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Chapter 51

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 6 years, 7 months ago

     “And that's the plan of attack!” The wyvern shouted.

 

Chris was so full of confidence while slapping her wing against a large sheet of paper hanging from the tree and she kept at it for emphasis. Her chest was puffed out with pride, but her plan wasn't met with cheers. It was instead met with indifference.

 

Except for the insistent rustle of paper and whap of her wing against her master plan, there was only silence. Susan sitting on my left shared my exasperated expression and Rose seated on my right...well... was too busy stuffing her face with fresh roasted venison to be paying attention. Chris didn't seem bothered at all; she was frozen in place, her face telling me she was nothing but eager for what was next. A round of applause maybe? I desperately wanted to tell her there was no flashing sign to tell the live studio audience to laugh or clap, but... no, I just don't know anything anymore.

 

     “Any questions?” She finally asked.

 

     Susan spoke up without missing a beat, “From where precisely, did assemble all this paper?”

 

Chris and Susan locked gazes. Susan with an incriminating look that spelled out: 'I'm getting real tired of your bullshit' and Chris with the same expecting mug she has been maintaining all this time.

 

     “Ahem...” Chris cleared her throat, politely covering her mouth with a wing. “How exactly did I come up with such brilliant plan you ask?”

 

     “No I-” Susan tried to interrupt with a deadpan voice getting more impatient by the second.

 

     “A direct assault! What wont be expected! Our enemies think we're on the ropes, on the run, we'll run headlong right at them! Warfare is half deception. We will apply our maximum force at their weakness, their blind spot, at the place they would least likely expect us.”

 

     “And from where did you procure the paper, Chris?”

 

Susan still had a lid on it, but I've watched her long enough to know when all that steam is ready to boil over onto the stove-top. I kept switching my gaze between the two as they bickered back and forth, Rose's eyes switched back and forth as well, like the two of us were watching a tennis match. She offered me a torn hunk of her venison which I accepted with a curt thanks and we munched away together as we sat on the log watching the spectacle.

 

     “The Marru river eventually ends,” Chris said as a matter of fact. “When it becomes Lake Anthren, it could take another week to travel around it to its south shore. This is a shortcut!”

 

     “A 'shortcut' directing us straight into the maws of peril!”

 

     “Time is short!” Chris declared with gusto. “The longer we spend along these boarder nations, the longer their agents of darkness have to descend upon us.”

 

     “I comprehend full well the hostilities of these lands. Law upon law against our kind, compensation no doubt for still being under the yoke of this church and seeking no disputation for whom their loyalties lie with. However, you dare say your 'grand master plan' should have us gallivant past their front door?”

 

     “Yes! We cross the lake in a single stroke!” Chris shouted throwing her wings above her head.

 

     Rose's throat made a subtle gurgle as she stopped swallowing halfway, “Wait. What?”

 

No one waited,especially not Susan who pressed in further, craning her neck upwards trying to stare down the wyvern; angrier than before, if that was possible.

 

     “Reckless. Far too reckless!”

 

     “What would be reckless is failing to be bold!” Chris retorted back jovially.

 

I don't think Chris got that this was a debate, not a continuation of her sales pitch.

 

     “I saw 'er when on patrol. I'd heard of it, but I never flew south far enough to see it for myself. A great big barge. Part of the Old Imperial Highway, still floating. It's huge! Ginormous! We sneak on, find a corner deep inside, no one would ever find us.”

 

     There was a tinge of impatience in addition to Susan's anger now, “We are attempting to remain incognito and make our through these forests for the precise reason that-”

 

     “Which will not last forever! Least the incident with the farmers occur again.”

 

     Susan stopped dead in her tracks and even retreated a bit, “That was an unfortunate accident... No precedents were set.”

 

     Now I had to defend myself, “No one was expecting there to be two random farmers in the middle of nowhere arguing and ready to gut one another.”

 

I remember it well now, although I wish I could have forgotten. We had only left Domdracveria when we encountered two farmers with a cow. A prize cow at that and they each accused the other of stealing it. One saying it had wandered onto his land, so it was now his and the other saying that was a load of bull, it had his brand. The other retorting that he should have kept it better and then he accuses the other of being jealous and wanting to claim it for himself. I don't even know, we only stumbled into halfway.

