The trees were thick with foliage, a significant rebirth after the brutal winter season. Only a few rays of sunlight penetrated the canopy of the forest, littering the dirt path below with small patches of light that danced as a breeze rustled the trees above. It wasn't often that more than a handful of people were in these woods at a time, being that the paths not well lined, and it was more of a maze than a nice place to stroll. At this moment, though, a dozen bandits were walking through, each in a similarly grumpy mood.

"Well, that could have gone better," one of the men announced sarcastically, pulling on his short blonde ponytail.

"Shut up, Logan," another grumbled, hand clenched tightly around his mahogany bow.

"Now, Ashton, tell me, weren't you the one who came up with this ingenious plan for us all to hit different spots in the city at once?" Logan questioned, faking interest. "I seem to recall that…"

Ashton glared at him, brown eyes narrowed. "Shut. Up."

Logan reached over, ruffling Ashton's brown hair. "Don't worry, kid. Can't have both looks and brains. The rest of us couldn't do much better. We'll just have to leave the planning to your brother from now on."

"Do you want to die?" asked another man, holding a chair. "After letting all those guards live, I'm feeling a little anxious."

"I've got it, Fox," Ashton nodded his thanks. "Look, Logan, if you want to follow my brother, be my guest. He's always looking for someone new to kiss his ass."

The blond man gave them a dirty look, then moved ahead to the front of the group. Ashton fell back next to his friend, who said, "It's no fun to mess with the crazies. Which he has to be if he thinks your brother is anything but a psychopath."

Ashton shrugged. "I did mess up today. It was a stupid plan."

"You didn't mess up, they messed up. We did fine."

He glanced at his friend, smirking. "You're only saying that because you got another chair."

"And that makes it a good day. Of course, it'd be an even better day if I could take off a few of Logan's fingers…" Balancing the chair against his shoulder, he reached for his sheath. Fox's dark green eyes widened in panic. "My sword…I forgot my sword."

Ashton frowned. "What?"

Shoving the chair into Ashton's hands, he explained. "There was so much chaos going on that after I picked my chair, I forgot to get my sword. I have to go back and get it. I'll meet you back at the hideout."

"Fox!" the younger bandit called after him, but Fox wasn't listening. Making his way over fallen trees, he scurried back towards the town center. Luckily for him, the furniture store was on the edge of the forest, and seemed to be unguarded since everyone was still in the middle of town, arguing with the guards about the fantastic job they had done in protecting their items.

The items in this store really were exceptionally well made. Everything was hand-carved by the owner or his sons, and made of the best wood there was. Unlike other carpenters, this one made all of his furniture one of a kind, unique and special. It was Fox's favorite place to steal from. In fact, he had stolen many a chair from this very room.

Near the window that served as a display case lay his sword. To many it would just seem like a regular long sword, but it was the sword he had been weaned on. Kneeling next to it, he used one hand to pick it up, the other bunching his shirt in order to clean the sword off, including the dark green stone at the end of the hilt. Before he could slide it into his sheath, someone blocked the light from the window, creating a shadow that loomed over him. Based on the thin shape of the shadow, as well as the quiet voice that told him, "Don't move," as they rested their blade at back of his neck, he quickly guessed who it was.

Very slowly, he moved away from the blade, turning over on to his back so he could look up at General Emerald Silver. "Hello. Fancy meeting you here."

Her sword tip found a spot at the base of his throat, urging him to stand. "Hard to imagine, isn't it?"

He stood halfway between the light of the sun and the darkness of the shadows, tightening his hold on his newly recovered sword. She stood in front of him, eyes hard as the stones of her namesake, the sunlight at her back casting shadows over her complexion. That was the fun part of this job-walking the razor-thin edge between the hunter and the hunted.

She swung her sword in a silent arc, chestnut ponytail following the move, which he dodged neatly for having so little warning. Fox brought up his long sword, adjusting his grip on the weapon. With a repositioning of her sword in her right hand, Emerald bent down to butterfly kick Fox's feet out from under him, drawing a small dagger from her left boot with her left hand, and throwing it at him.

Fox jumped, evading the kick and brought his own sword around and down to connect with the smaller blade, brushing his unruly mahogany hair out of his eyes. "Trying to bring me down to your level, Silver?"

"Not at all, Beluve." She dodged the next swing he attempted, bringing her sword up to meet his. Balancing her sword in a forward push against his, Emerald took her left hand off her sword. A small secret knife appeared in her left hand, having fallen down from her sleeve, and she swung her hands towards his face, "but since we don't see eye to eye…"

Fox ducked and rolled, breaking away from their brief sword-to-sword contest. As much as he hated to concede points to Silver in this fight, he would also rather keep his eye, thank-you-very-much. Before he fully regained his footing, though, he pulled one of her moves and aimed his legs to sweep her off her feet.

