Chapter 11:

Impromptu Proposal

The Bushranger's Bayonet


Lyra sighed, Pulling her dress out and looking down.
Around her neck sat a small ring on a silver chain.
Her last gambit.
Jack was going to be hers and this humble piece of jewelry would be the linchpin in the plan. All he has to do is pick it up.
She chuckled under her breath as her mare led them to the infested paddock.Bookmark here

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Slimes.
Too many slimes.
Slimes as far as the eye can see.
There must have been at least a hundred of the fucking things in the paddock.
“This is the only infested paddock, right?” Connie queried.
“I-I think so, yes.” Came Lyra’s uncertain reply. Her nerve was slipping. Mara silently laughed as she brooded at the rear of the group.
“Looks like we’re going to be knee-deep in the slime for the rest of today. We don’t have enough ammo to take this down from a distance.” Jack noted, a hint of annoyance in his voice. He was already covered in slime from the dozen or so they’d fought earlier, but the prospect of killing ten times more wasn’t helping him any.
Cat, reaching to her waist, grabbed her bayonet out for seemingly the first time and affixed it to her rifle. With a couple of quick motions, it was on and the scope was in a padded pouch on her belt.
“I don’t wanna ruin my optics.”
Connie snorted. “Don’t need any if your eyes are good enough.”
“Your maximum range is fifteen feet, not fifteen-hundred” Cat shot back.
A brief pause, then laughter. It seemed like their previous professional distance was shrinking a bit. A softer smile found its way onto Mara’s face, replacing the malicious glee that had once occupied that spot.
Arthur didn’t seem too bothered by the work. He hovered around Jack’s legs like a lost puppy, rifle ready to go. Jack smiled, ruffling Arthur’s hair affectionately. It seemed to Mara that he’d obviously developed an affection for the boy, seeing him more as a young sibling and less as another bushranger to bolster the school. She made a sudden grunt of frustration.
‘Focus, Mara, FOCUS’
First the job, then the bitch.Bookmark here

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Jack looked into his pouch for any concoctions.
In the small pouch of vials he had, there were a few healing elixirs, one antitoxin/antivenin hybrid that could keep him alive for long enough to be treated, one vision enhancer and one strength enhancer. He gingerly took the vial out of his pouch. “Bottoms up.” He muttered, swigging it all in one go. ‘Looks like the next few days are going to be foraging. Most of this shit is either unknown to locals or bloody useless to them.’
Whatever happened now, this job needed to be done.
“Alright, there’s about a hundred of these things. If we stick together, all pull our weight, and watch each other, we’ll have this place clean by sundown.”Bookmark here

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Lyra started to stew, pulling on the reins of her trusty mare and heading for a nearby tree. There wasn’t much she could do when there were monsters nearby, lacking weapons or any kind of fighting skills. Her book, borrowed from her father’s small library, had some interesting facts in it.
The bushrangers of today still retain remnants of the mutations that characterized their ancient roots, though to a much lesser degree. Rather than being many major changes that severely alter the body, today’s bushrangers are almost completely human. What sets them apart is their slightly more acute senses, a moderate resistance to toxins, increased muscle density, as well as stronger bones. Even if a bushranger looks weedy, do not doubt their strength.Bookmark here

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Jack checked the magazine, topping off one bullet.
“Let’s get to work. Connie, you take the lead and we’ll fan out behind you.”
He nodded, breaking his shotgun open to replace the shells within. Snapping the gun shut and replacing it on his belt, Connie grabbed his claymore.
Cat drifted over to his left side, her bayonet looking almost absurd on the end of her already long rifle.
Jack took up position on his right, with Arthur next to him on the edge.
Mara sighed under her breath, taking up a position on the far left next to Cat.Bookmark here

With a nod from Jack, Connie began to make his way forward. This was going to be a gooey slog from start to finish.
Cat looked up at the sky; by her estimate, it was about midday. This job would not be finished until sundown at the earliest. Bookmark here