 

     “Either way...” I continued, “Those two ran like bats out of hell screaming 'monsters!' all the while. Chris isn't wrong to be worried they could have ratted us out.”

 

     “Did someone say' boat'?” Rose said trying to interrupt.

 

     She was quickly cut off by Susan, “Pharaoh, please, surely you must see there is too much risk and too little reward?”

 

     “Both men with fouls hearts consumed with nothing but greed.” Chris mused. “For a portion of the bounty, surely they would do just that. They even left the poor heifer behind.”

 

     “She was de-lish though.” Rose said wistfully. “Hadn't had good red meat like that in under week- Hold up! You said something about-”

 

     “Cease changing the subject, Chris!” Susan barked. “This hair-brained caper of yours is simply out of the question.”

 

Chris' grand mater plan: I had to take an even closer look at it in order to wrap my head around it. The sheet looked like it was a bunch of smaller scraps of paper stitched crudely together. It was adorned with various streaks of blue, green, red and other colours of the rainbow. Thick and crudely drawn lines, glistening like wax in the dusk sun. Almost like crayons. My mind was more preoccupied with how she actually drew it all. You'd say a girl like her, a grown woman, could draw better than a six year old, but then again, she doesn't have opposable thumbs, let alone hands.

 

In the upper right corner was four stick figures: A brown, red, black and green one. The last three having odd features like ears and tails tacked on, so I guess the brown one was me. Those figures were surrounded by a sea of trees, but little brown lines with green chevrons sicking off of them. Next to it a big fat and sloppily filled in blue squiggle; most likely Marru river.

 

That blue line meandered until it reached a large blue blob: Lake Anthren. Floating on top of it was a large bowl; the barge if I had to guess, with the four of us standing on top of it. On the other side of the blue blob was a bunch of poorly drawn buildings. What was below that and to the left of them was some sort of series of carts drawn by a bunch of... dogs? No, those are probably supposed to be horses. At that picture the blue line became two black lines with brown ones connecting them like a ladder that finally led to an even larger blue blob, crowned with more poorly drawn buildings. The Southern Seas and the Free Ports.

 

     “We shall use the enemy's own strengths against them! We shall stowaway on the Old Imperial Highway and ride straight to the coast!”

 

     “If you wanted to cross the Lake, why sneak aboard the barge? Simply procure a smaller vessel.” Susan asked.

 

     “And who shall sell their vessel to monsters?” Chris said throwing the question back at her.

 

     “Then we seize one.”

 

     “What?” Chris screamed wide eyed in disbelief. “Steal? For one who loves law, how could you say such a thing?”

 

     “I'm hearing boat. Did someone say boat?” Rose said off to the side trying to cut in.

 

     “Pharaoh’s law is heaven and stars above the lowly laws of these lands. Laven's safety comes first, at any cost.”

 

     “And what of the fishermen! The others! You would steal their livelihood! Living day to day, not a copper to their names, only their belongings and the catch every day to feed their family.”

 

     “So, leave behind a few petty trinkets to compensate them... Did you not also claim they were the enemy? What bizarre thoughts have run amok in that thick skull of yours?”

 

     “The just do not steal. Neither do they 'steal'!” Chris said, trying to make air quotes with her forearm talons. “A lone ship, once reported stolen, knowing we are there, we will not last long upon the waters before we are tracked, trailed and cornered.”

 

     “You make too many assumptions, Chris.” Susan said. “Then we watch from a safe distance while Laven negotiates.”

 

     Chris shook her head, “Impossible.”

 

     “If you're so positive about such things... What exactly is it that you are hiding from us?”

 

Susan marched past Chris, who was too slow to stop the Anubis from getting her paws on the paper and swipe it down from the tree with her claws.

 

     “Hey!” Chris protested, “I spent all the extra time I had on that!”

 

     “Extra time?” Susan said, turning her head slowly toward her.

 

     “Huh? What?” Chris said, playing innocent now.

