"Look, smoke!" Raff exclaimed, from high up in a tree. "To the north."
"You know if he gets stuck up there I'm not getting him down," a small boy sighed.
"I'd like to see you try!" Raff, housecat and proud of it, shot back.
Kristin half growled and half sighed. "Boys, I've warned you about this."
"Sorry sarge," they replied in unison and the tigress rolled her eyes.
"Just keep focused," she continued, shrugging her pack into a more comfortable position and giving the forest another suspicious glare. "Okay Raff, how bad?"
"Not sure," came the clipped response. "At least a few fields but maybe Hareford."
"The whole town?" Kristin asked in disbelief. "Okay, this I've got to see. Need a hand up, Dain?" she asked the boy.
"No, I've seen how you guys climb."
"Suit yourself," she said, shrugging. In an orange blur the cat had leapt towards a tree, dug her claws in deep and was nestled in the branches before the first disturbed leaf hit the ground.
The plume of smoke was quite impressive, framed between the high walls of the valley and Kristin chuffed in surprise. Whistling was a lost art to a lot of Metamor.
"I can't see any flames," she admitted after a moment.
"That's because you're not close enough," Dain cut in, making both cats jump. The boy was standing on an invisible disk of energy, robes billowing just for dramatic effect.
"You know, that's so cheating," Raff told him, grinning.
"Oh, bite me pussy," the kid shot back.
"Focus people," Kristin snarled, claws scouring the branch. "What's going on?"
"Damned if I know." Dain shrugged. "Could just be the baker's been careless. Then again that fire's fresh, the smoke hasn't even ceilinged out yet."
Kristin pretended she understood what he meant by that and carried on. "We should probably go check it out then. They might need our help."
"It's a few miles out of our way," Dain whined. He'd have preferred the term 'pointed out' but it's hard to sound mature while prepubescent.
"You just need to build up a few calluses," Raff shot back, grinning like a loon and waved a clawed foot in Dain's face. The mage balked, lost focus on his spell and Kristin caught him by the scruff of his neck before he plummeted.
"You know one day," she said, hefting the protesting mage over her shoulder. "I'm going to let you two fight it out and just punish the winner." She began to clamber down the tree. "Now let's get moving while we have daylight."
Hareford was only a few hours walk. Even though their patrol had ranged from the Keep they had had the misfortune to draw one of the longer slogs, the 'handshake' run, named because you got to shake hands with you're counterparts from Hareford as you cut through their turf. Krisitin's patrol didn't find any of their counterparts on the march up and made sure they had their weapons lose by the time they'd arrived.
"I don't like this," Raff murmured, ears flicking as the pushed their way through the twilight scrub. "Where are all the animals?"
"They saw your mug coming and fled," Dain jeered, and ducked as Raff chucked a rock at him.
"Cut it out guys," Kristin growled. "And stay sharp."
They lasted all of a dozen paces before Dain chimed in.
"While I hate to say it, the furball's got a point. Something's not right here, Kay should be here."
Kristin rolled her eyes. Their resident woodsman, a female goat, didn't talk to them in the days, two large predators and a mage spooked her for some reason. Still, she should have met up with them when they went off route.
With another huff and Kristin glared around the woods, daring for something to move. She did not like feeling, as if someone was waiting to pounce on her, nor was she happy about the two children that were under her care. Well, they were acting like children, Dain alone though had fifteen years on her. She wondered whether who ever had put her in charge realised just how young she was. How young she felt.
There was a flicker of movement, which only the cats spotted and Kristin was a blur as she ripped her greatsword, Bloodfall, from its clasp across her back and brought it down in an overhead slam. The white robed lutin screamed for a half second as its skull shattered and then crumpled to the ground, spilling brains and gore.
"What the—" Dain began, as a second lutin, screaming in rage lunged for him. Raff got a blade in the way just in time and Dain broke the monsters neck with a blast of force. Whirling, Kristin disarmed the final assailment with a broad stroke and, dodging the severed limb, smashed the pommel spike into the creature's head.