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Arthur, pulling away from the group, found something curious. This slime wasn’t the typical faceless spheroid of goo. This one had a teardrop shape, black button eyes, a short snout, a black nose, and ears like a dog.
“Slime dog?”
No, that didn't sound right.
“Goo dog?”
No, that wasn’t it either.
“Dogoo!”
He put his rifle down and gingerly held out his hand. The creature sniffed it before licking it.
“Aren’t you cute? Who’s a cute little dogoo?”
Within seconds, tendrils of slime hand erupted from the beast, wrapping him in an instant. With a distant crack, the creature exploded, it’s non-slime parts flying off in different directions. Mara pulled him up before seeing the parts.
“These might come in handy, heh he.”Bookmark here

Mara intended to put those to very good use. Now that the opportunity was sticking out at her, all she needed was a dingo pelt and some orange dye. One wouldn’t be hard to get, the other could be hunted in the bush. Oh yes, this little project was going to be extremely rewarding…Bookmark here

Lyra looked over the top of her book, pulling her dress further down over her legs. No reason to hike it up now, that would be improper for a lady and would serve no purpose. No, Now was the time for planning. Taking the silver chain off her neck, she held it out in front of her.
On it hung a Slim silver ring, embedded with a small emerald.
“Don’t worry mother, I’ll make you proud.”Bookmark here

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Cat wasn’t used to this kind of combat. Though she was trained in it and could do it well, she almost never needed to use it. The wraith that she is, close quarters was never something her enemies got the chance to try. Her jumpsuit was covered in slime and her rifle was slick in her hands.
“Keep em busy while I fix this.”
Sliding to the rear of the group, Cat shouldered her rifle temporarily to take off her gloves. They help keep her visibility down and her hands clean, but they also reduce her grip. Ripping them off in frustration, they were stuffed into an empty pouch on her leg. Grabbing her rifle once more, she wiped some slime off the upper portion.
“Alright, back to work.”Bookmark here

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Connie’s blade was coated with a thick film of goo.
His shotgun, though used sparingly, had splatters of its own all along its relatively short length. The stretch of paddock behind the group lay strewn with slimy lumps and shattered cores. Even when being conservative with his shells, at least a dozen lay on the ground, often seen amongst the largest piles of slime. Signs of a desperate struggle hours before. He looked up at the sky.
By his estimate, it was mid-afternoon.
But, there was still more to do.Bookmark here

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Sundown.
The blue sky had been dyed a bloodstained crimson, laced with purple tendrils.
Slime.
Strewn across the paddock like an otherworldly battlefield were the remnants of the slime army that had once occupied the paddock.Bookmark here

Lyra closed her book, the ring still tucked into her dress. Quickly hiding the leather tome in a saddle bag, she led her mare over to the edge of the paddock.
“Well done. Father will be very pleased.” She projected, the slight annoyed edge creeping out of her diplomatic tone ever so slightly.
“Please allow me to extend an invitation on his behalf to dine with us tonight as thanks for such an excellent job. I shall ride ahead to let him know. Follow this track back to the manor. You can clean yourselves up before dinner when you arrive.”Bookmark here

As she rode off, Lyra knew that this plan was risky. Her father was a kind man, but his suspicion of Bushrangers was quite pervasive. He didn’t approve of her interest in them, only seeing them as dirty hunters and morally bankrupt outlaws. Even her beloved book was against his wishes. Bookmark here

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As Lyra walked her horse into the little stable out the back of their house, her father was there to greet her on the porch.
“Where are the bushrangers? Did they get killed?”
“No father, I’ve ridden ahead to inform you that I have invited them to dinner as thanks.”
He shot up in surprise. “Are you daft girl? You want to dine with those unkempt beasts?” He groaned in frustration. By inviting them on his behalf, she’d painted him into a corner. In his mind, it had been indeed him that invited them because it was his daughter who invited them on behalf of the house and therefore him. As the head of a ‘noble and respectable’ household, he had to honour it or reject his hard-won status as a gentleman.
“Alright then. Please inform the cook and the maids. We’ll need all three of them if we’re gonna pull this off.”
He gave Lyra a stern look.
“You owe me for this Lyra. When this is over, you’re going to have a husband ready to take you.”
Lyra walked past him into the house, her sundress sweeping air behind her.
She muttered under her breath.
“Don’t worry father, I intend to.”Bookmark here