 

Susan stood there stunned for a few seconds, trying to process something, but not before Chris leapt back into gear. It didn't help much when she tried to rip the paper away from Susan, only managing to snag away a large chunk, but not all of it. It was far too late when Susan dodged the second swipe and happened to look down at what was on the reverse side of the paper. A crude sketch, a caricature with symbols, written language that was beyond me. If anything, I'd say it looked like the ugly love child between old Nordic Runes and Sanskrit. It wasn't the alphabet, that's all I know, even if somehow it sounded out what was exactly English.

 

     “Chris...” Susan said, darkness covering her eyes as she quickly read the paper over. “What is this?”

 

     “Well...”

 

     “When exactly were you planning to tell us of this?”

 

     “About right after the part you interrupted me at?”

 

     “Do you think this is a game? Theater?” Susan exploded.

 

     “Not anymore. You ruined the buildup.” Chris said, her mood having finally soured at last. “I was going to get to that after the tension had built up enough.”

 

     “Now is not the time for your games!”

 

Odd, I seem to remember a certain someone trying to put on an act when I first met her too. Either way, I had to step in again and push them apart, putting myself between them.

 

     “No fighting!” I said, commanding them both. “What do we have here?”

 

Susan took a few deep breaths and calmed herself, returning to her neutral state. She then turned it over and held it up so I could see it clearly. Plain as day: it was a portrait, a portrait of me. There was no denying it, it had all the hallmarks of a wanted poster.

 

     “Aw hell.” I spat. “A wanted notice?”

 

No wonder Chris seems so dead set against any other idea than her own. If I walk alone into any town right now, I'd be strung up in less than a minute. If I'm seen with the girls, it would cause a panic and eventually the same thing when a small army of bounty hunters dog-pile us.

 

     “Correct,” Susan nodded. “Laven.” She said, reading it out for me. “Wanted for the crimes of: blasphemy, conspiracy, treason...” She opened her mouth to say something else, but stopped herself then continued. “Alive: four hundred crowns. Dead: three hundred crowns.”

 

What a relief to be worth more alive than dead. Why she stopped near the end still gnawed at me though.

 

     “What was that last bit?” I asked.

 

The last bit on the very bottom looked scribbled in. Rather hastily at that. My curiosity wouldn't let it slide.

 

     “I do not know what you speak of.” Susan said suspiciously coy.

 

     Leering over Susan's shoulder from behind, Chris spied down on the paper. “Cattle Rustling.”

 

     “God dammit.” I sighed.

 

     “Worth it!” Rose shouted from the sidelines.

 

     “This is worse than I thought...” I grumbled.

 

     “And this is where you procured all this paper on such short notice?” Susan asked gravely.

 

     “Yup.” Chris said. “I found em everywhere in towns and villages all 'round. Ah. And before you get yourself in a tiffy, the Dark Wing Drake swoops from up high and from the shadows to strike at the heart of evil in the name of Justice! I was not discovered!”

 

She said with a posed look, exaggerated as always, her voice a forced baritone.

 

     “Anyways... This is bad and bad news travels fast. I say we go with Chris' plan.”

 

     “Pharaoh... Laven, surely you must realize it is not-”

 

     “No. We'll have to risk it. If we meander through the forest and take the long route, more people are gonna see these. Even if Chris pilfered them from everywhere in a fifty kilometre area... It wont last long and they'll know we're close. We'll have every sell sword in the area breathing down our necks. There's no way we're gonna get anywhere... Right Rose?”

 

I said turning my head incredulously toward Rose who taking a deep breath and with a talon raised as thought she were about to make the case that would be a fantastic thing quickly deflated and silently pouted instead.

 

     “Onward!” Chris bellowed. “We travel to port, brazenly! Defy the agents of darkness and leave their agents chasing our dust clouds and shadows!”

 

     “So pilfering a ship for our own purposes is suddenly not acceptable?” Susan protested. “And being stowaways is?”

