The man in black rested his elbows on his knees, head down as he struggled to catch his breath after what Derek had to admit was a somewhat extraordinary climb for a human to make. The way he'd clambered up the rocks had been nearly worthy of being a werewolf. The Cliffs of Insanity were neither forgiving nor particularly blessed of handholds; it took determination and skill to navigate them, both of which the man seemed to have in abundance. Laura would have liked him.
Had she not been murdered by the six-clawed man, that was. Which brought him back to the task at hand. She'd never been avenged if he dawdled.
Derek stood, flexing his fingers to prepare for the coming dual. "You've rested long enough."
"You've already been more than fair." Soft brown eyes looked up at him from behind the tell-tale mask of a scoundrel. He rolled his shoulders and stood, gesturing Derek toward the flatter ground away from the cliff edge. "After you."
They took their positions. Derek's sword—Laura's sword—rested light in his hand. It was a fantastic rapier, the basket delicately curled, etched with running wolves on the pommel. The man in black held his own sword a little heavier, a little lower, blade tilted at an angle that left his torso wide open. His footwork was sloppy, and his free hand drooped near his hip, far from in position to do any work blocking a blade.
Derek snorted. Amateur. It would be an easy victory. He hated it when they died too quick; it made him feel like the bad guy. "Sure you don't want to back out now? I'd hate to kill a kid."
The man grinned and bowed his head. "And I'm too pretty to die, but you know how it is." His eyes skimmed down Derek's body, paused at his knees, and then made their leisurely way back up. "I'm not the only one too pretty to die, though. Or maybe you'd prefer ruggedly handsome?"
It took a surprising amount of effort not to roll his eyes. "I'd prefer your blood on my blade. Begin."
Neither of them moved. That in and of itself was a little surprising—amateurs were usually predictable in leaping into action. Slowly, Derek paced to the side, watching as the man followed him. Maybe not so much an amateur. The first flick of his blade was easily blocked, as was the second, with a finesse that belied the weight of the weapon.
They went back and forth in silence; Derek had never been one for chit chat. His opponent's form was terrible, but somehow he kept out of the way of Derek's blade. Twists and turns, tiny pivots that barely moved him an inch were enough to keep him safe. Frustration rolled in, side by side with a grudging respect. It had been a long time since Derek had faced any sort of challenge.
But it shouldn't have been a challenge, though. He could smell the man's humanity. That alone should have made it a short and certain fight. Yet somehow, Derek stayed one step behind, his sword was a hair too slow. It made no sense.
The battle led them up a long, rocky ledge. For other men, the footing might have been precarious. For Derek, it should have been as easy to navigate as flat ground. Werewolves were surefooted and agile. But he found himself stumbling, his ankles weak, his feet not landing quite where they should. The man in black seemed to have the same problems. A few times his feet nearly slid out from under him, and only quick blade work kept the fight from coming to a swift end.
When Derek's feet neared the edge he paused, wobbling uncertainly near a long and painful fall. His vision swam at the edges. The man watched him with narrowed eyes, but made no move to force his way forward.
"Why are you doing this?" Derek finally asked, backing up as far as he dared. "What do the girls mean to you?"
"Other than the fact that one is Lydia, goddess of my soul, and bearer of all that is—"
"Yes, yes, other than that," Derek interrupted hurriedly. His heel touched on soft, crumbling dirt. He tapped his adversary's blade aside, using it as a chance to shift his weight. If he could just get a decent angle... "A woman's not worth risking your life over."
Inexplicably, the man laughed. "I'm not risking my life."
Derek blinked, then had to duck when the man took advantage of the momentary opening. "Then what are you doing?"
A wide, easy grin stretched over a youthful face. The man reached into a pouch at his hip and then lifted out a handful of dried purple flowers. "Being a decoy."
In the distance, a howl sounded. It was coming from behind them. It wasn't Derek's pack.
There was no time to dodge as his enemy threw himself forward, crushing the wolfsbane into Derek's face. He breathed in before he could stop himself. The scent clogged his nose, burned his lungs. Distantly, he felt his knees buckle.
Someone caught him before he hit the ground. "Sorry, big guy," a voice murmured in his ear. "But we couldn't have you getting in our way. How do you feel about mouth to mouth?"
The Dread Pirate Roberts Part I, also known as Scott, dodged around the giant boulders that littered the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. They weren't anything to write home about. Big, gray, and currently hurtling at his head.
The boulder shattered into a million shards of stone. A few luckier bits grazed him, but the wounds healed over almost immediately. Scott scurried to the next rock large enough to hide behind.
"Will you just hold still?" Erica demanded, hefting the next projectile in one hand. It was twice the size of her head.
"And let you kill me?" Scott asked. "I don't think that's playing fair!"
"Who said anything about fair?"
Her footsteps were loud. Sound echoed off the hills, but not enough to confuse his ears. When Scott closed his eyes and listened, he could almost pinpoint her position. "Maybe you could give fair a try? As a change of pace."
"Maybe next time." The voice got closer, to his right. Carefully, Scott edged around the boulder to keep it between them. "I don't have to kill you. I just need you out of the way for a little while." Her voice turned low and seductive, tongue twisting around the rounded vowels. "We can do this the easy way, if you want."
Scott thought of Princess Allison, her dark hair flowing in the wind as they chased one another through the woods, the bright sound of her laughter and the lightness she brought to his heart. His claws dug into the stone behind him. He took a slow, calming breath. "You're cute, but I'm kind of taken. Sorry." As he spoke, he turned and started to climb the boulder. It was worn smooth by wind and rain, but his claws and strength gave him an advantage.