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Dusk.
The edge of twilight.
As the crickets began to chirp and the darkness hung thick around the trees, five bushrangers arrived at the back porch of the Darren estate manor once again. Covered in mud and slime, they were worn out by the trudge back.
To Jack's confusion, and Mara’s relief, they weren’t greeted at the door by Lyra, but by a young maid.
“Welcome. Please wipe your feet and come inside. The master has ordered that a bath be drawn up for you to clean before supper.”
She was demure and rather dumpy, having to look up to see Cat, which Jack found odd.
Bushrangers, though trending toward the tall side, tended to be of average height. Cat was rather short, even by normal standards.
Jack was looking down a bit too far, his eyes wandering down to the maid’s large chest.
This earned him a punch in the side from Mara.
The maid giggled before her eyes shot wide and she took a big step back. It was funny until it dawned on her that these cute antics were happening between a pair of professional monster slayers, armed to the teeth and very dangerous.
“F-follow me p-p-please.”
The maid’s face went as pale as her apron as she pushed a pair of rusty, oversized, round glasses up her nose. Spinning around and heading off in a frightened hurry, her dress swishing with every movement, the five of them followed.
Going through the halls and into a large bathroom, two warm tubs of soapy water had been prepared for them, with a dividing screen between them.
“Should you want your clothes ready by dinner, place them in the basket on the floor there” she spoke softly, pointing to a rough wicker basket that sat next to the end of the dividing curtain, visible from both sides.
Without a word, she slipped past the bushrangers in the doorway and bolted down the hall, skidding as she turned around the corner.
“Well she was nice.” Jack noted.
“You were staring at her tits.” Mara retorted.
“It’s better to take note of everything than miss a single detail. Uncle Peter drilled that into us, if you recall.” His voice dropped in a slightly combative manner.
“That wasn’t the detail you needed to focus on though. You’ve had tits on the brain all day.” Mara took another glance at the bathroom.
“Oh fuck me.”Bookmark here

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‘I wouldn’t be opposed to it…’
That was what eventually came through Jack’s mind as he removed his gear and clothing. Throughout his life, he’d considered Mara as somewhere between his rival, sister, and best friend. She’d always been there. To kick him down when he was competing, to pick him up when he was struggling, at his side on the hunt, and at his back in a pinch. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed her behaviour. Undoing her shirt buttons and hitching up her skirt were well outside the norm for her and he knew it.
As Jack sat scrubbing himself, his mind became a prison for his own awareness. A cube of mirrors all facing inwards and he was the light.
Jack had never seen Mara in that way, but with this change in behaviour, he had begun to consider.
‘Me and Mara? It’s ludicrous, but not unusual. I remember hearing stories of the old monster hunters having affairs with members of royal families. After women started to pop up in the guild, encounters, relationships, and even outright marriages weren’t uncommon until the last few centuries. Once the whole sterility part of mutation was eventually eradicated, children wholly raised within the guild were almost normal. The fact there were currently no children on The Farm was a sign of the Dingo school’s decline.
‘It’s because of the Royal Army and the crown prosecuting us. Too many good bushrangers die at the end of a rope and not in the jaws of a beast or the arms of their comrades as they should.Bookmark here

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Mara’s mood was fairly mixed as she stripped down for cleaning. On one hand, Lyra was losing the battle, but on the other, Jack had gone back to where he was before. She’d been on the defence for the entire time, trying to maintain the status quo instead of getting her desired outcome. Her mind wandered around her insecurities until she saw Cat’s belts and guns hit the ground. This was going to be the first time she’d actually gotten a good look at the mysterious ghosts figure. Mara knew for a fact that Cat was on the smaller side, but wasn’t sure how much. As clothing hit the floor, her body was revealed. Bookmark here

