Firdelaf Guilian Commenun – Captain Guardian
Xantoiuq Thirst – Engineer (Sen -> Senpai)
Keppler – Lieutenant Mage
Dolciah – Rebel Ranger
Shinon – Academy Mage
Iino – Shinon’s childhood friend
There’s something in this world we’re all searching for.
We’re none too certain what it is, but confident it exists.
Hidden away to be plainly seen and hard to grasp.
It is sweet and warm.
It is beautiful and tingling.
The one will find it, the only one it belongs to.
The one will find it, even if one avoids it.
Maybe some have found it.
Maybe some think they have found it.
But surely, one day, some day, somehow, somewhere.
A shattered glass casts a thousand reflections.
Each a fragment, each none the truth.
Idiosyncratic doll loves coffee
The oaken door groans under the weight.
The carved relief on the door face tempts to draw you into its depthless maze. You still have not made any sense of the giant art piece, only that looking at it stirs that which dwells in your bowel.
An eye blink of timeless seconds passes. A narrow opening unveils and you forces through into the coliseum like space.
Beneath the glass sky ranks of shelves towers, upon sits a million million binds of history. Heartbeats, like the flickering stars beyond together with the licking candles, gently rocks to the concerto caressing the air.
Wonder reduces you to childlike trance as it has done so on every previous occasion.
“You are late,” the soft voice fills the ears and into the minds.
The blind folded doll in the red velvet armchair gestures at you. She is tiny, tinier still at this distance.
“Was not aware I even have an appointment.”
You walk to the depress circle at the center, cast a look at the encircling book-made-handrails as you passes, and settle into the seat across the table.
“I have to re-make your coffee. In the meantime have some cake rolls.”
“No thank you, I do not think I can stomach anything sweet.”
Your hands find their way to a plate and fork then a slice of chocolate roll. The voice is like magic. Perhaps it is magic.
Dolls do not talk or consume an endless stream of desserts, you remind yourself.
A gold engraved canister let out a few clatters. The grinds are scooped out by a spoon, small, dainty, matching the butterfly like white hands holding them.
Frown. The cake is much bitter, a concentrate of cocoa and little sugar.
“You are late,” the doll reiterates. She brushes aside those long graphite hair teasing against the cheeks, leans forward for the glass kettle.
You nod, disinclined to object.
“Have you found what you seek?”
“No,” you reply. “Not sure I ever will find the answers,” you add.
“Only that is not what you seek. Here.”
You accept the cup. A strong brew topped with milk and no sugar. Scented, overwhelming, not even bittersweet.
The doll raises her cup and drinks in kitten like sips.
“Coffee, do you suppose I like them?”
“To death.” An understatement for the aficionado doll. Together with the sound of music, it and the scent of coffee are the two things omnipresent in this place.
“That is more a praise than you intend. Without them what will I indulge on my journey through the realms of human creativity, they are my oxygen on dives into the darkest recesses of human thoughts. Still I do not claim to make the best coffee, or try to.”
“…you made mine out to be worthless when I tried my hands at making them.”
“Coffee comes in all blends, strength, flavors. From the mix of milk and sugar to the means of brewing to the styling of coffee set, the smallest variation brings its wholly different experience. None are the reason I drink them. Can be simple as the occasion, or mood due to having to wait for a tardy someone. When I brew the exotic drink I am not looking for some perfect taste, merely in their creation.”
The doll pauses to savor the aroma. Under the dark of her hair the sweet smile sends waves of nausea over you. Semi-consciously a hand moves to the stomach where it is.
“You can spend a hundred years pouring through all my books, and never will you find the answer. What you seek has no meaning by itself, neither written in the pages nor sung in poems. What you seek, you have to give it yourself. And, I am aware your appreciation for riddles is sorely lacking.”
A pointing finger hushes you before the complaint is made.
An impatient sigh, the doll lowers herself out the armchair. Only fourteen or fifteen winters, in appearance any case, she is diminutive as she is doll-like. She floats to one of the shelves and pouts vehemently at the second highest level.
Simple mindedness in face of certain failure is without doubt our greatest strength and fault.