The general recognized his attack move even before he made it, and threw her sword over his head to land behind him. When he went down to butterfly kick her off her feet, she jumped up, using his shoulders as a place to firmly plant her hands and flipped over his head, landing gracefully behind him where her sword was, leaning on the hilt. "You'll have to do better than that, Beluve."

"Sticks and stones. I'm still warming up." Fox took this opportunity to take a step back and prepare himself again, going back to his usual tactic of out-waiting his opponent and breaking the offensive against him with a well-timed counter strike. He held his sword at the ready in his right hand, his entire body tensed to react and strike, dark green eyes watching her every move.

Emerald let her hand dangle near the hilt of her sword, ready for his next attack to come. He watched her steadily, waiting for the small movement that would start-and, if either of them wasn't careful, end-this battle. He took her measure, gauging her stance and expression with the thoroughness of an artist preparing their canvas. He weighed his findings against past skirmishes and their outcomes-the memories were long and plentiful. This took no time at all, and Fox had come to a decision before she could grow restless.

He switched sword hands.

She did nothing in response to this change except smirk. Rule one was to never let your opponent read your emotions. If you were surprised, keep your cool. Emerald moved both of her hands to sit on top of the hilt, leaning her chin on top of her hands. That way, she could use either hand for swordplay and pull a dagger with the other. Grinning, she scuffed her toe on the floor lightly, letting the particles of dust fly up.

Her grin brought out a like response on his face, although it was slight and sharp, like the blades that hovered between them. When her foot moved, he took a step along the imaginary circle that contained them, a balance of steel and iron determination in his poise. After all, one thing had been proven true through the years. Nobody out-waited Fox Beluve when he put his mind to the task.

It seemed that his instincts were dead on, as Emerald wasn't as patient as the bandit. Before his brain processed the attack, she swung her sword up, slicing through the arm of his white tunic. Fox came up to block, pushing her back. While he wasn't much taller than General Silver, and had a lean frame, he was a lot stronger than people considered him. Luckily for Emerald, she knew that, breaking away before he could completely overpower her.

As he regained his footing, she ran her sword across his midsection, slicing a shallow cut across his abdomen. Fox looked at the blood staining his crisp white shirt in disbelief before swinging his long blade towards her legs. Emerald jumped too slowly, allowing him to slice a gash in the side of her shin. She winced as she landed hard, then fell, trying to test how much weight her leg could hold. Switching hands again, he circled in, giving her only the smallest amount of time to bring her sword up to block.

His weight pressed down on her, pressure keeping her shoulders pinned to the stone floor. While he focused on keeping her arms down, her left foot found his stomach, pushing him off of her. This gave her just enough time to scramble to her feet as he got over the searing pain spreading from his torso to other parts of his body from her actions. Fox knew that meeting hilt-to-hilt would give him the advantage; he was still stronger than her, and she couldn't brace herself as well with that bad leg.

In order to use this tactic, he needed her in one place. That, however, wasn't working well, as the general was faster than he was, dodging blows and deftly avoiding the spilt blood. She used the furniture to her advantage, slipping under tables and dodging behind chairs, knowing he'd never damage the fine workmanship.

Eventually she was backed into a corner, his right hand holding the sword that kept hers immobilized. As he saw a glint of metal from her left side, he quickly changed hands yet again, letting the now free arm take the brunt of the knife she had recovered. Ignoring the pain searing through it, he wrapped his left arm around her right, wrenching her sword from her hands. It flew through the air momentarily until he stepped back enough to catch it in right hand, disregarding the blood that was trickling to the floor.

She watched in frozen shock as he made a few stabs at nothing with her blade. "This is nice, you know," he commented, not showing any signs of being in pain. "I can see why you like it." Holding the hilt solidly, he threw it straight up in the air, where it buried itself in one of the roof's wood beams. Sheathing his own sword, he swept a bow. "Silver, you know I would love to stay and play, but I have places to be. I'm sure I'll see you later."

With his farewell address given, he hurried out the back door of the shop, towards the forest. It seemed that Emerald had gotten over her surprise as he heard a loud cry of rage and suddenly daggers were flying past his form, hitting trees on either side of him. For a brief moment, he was filled with a mixture of relief and pride as he disappeared into the woodland, all but overcoming the pain from his wounds.

Though as the adrenaline rush faded, Fox couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of sorrow.

When Ashton entered the hideout, he was quickly intercepted by Kegan, who insisted, "Damon's having a meeting. He says everyone has to be there in three minutes."

Knowing that bringing Fox's chair to the meeting would just give his brother a reason to rant longer, he lazily walked to his friend's quarters, leaving it in the middle of his room. The pocket watch he had stolen that day said that he had some time before he made his way to the conference room.

