Extreme heat, vast stretches of sand, and sparse vegetation.
This was the desert. Yet it was not the barren wasteland that it appeared at first glance. A good life could be had here, provided you were tough and adaptable enough.
For yes, the desert could give life, but far more easily take it.
And it was by taking lives that this desert dweller kept its own, for she was a predator. A predator of great patience, a predator that had waited in still silence for hours to get this chance.
Eyes were not needed, vibration alone was enough to track the hare's position as it settled under the shade of a bush to shelter from the blazing afternoon sun. The huntress had chosen her location well, she was within striking range.
The hare sensed the attack coming a moment too late as a muscular, segmented tail burst from the sand near it. The creature had only started its first bound to escape when the pointed tip of the huntress' stinger found its mark, jamming into the animal's body so hard it was thrown to the side several feet. The hare went instantly limp, its twitching nose, panicked eyes and rapid breaths the only signs it was still alive.
A moment later the rest of the creature emerged from the sand with explosive speed, her blade ending the hare's life with a single slash to its neck. The feminine pink eyes of the hunter never flinched, such hunts were routine for her.
But even as she began preparing the animal to be cooked, she sensed a new source of vibrations. She could tell it was very different from her prey animals, rather it could be a potential mate, traveling alone if she was reading the presence right. It could be a woman, in which case her hopes would be dashed, but all the same she could not afford to ignore this rare opportunity. She was so excited by the prospect, not that it showed on her stoic face, that she almost missed further vibrations that signaled a group of intruders, ones whose positions indicated they were pursuing her target. This she couldn't allow, especially if they were who she suspected they were. She had to hurry.
Quickly burying the hare for later, she retrieved the cloak she had stashed among nearby rocks earlier and set off in rapid pursuit.
Kenneth Peregrine knew he was being followed. A bounty hunter tended to develop sixth senses about these sorts of things. All the same, simply knowing in this case was not too helpful. He was in the middle of nowhere in a part of the vast desert that covered so much of this portion of the continent. The dunes he was traversing offered little in the way of hiding places, but perhaps if he could reach the rocky crags that surrounded them he could find shelter. Provided he didn't end up in an ambush. After all, his pursuers likely knew this area better than he did.
This wasn't how he wanted things to go. Normally it was he who stalked his targets, finding out everything he needed to know to take them down and then choosing the time and place to do so. The raven-haired man was in his mid twenties, in great physical shape, bearing a piercing gaze in his dark eyes and was fairly adept in several forms of martial arts, but even so he wasn't confident about his chances if he had to take on a number of well-armed desert bandits on their home turf.
This wasn't at all like the jobs he had done in the past. Capturing escaped prisoners, gang leaders and other criminals inside cities gave him many resources he now lacked. He'd never worked in a desert region before, and despite thinking he had prepared himself he now realized you could only learn so much from books.
He had come out here to scout for the bandit leader. He'd been commissioned to take him, dead or alive, by a wealthy client whose shipments had suffered a number of losses to this man in this general area. Kenneth had gone alone, reasoning it would be easier to sneak around the bandit's lair once he found it. This was a mistake as the sheer vastness of the desert meant it would be a miracle if he found the bandits before they found him, and being alone meant he was an easy target.
He had had confidence at first when he located a lair a few days ago, but subsequent investigating showed it to have not been used in some time. It seemed the bandits were nomadic to some degree, likely moving from one lair to the next rather than holing up in any one place for too long. Now that he thought more about it, it made sense given they were wanted by the law and setting things up so that a group of men could survive in one place in the desert for a long time would inevitably draw attention to them. Now it seemed he would suffer for his poor judgment, as if being low on water hadn't been bad enough. Despite being low on rations his pack of supplies had never felt heavier on his back.
"Should have never taken this job..." he sighed as he neared the veritable fortress of rocky land that seemed to emerge from the sea of sand. He pulled his cloak tighter as the wind billowed it, then removed the hood. It protected him from the still blazing early evening sun but he would need his vision unobscured for what was likely to come.
