Rei walked along the trail with her hands firmly clasped over her ears. Bard was playing on his lute and singing, holding a note too long for Rei's liking.
"For the last time, I DON'T KNOW WHERE YOUR HAIRBRUSH IS!"
Bard strummed a few more notes on his lute. "-- is my hairbrush?"
Bard smiled. "I do enjoy pleasing the ladies."
"I would hardly call that pleasing."
"It's only a song."
"And what did I say about singing?"
"…may I whistle?"
Rei sighed. "Alright."
Bard began to hum and continued to pick on his lute. Then he suddenly stopped.
Rei looked back at him. "It's a one-way trail. With or without you I'm still walking."
"Oh, don't mind me. It's just that I thought I heard something."
He stressed heard something, as if to call out something else that was nearby. Or someone…
Rei tried to listen herself, but all she was hearing was Bard's "Where is my hairbrush?" tune constantly playing through her mind.
Bard slung his lute behind him and pulled his bō from underneath his cloak. He smiled widely.
"Someone is bringing a party to us~♪."
Rei swiftly drew her light bow and began to aim carefully, waiting for someone to attack. There was a sudden WHACK! from behind her. Rei swiftly turned, keeping her bow up. She was facing another woman, who was clutching her shoulder in one hand. Rei assumed Bard had struck her. In the other hand, she held a hilt, and a near translucent, energized blade extended from it. It looked like a dagger resembling a passer. A bandana completely covered her head, with the exception of wild black hair sticking out slightly from the back. She wore a skin-tight top that covered her upper body, leaving only her arms and belly exposed, and a cloth was wrapped around her lower body, and parted only on the sides, revealing she wore thigh-high boots. A belt on her hips held the cloth in place, as well as a small sheath.
Bard laughed as he held his bō in front of him. "Boy. Doesn't this scene look familiar!"
Rei rolled her eyes. "Who are you, and what do you want with us? We don't have any money or anything of valuable."
The woman retorted. "And I've no interest in your belongings. But if I take your head to the officials, it might fetch a pretty penny!"
She released her arm and pulled something out from behind her. It expanded into a holographic screen, revealing Rei's face, hidden underneath the Phoenix armor.
"You're wanted for murder, theft, and treason. Ordinarily I wouldn't care anything about hunting bounties, but with this alien uprising, money is getting rather tight these days. And with a reward this high, I couldn't pass up the opportunity when I'd seen you coming."
"So my bounty is already high enough to attract normal people is it? Unfortunately you aren't seeing that pretty penny of yours, not today."
"Had it not been for your bodyguard, I would."
"He's not my bodyguard. He's only a friend. Who likes his lute…a lot."
Bard smiled. "You honestly can't blame me. It seems I've had women appear in almost every wooded trail~♪."
Rei sighed. "We met when I tried to sneak attack him on another trail similar to this one."
"Whatever. If you don't mind, I really don't like wasting time. So if it's not too much to ask, ready yourself!" She held her passer up.
Rei was at full draw, waiting for her opponent to move first. That was a fatal mistake, however, as the enemy proved to be just as swift and precise as Bard. Her dagger was only inches from her neck when Bard's bō had caught the woman in her abdominal area and forced backwards. She tried slashing at Bard, but he parried every move. When Bard took to offense, she did likewise. They almost seemed evenly matched, until Bard caught her off-guard with a quick feint to the left and a counterattack to her right side. She almost dropped her weapon and backed off.
"I see you are quite formidable. However, please be a gentleman and leave this between us. I challenge her. I don't need interference."
Bard's smile never dropped. "I'm afraid I can't allow that. She's only a minor."
The woman raised an eyebrow. "A minor? I don't like to think of myself as someone who is forced to kill kids for a living. But she doesn't look much younger than I am, and food is getting scarce. I'll tell you what. A duel between me and the girl only."
"You won't touch her." Bard said.
She sneered. "I'm not leaving empty handed. She might be young, but she is still a grown woman nevertheless. Am I just looking for the wrong person? Does she need others to fight her battles for her because she is too cowardly, or because she can't do anything for herself?"
Rei grew angry, but she didn't show it. She knew she couldn't fight someone with almost as much skill as Bard and win. But that only made her feel worse. She couldn't do anything for herself. She expected to take on the world, and can't so much as fight.
"Bard, leave this to us." She said.
Bard looked back and spoke. "This isn't a very good time to let your ego get in the way. She is only trying to bait you."