"Light and Shade," she swore as the three keepers arranged themselves back to back, eyes straining against the gloom.
"What are lutins doing this far south?" Dain exclaimed. "Aren't we supposed to have a truce?"
"More importantly," Raff hissed. "Where's Kay? She's supposed to warn us about this kind of thing."
"If she's got any sense she'll be halfway to the keep by now," Kristin growled. Kay was dead. There wasn't another explanation. She may have not liked people much but she wouldn't have abandoned them without a warning. The others didn't need to know that though.
"We need to get to Hareford," she continued. "They need to be warned and I want a wall between us any lutins.
"Agreed," Raff clipped, keeping his sword high.
"Agreed," Dain said. It may well have been the first time they'd ever agreed on anything in their lives.
A shrill warbling war cry echoed through the forest.
It also could be the last time.
The three set off at a dead run towards the safety of Outpost.
"Okay," Dain said, peering through a spell. "That's two hundred lutins."
The trio were prone in a hedgerow only a few hundred yards from the army. Either through luck or undiscovered talents they hadn't run into any more patrols but the main force stood between them and Outpost.
"Well, so much for a warm bed," Raff sighed, staring longingly at the flickering torches above the gate of Hareford. It couldn't have been more than a two minute walk, but it might as well have been across the ocean.
Kristin shook her head. "I don't get it. This can't be all of them."
"They could be besieging the other gate," Dain suggested. "These guys might just be stopping a flank. Still, you've got to wonder how they-." He made an elaborate gesture and cupped his had above his eyes. "Hold on. Who's that?"
"If it's a lutin in a stupid hat it's probably the chief," Raff proffered and Dain scowled at him.
"I know that. And it just so happens it’s a human."
"Damn it," Raff swore. "Bandit or lackey?"
"Lackey," Dale replied after a moment's consideration. "Yeah defiantly, she's wearing Nasoj's symbol."
"Light," Kristin snapped. "I thought he was having a civil war."
"Trust me, if he was actually at war with us we wouldn't be able to move for lutins, this is pretty- shit!"
"What?" the cats exclaimed, looking round for a threat.
"She teleported," the Dale continued, and his partners glared at him. They didn't consider that quite as dangerous as he'd made out. "No prep, no focus. Just gone."
"Hey, that just means we don't have to fight a mage," Kristin said, shrugging.
"No, wait, there she is again." Dale twitched his hands to renew the spell. "And gone. And back. Good grief has this girl got a blink curse or something?"
"She's doing what?" Kristin asked in a monotone.
"Flickering all over the damn place," Dale said. "Never seen the like."
Kristin and Raff shared a look, they had seen the like.
"Dale, how easily could someone have teleported these lutins here?" Kristin asked in a rush.
"Are you kidding? You'd need an insane amount of power, a focus, a breach, you could just as easily kill everyone you were transporting. No way would anyone bother to move an army, it's insane."
"How about with a natural teleport?" Raff enquired.
"No such thing," Dale shot back. "They're just folk stories."
"You never met my sister did you?" Kristin sighed. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. Raff, Dale, head back to the keep as fast as you can. Don't get caught and raise the alarm."
"What are you going to do?" Raff asked, as the pair turned to go.
"Someone's got to warn Hareford what Hale... Haley can do," Kristin said. "And it's my fault she's here."
"Wait, you know this person?" Dain said, at last catching on.
"Raff will explain," Kristin sighed. "Just go."
"I don't understand," Raff protested, as Dain scrambled up into a low crouch. "Why would Hale betray us?"
"People will do strange things to break the curse," the tiger said, shrugging.
"Hale wouldn't do this though. He liked being male."
The silence stretched and at last Kristin spoke with out meeting either's eye. "People will do strange things to break someone else's curse." She pulled out a simple cat's eye necklace from an inside pocket and looped the chain around a finger, there was a flicker and a claw shifted into a human nail.
