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Chapter 4-5

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 9 years, 10 months ago

Trapped in a small space and our only exit blocked by a whole squadron of mercenaries. A company of men and women, each one distinct and different from the next and every one a tested warrior. My sense of impending dread held together even with contrast of the shocked expressions on their faces. For just a brief moment that illustrious impression that they had cobbled together was suspended. If I wasn't so embarrassed, maybe I'd think they were scared in stead of simply shocked. That might just be my mind going screwy though. My body was wracked with pain from being in such an improbably and impracticable position. Any trivial distraction would do right now. I really wish the walls were something other than a plain old boring brown right about now. Some stains on the ceiling would do too.


A little chaos didn't slow down Chris. I'm not sure if she's just making things up on the fly, or she had this all planned out. That was just the kind of mystery that surrounded her. Was it all just a show to her, or did she just want everyone to think she was a fool? Either way, everything seemed to be going according to one person's plan. That would be Chris'.


What worth did that plan have? I don't know. The three of us were exposed, out of cover, it seemed like a successful plan with a terrible goal mind. But it was Chris that made the first move. Before their archers could notch their arrows, Chris threw up her right wing, covering herself like a cloak. Her large frame covering us as well she stood up. When the first volley of arrows came flying toward us, I could hear a sound like steel on bone, but the bone did not give or break. The arrowheads collided with Chris' wing and deflected harmlessly off her dragon scales.


     “Don't just stand there and shoot, you idiots!” Shouted an armored woman in the front. “Close in!”


Probably the best move, those arrows even at point blank didn't seem to pack enough punch, but a heavy crushing blow or the spells being channeled by the casters behind them might. And the warriors advanced, shields up and weapons out to either buy them time or rush in to claim victory for themselves. I had my doubts it was a good decision on their part.


Chris pulled back her wing and stepped up into the charge, right into the path of the front runner, a lithe woman encased in plate armor with a halberd's spear point held low at the floor. She gave out a brave battle cry, but was met instead by a powerful leg ending in talons each a small blade in their own right. I think she might have misjudged the kind of range a girl as tall as Chris has. A lazy boot to the chest was all Chris needed to do in order for her to be sent flying off her feet and backwards into a comrade. Sending them both tumbling to the floor.


Balancing perfectly on her left leg, Chris sweeps her right leg upward. Her talons colliding with another warrior who thought he could flank and tackle her. The large wooden kite shield was splintered to pieces on impact and the man behind it came to a sudden stop out of terror. A quick follow through by rotating on her one leg had her tail came crashing in from the side. It swiped the man out-of-the-way with ease, sending him crashing into one of the covered statues. Dust and chunks of greyish-white marble to exploded from the wreckage.


Another man with a rapier in one hand and a whip in the other skillfully wrapped the leather around her right ankle, but when he tugged Chris didn't lose her balance, she didn't even budge. Chris brought her leg down suddenly with a grunt of effort and along with it the poor bastard who went teeth first into the floor and his whip torn from his hand. The other five warriors stopped in their tracks. Their morale to continue their valiant charge had been snapped in half like a twig. They fanned out and surrounded us instead, no longer eager to rush headlong toward the wyvern that stood almost a full two heads taller than any of them.


     “Is this the best you can offer?” Chris said taunting them. “Where did all your bravado go?”


That first woman and her friend untangled themselves and although still dazed, they rose to their feet. The man thrown into the statue did the same, wavering from being punch drunk. The pretty boy duelist, now a little less pretty with a few missing and broken teeth, was still rolling on the floor in pain. Chris watched them all with tepid anticipation, slightly disappointed they had stopped. Her mood was soured even more when a stray arrow slammed off her left shoulder. The arrowhead blunted upon impact and the shaft cracking afterward. It would have done better hitting a solid brick wall. It left nothing but a scuff; a wound no more serious than a paper cut.


It was a nice effort on their part. You might assume from the way Chris is dressed the she is vulnerable, but her skin was armour. She didn't need to laden herself with plate additional plates. I'm also certain that she doesn't like arrows much at all. Seems like every time she gives a speech or is about to an arrow comes out of nowhere and strikes her. She doesn't have fists to clench, but her talons did begun tearing up the wooden floor boards.


     “Magic missile barrage! Fire now!” Shouted the female warrior just now separating herself from the other warrior.