Damon Hydral was sitting at the head of a long table, surveying the room with his dark brown eyes, black hair swept across his forehead to the left. Being one of the last people in the room, Ashton took a seat in the back. The door closed behind him as he folded his arms across his chest, tapping his elbow impatiently with one finger. "Let's just get this stupid meeting over with," he muttered under his breath.

Rising from his chair, Damon approached Ashton, standing next to his spot in the room. His older brother's eyes seemed to lock on to him, lips widening in a smirk. "Ashton, you're late."

Ashton bristled, staring up at him. "I am not. I'm exactly on time. You need a new watch."

Damon glared, lips twisting into a scowl. "Ashton, you're late. Why don't you try setting your watch to the right time? Then you might be correct for once, little brother."

The younger Hydral opened his mouth to argue, but managed to keep his temper in check, if not his mouth. "So, what're we here for, anyway?" he snapped.

Slowly making his way to the front of the room, he reclaimed his throne, looking at the few dozen other bandits. "I hear there was some sort of mayhem in the town today. Does someone want to explain that?"

All the men who had been in town earlier turned their heads toward Ashton, who fingered his collar. "Well, I thought that if a group of us all went in at once, we could get a large bounty."

"You thought? Well, that's an interesting new development," Damon mused, folding his hands on the table. "And how did that go?"

"…Not so well…" Ashton admitted.

"Oh? And why is that?"

"You see, what had happened was that the, um, guards were all having lunch together in the middle of the square," he coughed.

Damon nodded slowly. "People, this is example of what happens when you come up with a stupid plan and execute it poorly." Turning back to his brother, he asked, "Ashton, have you got any more remarkably un-useful ideas?"

Ashton scowled. "Just say what you have to say."

"From this point on, there is going to be a schedule for going in to town," Damon said harshly. "If you don't get on the schedule, you don't get anything and that will be your problem."

"That's stupid," Ashton interjected.

Raising one black eyebrow, Damon surveyed his brother. "Excuse me? The boy who almost got a dozen people killed is calling my plan stupid?"

"The Shadow Dragons aren't supposed to back down after a little mishap," he continued. "We should get right back in there and let them know they can't intimidate us. What about the suggestion that we kidnap the princess? Whatever happened to that?"

Damon scowled. "You mean the private suggestion I mentioned in passing? Won't work. She's too heavily guarded." At that moment, the door opened and Fox snuck in, leaning against the wall casually. "Beluve, you're late," the leader snapped, glaring at Ashton as if it was his fault.

"Nice excuse. You know, Damon, I'd like to see things from your point of view but I can't seem to get my head that far up my ass. What are you going to say next? Stealing is too tough, we may get caught?" Ashton scoffed.

Pulling a knife out from under his chair, Damon laid it gently on the table, handsome features twisted in his displeasure. "Well, make this easy. Let's vote. And the ones that don't vote get stabbed." He grinned cruelly. "Now that's democracy.

"So, anyone who wants to go with my idiot brother's plan where we'll surely get our asses handed to us by General Silver and her friends please raise their hands." Out of the almost forty men in the room, only Ashton and Fox dared to raise their hands. "Now, all of those who want to do what I say and save yourselves from not only pain but ridicule, and wait for someone with an active brain to come up with a decent plan, raise your hands." The rest of the people in that room raised their hands, making Damon smile. "Sorry, little brother. Majority rules. Dismissed."

Ashton sat in his chair, giving himself a few seconds to brood. When almost everyone had cleared up, he rose and headed towards the door. Damon grabbed his arm before he could leave. "From now on, I'd appreciate it if you didn't bring up private ideas. Especially ones that you weren't supposed to hear in the first place."

"You learn more if you don't knock," Ashton smirked.

"Do not start with me," his older brother growled. "You will not win."

The brown-haired man pulled out of Damon's grasp, continuing towards the door where Fox was waiting for him. "What's with your brother? He's cautious, but usually not this cautious."

"Stop reminding me that I'm related to him," Ashton grumbled, heading towards Fox's room because it was closer. He sunk into one of his friend's older chairs, leaving the new one for him. "But this is stranger than usual for him. When I heard that plan of ransoming the princess for free reign of the capital, I actually respected him for a brief moment. Now he's reneging on it."

"Especially since it isn't that difficult of a scheme to carry out," Fox noted, wincing as he sat.

Ashton raised a dark brown eyebrow in his friend's direction. "Yeah?"

The sword master shook his head. "Not if you can get her alone. Or, well, alone with her bodyguard. Emerald can't take more than a few of us at a time, and if the princess can handle more than one of us, I'll eat my sword, blade first."

The leader's brother leaned forward on to his arms, chin resting on the tops of his hands. "If we can somehow get them far enough away from the palace that there are no reinforcements, we've got them both."