"It's Haley. And I need to stop her," the tiger sighed.
"If you had that," Raff began, gaping. "Why didn't you go?"
"I kind of like it here," she admitted, then shook here head, determined not to let them see she had tears in her eyes. "Look, if I don't make it back. It was great knowing you guys."
Before Raff could say another word Kristin swept him up in a smothering hug and, before he could make a break for it, she dragged Dain in with them.
"It's been fantastic."
She broke the hug and slunk down into the burnt out field on all fours.
"Kristin wait," Raff hissed. "You don't have to do this."
"Yeah I do."
And she set off at a run towards the army.
The battle started moments later with a 'wumph' of displaced air as two ogres, and two small mountains of ammunition appeared not meters away from the running tiger. An instant later the number of lutins tripled, many with bows, but more charged forwards with huge shields and provided cover as the walls flared into magical brilliance.
Kristin had heard that the resident mage of Hareford had put some effort into the defences, she didn't expect a wall of fire, ten foot high, to burst into life in front of the walls, lobbing fireballs into the lutin army. Explosions and the screams of the dieing rent the air as the first rank fell but then magic twisted and a geyser of flames leapt towards the gatehouse, sending the keepers scatting and within an instant the moat of fire was exhausted.
The lutins kept advancing, as Kristin reached the rear ranks and stayed low. The first arrows were rattling off the walls as the keepers began to return fire, assisted by a hundred or so secondary spells, but they were too few, even Kristin could see that. With a bellow the ogres opened fire, hurling huge lumps of flint over the walls and the screams as the impacts send shards of rock tearing through wood and bone alike.
Something seemed wrong though, Kristin hunkered down in the dirt a few feet behind the army who were far to distracted by the fortress in front of them to look around. A few moments later as the siege ladders appeared within the ranks she had it. If Haley could teleport armies, why didn't she just teleport them past the walls? The only good reason would be to draw the garrison's attention and that meant that there were already soldiers inside-
The tiger sighed and then stood, glancing around for any sign of her sister. Haley was there right in the centre, seemingly directing the attack, but every five seconds or so she would flicker, as if she was also paying attention somewhere else. Kristin had seen that trick before when Haley had wanted to skip church without getting in trouble.
Kristin sighed again, in black leathers and chainmail Haley really did look like a proper warlord. Kristin could almost imagine her ordering the ransacking of villages and cooking babies for breakfast and, with Nasoj's symbol stitched in silver on the back of her jerkin, it was quite possible she already had. There was a yell of alarm as the first ladder reached the wall and then another explosion as it was reduced to kindling. It was a last act of defiance though; no more magic flew from the walls and the second ladder latched onto the parapet unopposed.
With an irritated flick of her tail Kristin dropped back onto all fours and took a couple of deep breaths. Then she was off at a run through the lutin mob, dodging, ducking and barging her way through the sea of legs. Soldiers went flying and weapons were brandished but she was too fast and, as a hurled dagger glanced off her armour and hit a bystander, Kristin was through and shifted on the run. The ditch was fast approaching and she coiled like a spring before hurling herself towards the wall.
She was short of the parapet by a good six feet and the walls were wreathed in something that stopped her claws getting purchase. With a yell of surprise Kristin kicked away, leaping blind and snagged one of the siege ladders. The whole structure rocked and a lutin went screaming past as Kristin dodged one of the climber's dagger. A rabbit punch later and she was scrambling up towards the parapet with an angry swarm of lutins in hot pursuit.
"Friendly!" she bellowed, which gave the buck at the wall just enough pause to avoid taking her head off.
"Watch were you're swinging that," Kristin bellowed, vaulting over the crenellations and drew her sword just in time to brain a lutin that was a little too quick a climber for its own good.
There was a sudden pop, and only Kristin whirled, swinging Bloodfall along with her and the lutin that had teleported behind her lost half its neck before it was kicked backwards into the city bellow.
