Chapter 10:

Miss Burrows, Love is War

The Bushranger's Bayonet

Two arses bobbing in sync.
Two eyes locked onto them.
Mara was sick of it.
She undid the top three buttons of her shirt, took a breath to steady herself, and caught up to Jack.
Standing next to him, she felt a knot in her chest. It had probably been there for a while, but never had it been so prominent in her mind. She took another moment to steady herself before turning to him.
“Jack, I-i’m sorry about before. I shouldn’t have said all those awful things. I don’t want this to get in the way of our work, you know?”
Jack didn’t even look at her.
“It’s fine. No worries.”
Silently huffing in annoyance, she resettled herself yet again. She adjusted her shirt, making sure it showed off enough skin without showing too much. She wanted his attention, not to flash him.
Mara made a grab for his hand, pulling it close to her chest.
“Why don’t we have some fun? After we’re all finished here, we’ll head back to town and you” she poked him in the chest playfully “can buy me a drink.”
A girlish giggle escaped her lips.
Jack’s head snapped up.
He looked at her with concern, before realising he was only an inch away from having his hand in her breasts.
Jack pulled away.
“Y-yeah, sure…”
Mara’s eyes lit up at this response. Suggesting that they go drinking would usually attract a sarcastic comment and a gentle let down, not an affirmation.
Lyra made a slight grunt of annoyance.
Mara silently celebrated.
Shifting in the saddle, Lyra leaned back a bit. Mara heard a faint sigh of relief as she shifted. Jack’s attention was no longer on Lyra, now shifting between his right hand and the ground.
‘Me, one; man-thief, zero.’Bookmark here

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He couldn’t think straight.
The ground, though chaotic, had a consistent pattern to it that seemed soothing. Jack found comfort in its infinite randomness but consistent material.
‘What the hell is up with her?’
He glanced back at his right hand. The one she had so eagerly grabbed before. Mara’s tone was different, her movements were different, her presence seemed different somehow.
It was gone. The venom that she so accurately spat at him no less than 20 minutes ago in that brush-filled gulley was all but gone, leaving nothing but his own confusion in its wake.
Clarity hit him like a runaway horse. All at once, he became truly aware of his own behaviour.
‘Holy shit, I have been staring at Lyra’s arse the whole time. What the fuck has happened to me?’
A quiet thump, followed by a loud squelch broke his thoughts.
It was at that moment he realised he’d trodden in horse shit.
“Oh fuck me” he complained with a groan, wandering off to a nearby grass clump to wipe the feces off his leather boot.Bookmark here

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‘I intend to.’
Those were the first words to come to mind.
Mara took full advantage of this opportunity. That shit was almost as if it fell from the heavens. She almost laughed at the thought; Jack stepping in wyvern shit would be even funnier but it’d be much worse.
Lyra had stopped her horse, giving it a gentle pat on the head.
Mara approached the side of Lyra’s horse.
“You can’t lure him away with your arse alone.”
Lyra scoffed. “This isn’t over yet. I’ll have him to myself yet, just you wait.”
Mara couldn’t help but smirk. “You may have heard stories all your life, but you don’t know him like I do. There’s no way you could get him away from me.”
“We’ll see about that” Lyra flicked her hair in a sarcastic manner “Nobody can resist the charms of a noble lady.”
“Noble lady? Your dad owns a bloody farm on the edge of the world and has a couple of tenants. You’re hardly a noble lady.”
She was taken aback. “How dare you!”
“Mara, what the hell are you doing?”
She snapped around to look in the direction of the voice.
Jack was back…
“Ah, Jack. We were just having a discussion.”
The anger on his face was quite clear. “What have I told you about antagonizing the clientele? I thought you’d gotten over that by now.”
Lyra made a smug preening motion as Mara hung her head.
“I know, I know. I shouldn’t be doing that because they might not pay us.”
“Right” He affirmed “Now, let’s carry on to take care of the rest of the infestation.”
Another snicker could be heard from the ghost.
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Fifteen minutes of awkward silence later, Lyra halted her horse about eighty meters away from a large barn.
“This is the biggest infestation problem. A few of the paddocks further out have the rest of them, but they’re not too dangerous if you steer clear. The ones in the barn” she pointed a thumb at the building “ They are the real problem.”
Lyra’s voice had an annoyed edge to it that just made Mara oh so happy. Some validation that she was getting under her skin was all that Mara needed to bolster her confidence. As the others began to approach the barn, Mara hung back. She quickly scanned the area to make sure nobody noticed before shouldering her rifle.
If Jack wanted something to look at, she would be happy to provide. Grabbing the top of her skirt, she hitched it up even higher. According to the ladies in town, it was already scandalously short, but she preferred the rebellious freedom it gave her. Besides, who’d argue with somebody who has a lifetime of combat training and a giant weapon? The absurdity of her own rebellion brought a smile to her face and a memory to the front of her mind.Bookmark here