The wands and staffs belonging to the trio of casters in the back glowed a purplish-white. Their incantations had gathered enough magical energies to send out a barrage of pointed and potent missiles. They hissed like fireworks as they ripped through the air and arched on a direct trajectory toward Chris, but when they exploded, they did so without making contact with their intended target. They slammed into an invisible barrier. I heard a jingle of chains beside me, a golden scale swaying back and forth atop of gold staff. Susan's stomach tattoos were glowing white. Doing what they every time she channels her powers.


I felt vindicated in assuming these people were unorganized. Individually they seemed quite competent, but they're only human after all. Their coordination is a mess. Going in one by one and failing to take in all possible variables. They outnumbered us, but that advantage only mattered when it was used effectively because each girl individually was so much more powerful than any one of these mercenaries.


     “We shall discuss your brash actions later. For now we'll see Laven to safety.” Susan said dropping off the stand and taking position next to Chris.


     “Then watch yourself, princess. You might chip a claw or get a scrape,” Chris taunted.


     “We'll also discuss how to address other politely.”


     “Need that long to think of a comeback?”


Chris looked down at Susan with a wry smile, Susan didn't flinch or return the playful jab at all. Her paws did wrap tighter around her staff as she prepared herself for when the mercenaries finished rallying.


     “Be silent and concentrate,” She finally growled in response.


I wasn't going to be doing the two of them any favors by remaining on the stand, so I leapt down as well and stood behind the two. There had to be a way I could be of help, but I also understood there wasn't much I could do. I didn't want to become pin cushion for arrows or get held down and taken hostage... again. There was only really one thing I could do.




I straightened out my back, puffed out my chest and crossed my arms in front of my chest. I threw a mean look at those watching the three of us carefully and even though my heart sunk and jumped with each pair of killer eyes I met, I kept my cool by realizing they were probably just as terrified, if not more, than I was.


     “Surrender now, heathen incubus!” A young priest in factory default church robes and a friar haircut.


Seriously, do they mass produce these guys? And is the church in on this? The rest of his companions don't seem the pious type. More like the wanting to be paid type. And there was that word again: Incubus. A heathen I can understand, but why throw around the incubus bit? A man so overcome with demonic energy that something inside him... changes. Well, I know for certain after the run in with the hunk of black magic that certainly isn't the case.


     “Surrender? I don't think so,” I said. “How about I make you an offer? A ten second head start to get out of our way. We're leaving and we don't need to take you out to do so. If that has to happen, it will be up to you.”


     “This is not a negotiation, pal.” Said a gruff voice from underneath a suit of armor.


     “I don't really care if you're a nice guy,” A vulgar looking rogue said. “I just know there's a bonus on every head that tries to pull a heist here today. Should have thought that part through before, if you weren't ready to tangle.”


Pull a heist? What is he talking about? It does answer one question though. They most certainly are not here for us or for the bounty on me. They hadn't even called me out by name. But now I'm left wondering what so many mercenaries are being paid to protect.


     “Greed!” Chris bellowed. “Greed!” She screamed nearly spitting the second time. “I should have known. I didn't want to believe it, but to think so many would do battle with for such a feeble cause.”


And there Chris goes. Throwing around her wings, hamming it up like a freshman drama student. Painfully calculated and stiff articulations of her each and every word.


     “Words fail, so now I will show you that it is JUSTICE that will prevail!”


Susan and I both tried to stop her, but it seems negotiations have died. Chris launched into the air by kicking off with her powerful legs, soared with the help of her wings and came crashing down back onto the deck with a flying kick. The mercenaries had to scatter to avoid being obliterated just like the wood panels underneath Chris' talons. But it had done it's job, their formation was cut to ribbons with just one charge from the wyvern.


Even if she couldn't fly, the reach this girl had was frightening. Her tail was long and muscular; it acted like a weapon all on its own. It had more than enough strength that a quick flick could sweep someone or send them flying backwards. And those powerful legs ending in those talons, I watched as one of the warriors going in for a counter-attack had his sword caught in them, Chris clenching down hard. The steel of the sword bent and warped, eventually the sword breaking off at the tang, leaving the poor sap standing there with nothing but a hilt before her tail came whipping in from the side and sent him flying into some crates.


Her wings were like a pair of shields, the flexible leather membrane absorbing blows and I'm sure her arms couldn't be made of flesh and bone from the beating they take when she fends off attacks. Her fighting skills were on a different level. Not a higher level then Rose, but somewhere tangential to it. A different kind of class. She seemed disciplined, precise and calculating. All the times she ran her mouth seemed like a distraction. If you listen to her, you'd think she was a fool. When you watch her, you definitely cannot disagree she isn't a warrior, a warrior of justice like she says. Even if her notion of justice is complex and exists only inside her head.