"Ambush!" Kristin roared as loud as she could but the strike was over. Half the keepers manning the walls were dead and the rest wounded and the luntins were scaling the walls like a wave and making a push for the gatehouse. That wouldn't hold for long, the defenders would be watching the doors not their backs.
"Keep them off me," she snapped at the buck, and didn't even wait for an answer before setting off, knocking lutins out of the way with blade and claw as she fought through the mass.
Then they vanished. The gatehouse had fallen.
Kristin nearly fell off the wall as her sword met air but recovered in a moment and set off at sprint towards the gate. The army was massing outside of the walls and she could already hear the steady clank of the portcullis rising. A moment later the lutins regretted not closing the doors as she burst into the guard room. Inside was a dozen keeper copses, just as many lutins and, at last-
"Haley!" Kristin roared, and the girl whirled, eyes widening as the enraged tiger gutted a lutin with Bloodfall.
"Kristin?" Haley said in shock. Kristin spun, catching a strike on Bloodfall's bladelets and smashed the hilt through a skull just in time to run another lutin through. "What the hell are you doing here?"
The lutins were surrounding Kristin, driving her back towards the wall, but she was still lashing out at anything that got too close.
"I'm here to stop you," she shot back. With a roar she smashed a sword out of one lutin's hand hard enough to break bones, caught a second in the chest with Bloodfall's pommel spike and, as the third stepped forwards inside her guard, bent down and bit him in the shoulder. A twist of the head and it went flying across the room and Kristin stood there, dripping blood and snarled at the rest of the lutins.
They fled, and Haley rolled her eyes as Kristin gagged.
"Honestly, you just can't get the help these days," she said, and began to turn to crank for the portcullis on her own.
"Haley, step away from that," Kristin warned, pointed her sword at her sister.
"Yeah, not going to happen," Haley sighed. "Because if I don’t that little amulet you're supposed to be using while running for you life stops working."
"Haley," Kristin growled, stalking closer. "Step away."
Haley sighed, and the portcullis clanked open. "Sorry, but this is for your own good."
For a blink of the eye Kristin was elsewhere, she could still see Hareford but the familiar architecture was mixed with imperial buildings and uncursed humans roamed its streets. As some force dragged her through the air she saw the shadows of legionnaires, keepers and lutins all lining the walls and she tried to reach out and touch one.
She was back in the real world in a flash, just in time to see the main gate splinted as one of the ogres charged clean through. It didn't last long though, there was a twisting sensation and everything within a half mile felt their stomachs try to escape. The ogre's managed it, and this disemboweled creature sank to its knees a couple feet from its own internal organs.
Haley didn't seem to care about casualties though, as the second ogre was already charging into the city and Kristin set off at a run down the wall, leaping over injured keepers. She half expected another blast of spell fire but none came and the ogre bellowed as it bulled its way though the remains of the gate.
The jump from the parapet to the roofs below couldn't have been more than five feet. The jump from them to the ogre was more like fifteen and it was only in mid air that Kristin wondered what the hell she was doing as she roared in defiance, holding Bloodfall like a lance as she slammed into the ogre's head.
She hit hard enough to make it stagger, which was lucky as a rain of arrows whizzed past Kristin's head, some finding their mark in the ogres flesh. Bloodfall, despite whatever enchantments were laid into the metal, didn't seem to have even dented the thing's skull when they hit and Kristin fought to stay on the ogre as it began to flail. Digging in deep with her claws she scrambled back up the monstrosity and wrapped her legs around the ogre's neck. Shrugging off a weak blow from the creature she reversed her sword, took the cross guard in both hands and slammed the pommel into its head.
There was a crack that they could have heard back at the Keep and the ogre staggered, as pale blood began to pour over Kristin. She didn't pause though, instead she brought her sword back up and slammed it again into the ogre's head, and again, and again.
The ogre let lose a final plaintive bellow before slumping to its knees and Kristin leapt free, rolling as she hit the ground and came up facing a rather stunned crowd of keepers.
