"Juilliard. Juilliard, wake up!"
I came to with Pip and Pandora looking down on me. Trying to sit up proved a failure as Pip gently pushed me back down.
"Juilliard, you'd best stay down for a while longer."
"When we blew up the wall, the burst was a bit stronger than we expected and you were hit by a rock. You weren't badly injured, but you blacked out for some time. Are you sore anywhere?"
I touched my ribs and winced as a sharp pain spread from the spot I touched. "Just my ribs. They're a little painful."
"They're just bruised," Pandora replied. "We already checked for broken bones and the likes."
"It's pretty sore… Do you know how long it'll be like this?"
"There's no telling. Bruised ribs can take any amount of time to heal. You should be better in a week or so, though."
"Mmm… Does anyone know if Mige is alright?"
Pandora and Pip exchanged a slight glance and their lack of immediate response gave me the answer I needed. It was obvious Mige hadn't survived the blast.
"What happened to him?"
"Once I teleported back out we blew up the cave wall, as you remember. You blacked out when the rock hit you. As Pip was carrying you out, the second wall separating you and Mige also blew up. From what I could figure, the noises we heard were indeed people from Deff, as were the screams. Those were caused by Soldiers that had found their way into Deff from the other side. It's a good thing we blew that wall up when we did or you and Pip may have died between the two explosions."
Pip continued for her with a mention of the Soldiers following us. Apparently the timing of the explosions was just perfect enough for us to crawl through the first opening as the smoke from inside settled. That gave Pip and Pandora enough time to get me through and the rest of the people with Pandora away from Deff. It wasn't too much, but a head start is a head start, and this head start was good enough to get us out of reach from the Soldiers.
Now we were in hiding, hidden away in some brush out in the forest near Deff. I took a moment to look around and noted a few of the familiar faces I recognized. Tank and Brick, the twins I'd met during one of my first days in the Underground, were the only two I knew by name. There were a few others who looked familiar but I couldn't tell if it was just my imagination or if I'd actually seen them before.
I wanted to walk around and get some of my strength back, but Pip argued it would be best if I just stayed down for a bit longer.
"Pip, if you're going to keep me down you could at the very least let me keep my weapons within reach," I argued. "There's no use in keeping me still if I don't even have the ability to defend myself."
"Oh, very well, Juilliard. I suppose if an attack were to happen it would be for the best. It's always better to be safe than sorry, no?"
With that I was left to my own devices with a sword on one side and an axe on the other. I decided that although I'd been trusted to stay alone, I'd listen to Pip and rest for a few minutes. A few minutes turned out to go by much faster than I expected and I was awoken by shouts as one of the on-duty makeshift sentries came running into our camp saying that Soldiers were headed straight for us. Rules or no rules, I wasn't going to stand by and watch as Soldiers invaded our camp.
The whole camp was up in a flurry; some were preparing their weapons and organizing themselves in a prearranged manner while others were trying to pack away what few belongings they had brought along. I spent my spare minutes searching for the man who'd gone running through the camp with the warning. Finding him among those preparing for a battle, I quickly got to my point.
"How far are these Soldiers from our camp?"
"No more than 5 minutes, tops."
"And how many would you say there are?"
"I'd estimate around fifty."
Fifty wasn't the best number to be fighting against with our group, but I had seen worse odds. I could only hope that the people in this group were worth something when it came to fighting those monsters.
Just as the man predicted, within minutes the Soldiers were heard approaching the camp. Orders were whispered, trying to quiet everyone down in hopes of keeping the Soldiers away and avoiding a battle. The tension in the air was fierce. I could hear the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, I could hear my own breathing. People were starting to shift their weight from one foot to the other as they became more and more impatient, fearing the impending death waiting for them just around the corner.
With no notice of any kind, Soldiers came crashing through the brush from every direction. Our linear order was of no use, which I'd assumed would happen since we weren't backed up against anything solid and therefore could easily be surrounded. Pandora, as the only one with any kind of powers had been automatically placed in a position of power. She was quickly proving herself incapable of properly leading a group of people who had never really encountered an actual enemy.
I myself had never led a group of people in a battle either, but at least I'd been in real battles, as small as they may have been. I took some form of control and ordered the line to split halfway so we could fight back to back. At least we'd have friendly fighters at our backs.
These Soldiers were much stronger than the ones Pip and I had encountered before reaching Deff. Within seconds our numbers were cut in half, while the Soldiers had only lost a few of their own. Glancing around I noticed it was just Pandora, Pip, Tank and Brick, and less than ten others. We were severely outnumbered when the Soldiers broke through but at that point we shouldn't have had any chance of survival unless we ran and happened to keep out of reach of the Soldiers pursuing us.
I'd injured two Soldiers enough so that I could put them down and finish them but my injuries, although not serious, were indeed taking their toll on me. I took a moment to breathe. As I looked around it was like I could see everything as it happened, time seemed to slow down as I watched the action around me. It gave me the few seconds I needed to catch my breath and see how my friends were holding up. That was also the first time I realized that I considered these people my friends. As far as I had ever known, I'd never really had friends. It hit me that I cared about these people more than I thought I could. I could see that they were doing well enough on their own though:
Pip was fighting a particularly large Soldier and through the slightest bit of luck, he tripped and managed to strike the thing straight through the neck allowing him to move on to the next one. Tank and Brick weren't doing so bad themselves. With both being as strong as they were they weren't too inferior to the Soldiers. Pandora was doing her best to keep up with the Soldiers. She was fighting one particularly nasty looking Soldier when I saw her. It wasn't as large as the ones Pip and I had encountered, but if it were actually human I wouldn't have hesitated to say it was incredibly muscular. Both its eyes were missing and hadn't been replaced—the eyelids were sewn shut over the gaps. I noticed its teeth were metallic spikes instead of normal teeth. The nails on one hand had been filed down to form spikes as well while the other arm was seemingly replaced with a different arm. Halfway between the elbow and the shoulder, there was a rough stitch keeping the lower arm attached to the upper arm. It was rather gruesome to see, but Pandora didn't seem too distracted by the strange sight in front of her.
Just as she moved her arm to swipe the sword toward the Soldier's normal arm, the thing slashed its own weapon toward her. With her abilities and quick wits, however, she began to dissolve before my eyes. Teleportation came in useful for her in this instance. Her timing was slightly late, though, and the Soldier caught her midsection just before she completely dissolved. I caught a flicker from the corner of my eye and looked just fast enough to see her appear and disappear again as she teleported once more. I didn't see her appear again and I thought the worst, maybe with her weakened state she hadn't been able to keep up with the teleportation.
I went back to the battle more than ready to fight, knowing that with one less person there on our side we had even less chances of survival. I still wasn't completely enthralled with the idea of Pandora, but she had grown on me since I'd first met her. Her loss was slightly more depressing than I'd thought it would be.
The next Soldier I encountered was just as small as the one who got the better of Pandora, and just as ferocious in appearance. Unlike Pandora, though, I finished him quickly enough.
Tank and Brick had worked together to kill more than 10 Soldiers since I'd rejoined the battle and suddenly it was as if everything was finished. No more Soldiers came out from around us, no more gave one last effort before finally dying. Everything was quiet. Our final count was seven: Pip, Tank and Brick, three others that I had yet to learn the names of, and me. We didn't have the time to do a proper burial, but we moved the Soldiers' bodies into the brush and carried our own back to the mountain where we laid them to rest in makeshift graves under the fallen rocks.
Pandora's body wasn't among those we buried.