 

     “Stealing property of innocents, however misguided, is simply unacceptable!” Chris loudly declared. “The Empire is an agent of darkness! The enemy. It is war. Besides, it's the Imperial Highway. The only ones who have got the power to stop it is the Emperor's court. Once we're on, it wont stop, slow down or take a detour. Perfect for forcing our way south. We abuse the weakness and leap off when they realize and it's too late. Only if they wanna hold up tens of thousands tons worth of stuff to do so. For all the hunger and greed in the Empire... It wont happen!”

 

Rose seemed uncharacteristically reserved and Susan didn't look any happier. I'd say the Anubis definitely looked worried more than anything. I suppose I had to say something.

 

     “Don't worry, Susan. It's just a cargo barge. A very large cargo barge What could go wrong?”

 

***

 

     “How the fuck did everything go wrong!” I growled.

 

     “Did I not warn you, Laven?” Susan hissed my ear.

 

We took refuge behind a support beam as yet another patrol passed by. We had left a whole group of them in our dust, but they were still crawling all over the place. They were concentrated around the stairways as well. It was virtually impossible to sneak by unless they got bored and tried venturing out. If I had to take a guess, we were still another four three floors below the top deck and freedom. There had to be a lifeboat or something up there we could use to get off this boat. That was the only hope that kept us going.

 

     “Well, sorry for a small army not being high up on my list of expected run ins.”

 

     “That is hardly an excuse.”

 

     “It isn't. I'm pretty sure it's just a freak accident too.”

 

     “And what possesses you to consider that?”

 

     “I'm going to give them all a little credit. They seem well equipped, learned and trained, but don't seem very professional. They're not organized at all and if they claim they are, it would be an insult to the idea of organization. I've been thinking-”

 

     “Have you now? You should have done so back at the camp.” Susan said with a snarky tone.

 

     “I've been thinking.” I growled as I repeated myself. “That they are not here as some sort of trap. More like we ran into them and now they don't know what to do. We would have been cornered and caught by now if that wasn't the case. If we just-”

 

I had to stop short and pull Susan aside with me as yet another patrol strolled past. There had to be dozens of these mercenaries around. Maybe just short of a hundred in total if they're spread out evenly across the entire barge. This one group didn't go around the corner though, they stopped when they met up with another patrol I hadn't seen yet. They spoke loudly and were close enough to eavesdrop on.

 

     “What's the situation on the lower decks. Have you found them?” An armored man from the new patrol asked.

 

A roguish looking man with a bow slung over his shoulders gave his report, “No. Heard they might have snuck up to this level by now. Still trying to dig out the team at cargo room B too. You?”

 

     “Word is going around that the monster running amok on the top deck is actually the Thorn Knight.”

 

     “You're pulling my leg.” The rogue's partner said in disbelief.

 

     “Swear on me mum's grave. Lizard type. Salamander. Long red hair in a ponytail... Looks just like her too.”

 

     “She is her,” said the armoured man's friend solemnly. “I'd recognize that face and tail fire anywhere. Used to be stationed in Elbrook Keep a couple years back. I couldn't ever forget.”

 

     “Well, did they get 'er?”

 

     “Get her?” The armored man laughed. “There's already a pile waist high of guys who've tried. She doesn't look like she's going anywhere though. Probably waiting on the others to join her.”

 

     “And that's why we're here. Going to regroup and try pinning her down. Overwhelm her maybe if we get lucky. What we need you to do is to find that man.”

 

The armored man stressed it if his partner wasn't already clear enough, “We get him, we're in the clear.”

 

     “How you figure?”

 

     “Idiot, don't you read the guide? He's probably her mate.”

 

     “Mate? The Thorn Knight's? You want us to try taking on the guy that got the Thorn Knight?”

 

     “Just a filthy heathen in the end. He's only human too. Unless you're volunteering to go back on deck?”

 

The two mercenaries shook their heads violently.

 

     “Thought so... Now unless you want to one of the ones after that giant wyvern as well: find the other ones. Now!”

 

     “What 'bout the wolf with 'im? They say she collapsed the whole-”

 

     “I said now!”

 

With their little meeting concluded, I had to quickly pull back away from the corner as they turned around and headed back in our direction. There was no way to take cover this time and while I dreaded the thought, we'd have to duck out of the hallways and into one of the storerooms. They'd be a dead end at best, a deathtrap at the worst. With Susan still a tow I yanked her without a word and slipped inside the closest doorway.