He immediately realized there were many places here he could potentially hide including what looked to be large caverns, but hiding anywhere depended on getting out of sight of his pursuers first, and that seemed impossible as by now he was pretty sure there were a number of them and they had surrounded him. Spotting some shadowy figures atop a nearby ridge confirmed it.
Kenneth gave a frustrated sigh. May as well get this over with, being unafraid in the face of death was something else bounty hunters tended to develop. He loosed the harness of the pack on his back and let it fall to the ground. He needed to be able to move as freely as possible.
"All right, I know you're there so you may as well come out. That will make this simpler for all of us."
The whistling sound of an arrow speeding through the air alerted him to an attack from the opposite side. As they had so many times in the past his reflexes saved him from a potentially fatal wound as he spun around and raised his right arm out from the confines of his cloak.
A moment later a clang echoed through the area and the arrow bounced harmlessly off the plated armor of one of the silver-colored gauntlets he wore. Despite being fairly light, flexible, and breathable in the heat it offered exceptional protection and was worth the distance he had to travel and all the money he had to pay to have them and the similarly-designed chainmail armor under his shirt made. The work of a cyclops didn't come cheap after all, especially if she wasn't interested in using mating with you as collateral.
"You see?" he stated in a mocking tone. "And this isn't the only trick I have, so unless you want to waste more arrows come out here and deal with me face to face."
Sure enough after a few seconds he counted about ten men emerging from various cover in the surrounding area. They moved toward him with some confidence, knowing that even if he was a good fighter they still had the obvious advantage. The one in front however, had a look to him and a confidence in his gait that attracted more attention. His commanding presence meant he was obviously the boss here.
Kenneth had a pretty good idea of who he was, namely the man he had come here to capture. The scar on his right cheek was a good identifier, albeit around here people with scars were pretty common. Still, may as well go with his gut. "Bandit leader Amad Namib I presume?"
"That's right pretty boy," the rough-faced man replied in an arrogant tone, "and you must be a bounty hunter. Not many people but them come out to parts like this all alone."
Kenneth noted none of the bandits in front of him carried a bow, which meant at least one sniper was still hidden out there. Smart of them, but bad for him.
"Yup, that's me," he stated with false mirth, "Kenneth Peregrine, professional bounty hunter and part-time drifting wanderer. I don't suppose you would quietly just let me place you under arrest?"
Amad's smirk grew into a chuckle, then an almost deranged laugh that his cohorts deemed necessary to imitate. "You're quite the comedian aren't you? I like that, I really do. It's such a nice change to meet somebody who can make a joke before they die. In fact, just because I'm in such a good mood now I think I won't have you killed."
"Now you're joking," Kenneth stated flatly. Amad's most infamous quality was that he didn't let victims of his robberies live. Indeed his identity was only so well known due to caravans who had managed to fight off his assaults, and through word of mouth in the underworld.
Amad sneered at him, "yup, but you haven't heard the funny part yet. See, instead of killing you I'll have you stripped of everything on you, including those fancy gauntlets, and set you loose to watch you wander the desert naked. Then we'll take some bets on whether or not you die of exposure before coming over and begging one of us to put you out of your misery."
Kenneth had by now assessed his foes, each of them appeared to be in fairly good physical shape, and each carried a curved blade at their side. Some likely had daggers hidden under their clothes as well. Amad himself carried a much larger sword than his men, perhaps a symbol of his status, or maybe he was compensating for something... Kenneth smirked at the thought.
"Still think this is funny?" Amad asked with a crooked grin, far too pleased with himself for Kenneth's liking.
"No," he replied, "just trying to estimate how many of you I can kill before you take me down. By the way, it's about half of you, just a fair warning." And a bit of a bluff as well, most of Kenneth's weapons were better suited to taking people alive. 'Best start with the sleeping powder,' he decided, preparing to reach into the left pocket of his pants for the small bag of it he carried.
"Or you can all just take a quick nap!" he shouted, in one swift movement throwing the contents of the pouch toward the closest bandits. He was surrounded so he couldn't hope to get them all but if he was lucky this would disable three or four of them enough to beat down a few others and make his escape while the bandits recovered from the surprise assault.