A long time ago, one man had asked her how much for some fun. Mara told him to fuck off. His retort was simple. ‘If you’re not a hooker, don’t wear their fuckin boots’. She took great pleasure in kicking his teeth out that day…Bookmark here

With a chuckle, Mara grabbed her rifle again and headed up to join them. She quickened her pace, being careful to make sure her belt kept her skirt where she wanted it. With any luck, Jack would be drooling by the end of this contract.Bookmark here

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The rifle in his hands felt odd as he approached the building. Mara had been acting weird. Sure, he was ogling an attractive client's daughter, but in his defence, she had pretty obviously wanted him to do it. Nobody in their right mind rides a horse with their arse so far back in the saddle it hangs over the horse's own. With a swish of the air next to him, Mara strode past, confidently holding her rifle. At first he didn’t pay much mind, but then it hit.
The strange way she walked. Mara strode with her legs crossing over in front of her body, making her hips sway far more than they would naturally.
Staring at her, he realised what it was.
She’d hitched up her skirt for some reason…
Jack coughed, lowering his eyes as he pulled at the collar of his shirt awkwardly. Bookmark here

His cough is all the confirmation she needed. Returning her stride to normal, she approached the wooden gate nearest the doors of the barn. From afar, it had seemed like a regular-sized barn where you might keep a few animals, but it was clear to see that what they approached was a small part of a much larger building. It wasn’t even the only barn, with two more further back in the holding pen, both equally large.
“Which barn are the little shits in?”
Lyra’s smug tone brought Mara crashing back down. Instead of opening the gate, like she would have done, she leapt over the stone wall in a way that showed off her legs. Whether Jack saw it or not didn’t matter at this point, she just wanted to show off.
“Alright, let’s get to cleaning.”Bookmark here

A dark streak leapt towards the outer wall of the barn before dashing inside an open window higher up.
“Holy shit!”
An unnatural burst of noise from Cat as she was flung unceremoniously back out the window. Connie leapt over the stone wall to the spot where he expected Cat to land and broke her fall. They fell in a tumble of limbs and weapons with a thud. Connie sat up, picking up Cat’s small frame in one of his massive hands.
Cat laughed. “Thanks.”
“Watch yourself next time.”
“I usually do.”
Jack’s brain immediately let go of all thoughts of Mara’s thighs to focus on the fact that Cat had laughed.
Cat! Laughed!
Jack slapped himself before casually hopping over the stone wall and heading over to Cat, who was dusting herself off.
“What the fuck did that?”
“That would be the slime”
“I’m sorry, what the fuck? Did you just say slime and not slimes?”
Cat sighed, not surprised at his shock. In the background, Mara crept toward the door of the barn.
“Yes, slime, singular. There’s only one of them in there.”
Connie seemed unfazed. The same couldn’t be said of Arthur.
“How big was it?” He squeaked.
“Fourteen foot at least. I didn’t get much of a look at it because it pounced at me and, well, you saw the rest.” Her tone lacked all embarrassment at her unceremonious flight. She was practically back to normal.
‘Rules out a concussion then’ Jack thought to himself.
Refocusing on the task at hand, he thought for a moment. A fourteen-foot slime was far bigger than any specimen documented before. Cat must’ve been mistaken. Bookmark here