Small hands flail and fall short. You hold back the laughs, you do not need to be warned to know your fate should you do anything less. The doll mutters with frustration, beneath the black skirt and chrysanthemum like inner white folds, tiny boots can be seen tip toeing. How she manages to get around in the ludicrous dress is beyond logic.
Finally, you get out of the seat and walk up next to her.
“This one?” You haul the book out from its place.
“Wha-what I, I don’t need…T-thank… you,” the doll flusters and snatches the book. She quickly retreats back to her chair and hides behind a chocolate donut.
It is not until the donut has been nibbled into an envious fate and the doll is licking her fingers does she speak again.
“I have only recently come by this. However, perhaps even a monkey brain like yours can glimpse an insight or two.”
The book is almost half as large as her. She rests it on her laps and opens its thick cover. A donut free hand skates over the blank page and the words begins to emerge from her small mouth.
The novice wizard took the shaft in the back. Went down like a sack of corn without as much as a whimper.
Arrows filled the sky, thick as locusts, and louder, like the most terrible ceaseless shriek of fiendbats.
Along a fifty meter stretch of brown dirt road, disoriented men and women ran in all directions. Seeking cover, weaving spells, meeting steel with steel, being trampled beneath iron hooves. Screaming, crying, cursing. Dying.
Amidst the chaos and over all the clamor boomed a voice. Composed, dauntless — enchanted with a power that spoke courage to the heart of all whom it reaches, delivering calm to their mind. “— form by squad. Grenmon, Tulio, set up turrets by that boulder at north west, don’t let them get around the flank! Yeli, take your squad and secure the rear. Sagittas, get in line and give me suppression fire!” Firdelaf shouted while waving for those still exposed at the front to fall back. Ragged razor shards peppered the nearby grounds, the spouts of disturbed earth snaked closer. It was hard for a tall man in glistening silver armour bellowing orders to not catch the attention of enemy mages. He dove behind the trunk of a fallen spruce. “Keppler! Get that kid –”
The wizard had barely been with the company for a month and the name almost escaped him. Naden, that was the lad’s name.
“—Naden, get him out of the open!”
A score of steps to the left, answering the onslaught with his own firestorms, Firdelaf’s second in command called back, “The party’s pretty wild Firffy, reminds me of my twentieth, family and friends till the invitation got plastered out on Langmar Square and the whole district showed up. The whole district except one person who had to stay home to take care of a little sister.”
Firffy. Of the whole company only Keppler called him that. It was his nickname in his first company fresh out of camp. His second in command was the only other person left from it.
Despite the assessment, the chiseled featured man still motioned his readiness.
“On three,” Firdelaf threw himself over the other side. “Three!”
A spotted blade flung at him with the force of a falling tree. Rusted, which meant instead of dying on the spot, one dies an agonizing two weeks later from septicemia.
He met the assault in kind, striking the flat of his own sword against the cruel blade, down and at angle. The fluidity of the movement spoke of mastery that could only have resulted from years of practice and experience in combat, like a dancer in a choreographed death dance, careful timing that walked the millimeters between triumph and damnation.
The sword continued in its wielder’s spin, having turned aside the enemy’s edge, circled up high; flashes of blue gold glints constricted like ribbons extending from up held hands. Then so quick it seemed like trickery to the untrained eyes, it blinked down. The crunch was sickening, at the narrow weak point between helm and plate did the steel reap through and found spine and flesh and arteries. The centaur was run through back to front, its dark blood spilled like ruptured wineskin.
As quick as the dance had tangled, the man parted to the left, a cold dancer abandoning a broken partner. A duet turned solo sonata. The dazzling bladework broke off arrows and bolts of magic alike, a whirlwind that only the most foolish dared to rise and challenge.
To the left was a flash of dust and green – Keppler, skidding to stop beside the downed wizard. One arm wrapped beneath the lad’s shoulders his second in command hauled the kid onto his back. Keppler was well trained for a scholarly type and the kid was small. The elementalist from Solashire performed a few simple gestures and a sudden strong breeze came up, hastening the retreat.
But even the wind does not outrun arrows.