Chris had entered the fray like a bowling ball and the mercenaries sent flying in each direction like pins. That was where Susan slipped in to hold the rear. All eyes were on Chris and Susan, they couldn't afford to look away. When one shady looking thief lady broke through and made a run for the Anubis, she swung her gold staff around and caught the thin short blades of the rogue and pushed her aside. When she was thrown off her balance, Susan brought down the heavy golden scales which jingled and then jangled off the girl's head with a crack.


Paws radiant with her own special brand of divine energies. She could easily turn away any spell she could throw her paw in the way of. A channeled fire ball from one of the robed mercenaries, deflected after hitting an invisible wall Susan had thrown up in front of herself. You could make it out for just a second, a transparent geometric shape in the shadow of the fire's light. The fireball was sent into nearby statue, scatting on impact after turning the white sheet to ash instantly. With a snap of her digits she sends that energy out like a telekinetic blast, an invisible hand causing a sound like a thunderclap, the robed man in her sights is tossed backwards as if hit by a sledgehammer in the chest.


Susan isn't a warrior, but she had the strongest sense of duty and is clever, practical. Could she hold off all these mercenaries like Chris was going right now? No, I doubt it. But she can certainly help mop up. That just leaves me, standing in the back watching the mayhem unfold. Standing there wishing I could do something. Anything. That's when I spot the priest from before speaking into his rosary beads and waving his hands over the fallen and injured around the room. I watch as those fallen convulse, then pull themselves off the ground, shake-off and then stagger back into the fight.


If that's their angle... A fight of attrition... Okay, there's something other than bluffing I can do.


I can fight dirty.


He's off to the side, silent, pretty much a spectator like myself. So that's why I feel emboldened to storm over, swallow any misgivings, throw my shoulder back and let fly my knuckles into the side of her face. It's a cheap shot, I know that much, but I'm not going to stand back and do nothing while you heal those trying to kill my companions like that. A cheap shot for sure, a veritable sucker punch, but after hitting the ground and the way he looked up at me, you'd think I had done something completely alien.


Another one of the warriors was tossed off to the side by Chris rampage. Like Pop-Eye after downing a can of spinach, laughing heartily all the time. The warrior tries to drag himself to his feet.


     “Brother Thomas! Brother-” He shouts, then almost swallows his tongue when he looks over at the two of us.


Yeah, I'm definitely looking like the bad guy right now. Standing over an unarmed man of the cloth with my fists clenched. No doubt breathing heavily with a nasty villainous expression on my face.


     “You!” He hisses, as though I had just mugged his own mother. “Leave him alone! Fight like a man you bottom feeding maggot!”


Such harsh words. Probably justified. Brother Thomas tries to rise to his feet, chanting away again, so I feel obliged to kick him in the ribs. He could have just stayed down, but no. His friend's face contorts in anger and the frier slumps back down on the floor, clutching his side, moaning and coughing uncontrollably.


     “Hey! I said fight ME you sack of worthless shit!” The warrior spat.


     “What? Why? You'll notice we're winning now?” I calmly replied.


Every mercenary being put down now was staying down. One, two, three, their causality rate was climbing fast. I wasn't going to be distracted by a taunt. It flies in the face of the Geneva convention, but I'm feeling a bit like the underdog and the insurgent right now, so I give the priest another kick to the side for good measure. If I'm already a heathen, blasphemy and a traitor, may as well add war criminal to that list. Polish it a little.


And soon they were forced to fall back beaten to the entry way. A tactical victory for us, but I fear the strategic victory had been ripped out from under us. We were still trapped and they knew it and although battered, they were not broken. As strong as Chris and Susan were, back to back and in tempo with one another, there was no way to break through the door.


     “Reinforcements will be here soon. Give up and come out peacefully with your arms above your heads.” Commanded the lead female warrior, breathing heavily.


All that fighting for nothing, huh? A real bitter pill to swallow. Venting by kicking this priest while he's down probably wouldn't help either. I felt my spirit slipping, but one person had a firm grip on it still. Chris was laughing heartily.


     “Fu fu fu~ Have you given up so easily? Is that all the strength of your greed has? Your feeble sense of justice?”