Erica snorted. "I tried. That's fair, isn't it?"
As he crested the rock, he could just see the top of Erica's golden curls. "Not really."
She startled, and he took his chance, leaping down on her. Her claws came up to shield her, but they weren't fast enough. Scott dodged easily, twisting as he landed, elbow cracking against her skull. Erica cried out and reeled back, but he punched her again. Her head rocked back against one of the rocks, doubling the damage. Down she went, blood matting the side of her head.
Scott paused to make sure her wounds were healing properly. Then he howled his success, so Stiles would know the way was clear before he hurried on. He had a pair of princesses to save.
It wasn't a long run to find Matt the Sicilian Photographer. They couldn't get too far into Guilder without being captured by patrols, not even with werewolves and a Lizard Man to aid. The kidnapper sat at a well-laid table, lounging indolently with a flask of wine and two goblets. Behind him, the werewolves Isaac and Boyd cradled the limp bodies of the captive Princesses, Allison and Lydia. Only Allison's eyes flicking to him showed that they were even conscious. The reason for their paralysis stood behind Matt's shoulder, crouched down in wait. It had green scales and long claws that dripped toxins. If Scott hadn't known it used to be a man—not a good man, but a man nonetheless—he might have thought it a monster.
But no, the true monster sat with his wine and his leisure, smirking. "So, the man in black. I see you escaped my werewolves. Bravo."
Werewolves? There were more? "Not easily," Scott admitted, side-stepping the question of what happened to the other one. Hopefully Stiles took care of it. "Let the girls go and this doesn't have to go badly for you."
"For me?" Matt laughed, looking over at his werewolf companions for support. They stared back, entirely unamused, and the Photographer's laughter faded into an awkward cough. "Like I said, I'm not the one who has to worry about things going bad. You're outnumbered, outmatched and outwitted. Give up and I'll think about sparing you."
"Really?" Scott glanced over at the werewolves. "They don't look like they really want to help."
One of the werewolves, the black one, shrugged. "We're here because our alpha signed us up." Next to him, the curly-haired white one nodded.
Matt slowly turned red. "You'll do as you're told!"
Gold flashed in the werewolves eyes. They glanced at each other, then dropped the girls with loud thuds and crossed their arms. "Sure," the black one said again. "Just as soon as our alpha tells us what that is."
That left the Lizard Man who used to be Lord Jackson. Scott could probably deal with him, but he'd hate to do anything permanent. Jackson was a nice— well, he wasn't all that— it really wasn't his...
Scott just didn't want to hurt him, okay?
"Looks like your werewolves aren't keen to die today." With a swagger he thought suited to a Dread Pirate, Scott sat down on a tree stump opposite Matt. His mind raced trying to think of a way out of it. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Princess Allison is mine." Matt's hands gripped the table as he leaned forward. A sneer curled his lips. "You defeated my alpha swordsman, which means you must be exceptionally talented with a blade. And you defeated Erica, so you must be strong, even for a human. But you still have to defeat me, and my vastly superior intellect."
Vastly superior intellect. Right. "A game of wits then?"
"To the death?"
Of course. Photographers never did anything the easy way. Reaching into his pocket, Scott pulled out a small vial. He dangled it, allowing the white powder inside to shift up around the walls of the vial. "Smell this, but don't touch it."
With understandable caution, Matt reached over and took the vial. He eyed Scott warily, but popped the cork and lifted it to his nose, taking a delicate whiff. Then he shook his head. "I smell noth—"
Scott decked him before he finished the sentence. His head snapped back, and he dropped to the ground with a groan. The vial fell to the table, fine grains of white spreading out over the linen. "That's because it's salt." Scott looked back over his shoulder at the two presiding werewolves. Jackson had scurried up a tree and was watching with dead eyes that, really, were the most recognizably Jackson part of him since the transformation. "Either of you want to fight?"
They both shook their heads. "We didn't sign up for this," the curly haired one said. "We just wanted a paycheck."
Reaching over the table, Scott rooted around in Matt's bags and pulled out a pouch that was heavy with coins. He weighed it thoughtfully, then tossed it over. "There's your pay. Now go."
"Not just yet."
Turning at the voice, Scott saw another werewolf limping along, supported by his own best friend. "Stiles!"
"What? I shoved wolfbane in his face, I couldn't just leave him." The wolf, he assumed, had to be the alpha. His arm was slung over Stiles' shoulder. Stiles' arm should have been around his waist, but it never reappeared after going behind his back. And, when Scott looked closer, there were definitely some signs of stubble burn. "He wants to help. Something about trouble magnets."
"I have to find the six clawed man." The alpha shrugged. "You look like the kind of idiots who would stumble on him, so we might as well go along with you."
Scott looked between Stiles and the alpha, then sighed. He knew that look. "Fine, whatever. But what now?"
"Now you had better start paying attention to us." Princess Lydia, the supposed light of Stiles' life, etc etc, groaned and tried to sit up. The paralysis still hadn't worn off yet, though, so all she could do was give a small heave and then fall back to the ground. "I can't see what happened, but I hope you didn't kill the little bastard, because I want to do it. Do you have any idea what this gown cost?"
"I think he's still alive," Princess Allison reported, straining her eyes. Her bosom heaved as she fought her way upright, showing a little more success than Lydia. "At least, his leg's twitching."
Looking down, Scott saw Matt's eyes start to open. Hurriedly, he kicked him back into unconsciousness. "Anyone have some rope?"