Without the slightest pause, Firdelaf struck out his left hand in their direction. A shimmering barrier faded into place a split second before the torrent could rain down on their marks. The translucent watery wall had a strange, almost mercurial consistency; it quavered and rippled as missiles impacted its surface.
The protection lasted for several seconds, until a trio of centaurs brought down the barrier by charging through it, showers of glow dusts from the collapsed magic covering their hideous and fearsome forms.
Centaurs. Half equine half humanoid savages. Their ancestral homelands laid to the far north and west of Noctome, in undesirable territories occupied by few human presences in olden days. For the longest time they posed little more than nuisances; at times there would come news of far flung settlements being pestered, other times they traded precious stones for metals to fuel petty tribal strife. Neither hostile nor benevolent, just a strange race that barely registered in people’s concerns, much like childhood tales of dragons and mermaids.
That was then. Nowadays not one person in Noctome would think of centaurs without thoughts of hatred or fear. The recent decades had been marred with ever greater escalation of conflict. At first the might of Noctome reigned triumphant, the rebelling tribes crushed and their chieftans driven through the streets in demonstration of power. Then seemingly overnight the Seraph ceased its expedition beyond the borders, instead they stood fast, holding the outlands in ever vigilant watch. Gradually as the light faded from the towers of Divinity’s Reach, the braziers of beacons were toppled and abandoned. The beasts were allowed to menace the fair countryside of Noctome, making further inroads with every raid.
Fast, powerful and by no means without intelligence or organization. Scorned as beasts and savages but in reality neither, the centaurs proved themselves to be difficult foes for even the Palatini, elite units of the imperial army.
In manner befitting his namesake, the “The Sage Panthera”, he fell upon the three centaurs with ferocity of a leopard riding an avalanche. The long fang in his hands brought with it smokes of searing white flames, it smashed the lead centaur’s buckler to splinters and burned into the monster’s side.
Despite the initial shock, the flanking centaurs quickly came to their friend’s aid. A waterfall of steel crashed upon the immovable boulder, scimitar and axe met his sword in ever pressing tempo.
After the first exchanges Firdelaf judged his chances of an easy victory over these two foes were poor. The two centaurs moved and fought with uncanny coordination. Without doubt they had trained and fought together before, perhaps even wrestled together from days as foals. The difficult angles of attack chiseled away his momentum like an invisible net cast around his hands, strike after strike slowly but surely worked toward breaking the defense.
Immediately he slipped back into a roll.
The centaurs stumbled and neighed, their thick hides bloomed with crimson blots, then came the pop of muskets from behind. The beasts were not slain; at this distance the bullets did not possess the power to penetrate armor and retain lethal power. The centaurs did break off and fell back at a limper.
Firdelaf took the moment and made his own retreat. He jumped behind the cover of the fall spruce and joined his second in command. There were four other men, armed with rifles inscribed with the emblem of Light’s Dawn, pride and seat of power of the empire. They worked like synchronized clockwork, taking turns spotting while the others reloaded, then in unison broke cover and made the enemy on the other end of the barrels taste their fury.
After the initial shock of engagement, men and women quickly fell to their training and held together a desperate defense.
“How’s the kid?”
“Breathing,” Keppler stated plainly. Over his packs laid the lad, face down and unconscious.
“Praise the Gods, the way he went down I had feared the worst.”
He fished out a boot knife and with care cut out the arrow. “No poison, the kid’s in luck.” He took one glance at the tip before tossing it aside.
Centaurs were known to lace their weapons with a deadly poison brewed from the Vencrib moss that grew in swamps in the far north. It caused severe paralysis and if left untreated, would stop the victim’s heart in minutes once the poison reached it. Several years ago, before he was made captain and before there was an anti-toxin, the Vencrib poison posed such a threat engaging raids on open grounds was explicit forbidden by the handbook.
With one hand placed over the lad’s wound, he muttered a few chants. Warm azure light enveloped his hand and slowly the bleeding was stemmed and the wound no longer looked dreadful as it did. “Bandage up and find a volunteer to carry him.”
The Palatini does not leave any behind, or it should not. I, will not.