Mara looked her up and down. Turns out that Cat wasn’t nearly as harmless to her ambitions as she thought. Though small, she had rather shapely, perky breasts and a high and tight rear.
“What’s wrong? Is there something stuck to me?” Cat asked coolly. Mara turned away in embarrassment. “N-no. It’s nothing.”
She thought for a second, looking for an opportunity.
“Need any help with your back?” She queried, turning around. Cat nodded. “There’s one spot on my back I can never get to and my shoulder’s a bit sore from the rifle recoil. I think I need new padding on the rifle butt.” Cat turned around on the stool she sat on. “Go ahead.”
Mara had her opening. Pulling up another stool, she sat behind Cat and scrubbed her lower back. As her hands touched Cat’s back, Mara could feel the muscle beneath her skin. Though it wasn’t as evident on the surface as it was for the rest of the group, she definitely had the same as the rest. Mara began to scrub, examining Cat with the same eye she would track a target. With Lyra actively gunning for Jack, she couldn’t help but see threats everywhere. Cat had a decently smaller waist than her, but her legs were thinner as well. She had a silent grace and deathly aura that Mara couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of. Cat had the presence of both a dignified lady and a ruthless killer, when she had a presence at all. Mara had the presence of a killer but none of the grace, instead replacing it with something less dignified. Finishing up the scrub with a splash of water, she moved onto Cat’s right shoulder. Examining from the side, it was visibly bruised. “Yikes, that’s gotta hurt. Your rifle is pretty big.”
“It’s a bit painful, yes, but nothing I can’t just live with” came her typically emotionless response. Mara took this chance to get a more up-close look at Cat’s chest. By her estimate, it was about 40% the size of hers. No contest whatsoever. As long as she didn’t actively go after Jack, she wasn’t a threat. As she massaged Cat’s shoulder, Mara brought up what Cat thought was a strange topic. “That Lyra is an interesting character, don’t you think?” Mara talked in a low whisper so as to not be heard on the other side of the screen.
“Rather strange too. She’s clearly behaving strangely when we’re around. Not to mention your strange behaviour.” Her voice had no tonal change whatsoever, but the implication didn’t go unnoticed.
“I assume you can deduce on your own what is going on. You’ll see what happens to her in due course.” A hint of menace crept into Mara’s voice that wasn’t there before.
“The next woman to put me in such a position won’t be nearly as lucky as her. Keep that in the back of your mind.” Cat’s eyes shot wide as she put all the facts together. “I see you’ve put two and two together.” The message was clear. Mara let go of Cat’s shoulder and began to rinse off. Their clothes had been hastily scrubbed and shoved through the door. She wrapped a towel around herself and went to recover her clothes.Bookmark here

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The five of them, now scrubbed clean, were ushered into the dining room. Mister Darren was already there, In a dinner jacket and pants, not looking entirely pleased with himself as he stood by the fire with a pipe in his mouth. As he turned towards the opening door, a false smile slid onto his face. “Welcome! Thank you for coming.” He held out for a handshake. Jack took his hand. It was the firm handshake of a man trying to perform under severe pressure. Pointing at a low table in the corner, he smiled and said “You can leave your weapons there. No need to be heavily armed at the supper table.” One by one, they filed over to the small table and placed their weapons on it. Notably, there were only three revolvers on the table. Jack wore his pistol on his belt, and his holster was visibly empty. His short-barrel was there, as well as a similar full-length revolver belonging to Cat. Arthur, being the last to strip his gear, had placed his entire belt on the table along with his rifle. His revolver sat still in the holster that would normally be on his hip, still loaded with the bullets that the now-dead Danny had once loaded into its chambers. The five of them sat down, all on the same side of the table. Cat sat nearest to Mr Darren, with Connie, Arthur, Mara, and Jack in order away from him. After a minute, Lyra walked in. She wore a red dress with sleeves down to her elbows, met by a pair of pink satin velvet gloves. The top was cut low and lined with a matching pink frill that outlined her exposed shoulders and upper breasts. Mara noticed that the frills down the front nearest her breasts did not line up or were very sloppily stitched to line up with the rest of the frill. Evidence of a hasty alteration.
‘That bitch. She cut it down while we were coming back to get his attention.’
To Mara’s annoyance, and Jack’s muted delight, she sat directly across from him. Mara growled under her breath, staring at Lyra, daring her to move. She acted innocent, folding her hands onto her lap like a proper lady but leaning forward ever so slightly. Mara saw that she was moving her arms slightly to pull the neck of her dress outwards. Her father didn’t seem to be pleased with anything. He sat at the head of the table with a fake smile and the dull glint of muted disdain sparking in his eyes. It’d be funny if this wasn’t so awkward. Cat broke the silence by softly placing a semi translucent glass object onto the hardwood table. “I pulled a few of the whole from a few of the beasts we killed. This, the large amounts of slime debris and your daughter’s eyewitness account should be more than sufficient to prove our success. I believe the reward was five hundred pounds for clearing the entire property.”
He gave a microscopic sigh through visibly gritted teeth. “Yes, I did put that on the notice. I wasn’t expecting five of you to show up. Your kind have worked alone for millennia, so I thought four hundred would be sufficient compensation.” With the understatement of the problem on the notice and the inflated reward amount, it was clear that this whole job was not being conducted in good faith from the start. “I apologize, but I haven’t the coin to hand for any higher price.” His eyes darted between the five of them nervously as he scratched his nose. Cat nodded.
“Understandable. A group of our size, and dare I say skill, is rather rare.” She effortlessly slid in a small piece of self praise but didn’t aim it specifically at herself.
He gritted his teeth. “This dinner is the least I could do to compensate you. Lyra certainly thinks you did well, don’t you dear?” He glared daggers at Lyra, making it almost painfully clear what his true thoughts on the occasion were.
Jack chuckled. “It was a big job, but it wasn’t too far from the ordinary. Something we wouldn’t ever have trouble with.”Bookmark here