 

Inside was a collection of white sheets suspended in the air, all draped over an array of objects. If I hazarded a guess: statues. When you build a barge this big, I guess you don't discriminate what you send across it and you send them over in bulk. I had to wonder though, just what the hell were they moving and why have an army of mercenaries to guard it? Statues is the last thing I'd expect to move north the south. I don't remember hearing about any major city centres this far north. Even that port back there was pretty small. Nothing but a glorified stockyard and some houses.

 

I didn't have the time to contemplate it before I noticed Susan's ears twitch and then heard the footsteps got closer. We were going to need a place to hide. Right away. Luckily the perfect plan popped into my head. With Susan still in tow, I leapt up onto an empty stand, large enough for the both of us to stand on. With my free hand I grabbed one of the spares white sheets and threw it over the two of us.

 

     “Laven? What are you-?”

 

     “Not now, stay still and stay close.”

 

I wrapped my arms around Susan and pulled her head down into my chest and took a deep breath so I could stay absolutely still. Susan squirmed and protested for a second, but when I held on tight and pulled her even closer she eventually went absolutely still as well. She rested her paws on my chest as she clenched and balled up the fabric of my shirt as she held on tight, blushing all the while. I could feel the heat radiate off her body, her smooth skin pressing up against me as her thighs slipped between my legs, but this wasn't the time for that. I was in complete control this time, this was a matter of life or death, not pride and restraint. At the very last moment, Susan realized her bushy tail was still poking out from under the sheet and quickly pulled it in and held it tightly against her chest.

 

The clatter of boots slowly patrolling out in the hallway came to a stop outside the room and the two of us tensed up. My breaths were shallow, not that I had much choice. In order to breath with what little room we had, Susan and I had to take turns on inhaling and exhaling so we were not competing for room. The seconds felt like minutes until the clatter of boots went along their merry way. Susan and I both collapsed on each other, propping one another up. All the air in our lungs, along with the tension, leaving our bodies at once.

 

     “That was not clever. That was merely fortunate.” She said chastising me

 

     “Well, it worked.”

 

     “Irregardless, release me at once before-”

 

It was dark under the sheet, but even I could feel Susan's ears twitch once again. What? Again? Don't tell me they're having second thoughts about what they saw? We both panicked a little and drew even closer together, hoping for a better performance than last time. It didn't go exactly as planned. Susan's busy tail, the very tip of it, was brushing up against the tip of my nose. A few stray whiskers tickling it, causing my upper lip to twitch involuntarily. My heart sunk, I felt a sneeze coming on and Susan knew it too, her eyes went wide with fright.

 

My hands were struck at my sides and there was no way I could bring them up without disturbing the sheet noticeably. Luckily Susan was cool under pressure and a paw clutched at my chest reached up and pinched my nose shut. It didn't help that the fur and whiskers of her paw weren't much better than her tail, but there was no way I was going to sneeze now. I had trouble breathing and had to hold my breath, but the footsteps once again waltz past, this time without stopping. When Susan's ears stopped twitching with each footfall, she let go and I took in a huge gulp of air.

 

     “Okay... We good?” I asked.

 

     “No.” She replied bluntly. “I hear more than before.”

 

     “You don't think they're just getting reinforcements before they rush in?”

 

     “No. They speak of someone else other than us. Quickly now, take on a different less... embarrassing position.” She said blushing and radiating off even more heat.

 

In the brief moment we had, we turned our backs to each other, but the sudden trotting of footsteps near the entryway that even I could hear caused us to nearly slam back into each other. My hands that were behind my back caught onto something. Something soft that my fingers sank into it. Just as quickly as the sensation reached my brain, it just as quickly went rigid as I felt Susan tense up like a bow. She stifled a yelp and craned her neck at me.

 

     “Laven! Cease and desist at once!” She hissed at me in a whisper.

 

     “Not my fault, I didn't mean to!” I hissed back.

 

     “S-stop squeezing!”