“We can’t make the outpost Firffy, if they’ve penetrated this far then we must assume the garrison is already lost.”
“I know,” he responded by cursing inside. When news of the centaur incursion reached Light’s Dawn his company was sent to reinforce an outpost in the anticipated path. Instead they came under attack still kilometers from their destination, waylaid in the woodland hillside by a hundred strong, three times their number, force of centaur scouting party.
By the Gods, the report briefs assured the centaurs were still half a week out, this was meant to be an early, precautionary response while the main army in the field maneuvers to deal with the threat. Not to mention he had already pushed his men harder than normally required, marching out before light from Ravgs where they made camp the night before.
No. Firdelaf’s hands tightened around the stingray-skin bound hilt. He should have known the reliability of command intelligence, a mishmash of pen-pushers who had not the slightest inkling of situations in the fields, constantly misjudging and making up wishful projections. Had he made the decision to march overnight as he had originally contemplated, they might have saved the outpost, or if he had not left half the company back at Ravgs to wait for supply wagons that failed to show up in time, there would be enough swords to beat back this ambush. Now, because of his oversight, not only was the outpost lost and those who looked up and relied on him in danger, so was the town of Ravgs.
Ravgs, a beautiful and historic town straddling the edge of the plains and foothills, birthplace of renowned poets and playwrights throughout the centuries. The place was no stranger to most Noctinians, Firdelaf included, in fact he spent a number of childhood years living here with a relative who had since passed away. He even visited the bar last night where he had used to sneak in with schoolmates. Because of a weathered outlook he was always the one to approach the counter and get pints for the whole underaged group. There were even a few times when he was approached by the ladies.
Once a backwater, it had become a border town in the ever diminishing domain of the kingdom. It had been spared the ruins of war and songs of minstrels continued to enrich its fine heritage, a remarkable escape that looked to soon end.
Centaurs had no appreciation for beauty. Or mercy, or anything resembling humanity. Firdelaf had seen firsthand the destruction they wrought. He had seen it a thousand times, and a thousand times too many…
The skies snowed black.
Ashen flakes fell thick and heavy. The insufferable pungent air brought tears out one’s eyes — if one had any left. There were no sounds of market barter, nor idle chatter from tavern verandas, nor patter of children kicking feathered-cork. No rumble of turnip loaded wagons, even the noise of territorial cats were absent. No speech, no yells, no murmurs. No cries, no screams, no whimpers, not even the wailing of winds. There was only gravely silence.
The young man looked with vacant eyes at the lifeless and no means empty street.
Even shielded by the fallen trunk the tremor almost threw him to the ground. Keppler’s timely hand helped him regain his composure. A boulder had been summoned and hurled with great force, its weight sure to crush any witless enough to be there when it lands. Despite a lack of refinement the centaurs possessed powerful shamanistic magic that the Seraph had few answers to, not even the advent of engineering technologies with explosives and gearworks prove to be the turnkey many had hoped.
Another day, another defeat. Nothing seemed able to hold back the beasts, he was not even sure they could be. Noctome was on her knees, locked in never ending struggle against unflinching foes, till the day in final death throes she exerts the last breath of strength.
All this futility, this ceaseless waste. The heart grew ever weary from the overhanging weight.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Sound the retreat, Nettles formation.”
Men and women rallied around the warhorn blasts, pulling back in rehearsed waves that protected each other’s vulnerable flanks. Those wounded went first, and the stretchers, thankfully not numerous but still too many.
Traps and explosives were set as people fell back. The centaurs attempted to press their advantage, and each time their charge were sent back by walls of fires laid down by magic channeled through crystal headed staves and geysers of flames jettisoned from hand held devices. The positioning and execution were flawless, at no time were there openings in the defense, and the centaurs were kept to giving chase from a distance.
Group formations and tactics were the only means of survival against enemies that were stronger physically in every aspect, Firdelaf had long learned. He had spent considerable training time drilling that into his people, especially in organized withdraws; it was the thin line separating defeats from massacres.
“Keppler, take the company and withdraw back to Ravgs, the moment you get there start evacuating every person in town.”