Chris seems to have had her fun and with that fun at its end, her hearty laughter ends. Her wings rest upon at her hips, her chest puffs out and she takes a deep breath. Neither I, nor the mercenaries, needed any other hint. The men and women crowded at the door started moving immediately, but not in retreat. They fell into formation instead. Almost as though it were drilled into them. They started forming a shield wall. They put together so quickly and efficiently, it was as though their previous piss-poor cooperation had been a lie. I suppose it was dog eat dog before, now was not the time for one-upmanship.


They scrambled into position, but Chris then deliberately and slowly turned to one side, toward the wall on her right. Gurgling like she was coughing up phlegm in the back of her throat, she spat up a large fireball slammed into the side of the supply room with a deafening explosion. Splinters of wood and dust were thrown everywhere, but what had opened, was another exit into another unguarded supply room.


Once I looked up after shielding my eyes, there was only one thought going through my head: 'Why the hell didn't I think of that?'


     “Away!” Chris shouted and took off running through the exit.


Susan and I were stunned for a couple seconds longer, but we soon followed. The mercenaries at the door were caught flatfooted and left in the dust. This other store room had an exit facing the opposite direction, there was no way to cut us off. They'd be far too slow to surround us if they were all converging on that other exit. We'd be long gone and up another level or two before they could even hope to get back on our heels. This was out best chance, maybe our only opportunity to break through the blockade and make it topside and meet up with Rose who is waiting. The mercenaries seemed to have gambled everything and lost.


...That wasn't Chris' plan all along, was it? I'll ask her later when we get to safety.


Right now the best thing to do would be keep my mind in moment as the three of us bolt through the abandoned hallways of the ship, desperately making our way toward the stairs leading up toward the higher decks. Even though we could not hear any pursuers, they would eventually regroup and give chase. Maybe we had bought a little less than a minute before someone takes charge, starts barking new orders and they gather theirs wits to brave pursuit. While we were on the run again there were a couple things I couldn't help but ask.


     I caught up with Chris and asked her directly, “Who the hell are these guys anyways?”


     “Silver Banner Guildies.” She responded.


Seems like we are getting somewhere now.


     “A mercenary guild?”


     “Not just any guild. Silver Banner is part of a bigger project by the Empire. Humanity's exploration and reclamation outfit.”


     “Heh, real clever,” I chuckled.


     “Excuse me?” Susan asked from behind.


     “What? You guys not invent anagrams yet?”


We came to a stairwell at last and stopped since they were only wide enough to go up one at a time. I stole a glance and Susan and Chris who both gave me puzzled looks.


     “Okay, never mind, just go!”


In case there was some sort of ambush the thick skinned Chris went first and Susan as her backup in the middle, which left me carrying the rear. The stairs were steep and at the top the design of the hallways changed radically. The bare utilitarian wooden walls were now ever so slightly ornate. As though we had finally emerged from the cargo holds to the passenger quarters.


     “Anyways, just what are these guys up to?”


     Chris explained calmly for once, “Silver Banners are often on the frontiers. Exploring and spelunking. Looking for lost treasures. Even serving as mercenaries where there isn't a solid law.”


I guess even the gravity of the situation was getting to her. She was speaking clearly without a hint of delusion.


     “Rose and I came from the frontier and I hadn't heard of them.”


     “Relics from the previous war,” Susan responded. “Do you not remember? The calamity that befell mankind nearly a millennium ago. My desert, a deathtrap. Further north, woodland and tundra. No treasures nor glory to be won.”


     “Humanity stretched far and wide across the world,” Chris continued. “There are lots of old ruins. A lot of forgotten secrets and treasures. Old traps, magics and monsters now calling them home. People fight over who has the rights to them too. So they fight each other pretty often too. Not to the death though.”


     “Cozenage,” Susan said. “Mock combat so that no member is truly hurt.”


     “Right.” Chris nodded. “They form little cliques, but they all work under the same banner.”


     “That doesn't explain why they're here. This ain't a frontier.”


     “They work for money. You pay em enough and they'll do it. Not the church or any state. But for clearing out demon realms or any other dirty business... So long as it pays.”


I could taste the vitriol in Chris' voice as she spoke. I think it would be safe for me to say she abhors the idea of fighting for money. But she was getting along so well with Rose who was a mercenary herself... Then again, Rose didn't care about money at all. She just lived for the fights her contracts brought. Maybe that's why those two happened to hit it off so well?