 

     “Then stop backing up into 'em! You're gonna knock me off. Ack, don't push back with your tail either!”

 

     “Then stop molesting me! Now is not the time.”

 

     “Then stop pushing me! I don't have anything else to grab onto!”

 

We'd be caught this time for sure, but the footsteps rushed past without paying even a moment of attention to the sheet fluttering for no reason. By the time we calmed down, they were long gone. We both breathed a sigh of relief, but Susan quickly remembered her anger. She sulked, turned to the side. Susan stuck her hips out in the opposite direction away from my wandering hands and jut her elbow out into my side to keep me away.

 

     “Laven, you lecher! I cannot believe you... Even during such a crisis...”

 

     “That wasn't what I planned on doing! Well, I will admit it wasn't half bad but-” I said while blushing and clenching my hands and feeling the residual warmth of- “No no no, not planned at all!”

 

I fell backwards as Susan's elbow nearly crowded me out completely. So there I was, squatting down, wavering back and forth, almost falling off the small stand completely. I was waving my hands as though trying to swim through the air and back into balance. I finally found the perfect spot for my arms to balance me. My arms crossed in front of me, one on my bicep the other free hand found Susan's bushy tail. She yelped and cursed under her breath, but all things considered, she had to realize she couldn't complain; for reasons she brought up and the nature of our present circumstances. I was straining and draining all the strength out of my abdomen fast by trying to stay balance and still. The burning sensation would soon wrack me with pain for sure.

 

     “She ran that way! Get her!” A woman's voice echoed through the hallways and into our room.

 

Susan and I tensed up. Even though we were still struggling to get into a position where we weren't smothering each other, we managed stood stock-still for just a moment. A rumbling of footsteps soon echoed into the room, as well as the rattling of armor, weapons and even the occasional roar of wind and explosion of fire and magic. Thunderous footsteps burst into the room and the sound of chisels on wood tore up the floorboards as the intruder came to a screeching halt. The figure let out a gasp of surprise, no doubt after seeing this was a dead end and soon after the plethora of sounds from her pursuers converged at the entry way.

 

     “We got you now!” Yelled one.

 

     “'Arms' above you head and come quietly. We'll be merciful” Commanded another.

 

The person they were talking; I could hear her breathing heavily, but she said nothing in return. Still trying to catch her breath, she took a few quick sniffs through her nose. There was a brief moment where she didn't breath at all, but then I heard... laughter?

 

     “Fu fu fu fu.” She chortled.

 

Hold up, I know that laugh.

 

     “Ha ha ha ha!” She burst laughing.

 

No doubt about it, that's Chris.

 

     “You're trapped monster!” Shouted another. “You ran right into it.”

 

     “Trapped?” Chris said half laughing. “You are gravely mistaken. Do not be so presumptuous! I am not trapped. It is you who have been led into a trap.”

 

There was a mixture of confusion and bemusement from a little over a dozen voices at the entrance of the room. They weren't buying her bluff and were laughing it off. I heard the rattle of steel, drawing of bow strings and the unmistakable shimmer and crackle of magic.

 

     “Hey! Don't turn your back on us! Give it up!”

 

I heard Chris' footsteps get closer and closer until I could make out her large silhouette from underneath the sheet. Her wing spans spreading out as she turned around to face the mercenaries at the entryway. She reached out with her wings. Chris' talons cut into the sheet and with a deep hissing breath that rushed in through her nose, she filled her lungs.

 

     “Awaken, my master!” She bellowed in her deep forced baritone.

 

Chris violently pulled the sheet off both Susan and I. Now exposed, I could see the large gathering of armed, armored and robed mercenaries. Chris had squat down, so that even as tall as she is, she didn't block my view of all the weapons and spells pointed in our direction. Their faces however, were frozen in surprise. All the weapons arrayed before us dropped a little for a brief moment and the whole spectacle lasted only for a few seconds, but it felt like minutes, Susan and I were still frozen stiff. We hadn't even flinched or budged from how we trying desperately to hide, and successfully mind you, from before.

 

     There was only one thought going through my head which then escaped my lips, “Goddammit, Chris.”

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