“And you? I presume this is the point where you stupidly go off to do something heroically , again. Did I mention stupid?”
“There are too many injured. The centaurs already have us on mobility under the best circumstances; we’ll not make a kilometer with them biting at the heels. I’ll hold them off for a few minutes and lead them away.”
His second in command stared for several seconds. Then, “I’m not going to stop you, not because of a lack of concern, nor you to be foolhardy. I know you too well for that. Just keep in mind Noctome has enough heroes entombed and an extreme shortage of saviors.”
“Thanks Keppler, we shall drink at the Ornithor after all this.”
“And you’ll be buying. Valor and grace.”
“People and honor.”
Firdelaf held out his right hand level, returning the salute.
With that, Keppler left with the last group of illusionists covering the retreat.
He was not yet alone. Firdelaf gave a long look at the ranks of men and women who stood at either side, ready to meet any foes. They weren’t real people, but phantasms conjured to conceal the path of retreat and confuse any pursuers. Standard withdraw tactics. While almost indiscernible to unaided eyes, they were easy to overcome once foes realized the assaults caused little material harm. Once discovered the centaurs would simply ignore them and trample through.
It was why it paid to have some authenticity mixed in.
The triggered traps and mines by now had produced a thick curtain of smokes, from within emerged shadows of menace. Firdelaf almost smiled at thoughts of the odds.
He held up one hand and crushed it into fist, a giant hammer of azure translucency answered the summons and appeared next to the nearest silhouette. The centaur had barely reared with surprise when it was pummeled like a rag sack, tossed into the air and spread against a nearby trunk with sickening squish of burst internals.
The shapes came still, hesitance now apparent in their steps.
The fuller of his sword shimmered against the flames and ash. Firdelaf’s smile hardened.
This was Noctome. Poems sing of her glistening streams, where canvas paint of golden fields and lush forests and lips of frozen falls in winter, a hundred songs channels the energy and jolly of Festival Square on a lazy weekend, her soaring halls echoes with hymn of enlightenment.
And he, Firdelaf Guilian Commenun…
Before the thought could finish, tongues of cold steel slithered amidst the ember lit woods and he was locked in blades with the enemies.
The sandstone blocks grinded, the boots rose and fell in heavy and solemn march. The blemished cape swirled, its shadow cascaded up ahead of its wearer.
The breastplate dented in many places, weathered hair matted with sweat and blood. They only helped instill an imposing splendor as he ascended the steps, giant slabs of dull limestone that whispered their witness to centuries of rise and decline.
Ahead of him men and women parted in hushed respect. Even the most hurried runner paused to give his or her salute when they passed, barely able to contain the excitement.
“Sir~!” “Welcome back Captain!” “Never had a doubt, not even a minute!” “Hail the Sage Panthera!”
Each time Firdelaf answered with a nod and motioned for them to resume their duties. Such cheer was undeserving, he only weighed it acceptable for the men’s spirit. It was no triumphant return. The footsteps harkened the storm that had already beset them.
He threw the doors wide. All who were there still recalled with teary eyes many years later: the falling sun behind the shoulders, the tall and stalwart shadow filling the doorway, a smile weary and assured.
The townhall of Ravgs had been converted into a make shift command post. All arrangements of maps and reports had been spread out on the long table, combined from four smaller ones, in the middle of the entrance hall. Officers and town officials crowded in hurried discussions. On the huge central map of Ravgs small flags moved from one quarter of town to another as runners reported in the current progress.
In the corner, the mayor sat quietly, staring into the teacup in his hand. A few attendants tried to comfort the gaunt man with offers of confectionaries and continued to be waved away.
Keppler looked up and said. “By the Six! You look like you had a few rounds with the great dragon himself. ……Here.”
“You know, the giant lizard is just feeling lonely, so you buy him a round of drinks thinking of cheering him up then he gets all drunk and decides to hug you, forgetting that he has claws……thanks.” He took a deep gulp and tossed back the canteen. “What’s our situation?”
“As well as can be hoped given the circumstances. As soon as we made the announcement people began to depart. The last count is some seven tenth have left, we have four squads doing a door by door to get the rest. There is only two and a half hours of light left, those leaving from now on will be going through the night to reach Karnsvale. We will need to have them leave as a group to give escort, if we can spare any.”
