“How do we know she is from the Goddess?” the General did not take his eyes off Suara.
“What is your name?” the newcomer asked, and Suara answered without turning her head.
“Suara,” was all she said, and she had the sense that something had just shifted in the world.
They seemed to have felt it too, for the newcomer took a sharp breath and the General’s eyes widened.
“What was that?” the General asked, finally lowering his crossbow.
“The Goddess moves,” the young man whispered, then looked at Suara. “Could you get up? You should move away from the blood before it touches your skin.”
Suara got to her feet, and caught sight of the wolves she had killed. They were lying on the ground, as dead as any could be, but they were not ordinary wolves. For one, they were very thin and oddly-coloured. Instead of the grey and black she had seen them as, there were stripes of green and blue running through their fur. Beneath their bodies, Suara caught glimpses of shadows, as though the bodies were not lying in the snow, but merely lying on top of it. The wolves looked like they were made of paper, with the corresponding thinness to match.
Suddenly there was a strong gust of wind, and Suara saw the wolves’ body float up into the air. It flew up and past her, and she instinctively crossed her hands in front of her as though she was covering her face from the assault of the papers. The wolves flew harmlessly past her, but as they did, she heard a slow, mournful sound.
Suara opened her eyes to see the ground was pristine again, with nothing but a bit of blood blood to show she had once wounded the wolves. She turned her attention to the men in front of her, and she realised there was a crossbow bolt lying in front of the General. Her mind tracked the bolt’s trajectory and she realised that the General had saved her from the third wolf. That was the only explanation she had. Otherwise the angle where the crossbow bolt sat in would have been wrong.
“Ayakashi wolves are made of paper and demons,” the black-robed man called Kieran spoke, noting the confusion on her face. “Once they are killed, they revert to paper form and thus are immobile until either they are burned or retrieved by their caster. They are also notoriously hard to kill. That you have done so without even breaking a sweat…” Kieran looked at her with a gentle smile on his face, but Suara detected a hint of calculation and wariness in his tone.
She turned towards him. Like the General, he had short dark hair, but whereas the General’s hair had at least looked like it was combed, the one called Kieran looked as though he let his hair grow in an untidy heap. He did have a soft, winning smile, but there was a hardness around his eyes that was anything but warm for Suara.
“Who are you?” the General asked her, and she turned her attention to him. He glanced at her hands, and she realised she was still holding her large hunting knives.
“My name is Suara, and I am a mercenary,” she replied, her voice soft and unthreatening.
“General Cormac!” someone called out for the General, and he lowered his weapon finally. The soldier raised an eyebrow at Suara, but then focused all his attention on the general.
“A large band of Ayakashi wolves are coming this way, Commander. We do not have enough magicians to stop them,” the soldier gave a sidelong look at the one called Kieran, who looked just as grave as the General now.
“How goes the evacuation?” Cormac asked.
“Not all the villagers have moved, my lord. We will not be able to clear the village out before the wolves attack, not if we wish to save our men and the villagers,” the man reported.
“I will hold them off, General Cormac. My people and I will buy you time,” Kieran offered.
“You will not have enough magic for the return journey,” Cormac’s voice was rough and angry.
“I can help,” Suara finally stepped forward. She kept her knives unsheathed, to remind the men of what she was capable of. “If you need able bodies to keep the wolves away, I can fight,” as soon as she said it, Suara found herself relishing for a fight.
“What kind of person are you?” Cormac asked.
“I’m a mercenary. You’ve seen me kill.”
At this, Suara shrugged and said the only thing that made sense to her now.
“I need the money to survive. There’s nothing for me from where I came from,” Suara did not know why, but she had a feeling both Cormac and Kieran would not want her to divulge where she came from.
“You could be useful in a fight…” Kieran looked at her again, this time his eyes travelling the entire length of her body in a measuring stare. Suara allowed it.
“How do I know you will not turn on us?” it was a valid question.
“Let me fight and prove my worth,” was all she said, and then she took the last two steps close to them. “You’re wasting precious time arguing with me when there are things to be done. Will you do them, General?” she spoke softly to him, only for his ears. He started, and then took a step back.
“Kieran, get your people and defend the perimeter. I’ll get some of our men to support you. You, tell the men I need volunteers. Meet us at the village entrance. You, follow me,” the General gestured towards Suara, while the other two went ahead to carry out his instructions.
The General left the trail to walk through the forest. Suara followed him, not questioning his order but staying far back enough that she would have warning if he had tried to kill her in the forest. However, he seemed to have a different idea. As they cut through the forest, Suara realised that they were on sort of a grassy hill, and she could see below them. She also realised that he was unusually silent on his feet. Cormac, like her, did not make any sound as they walked through the forest. It increased her respect for the man.
“Here,” the General stopped them where she could see the entrance to the village and the road that led to it. Already she could see more robes like Kieran’s gathering just on the inside of the village entrance, and the hair on her neck stood up. She shook her head, but the General seemed to understand.
“They are preparing themselves for the fight ahead,” he said, and then he turned towards Suara and grabbed her by the front of her collar, his words hot, low and threatening, “If you run now, I will not fault you. I will not kill you. But if you join this battle and backstab us later, I will kill you. I will hunt you down and ensure that your life and those whom you hold dear are forfeit. So by the Goddess, do I solemnly promise.” His lips were so close to hers that for a moment Suara wondered how it would be like to kiss him, and then his words hit her.
“Do not make promises you cannot keep, General. I will not run from this fight, nor will I backstab you,” she whispered angrily to him, wounded by the cowardice tag he had indirectly insinuated. “If I stab you, it will be from the front,” she promised.