickhead."
Model J interjected. "I am not --"
Model J squeezed the trigger on his rifle early. Rei jumped to the side, and the beam bounced off of the ground where she'd stood. It flew off in the distance. Keena had to catch Rei to keep her from falling off of the trailer.
"A beam reflector?!" She yelled.
"I'm having problems with my Reflection. Ammunition has been left in the vehicle cabin. One shot remaining!"
"You left your --! Alright paintballer. Time to go professional."
The Andromedae-clad backhanded Model J with enough force to take its head clean off. Blue liquid spewed from the neck area. He kicked the body off of the truck and took its rifle.
"Unlike Dickhead, I only need one shot." He held the Reflection rifle up and pulled the trigger. Instinctively Rei threw up her hands. But before the beam made contact with her, a honeycomb-shaped force field surrounded her. The laser reflected off of the shield and flew off in the sky, leaving Rei completely unharmed.
She looked back at him in surprise. "I guess you're unlucky today. Sorry, but you're not getting you're bounty so easily!" Rei activated her armor and the party drew their weapons.
"Oh, there's that awful armor. So I didn't make one shot? The Phoenix Hunter always has a backup plan!"
Hunter drew a LIT07. He observed Bard momentarily.
"…nice stick. Think I saw the piñata you were looking for about four miles back."
Bard smiled. "A weapon's material means nothing. A weapon is only as good as it's user. An old mentor of mine taught me that lesson."
He stared for a moment before turning his attention back to Rei.
"Yeah, I'm on a contract with Ladon. What does it matter?"
"He has something I want."
"So you're trying to go to him?"
"Yes. I don't like people who take things from me!"
"Oh, you're after your folks? They're…well I won't say 'unharmed', but they're alive."
Rei growled. "Ah, SHUT UP!" She loosed an arrow from her bow. It split and fanned out into three arrows. They exploded when they came into contact with Hunter. After the smoke cleared, he was still standing, and a green aura surrounded him.
"My defenses are impenetrable." He said. "You'll have to try harder than that."
She switched to her cutter and ran at him blindly. Bard called after her.
Hunter sidestepped as Rei slashed. He grabbed the long ponytail that flowed from under her helmet and pulled her into a chokehold. He held the LIT07 to her head and forced her to drop her cutter.
"Here's what's going to happen. You two are going to get off the truck, and you won't follow us. Refuse or try anything funny, and she dies."
Rei tried to free herself. "Doesn't Ladon need me alive? Won't you fail if I'm dead?" She choked.
"Quiet, you. He's only after your strange talent. By now I figure he just wants your hapless body whether it's dead or alive. And I don't have the proper equipment for 'alive'."
"Release her! If you're just wanting a dead body, then take mine!"
"Keena!" Bard yelled. "Don't be so quick to sacrifice yourself!"
Hunter chuckled. "Ladon has no business with you. If I don't bring this girl specifically to him, I don't get paid. If I wanted you two dead I would have done it already."
Keena grit her teeth. "You can't protect yourself and keep her hostage. If you pull that trigger, you're done."
"You think I care? Even if you kill me after, as long as my target is terminated, I'll be happy. And besides, killing me won't bring her back, will it?"
Keena gripped her dagger tightly and attempted to proceed toward him, but Bard held his bō in front of her.
"There is nothing we can do. Let's be off, Keena."
"Bard! We can't just abandon her!"
"…I know. But there is no way that we can free her. Her journey must become her own now. Our interference could mean her death."
"Go, then! They all leave me in the end!"
Bard put away his staff and proceeded down the ladder on the right side.
"This is your last warning. Follow your friend's example if you don't want to see her dead." Hunter began.
Rei still struggled to break free. She was too afraid to try to Drain, lest her captor notice and shoot before she would finish. She was more shocked to watch Bard walk away. Rei knew he meant well, but it seemed as if he gave up too easily…
"Rei…I…" Keena knew that Bard was right; there was nothing she could do to free her. On a moving trailer, there was no room to maneuver quickly enough. They had been outsmarted and outmatched. Keena hesitantly sheathed her dagger.
There was a sudden jerk. Keena was barely able to keep her balance. It was enough to throw Hunter off guard. Rei was freed from his grip, but both of them slid off the side of the trailer.
Keena moved toward the edge in panic. She loosed a sigh of relief. Just behind the cabin was Bard, holding her against him. He led her into the cabin. Keena climbed down the left side and let herself in.
"What the hell were you thinking!"
"Of a plan. I turned it off of autopilot and made a small swerve. I made sure I had enough time to get back out before I touched the wheel."
Keena sighed. "How are you feeling, Rei?"
"…I'm fine." Her armor was now off. She sat back and didn't say anything else.
Bard felt like he knew what was wrong. "Rei, I never had any plans to actually leave you behind. For however long it takes you to reach your goal, I'll protect you. Don't forget that."
Rei knew he was telling the truth, but a part of her wanted to believe he was actually departing.
"…thanks…He said they were alive, but…what have they been put through?"
"Try not to think about it too much. He could have only been trying to lure you in purposefully."
"Yeah, I guess so. I hate I lost my cutter…"
Keena looked surprised "Oh? I forgot. Here, I managed to save it."
"Thanks. It's not something that can easily be replaced. It belonged to my father."
Bard tried to lighten her mood. "Don't worry, Rei. Your parents are still watching out for you. We'll find them soon!"
Rei nodded weakly.
"After all, this truck I'm sure was set to go right to Ladon. We should be there in no time!"
"Right." Even with the thought of finally finding Ladon's hiding place, Rei found it hard to be excited. Maybe it was just the heat of what happened. The image of Bard climbing down the ladder refused to leave her thoughts, no matter how much Rei tried to shake it off.
After about twenty minutes, something went amiss. The truck began to sputter.
Keena looked at the dashboard. "I hope you two are looking at the fuel gauge..."
The truck stopped and lowered to the ground.
Rei sighed. "Would you reckon there is more in the back? If that Hunter guy was going to make it back surely he would have had means to refuel."
"Possible, but freight liners run off of electric charges. We can see what's back there, but this thing won't be going anywhere else. There's a good chance that Hunter was planning to abandon and then call Ladon's squad to come pick him up once he had you."
"Maybe we can at least find something of use."
Bard unlatched the door on the back and raised the door. Completely empty.
"This certainly has been quite a day…" Keena pouted.
Rei rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. I get stabbed last night, spend a whole day bedridden in a flying city, nearly get arrested, get ferried out of another city through some sappy pine forest, get my hair nearly yanked out, almost get shot, nearly fell off of a truck, and now there is nothing useful in here."
"Well at least we managed to move a little further." Bard smiled.
"Yeah, but I guess we're walking again, now?"
"Wonderful. Then let's plan out our movement and get moving."
After a run-in with a bounty hunter who referred to himself as "The Phoenix Hunter" (whom we decided to call just "Hunter"), I nearly got killed twice. Thankfully Bard thought up a plan to free me from gunpoint (and nearly cause me to fall off a truck to potentially be killed for the second time). Unlike anyone else I've run into, this Hunter guy alone is more of a threat to me than law enforcement, military soldiers, or any stray aliens we've ran into. And I know this won't be the last time we meet. Ladon may not know that I'm searching for him if he has to send henchmen of his own after me, rather than putting up a large neon sign that could be seen from space saying "Ladon's Evil Lair. Turn here, Rei!" But he won't need to worry…I'm coming for him.