“We will make the numbers. Those wounded but still able to hold arms can help lend some support.”
“Understood. Now, we blew up the bridges here, here…and here.”
“I know, I was at the second bridge when it blew up, barely made it with the centaurs breathing down the neck like rabid hounds. Where does that leave nearest crossing?”
“Here—” His second in command’s finger followed the curly line which passed west of the town downward, a few centimeters on paper, kilometers in scale. “—which we cannot reach in time, nor have we the numbers to contest it even should we try. If they know of this crossing and navigate the land with any competence, which there’s no reason to think they can’t, they will be here in just over an hour.”
“Too soon. We need to hurry up the paces, start…”
“—let me through!”
They were interrupted by yelling from the entryway.
“You have no business here.”
Two soldiers guarding the door had between them barred a bourgeois young man from entering.
“I told you, I came with your captain.”
“Regardless of the factualness of your claim, this area is strictly off limit to civilians. You should go over there and see one of the evacuation officers and get out of here while you can.” One of the Palatini soldiers pointed across the townhall square.
“It’s okay, the kid is with me, let him though.” Firdelaf waved for the two to stand down.
Keppler gave a long scrutinizing gaze then turned to him. “Firffy?”
“He lent me his aid on those wooded hills.”
“…should I cast him a medal?”
He scowled at the dubious look.
“Do not misjudge him for a civilian. Without his strength y’all will be buying drinks with the betting pool.”
“There’s not enough in the pool for even hops water.”
Like most in the Noctini, his company kept a betting pool. Ten crown silvers to enter and there was no limit to the rewards, all one had to do was avoid an appointment with Sarkoth, the god of death – till the company disbands, at which point the pool is divided between the survivors.
Unlike other companies, the company under his command did not suffer the constant stream of replacements that filled up pool chests.
The comradely pat on the shoulders softened his stare.
“You’ll be our captain for a long time yet, Firffy,” said Keppler. His second in command settled the young man next to the mountain of document lockers being piled up for destruction, who enthusiastically took up the assistant’s offer of cookies.
When explosions sounded in the not far distance Xantoiuq Thirst knew he was in trouble. More than a handful of meters in mid air, halfway up a tree standing taller than the great marble column outside Akademia, the most prestigious place of learning in all Noctome, from the precarious position the young man quickly assessed his options.
He looked down. Right underneath was his large pack, looking small and sitting against the base of the tree. It had taken him near twenty minutes to struggle this high up the smooth trunk. Being a good climber had never been high on his list of skills to acquire, something he made a note to reconsider later at a more leisurely time. It was simple to let go and have gravity take hold, admittedly with less control than was comfortable. It would also be very costly, giving up the precious objective.
He then looked up at the second highest level of branches, where between them lodged an object which resembled a suitcase with large metal sheets attached. With some hope, the remaining distance with their branches should prove easier. Then again, the plan was somewhat dangerously blank beyond that point.
It was how cats felt, he decided.
Xantoiuq took a moment to consider and decided to struggle on. Losing seven months of effort was unacceptable.
On the way in he had noticed the Palatinis heading up the roads and had suspected something may be afoot, that it eventuated was this close had not been within expectation, from their pace and leisured ranks he had judged their purpose to be at least days ahead.
Which meant the Palatini were waylaid.
Which meant they would not last very long.
Tragically, it also meant whatever ambushed them, bandits most likely, centaurs were also not beyond the realm of possibilities, were likely to turn up in short time and make dessert out of him.
Another handful of precious minutes, another few steps up.
Everything was quiet.
The distant fighting had ended abruptly and cold nausea almost overtook him. Something as simple as climbing a tree and he was failing at it…
An armored knight trampled through the undergrowth with all the grace of a hippo.
No evading pursuers with that.
Xantoiuq grimaced and stuck still to the trunk like a gecko.
“Oi there! What are you doing?”
Fantastic. The packs left below must have given him away.
“Climbing?” he shot a sardonic glance. The knight looked like a small beetle from this height.