The tension in the room was palpable, to the point where it could be cut with the swing of a bayonet. Mr Darren’s words were hollow, saturated with disgusted contempt for the five of them. Nobody was ignorant of the fact that only one person wanted to be here, in this room. Lyra smirked, putting her elbows on the table and resting her chin on the backs of her hands, looking Jack dead in the eyes with a longing stare that almost made him blush. Mara wasn’t happy at all. Shoving her disgust back down her throat, she turned to Mr Darren. “May I ask what’s for dinner tonight?”
He gave a fake chuckle before dropping the smile entirely.
“Salmon steaks with mixed roast vegetables and a garlic cream sauce.”
Lyra piped up. “I’m not usually a fan of fish, but It’s fine with a creamy sauce. I’m sure as a man you love a fishy smell, especially with cream.” She raised one eyebrow slightly to accentuate her suggestive smirk. Mara brought her hand up to her mouth to conceal the quiet gagging. Cat and Connie sat perfectly silent. Arthur looked between Lyra, Jack and Mara before turning to Connie. “What are they talking about?”
Connie chuckled before his face turned to stone. “Kid, ya don’t wanna know…”
Mr Darren pulled at his collar in discomfort. He didn’t like this any more than the rest of them. Jack was so red in the face it looked like he had been splattered with fresh blood. Even the target wasn’t happy. Lyra began to drool slightly before shooting up and hiding her embarrassed face as she wiped the drool away with a napkin. “Pardon my tongue.”
The tension came back, now thicker than ever.
Mr Darren muttered under his breath “No lady would ever speak like that.” He didn’t say it out loud, not wanting to embarrass himself any more. Lyra kept staring at Jack over the rough cotton napkin, giggling into it when he smiled slightly. Bookmark here

Mara couldn’t handle it anymore. She stood up, walked around the table and headed for the door nearest Lyra’s seat.
Mara leaned into Lyra as she left the room. “Count the number of pistols on the table. Count the number of bushrangers at the table. Notice anything off? Keep that in mind when making your next move.”
The implications immediately wiped the smirk off of Lyra’s face. This being the most dire as well as the most substantial threat didn’t escape her. If she kept pushing, Her father would lose the last piece left of his family. Thinking about what would happen to her father was almost as scary as being threatened by a trained killer. Mara stormed off in a huff, her stomping gradually faded before getting louder again. She popped back through the door frame with the same expression she left with. “Forgot my gun.” Grabbing her rifle and removing the bayonet, she slung it over her shoulder, making a show of sheathing the miniature sword that usually sat below its barrel before storming off once again. After a minute, the front door closed with a loud bang.Bookmark here