It took her a couple of seconds to remember why she was there.
"You're about to be ambushed," she yelled. A second later the lutin trap sprung, but the men on the flanks were already rounding on the new threat.
"Charge!" Haley roared, materialising at the head of her army which rushed through the broken gates.
Kristin was on her feat and running towards her sister as the echoes faded, a small army of Keepers following in her wake. She drew back Bloodfall as Haley flickered towards her and swung.
Her bade caught on Haley's daggers and they were in the shadowy world again, being dragged towards the gatehouse by some unseen force.
"I'm really sorry about all of this," Haley sighed, strangely real in amongst the ghosts; even Kristin was almost translucent in the unearthly light. "I don't know what I'm doing hurts you." They stopped at the roof of the gatehouse and Haley took a few steps back.
"Who are you?" Kristin asked, lowering her sword.
"Haley," she admitted. "This is who I really am, and she is what I'm forcing myself to be."
Kristin frowned, but Haley did look different. The lines of worry were gone from her eyes, the scowl the world inflicted on her was absent and she was dressed in a simple, if rather masculine outfit. "Who's forcing you?"
Haley chuckled and rolled her eyes. "You are of course."
"I didn't tell you to do anything," Kristin protested. "It was all her- your idea."
Haley sighed again. "Yeah, I know, but she doesn't. Besides if you're appearing here as a tiger then you're not bothered by the change."
"Where is here?" Kristin enquired, peering at the sketchy fortifications.
"This is where the shadows live." She gestured around at the clashing armies and Kristin's head swam as she saw the half real armies clash, to be joined by a thousand more ghostly soldiers, ten of thousands. This thin passage had been paid for in blood time and time again and Kristin couldn't even tell which side was which. "Of both the dead and the living. It's also my home."
"You're living with souls?" Kristin exclaimed.
"Maybe just magical echoes," Haley shrugged. "Now I can't keep us here any longer. I'm going to try and stab you in the gut so be ready."
The real world appeared in a rush and Kristin wrestled to get Bloodfall in the way of Haley's dagger strike.
"Why, are, you, here?" Haley snarled, punctuating each word with another blow and Kristin leapt away, ending up too close to the parapet for comfort.
"I'm here to stop you," she snapped, catching Haley by the hand as she darted too close. There was a pop and she was gone.
Kristin whirled as her ears picked up Haley's arrival behind her and without a second thought pushed her over the wall.
"I'm doing this for you!" Haley bellowed, rematerialising on the other side of the building. "You're supposed to be in the low lands living a normal life."
"Well I don't want this," Kristin roared, gesturing at the death down below. "It's not worth it."
Haley spluttered in rage then disappeared, only to reappear and start stabbing. The sisters danced, a blaze flashing steel, neither pushing their attacks but neither made any move to stop the battle.
"You stupid girl," Haley hollered between blows. "All this I've done for you. You have no idea what I sacrificed to get you that blasted amulet."
"You didn't even ask if I wanted it," Kristin shot back. "You just made my decision for me. I don't want to be free of a curse if it just binds you to a worse one."
"It was my mistake that cursed you. I got off scot-free."
"So it's just guilt," Kristin snapped. "You don't care about what I want at all."
"How can you say that?" Haley exclaimed. "After all I've done for you."
Kristin leapt away from the brawl and drew the amulet out of her armour. It glowed an angry red as if it knew they were discussing its fate.
"Haley. You have always been there for me." The amulet's effects were spreading down her arm, robbing her of her strength. "For once, let someone else be there for you." She dropped it and Haley watched in horror as it hit the ground and Kristin brought the hilt of Bloodfall down to shatter the stone.
"Argh!" Haley screamed, sinking to her knees. "You idiot," she sobbed. "It was all for nothing. Nothing!"
There was a 'wumph' as the lutin army vanished, gone in mid swing.
"You have no idea what I'll have to do to get you another one," she screamed.