"Exactly," Fox nodded.

Ashton's brown eyes locked with his friend's forest green. "Who do you think we can trust? Really trust. People that wouldn't tell Damon anything."

"Dezzie'll do anything anyone tells her and she can keep a secret. Ray hates him almost as much as you do. Laine can usually be convinced, with the right incentive. And Nolie, if you don't mind asking your ex for help."

Standing up defiantly, he announced, "I'm going to gather up everyone except Nolie. Meet me in my room in a half hour, okay?"

Fox nodded. "Need me to do something?"

"Yeah. Go see Calandra."

The taller bandit scowled. "I don't need a healer."

"You're practically getting blood on your new chair," he noticed. "And your shirt is stained with it. Hey, wait, that's my shirt!"

Shrugging, Fox retorted, "It's not like you paid for it."

Ashton grabbed his friend's arm hauling him out of the chair and towards the door. "Either way, you need to be healed. C'mon, less than a hundred people actually can do magic anymore and only ten of them are healers. We have one. Use it."

"I don't want to see her," he grumbled under his breath.

Brown eyes surveyed him closely. "It was Emerald, wasn't it? Who did this to you."

"She got in a few lucky shots, but I still won," he defended, sweeping his unruly mahogany hair out of his eyes with his free hand.

"Just go see Calandra and meet me in my room," Ashton ordered. "It's not going to kill you!" With that final plea, he set out into the depths of the hideout, inspecting each of the passages for the people he was looking for. Eventually, everyone was gathered in Ashton's chambers, including a cleaned up and blood-free Fox.

Desdemona, affectionately nicknamed Dezzie, sat on top of his desk, long straight red hair brushing the tabletop. Of course, she preferred her hair to be referred to as strawberry-blonde, and her purples eyes as amethyst. Ray sat in the chair that accompanied the desk, blond hair falling into his grey eyes. Laine sat on the floor between the two, surveying the two men who sat on the bed before asking, "What do you want us for?"

"I asked you to come here because you are the people I can trust," Ashton began. "Since some of you weren't at the meeting," he looked pointedly at Dezzie, who shrugged unapologetically, "I'll explain what's going on. Damon came up with an idea a little while ago about kidnapping the princess, holding her for ransom until the king gives us free reign of the city. Fox and I worked it out that we could do this by getting her out of the palace, away from her resources, but the two of us can't do it alone."

"Wait, wait, wait," Ray held up on hand. "You mean kidnapping the princess of Trillic."

Ashton rolled his eyes. "No, the princess of Ishkabibble."

"Princess Mikomi?"

"Do we have any other princess?"

The blond bandit considered this for a moment. "I hear she's hot. Bring it on."

The archer's jaw clenched. "What she looks like doesn't matter."

Desdemona raised her hand. "Why exactly are we doing this?"

Ashton pounded a fist into one hand. "Because we can! We're the Shadow Dragons. In just a few years, we've run every other thief and criminal out of town because we're the best. I'm not just going to sit back and wait till the heat dies down. We've got to keep these guards on their toes."

"And you want to show your brother you're not a total screw up," Laine interjected with a smirk, putting her black hair into a bun behind her head.

The leader's brother looked at the rug beneath his feet shamefully, as Fox called from the bed, "Look, you're either in or you're out. Either way, this gets out to no one or it's us you have to deal with."

"I'm in," Dezzie smiled. "I've got nothing else to do."

"Yeah, same here," Laine agreed, rolling up her sleeves.

Ashton sighed in relief. "Great. Dezzie, remember that stuff you used a few weeks ago that knocked me out? Can you make more of it, for the princess and General Silver."

She nodded, strawberry blonde bangs flying up and down. "Sure."

"Better make it a double for the general," Fox suggested. "She's a fighter."

Ray realized something. "Our boy at the palace, Rogers, he owes me. If I can get a message to him explaining what we're up to, maybe he can get the princess to a rendezvous point where we can attack."

"Good idea," Ashton grinned, watching as this plan fell in to place. "Laine, can you run it over there? You're the best at hiding and sneaking after dark."

"Sure, boss, whatever."

Dezzie hopped off the desk. "If I'm gonna make this stuff, I've gotta go steal a few things."

"No problem," their new leader nodded, deciding not to tell her about Damon's new scheduling plan. "If everyone gets to work now, maybe we can do this in another day or two."

The small group agreed, everyone getting up and leaving except for Fox and Ashton. The latter turned to his friend, "Well, that went better than I expected."

He nodded. "Surprisingly so. What do you want me to do?"

"Just rest up. You've got to be tired after being healed and I want you at your best to take on Silver again," he explained. With a mischievous grin, he announced, "We've got ourselves a princess to catch."