I'm feeling a bit better with an improved answers to questions ratio. One of the mercenaries said something about a heist. They're being paid to guard the ship while it's in transit. But guard what? a bunch of high art? They didn't seem too worried while it was pulverized. I didn't have the time to make assumptions on gut feelings, the three of us were still on the run. We climbed up another steep flight of stairs, but our luck seemed to hit a dry spell. Chris came to a sudden stop at a three way intersection. Left, right or backward and down.


     “Chris?” Susan asked with a tinge of worry in her voice.


     “I ran about before, but I don't remember this place. There should be another set of stairs up to the top deck.”


     “Blow a hole in the roof then.” I suggested.


     “Could bring down the roof and whatever is on top. Could block the whole hallway, better or for worse.”


A wrong turn could put us right back into the path of our pursuers who were probably searching desperately for us. It would almost all of them this time and I'm not sure we could handle it this time. And the more time we spent staring and wondering, the worse it got.


     “Left.” I said.


     “Laven?” Susan said, looking skeptical.


     “Are you sure, master?” Chris said, also doubting me.


     “My luck has been shitty all day. Odds are in my favor right now.”


The two girls went silent. It was both stupid and brilliant at the same time and neither had a better option.


     “Left! Go!” I ordered.


Chris and Susan ran off to the left and I followed after them. For a few seconds until I felt something smash into my right. I had watched the girls cross an intersection without a problem, but I felt like I had been hit by a runaway truck. Was it fatal? No, whatever hit me also hit the floor as hard as I did. For a brief moment our bodies were tangled together like two cartoon characters, suspended in the air before we remembered there was gravity by looking down. I groaned in pain, and so did the other guy. 'Odds are in my favor', huh? Fucking figures.


I rolled away from the crash site and looked up to see the guy who blindsided me, at least part of him. He was draped in a green cloak and I couldn't make out his face. Part of that was probably from what could turn out to be a concussion, but when my vision finally focused I discovered there was black wool covering his face. A mask. Someone who certainly didn't want to be discovered. Our eyes met, but it was he who went tense. His instincts were sharp and he soon picked himself up and started running again, continuing on his way as though we had never hit at all. I was still groggy and trying to get back up, if he wanted to shank me or take my hostage, he could have done so easily. What the hell is up with him?


     “Master!” Chris screamed.


The wyvern had turned around and was rushing back toward me and offered a shoulder so I could help myself up. My knees shook for a moment, but I still had enough adrenaline to continue running.


     “Laven, what was that?” Susan said, also worried.


     “Don't know,” is all I could say. “Someone did a hit and run. Mostly running. I'm fine though. I'm not hurt... We need to keep going.”


There wasn't any time to be waiting around. I'd put that on my tab for later, along with the self loathing and despair if this turns into a dead end. I swear... If that happens, I'm going to choke slam Lady Luck for being a cunt.


I had to borrow Chris' shoulder for a bit, but I eventually got back to my feet and we returned to our all out sprint soon enough. Right around a corner and at the end of the hallway, another set of stairs. What had to be the last set of stairs we'd need to reach the top deck. I was delighted and awash with vindication, until my eyes moved downward to the mountain of steel in the shape of a man waiting patiently at the foot of the steps.


Who knew you could stack steel that high? Let alone that anyone forging armor that thick. I didn't even want to begin thinking how strong the man underneath it would have to be. There was no way I was going to delude myself into thinking it was just another statue someone left in the middle of a hallway for no reason.


     “Welcome, heathens. To deliverance,” The mountain of steel spoke, his voice echoing inside his own armor; like a machine.


Yup, glad I held off deluding myself for once. I need to avoid the crushing feel of disappointment for a bit. For my health.


     “You face The Rampart. One of the Almighty's chosen. By his will, you shall not pass,” He spoke elegantly and with grace.


He had an aura around him, almost like a halo round his head. Silver polished armor that was embellished with gold trimming in ornate designs. Like runes, winding lines of dialogue that looked like scriptures. That was the impression he gave to me. There wasn't a sword in his hand, no weapon on his back or one at his hip. Just a shield. A very large round shield strapped to his right arm. Unlike his silver armor; it was wooden and looked dirty, poor and undignified. The contrast was stunning and profound.


If the man had anything else to say, Susan wasn't going to hear it. It wasn't Susan who usually leapt in first, but she was the most practical of all us, she wasn't going to let this mountain blather and hold us up when time was in short supply. With a swish of her staff and a snap of her digits, an invisible force lashed out toward the knight, but all the man had to do was raise his old wooden shield. It was only for a moment, and I'd have to swear on it instead of prove it, but a glow with the same white aura as the man, enshrouded the shield for a moment. There was the sound of a heavy knock on wood, the shield flinching backward slightly in the firm man's grip and then a slamming force cracking the floor halfway between us.