A rumbling creak.
A colossal squelch.
“Oh fuck”
An orange streak flew across the paddock. Mara landed face-first in the grass.
Jack rushed over, slowing as he approached.
Her skirt was still really high up…
He swallowed his dirty thoughts. Those could be dealt with later.
Pulling her out of the grass, he rolled Mara into his arms.
As she slowly opened her eyes, Jack could hear her heartbeat pick up.
“Are you hurt? Any pain? I can’t see any blood or obvious breaks.”
Mara’s breathing picked up, and she began to tremble slightly. Jack had a suspicion that this wasn’t too good. “Fuck, that’s going to be a problem.” Turning around, he called out. “Arthur! Come here.” The little boy tottered over.
“Keep an eye on her. Don’t let her fall asleep and keep the slimes off her. We’ll take care of the big fucker.” Arthur nodded, taking his rifle off his back while crouching next to Mara’s head.
Jack moved to get in position to attack.
Mara lay there short of breath.
Her feelings had been starting to grow in recent weeks, but she’d never felt them that strongly before. If it wasn’t for the shock, she felt as if she could’ve pulled him down and kissed him right there.
But what stopped her?
What held her back?
Was it fear?
She dropped her line of thinking, just focusing on getting her heart rate down and her brain in order. Jack had put her out of commission more than the slime had. Bookmark here

Jack, having dealt with the issue, turned his mind to the bastard in the barn. This thing couldn’t be fourteen foot, it just wasn’t possible. Assuming they were in the largest-known size range, there could be as many as nine in there to create the illusion of one colossal slime. He stuck his head around the corner.
His doubts were erased with a single glance.
Cat’s information had been accurate. A single, green, semi translucent blob sat there. Jack pulled his head back from the door as a high speed bolt of slime shot at his face. Thankfully, it seemed that Arthur had moved Mara out of the firing line.
Cat approached the edge of the other barn door, nodding as her eyes met his.
“As I said. Fourteen foot.”
Jack fidgeted with his rifle a bit, checking the magazine. It was at its maximum capacity of nine rounds.
“How in the hell has this thing gotten to fourteen foot? All the books and cases we have listed their maximum size as seven!”
Cat sighed, angling her head toward the slime on the other side of the rough door.
“Ever heard of a composite slime?”
He shook his head. “Never seen that in the library.”
“It’s pretty simple. One slime eats a bunch of others, core and all, grows to a massive size. To kill it, you need to shatter every core or else it’ll just keep coming.”
Connie came up behind Cat, both his weapons in hand.
“There’s a door around the other side. I can run a distraction and even pick off a few cores.”
Jack nodded. “Go wait by the door and keep an eye out. You’ll know when to go.”
“What? No signal?”
He chuckled. “Your instincts will tell you when you’re needed most.”
He nodded quickly passing by the door and heading around the corner behind Jack.
Another speedy blob of slime flew out, barely missing his hair as he passed.
Cat watched as he rounded the corner.
“There’s three windows. One above us, one on the side I entered first, and one across. All are connected through the rafters.”
Cat spoke with a neutral, but hasty tone.
“Where’s the place you can hit the most cores while putting yourself in the least danger? We’ve already got one down, I don’t need another.”
Cat nodded curtly. “Far side, I can hide on the lower part of the roof or tucked into the rafters if need be.”
Jack nodded. “Just…” he hesitated for a moment, “be careful”.
Appreciating his concern, Cat smiled slightly. “Don’t worry about me, I’m the one in the least danger.”
“Alright. Just take potshots and keep your head down.”
She nodded, turning to the wall and taking a leap. Within five seconds, she was out of sight. Jack poked his head around the door frame fast enough to see a black blur dart through the rafters and out the other window. A second later, a slime ball hit the roof at high speed, a few splinters falling down and landing in its amorphous form.
Jack poked his head around the door to figure out what exactly he needed to do. Through the narrow lens of vision he was granted while maximizing safety, he saw at least seven cores, with a possibility of as many as nine when he did the estimates in his head.
‘Oh shit, they were all big to begin with. This is not gonna be easy.’
With their lines of communication all but gone, Jack decided to climb up to the window. Shouldering his rifle, he leapt for a handhold and pulled himself up onto the small shelter in front of the doorway. After a quick breath, he grabbed his rifle and poked his head around the edge of the window frame. His worst fears were confirmed.
His new perspective revealed that there were indeed nine cores to smash.
‘I’ll pull a Mara. Take an easy shot, leap down and try to keep it busy. Connie will probably charge through with either a sword swing or a shotgun blast.’
With a quick glance back at the paddock, he saw Mara in the grass. She was sitting up now, Arthur switching between checking on her and keeping his eyes up. Seeing the concern on his little face was strangely comforting.
These were the people he wanted in his life.
This was the job he was destined to do.