"I don't want one," Kristin told her, kneeling before her sister. "I want you."
"I almost died getting you that," she snarled, gesturing at the shards. "I should kill you for this."
"Haley, this isn't you," Kristin insisted, grabbing her sister by the shoulder. "It's Nasoj's power, fight it. He has nothing over you now."
"He has you. You're still cursed."
"It's only a curse if you want it to be," Kristin said.
Haley closed her eyes, and suddenly tensed in pain, her hands flying to a silver amulet bearing Nasoj's symbol around her neck. It sparked, electricity flaring around her hands and Haley gasped as she tried to rip the symbol from her neck.
"Haley," Kristin barked. "Haley what are you doing?"
But she went unheeded as Haley pulled harder and harder on the symbol at last screaming in agony as the lightning tore across her. Her eyes lost focus, her grip went slack and she looked ready to faint.
"Help," she gasped.
Kristin grabbed the amulet and it roared into life, sinking great bolts of energy into the tiger who didn't flinch as the magic earthed itself against her. Instead she tore the sigil away and tossed it out beyond the city as Haley collapsed against her.
"Haley, wake up," she said, shaking her sister, who groaned but did not rouse. Kristin's fur was beginning to stand on end as the magic returned; its power amplified by whatever source lay inside her. She'd never been hit by a killing spell before, a miniature fireball at worst and that had taken out half a castle, whatever was going to happen it wasn't going to be good.
Clouds spun themselves into existence above their heads, the smoke warped into a thunderous tempest that crackled with power.
"Come on wake up, wake up!"
It didn't take a mage to feel the power building. A bolt of lightning dropped from the sky, blasting apart a weather vane on a nearby house, but the storm wasn't sated, not by a long shot. Kristin glanced up, growling, was the bolt targeted to her, or the gatehouse? Either way she had to move Haley.
She slung her barely conscious sister over her shoulder and ran for the stairs. Another bolt leapt from the sky and blasted a swathe of masonry out of the wall and Kristin swore. She couldn't go down to the city, there'd be bystanders. With another growl she gripped Haley tighter and threw herself from the wall.
It had to be at least twenty feet, but she was a cat and cat's bounce.
Kristin hit the ground hard and staggered, her legs screaming in protest but she forced herself to run. The magic was building at a frightening pace, the clouds seeming to broil under their own power but they were also following her. She let Hale fall, but it was too late.
The explosion whited out the sun and left a ten foot crater in the earth. Of Haley and Kristin there was no sign.
Haley woke with a start, sitting bolt upright and yelling.
"No, we're not dead," Kristin sighed, sitting on the other side of a campfire where she was skinning a rabbit. "You have better survival instincts than I thought."
"I teleported us, right?" Haley enquired.
"Thank you," she sighed, collapsing back into the bedroll. "I thought it might have been Nasoj for a moment."
"He would have saved you?" Kristin asked in surprise.
"Maybe," Haley said with a shrug. "I was quite valuable. He's probably more likely to blow me apart now."
"I noticed that."
A silence stretched between the two girls and Kristin spitted the rabbit, holding it over the fire to cook.
"I didn't know you could hunt," Haley said, scrabbling around for something to say. Kristin gestured over her shoulder to a snare trap half hidden in the undergrowth. "Ah."
"Yeah, I have these things called thumbs," Kristin sighed.
There was another pause, this time broken by the tiger.
"How could you do it? Work for Nasoj. He's evil."
"Oh yeah is he evil," Haley agreed, staring up at the canopy. "And border line insane. But he had what I want... what I thought I wanted."
"What did he make you do?" Kristin pressed. "I mean, was this your first siege?"
"He had me doing assassinations," Haley explained, not looking at Kristin. "Mostly twisted mages looking to replace him, but a few army leaders, lutin chiefs, there aren't that many good men up north but I dare say I killed a few that were."
Kristin shuddered. In a very general sense she'd known Haley had killed, heck she'd been responsible for a dozen deaths long before they'd even reached the Keep, but she'd never heard Haley talk about them in such callous terms.