Jack hung his head slightly. It was painfully obvious to him that his bad behaviour had driven a wedge into the group. One that could threaten to ruin the friendship he’s known seemingly forever. Jack sat there, debating in his head. Had she gone? Where would she go? Did she just leave to set up an ambush? Was she gone for good? These thoughts built up for a minute before he got up and walked over to grab his guns off the table.
Arthur stood up before Connie put a giant hand on his tiny shoulder. “Don’t stop him. This is something grown-ups have to do.” Jack walked over to the table, grabbing his guns and heading for the hallway. Lyra jumped out of her seat in a panicked fashion, tripping over her heels slightly as her dress billowed behind her. Jack rounded the corner and began to stride down the hall.
“Wait!” Lyra shouted, grabbing Jack’s hand. “Don’t go after her, I want you to stay here with me.” Jack turned around, a solemn expression on his face. “I have to go. She’s my friend. I can’t just let her leave like that.” He sighed. “I might’ve just broken the most precious thing in my life just now.”
Jack hung his head in sadness. “I need to do this.”
Lyra saw her chance.
She strode closer, stepped up on her toes and grabbed his shoulders, wrapping her legs around his waist. “I love you, Jack. I want you to take me with you. Sweep me off my feet and into the great unknown.” Grabbing his cheeks, she planted her lips on his.
Jack didn’t respond.
This had never happened to him before. Nobody had actually kissed him, for as long as he could remember. She pulled back for a second. “Marry me, please. Take me away from my father so we can spend the rest of our days together exploring this beautiful world.” She shuffled one arm off of his neck and produced the ring. “Here. All you need to do is slide it onto my finger and I’m yours forever.” He turned his head away, not wanting to look the beautiful woman who’d latched onto him in the eyes. “I can’t. I have my work, I have my family, I have my place. You wouldn’t want to be with me if you saw what it was really like…”
“I don’t care, I’d be with you and I’d be free. We could be so happy together.”
“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face her ever again, I couldn’t face the rest of my own family. We make a lot of sacrifices for the job we do and get little more than our coin in reward. I’m not giving up what little I have for you, nor should you sacrifice your life here for what we do.”
Lyra gripped him tighter, her pantyhose tearing in multiple places with the effort. “I’m giving up everything too! I’ll leave my life behind and become just like you!”
He chuckled sadly. “I’ve spent my entire life to get where I am. It’s not worth it…” He peeled her off of his body, gently setting Lyra down onto her shaky feet before turning around and striding for the door. As it slammed shut behind him, Lyra fell to her knees sobbing.
The silver ring hit the floorboards with a faint pinging.Bookmark here

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When he ran out of the door, Jack saw Mara sitting on the porch in a rather poor mood. In her left hand she held the hilt of her trusted bayonet; In her right was the whetstone she’d carried since she was twelve. Her go-to calming ritual had always been sharpening her bayonet since that incident during training.
“Where’s your new fiancé?” She said sarcastically, eyes not leaving her whetstone. The scraping of silver punctuated her speech.
“You heard all that?” Jack replied in a slight panic. He looked around in a slight panic, trying not to look at her.
It was then he noticed the wet patch in the dirt. Small and topped with frothy foam. Mara had spat in disgust at what she’d heard. In his emotional maelstrom, Jack had forgotten about the enhanced senses of his own kind.
“Oh… Right.” He hung his head from all the stupidity-induced guilt.
“Yeah, right.” Mara replied with a toxic sarcasm that betrayed her obvious disgust.
“Look, I’m sorry about what I’ve done. I let my dick do the thinking and the contract fell by the side. I’m an idiot, will you forgive me?”
She sighed, standing up and sheathing her bayonet at the small of her back as if it were a shortsword.
“We’ll see.” Her tone was neutral with a slightly teasing tone that filled Jack with a renewed sense of intrigue.
‘What was going on with her?’
This thought was halted by the creaking of the door. Turning around, he saw Connie emerge, followed by Arthur and Cat, holding a rough cloth bag full of jangling coins.
“We took our money and left. No sense staying here now.”
Jack chuckled, his exhausted defeat evident in his eyes.
“How about we go get ourselves some dinner?”
He chuckled as he headed off into the bush after Mara.Bookmark here

♠️ShadeRider♠️
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