With a steady breath, he poked his head around the corner. Lining the shot up in his head, Jack got ready to snap his rifle into position. His mind buzzed with thoughts of Mara and a strange feeling in his chest. He pushed it down, this was the time to be professional and earn his pay. He picked out the core nearest to him. With an approximate depth of five feet, he assumed that the shot would most likely fail to penetrate with sufficient force. The splash would give him an opening though. He had his plan.
With a single motion, Jack swung his rifle to bear and shot at the nearest core to him. A split second later, another rifle crack rang out, followed by the unmistakable sound of a bolt being slid back. As the slime parted in his bullet’s wake, Jack leapt through the window, aiming to drive the tip of the bayonet into this first core. It had chipped slightly, the bullet seemingly having grazed it with a small portion of its original force.
The tip began to sink into the goo of its body, shockwaves still emanating from the point of impact. Inch by inch, the blade sunk in until it struck the first core. The glass-like ball shattered as the silvered tip drove into its shiny surface. He drove the blade ever further in, the slime almost coming up to his back hand as he hit the ground.
Connie charged from the side in with a vicious one-handed thrust at a core three feet from the surface.
Jack dug his heels into the dirt and straw on the floor of the barn, only to end up knee deep in the slowly-closing hole of the slime’s body. With a final push, he freed himself from it’s blobby form, bringing a few clumps with him.
Connie sunk his claymore into the beast's amorphous form, driving its vicious tip toward the third core. Cat’s earlier shot had shattered the second one, her rifle having far more penetration power than their own guns. As soon as Jack was free, Connie brought his shotgun to bear and fired a shell to clear the path for his next thrust.
Another deep crack could be heard, followed by another core shattering.
Steel scraped steel and another glint of brass fell from the rafters.
Jack jumped onto one of the stable dividers, swinging around a support beam before diving bayonet first into the slime yet again. Firing off a shot just as the blade met the surface, the force cleared the path for his rifle to sink into the monster's form yet again. With the force of another thrust, he dove the bayonet towards another core, ending up elbow deep in the beast this time. As cores were destroyed one by one, its outer layers began to become less viscous as it began to lose hold of the body mass it had acquired.
He’d missed. While still inside its body, he swung the side of the blade toward the core. It wasn’t damaged, but the crystalline sphere was sent toward the surface.
Connie pulled back to line up another thrust.
Jack grabbed the core and yanked it clean out of the slime’s body. Lightly damaged, it may be useful for something later. Piffing it onto a distant pile of hay, the beast started to shed decent-sized chunks of its former body.
With only four of its cores left, the beast began to speed up, using the chunks of its body it was rapidly losing control over as lubricant to shoot for the door.
Another bark rang out from the rafters, followed by the glint of brass. With only eight feet of protection, Jack lined up a shot and hoped to make a splash as it slid for the door. He fired, attempting to make chase before losing his footing on the slippery floor. Luckily, he managed to destroy the outer layer of the core he was aiming at, disabling it. Shrinking rapidly, it passed through the single door with barely a squeeze, leaving a thick trail wherever it went. Still attempting to give chase, Jack tried to slide along the muddy slime trail toward the door before hearing two rifle cracks.
As he approached the door, He saw Mara and Arthur standing side by side with their guns trained on the slowly dissipating puddle.
“You know I wouldn’t miss out on a good fight.”
Jack laughed with a tired sigh.
“I know you wouldn’t. Come on, let’s see what we can salvage from this bastard. I managed to pull an entire core out intact.
Cat walked out of the barn, handing Jack a big cloth bag.
“That’s everything I could get. The whole one, two damaged ones and a handful of shards. Bag’s waterproof, so we shouldn't have any issues.”Bookmark here

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Lyra came through the gate, being the only one of them to actually open it. She looked around with the faintest hint of a smirk until she saw her still standing.“Wonderful, it’s dead.” She said in a slightly disappointed tone, laced with an underlying disgust. “Now we can move on to the few dozen still in the paddocks.” She looked over the five of them. The big one she didn’t know, the one that didn’t talk and had no bust, the little child they had given a gun to. That still confused her. ‘Why would they give a gun to such a small boy and make him fight? He’d be dreadfully scared, but he had followed them into the gulley…’Her emerald eyes wandered over to the object of her desires. He stood there casually, his very presence dominating the area around him, as if he were a shining beacon for her lost soul. Then she turned to face the source of her anger.

Lyra muttered under her breath “love is war...and damn it all, I'm going to win this”.Bookmark here

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