It was not to be though as the wind suddenly picked up at a fierce pace. Within seconds the sleeping powder had been blown and scattered too much to affect anyone. Kenneth was left standing with a frozen expression of shock.
"...You've never worked in the desert before have you?" Amad stated after several seconds of stunned silence.
Kenneth smiled nervously, feeling rather embarrassed. "Is it that obvious?"
The man laughed loudly once more. "You've been so entertaining that I'm tempted to really let you go, but I do have a reputation to maintain. No hard feelings right?" he asked mockingly as his men now rushed Kenneth together.
"None at all," the bounty hunter replied seriously before surprising the bandits by running toward the two that were closest to him. He flung himself forward, hitting the two men in the neck with his fists and using his inertia to send them to the ground with him, flexing his wrists as he did so. A moment later came the sickening sound of metal piercing flesh and bone, as a hidden dagger inside each gauntlet sprang out from over his wrists, severing the airway and spinal cord of both unfortunate men.
'Can't afford to hesitate, or play nice,' Kenneth told himself. He did not enjoy killing but some situations called for it. And with the rest of the men still unsure what had just happened he needed to capitalize on the opportunity. If he could manage to kill Amad then his underlings were likely to flee.
With another strong flex of his gauntlet-enclosed wrists the blades were triggered to retract back into the gauntlets. He hoped that would let him still have some element of surprise if he used them again, as what he had done was not immediately visible, given the speed he had moved and how the blades had been mostly hidden due to being buried in the necks of the two men he had just killed. Kenneth stood and spin kicked the nearest man in the face, sending him twirling to the ground. At the same time he reached into one of his pockets and opened another small bag of dust.
Turning back around he faced two men with swords raised about to strike him, but pouring the contents of his pouch into his hand Kenneth threw the dust at the men with all his might. This time it didn't matter if the dust was dissipated by the wind, for this was pepper powder and would seriously impair someone if even a little got in their eyes or up their nostrils. The two bandits dropped their swords and stumbled back, clutching their faces and groaning in pain.
In the next instant Kenneth dodged a slash directed at his back and kicked his attacker hard in the stomach. He rolled under another slash before kicking the man's legs out from under him. The path to Amad was now open to him and he pounced at the lead bandit, hoping for a surprise kill like he had done earlier. Amad proved ready though, and Kenneth was forced to stop short and leap backwards as the larger man unsheathed his sword and with an angry roar swung it at him in a wide arc, catching the front of Kenneth's shirt and slicing it open. Kenneth was unharmed, but now the metallic gleam of his chainmail vest was plainly visible.
"Don't bother stabbing him, he's wearing some kind of armor!" Amad shouted, "just grab him!"
Kenneth saw only one shot left at killing Amad before numbers overwhelmed him He rushed Amad again, the man's eyes widening as Kenneth raised his left arm, the gauntlet again protecting him as Amad swung his blade down with all his might. Kenneth took the force of the hit and then used his arm to push the sword aside and swung his right fist forward, aiming for Amad's neck.
But it wasn't a square hit, Amad had twisted away, causing Kenneth's fist to slide across his cheek so that when the blade extended from the gauntlet it only sliced a bit of flesh off his nose. A moment later Kenneth was grabbed by two more of the bandits and had his arms forced behind his back, where they wrenched his gauntlets off in seconds.
Amad had hastily torn a bit of his cloak off and was using it to stem the heavy flow of blood from his cut nose. His eyes seethed in fury and he practically growled. "I've changed my mind, put him on the ground so I can kill him!"
Kenneth faced the recovering bandits with calm resolve at they advanced on him, the desire to give him a painful death clear in their eyes. So much for his tricks, he could probably escape the two men holding him but he'd be struck down by another before he could do anything else. He'd killed two of his ten foes, and the two he had used the pepper powder on were still disabled, frantically trying to cleanse their burning eyes with water from their supply pouches. But his efforts had not been enough to win or escape. If only he had been more prepared.