“You have to get down, there are centaurs coming! Come on!”
Centaurs, this was one of those bad days.
“Thanks for the offer, but I need to retrieve my things.”
“What, those things at the top of the branches?”
He did not bother to reply. He reached up yet again.
“Jump down, I’ll get them for you,” called out the knight.
“I’ll get that thing for you. Now hurry up and jump down. There isn’t much time.”
Xantoiuq sighed. Evidently the stubborn knight, as most of them were, was not about to leave him alone. If he continued the argument the centaurs were surely going to find new materials to fill their tents with fresh totem poles.
“Yes, hurry!” Gauntlet hands beckoned for him to leap down.
“And what, you’ll catch me?”
“Yes! On my honor, now don’t be scared.”
“Not in my dictionary.”
He raised a last look at the device taunting overhead, gave another sigh. So much for seven months of investments.
A spot which had heavy layers of undergrowth and leaves was chosen, somewhere where if the knight turned out to be a fool also, would not necessarily break his legs.
The concerned proved unwarranted. The knight deftly raised a shimmering barrier which cushioned his fall like a hill of feathered pillows.
“Comfy,” he bounced off and landed on two feet. “Thank you.”
“Only my duty.”
“Now about my things…”
“Does it break easily?”
“Will it break? Is it going to be damaged if it falls to the ground?”
“Well… probably not… then again… no it shouldn’t.”
The thing was fairly sturdy, a lot of pride went into the work.
“Wait what are you doing?!”
The knight stretched his arms and legs wide in a low stance, one open hand leading toward the tree while the other a fist tucked just above the waist.
Thunderous crash sundered the calm forest.
Under the terrible blast the tree shook with such violence it seemed sure to splinter in half.
Then another crash, this one quieter but still deafening. The metal suitcase with attached sheets fell out of the sky, almost hitting Xantoiuq.
“There you go.”
“Uh… thanks, I suppose.”
If the centaurs had not been able to follow the man’s blundering trail, they were sure to do so now.
Ignoring the driving urgency, he carefully folded the extended sheets into the suitcase through slit-like openings on either side.
“We’ve got to go, now. The centaurs are here.”
A strong hand grabbed shoulder of his shirt and tossed him upright.
Indeed, between the lines of trees loomed a small pack of centaurs. They came at full gallop, the stomping of twigs and branches drowned out by bloodcurdling hollering.
“Run, go on. I’ll be right behind you.”
Steel which gleamed with the hue of wet blood leapt stalwartly into the knight’s hand. Brave, suicidal…not quite, foolhardy perhaps. Xantoiuq could not settle on an adjective for the man’s action.
In any case, there were eight centaurs and he doubted the knight, already drained and battered from previous fights, was capable of meeting the challenge much less survive it.
Even if the knight was every bit his namesake was. Dented plate, stained cloak. The man had walked the gates of Sarkoth and back.
“We’re outnumbered and far from aid, they most likely won’t use their bow, but shield me just in case,” he said. The backpack ruffled, his hands fished for its contents.
“This is no time for childish acts, go.”
“Return the trust, Captain Firdelaf. I know what I am doing.”
“How do you…. Nevermind, what are you doing? What’s that, ink?”
The knight asked about the dark liquid he was spraying out in a semi-circle from two small glass vials.
“Raising a barrier won’t do us much good, we’ll be trapped while they batter it down.”
“It’s not a barrier, good captain. Have faith.”
He knelt down on one knee, head bowed and eyes shut. Hands placed behind the back beneath long silken coat, mind detached and clear as cave springs.
Gallop, hooves. Branches snapped off. Neighs. Insects chirps. Rustle of leather against steel. Nervous heavy breathes. Mane dreads flying wild.
Twitch of muscle. Beads of sweat.
Heart beats. His. Theirs.
“They’ll break in two files. Three left, five right. Passing on both sides. Third on right will make a cross to left and bring up a snaring net. Ignore it, that one is a faint. The real throw will come from the last on the left, deflect it.”
“There won’t need to be a then.”
“What?! In the name of the Gods…”
There was no time for the knight to question. The centaurs’ giant figures loomed.