"…I know. But if I'm reliant on you to overcome my obstacles for me, my quest holds no meaning for me."
"Do you realize what you're asking? She is no stranger to combat. If you comply to her wishes, you could easily be killed."
Rei nodded. "I'm sure. This is something I have to do. It's hard to explain, but trust me."
Bard took a deep breath. He hesitated, but he moved to the side. Rei swapped to her cutter.
"Ok." She said. "I accept your challenge."
The woman laughed. "I can't tell if you're brave or just plain foolhardy. I can look at you an tell how inexperienced you are. But it's your funeral."
Rei's armor surrounded her and she held her cutter tightly.
The woman struck first. She was fast, but Rei was able to catch her blow, only barely. But with a swift kick, Rei was knocked backwards. Bard leaned down next to her.
"You're thinking too much, trying to anticipate her moves. Don't think, just react."
Rei stood up, and removed her helmet. She closed her eyes and slowed her breath. Ok, Dad. Show me what to do.
She opened her eyes. She loosened her grip slightly and took the cutter in both hands, holding it in front of her in a defensive position. The woman struck again. This time, Rei let her arms move freely, and managed to parry most of her blows. She was quickly growing tired, and her foe showed no signs of letting up. Her swings were hard and fast, even with a such a small blade. Rei was eventually forced into a blade lock. The woman was surprisingly strong, pushing Rei back to the ground and forcing the cutter out of her hand. Rei held the woman's arm, but the blade only got closer to her face. Bard was prepared to intervene, but didn't move. Rei tried to use her drain, but the woman strangely showed little signs of weakness, other than Rei being able to slow the passer. She grit her teeth and tried to fight back with all her remaining strength.
"You…won't…take me! Not like they…took…my parents!"
The woman's arms suddenly slacked a bit. "You lost your family?"
In the moment of weakness, Rei flipped her opponent using her leg. She got up and grabbed the passer before the woman could recover. As she did, she faced her own blade, centimeters from her face. Rei was breathing heavily. She swallowed and pulled the blade back, and thrusted with all her might. The woman opened her eyes to see the blade buried in the tree next to her face. Rei was still breathing heavily.
"I win." She said. She picked up her own cutter and walked over to Bard.
"Let's be on our way." She said to him. He nodded and returned her helmet back to her.
Rei turned around. The woman was slumped on the ground. She held out her dagger, hilt first.
"You've forgotten something. I'm still breathing."
Rei stared at her as her armor shrank back down. "You're a skilled opponent. I only won because you faltered."
"No. I attacked a minor for my own greedy intentions. That is why you bested me in combat. It was my dishonor that cost me a battle that that should never have happened. I am disgraced. Finish the fight."
"…I don't want to kill you. I have my parents to find, and I don't know how much time I have. I'm not wasting any more with you."
"Your parents were taken away from you?"
"Yes. Now get out of here before I change my mind."
"Do you have room for another party member?"
Rei was taken aback. "Say what?"
"Like I said. I'm ashamed of my dishonor. And it took you defeating me to realize that. I too understand what it's like to lose family. And because you let me live, my life now belongs to you. If you will, please allow me to aid you in your search, so I may repay my debt."
Rei was unsure. She seemed very sneaky and sly. And now speaks as if she were a saint. She turned to Bard.
"I would appreciate more help, but I have bad vibes about this girl. How do I know she won't stab me in the back at a moment's notice."
"Hmm. I won't say I know everything," he said. "but I believe she speaks the truth. And I can keep a close eye on her if it will make you feel better. But whether she accompanies us or not is up to you. It's your journey, I'm only here to help."
Rei took a breath. "Alright. Try anything, and so help me God you'll regret it."
She stood and sheathed her blade. She gave a slight bow and spoke. "I understand. I do not intend to bar your way." She held her hand out to Rei, who took it. "You may call me Keena, and thank you for allowing me to join you." She held her hand out to Bard. His expression was blank, and his usual smile was absent. He stared at her. Keena blinked. "Umm."
Bard's face suddenly lit back up and his smile returned. "I am very pleased to meet you, Keena. You have a lovely name. And outfit."
She pulled her hand back from him as he pulled it toward his lips.
"I'm flattered, but that isn't necessary." She looked at Rei. "Is he always like that."
"You'd better get used to it."
Bard placed his bō back underneath his cloak. "Ah, women who always play hard-to-get are always the better ones."