He was forced to his knees, his head pressed roughly against the top of a flat rock. It was an execution pose, proven as Amad stepped up beside him and raised his huge sword, still pressing the cloth against his wound with his other hand.
"I'll have your head on a pike, pretty boy, and don't think I'll kill you quick either. Beheading someone with a sword usually takes a few good whacks."
'So this is it,' Kenneth thought. It wasn't how he would have chosen to die. He'd prefer that if he had to die in a fight then he'd go down taking his opponent with him. Still, at least he had put up a good struggle considering how stacked the odds against him were. He tried to focus on that and waited for the killing strikes.
But before the end could come, Kenneth saw out of the corner of his eye something being tossed casually off the top of a nearby rock formation to land in their midst with a thud. Turning to it he realized it was the sniper who had fired the arrow earlier, the quiver on his back still full. The man himself was facedown in the dirt and motionless.
All eyes turned up to where he had been thrown from, where a figure wearing a large cloak stood in silence.
Amad, keeping his eyes on the interloper, stepped over to his fallen minion and kicked him hard in the ribs, the man's resulting pained groan confirming he was alive. "Useless fool," he spat. "How could you let yourself be ambushed?! You knew she would be stalking us when we returned here!"
'She?' Kenneth wondered to himself from where he was still held firmly on his knees.
The heavily cloaked figure leaped from the ridge and landed right in front of them with surprisingly little sound, and what was heard was strange to Kenneth's ears. It was not the sound of feet slamming into stone, more like the scraping of claws upon rocks. Kenneth noted how the nearest bandits all took a step or two back from her, except for Amad who merely glared. Apparently having landed in a crouch, she proceeded to stand up to her full height, a height that actually left her eye-to-eye with the towering Amad. From what could be seen of her slim upper body she in fact looked unnaturally tall.
Kenneth found the cloaked figure was difficult to discern ay details from, even as he turned his head to see her more clearly. Her cloak was larger and baggier than normal, and trailed a good deal further behind her than expected. It seemed as though it was covering some large object she had attached herself to and in fact seemed to be standing on. The shroud served to cover and obscure every feature save for the piercing, pink eyes that stared from the darkness of her cloak's hood, and the glint of a small gem of similar color on her forehead. Kenneth wasn't sure what to make of her, but whether she was here to save him or not the distraction she provided could be his key to escaping. He waited for the two men holding his arms to let up on their grip for even a moment.
Meanwhile Amad took a daring step toward the new arrival and pointed his sword at her. "Are you interfering with me again demon?!"
She made no move, not a flinch in her gaze, and when her reply came it was in a calm, strong tone. "Amad... I believe I warned you and your men once before... that these are my hunting grounds, and that I will not tolerate your encroachments. Your bowman is still alive, consider that my final act of leniency. Provoke me again and you will regret it," her eyes narrowed and Amad flinched at the pulse of terror it drew from inside him. Yet he held his ground all the same.
"The caravans know that you and your kin drive bandits from this area. How am I supposed to make a living when they all divert through here?" he questioned, sounding more exasperated now rather than enraged.
The strange woman shut her eyes, her voice aloof. "It is not my concern if you find it difficult to live your petty life of raiding and looting. You bandits are not like the nomads who come for a time and leave the land as they found it, or like the caravans who merely pass through without stopping. You are even different from those who settle at an oasis and manage their resources properly. No, you want to hole up in the caverns storing and amassing your stolen treasures while you slaughter my prey and drain my springs. You fill the desert with fires and poisons and litter it with your garbage, I cannot ignore your excesses."
Amad was already set with a comeback. "Only an ignorant savage like you could say that. You know nothing of what it is to desire wealth or power, compared to fulfilling those passions a few drained springs is nothing. All you have are your all-consuming lust for pleasure. I live for more!"
"More?" she questioned idly.
Amad seemed almost giddy at the chance to voice his aspirations. "One day I will be more than a bandit. I will rule this whole desert, and when that happens you will want to have earned my favor. In the meantime I cannot let myself be concerned with the demands of one mere mamono."