"Why?" she whispered.
"I did it for you," Haley said, sitting up to face her.
"No, why did you do it for me. I'm not worth that?"
Haley smiled. "Because you're not arrogant enough to assume you deserve it. Because you're brave enough to charge an army to do what's right. Because you stood by me for your entire life when the entire village turned against me. Because you followed me, when no one else would. You're my responsibility. I'm never going to let you down."
"You don't regret it," Kristin realised suddenly.
"What, getting you that cure?" she said. "Hell no. If you asked I'd go and get another one right now. Maybe I'd try some other people than Nasoj first, but I'd still do it."
"I don't deserve this," Kristin said, hanging her head.
Haley just shrugged. "I say you do, now how about some of that rabbit."
"First, I want to know why you're back to normal," Kristin said, raising a finger.
"Are you sure?" Haley asked, wincing. "It’s a really boring story."
"You broke the curse, twice. How's that boring?"
"I didn't break the curse," Haley replied, shrugging. "Your amulet was misdirection, very extensive misdirection but you were still cursed underneath. And I just didn't get cursed."
"What?" Kristin exclaimed. "You changed. I saw you. You spent three months male."
"I changed yeah," Haley admitted, hanging her head. "But the curse never got a look in. It seems that every time I teleported I managed to reset the timer on the curse and I teleport to the bathroom."
"But, you did change," Kristin pointed out.
Haley sighed again. "Yeah, and Nasoj's cronies would have torn me apart to find out why if I wasn't more useful alive. I didn't understand much of it but it was reputedly a 'psy-co-so-matic' reaction to everyone else changing. I thought I should, so did and that's why I got the change I wanted."
"You're a shape shifter?" Kristin asked in disbelief, then remembered the words of the shadow world Haley. 'She is what I'm forcing myself to be.' It made a bit of sense in an odd way. The Haley before her looked softer than the one that had led the attack.
"Yeah, but not a voluntary one," she said, rolling her eyes. "Still, I think changing forms once is more than enough for anyone. Also, was that story worth breakfast?"
"Only half a rabbit."
The pair ate in silence.
"You said it was only a curse if you let it be," Haley said, after they'd finished. "Does that mean you found a place at the Keep?"
"In a way," Kristin said, shrugging. "I'm not a very good soldier though. Last time I just abandoned my unit to run while I chased after you. But I had friends, and it was kind of nice not to be running for a while."
Haley sighed. "I should come back with you," she said, without much force behind the words. "You know, face the music."
"They'll kill you," Kristin replied.
"Yeah." Another pause. "I guess this is it then. I can't follow you, and you can't leave the valley."
"I'm going with you," Kristin declared, almost as surprised as Haley to hear the words leaving her mouth.
"Keepers can't leave the valley," Haley protested.
"They shouldn't," Kristin amended. "But I realised something while waiting for you to wake up. I'm seven foot tall and carry a sword that's longer than most people are tall. Who in their right mind is going to mess with me?"
"And I'm Nasoj's favourite assassin," Haley said with a shrug. "Okay, so maybe we're tougher than we look. But you should stay here; you don't have to risk your life to keep me company."
"Haley, I am coming with you," Kristin assured her. "We stick together."
For a moment it looked like Haley would protest, but then she just shrugged and said. "Thank you." Smiling for the first time in months.
"Hey, you're worth it too."
The two broke camp a couple hours later.
"So where are we headed?" Haley asked, as Kristin shouldered her pack.
"Well, I've got to pick up my pay from the Keep," Kristin said, shrugging. "But I was thinking the southern continent. We've never been there before."
They set off through the trees "Nice choice," Haley agreed, nodding. "There are a lot of land owners with grudges on route though."
"Well that'll just mean things aren't boring," Kristin said, bearing her teeth in a vicious grin.
"I like the way you think," Haley said, also beaming. "And if we get in trouble I still have that lutin army."