Neither had Xantoiuq the luxury to consider how the knight would follow his words.
The net covered what skies left between the foliage. Countless had been ensnared beneath I and reduced to horrific life in slavery.
It closed in, without feeling, without mercy.
The beasts thundered past. The world drowned in the drums of hooves.
(Feel not, question not. Speak the wind. I am…)
Four claks interrupted the jarring beats. Like the flat of metal strips striking together.
The centaurs tumbled like boulders in an earthslide. Seven of them. The last croaked and gargled, a pair of cork sized holes through its cheeks.
Now at the fore, Xantoiuq’s arms hugged at level against each other, forming a cross with each aimed at the side opposite. In his hands the pistols only just started to dissipate smoke.
“That is some impressive shooting.”
“It was nothing.”
He smiled. It proved easier than initially imagined. Killing.
“Looks the last one fled, wouldn’t try catching him, never have I seen a centaur so terrified,” the knight said. “Shot through the eye sockets, quick and assured death.”
“It’s the only effective point without armor, couldn’t afford to wound and risk them fighting back.”
“Indeed. Now, tell me…”
Something pointed and cold crept down the back his neck.
“…just who are you?”
The knight towered behind him, the sword’s tip still like icicle, its aim fixed at the base of his neck, a gently push away from severing his cervical vertebrae.
“Is the sword really necessary?” the laugh came out dry.
“Repeater pistols with pin point accuracy at nine meters do not simply come out a shop, nor does the skill to use two of them all on distinct targets at the same time. Who are you and what is your business out here? Mercenary? Bounty hunter?”
“May I suggest this may not be the best time or place to worry about such details?”
“Answer the question.”
“Very well, I’m going to put my pistols away, then I’m going to stand up so I can show you who I am.”
Xantoiuq slowly returned the pistols to the holsters then stood up, turning at the same time to face the knight. The sword did not fail to orbit around to his throat.
“My name is Xantoiuq Thirst. I am a student at the Akademia specializing in arcane mechanization…” he said, one hand cautiously touched the crest pin on his collar. “The pistols are my own custom design. I was conducting tests on my experiment when it went a little awry and ended me in these woods.”
“Xantoiuq Thirst…I may have heard of you.” The sword was lowered. “You won the Flint-Strike Marksman Cup once, when was that again?”
The question was casual, the test evident.
“The year before last, I have moved on to focus on more docile activities since then.”
The sword finally slid into its sheath.
“Firdelaf Commenun, but you already know that. My apologies for scrutinizing, Noctome has more enemies than just centaurs and trolls.”
Xantoiuq shook the knight’s hand.
“No offense taken. Your reputation precedes you, captain.”
“And you. You won over your opponents by a wide margin, I had wondered why such talent only showed up once then disappeared.”
“You could say I realized competition isn’t for me.”
Xantoiuq swung the packs and the suitcase onto his back. The knight gave the cumbersome load an amused look and offered to take the suitcase.
“It survived falling out a tree, I think it’ll take more than my best effort to wreck it.”
Won’t stop falling into a river. He kept the thought.
The knight led the way down the wooded hillside toward Ravgs, the nearest township. The worry on his face was evident, more concerned for the town’s safety ahead of the impending centaur forces than reaching safety himself.
The undergrowth and occasional saplings tore into Xantoiuq’s coat and trousers. Not that they were in fair shape after that failed experiment and climbing the tree. He may need to hit the arcade and purchase new ones after he gets back to Light’s Dawn.
Some time into their flight, the knight asked, having been bothered all this time, “How were you able to be so accurate with your shots, they were galloping like the wind, there was no time to aim and lead your shots.”
“It helped knowing which way they were going to run, was less aiming than timing.”
“You knew which path they were going to take to surround us? Is it some magic? Those inks you sprayed out, some form of glyph?”
“Those are just writing inks you can buy at the market, ten coppers a vial. But suppose if you see someone painting a line between you and themselves, that would be your first thought would it not?”
“A mind trap. And then you avoid it, along its outer edge.”
“Clever, simple, and risky. Still, those shots are no easy feat.”
“You focus and let your senses decide.