Rei shook her head. "I'm Rei. And he just goes by Bard. I'm not exactly an expert fighter, but he's helping me learn."
Keena looked at him. "He certainly does have a deceiving look and attitude for his amount of skill. I had no idea he was as good as he was just by looking at him. And at that, I'll never know how he could tell I was stalking you."
Bard shrugged. "I've dealt with my fair share of would-be muggers in wooded areas."
Keena lifted an eyebrow. "Still. Your senses are admirable. I can't say the same about your tendency to flirt with every woman you meet."
Bard laughed. She turned back to Rei. "One more thing, when you held my arm, I started to feel I was growing weaker and you were getting stronger. Was it just me, or were you manipulating something."
Rei thought for a second about whether she should mention her ability or not. She knew Keena would catch on eventually anyway, but explaining this early might turn Keena hostile again.
"It's sort of a leeching ability I have. Or like a life-theft, if that makes any sense."
As Rei had imagined, Keena seemed to show a sign of paranoia, but didn't react very surprised or violent.
"That's…that's certainly something. Any idea where you picked up this strange ability?"
"Not at all. I've been told I was born with it. My parents and I discovered it on accident."
"Human beings? With such abilities? I know genetic mutations aren't uncommon, but I've never heard of that…"
Rei's expression grew cold. "It was probably no accident at all. Fate is a strange thing. Humans…even stranger. I loath such monsters. Humans are not humane. I know of very few exceptions. They might as well be aliens themselves. They're just as savage…"
Keena didn't seem to show any disapproval. "I won't say I disagree. That might be a bit overboard, but human beings are far from perfect. All they seem to care about is finding a reason to fight someone or something. Or anything just to benefit their own personal gain. I might have came off as selfish, but it's hard to trust anyone these days."
Rei herself was surprised. "I didn't know we saw eye to eye."
"Not like I could tell your morals. I don't hate them as much as you do, but I can see where your point is coming from. I don't associate with them."
Bard's non-ceasing smile…didn't cease. "You girls have more in common that I thought. This might make our adventure ever more interesting."
Keena looked at him again. "Really? And what is your take on the nature of typical humans?"
"I don't disagree myself. Humans have flaws. But there are plenty of nice people out there. You just have to look harder. I'll be honest, while I'm no supporter of Rei's opinions of humanity, I'm just helping her to find her lost parents. I'm sure she's only traumatized." He smiled.
"I'd say anyone who has to listen to your never ending lute playing would be traumatized, too." Rei said. "Let's get moving, I'm getting hungry."
Ladon sat at a table rubbing his chin. "You're asking for quite a lot, but I've heard you are the best."
Another figure sat on the opposite side. "You'd better believe it. Just tell me what you called me here for."
"Of course. One of my men managed to recover this."
Ladon slid a photo and a cylinder to him. He picked them up and looked at them. The cylinder extended into a transparent screen.
"The photo is her. That's who I'm looking for. The wanted poster is of an armor she wears apparently. Phoenix they call it. But I know they are the same. The hair is a dead give away."
"So that's your target? A teenage girl? You need me…to catch a girl? And tell me why I've been selected to perform such an unprofessional task?"
"She may appear to be just a girl, but I don't have any idea where she is, and I know you can track her down should my own Black Hole series fail. She's vital for my research, and she has the ability to absorb the life from another."
"So she is dangerous? The bounty on the poster is certainly high for a new face. We'll see just how dangerous she is."
"Just find her and bring her to me. Empty the coffers if you'd like. All I care about is Rei being delivered into my hands, so I can finally make everyone understand the value of my work."
"I pick my clients by their checkbooks, not their crazed ideals. So…apprehend her. Is that all?"
"Yes. Bring her to me."
"Then we have a contract. Anyone who wears an armored garb as eye-killing as that one is only asking to die." He got up to leave.
Ladon put his hand down. "Well I would prefer she be alive."
"You're too kind. But turkeys cook better plucked, beheaded, and gutted first. What separates me from other so-called hunters, is that operate…my way."
Ladon sighed. "Fine. Just make sure you do it."
Bard and I were ambushed earlier today, and after a fierce struggle, I was able to overcome my opponent. Although only barely. But instead of an enemy we gained a new ally (hopefully) by the name of Keena. Sometimes it's nice to know that you aren't the only one out there who thinks like I do. Keena, much like myself, views the human race as rude, selfish, and arrogant. I've no intention of going on a killing spree, but anyone who gets in the way of my search is an instant target, alien or human alike.