Susan didn't follow up, her stoic expression turned into a frown and her eyes widened, twitching and scanning the man over. She was... searching. Looking for an answer to something she didn't understand. Whatever just happened didn't make sense to her and if something doesn't make sense to Susan, that worries me too.


     “Your foul magics will have no effect on me, heathen dog. Judgement has waited patiently for you. While you run and hide, I heard the whispers from up high tell me you would arrive. You shall not reach your friend. And revenge will be had for each of my friends who listened to their own passions and not my Lord's words of warning.”


     “Judgement?” Chris said darkly. “Judgement? Another Silver Banner telling me they know what justice is?”


     “Judgement is the Almighty's domain, Monster. The Silver Banner merely the vessel which I deliver it from. As his words have told me.”


     “A Silver Banner doesn't have a foot to stand on when lecturing me on justice!” Chris shouted.


Silver Banner. 'The bandits' back in Domdracveria... They were paid to be there, like mercenaries. Is there a connection? Is Chris connecting the wrong dots? I guess it doesn't matter right now if it's true, if she's making that connection... I know exactly where this anger is growing from. That's the only thought process going trough her head right now.


     “Stand fast heathens. You shall not pass and the Lord's allies shall soon arrive. Then you will finally feel the calm embrace of the judgement that awaits your poor souls. You poor licentious and wrecked souls.”


     “Your judgement! My justice! We'll find out which is stronger. Right here! Right now! Silver Bannerman!” Chris screamed out in challenge.


Chris broke free of our formation and sprinted headlong toward the mountain of steel, yelling a battle cry all the while. The mountain slid her heavy boots into position to brace for the incoming blow. I heard Susan gasp beside me and I stole a quick glace to see her eyes wider than before. Wide with the shock of realization.


     “That shield. Enchanted. Old magics.” She rattled off.


Magic shield. Enchanted. Susan's spell having no effect... No, that's not right. Her spell did have an effect, just not on the man. It was...


     “Chris!” Susan shouted.


     “Chris stop!” I shouted afterwards.


Susan had figured it out and after looking at her I did as well, but even my voice couldn't reach Chris now. She was bounding toward the massive suit of armor, the magic shield large enough to cover his entire torso and half his helmet just below the eyes. She'd try to break him with one kick, all her strength behind one blow and when she did...


     “JUS-!” Chris began to scream out.


My heart sank. Chris' powerful leg swept back in preparation for the decisive blow. The knight braced himself and I saw the dull wooden shield shimmer with a subtle aura. Chris came within striking distance of her long reach, the steel mound didn't budge and simply raised his shield and prepared to block.


     “-TICE! Low kick~”


It wasn't a roundhouse, it wasn't a straight kick or a forward boot, it was a simple arc, like the swinging of a pendulum. Under the shield, at a slight angle, between the knight's legs which were shoulder width apart. The flat top of Chris' large taloned foot collided with the steel armor with a deafening clang, as though her target were a soccer ball. Well, it certainly was a type of ball, that's for sure. The armored skirt rose upward with the blow, the knight's whole bulk frame lifted upward a bit, slightly off his feet. The metal at the sight of impact: bent. If there had a cup there, it did nothing. Susan and I both flinched and hissed gasps between our teeth. I could feel the sympathy pain all the way over here.


The glow in the shield faded away. A series of noises came from underneath the knight’s visor, gurgling and some high pitched. His knees buckled and his huge mass came crashing down on the floor. Landing on top of his shield which is body instinctively curled around for protection, almost in a fetal position. Well, the voice echoing out from behind that helm may sound like it, but he certainly isn't a machine. That much is for sure.


Chris stood over his body, taking in a breath and slowly exhaling. Susan and I cautiously approached, weary of the groaning and incapacitated heap of steel on the floor. The occasional sobbing and choking was jarring.


     “Chris?” I tentatively said.


     “Basics of close quarters confrontations!” Chris declared with the usual gusto. "Maximum force at your opponent’s weak spot for maximum effect.”


     “This also about warfare being half deception?”


     “Now you're learning” Chris said with a smile and a lifted talon on her forearm, like some kind of attempt at a thumbs up.


The three of us stood there for a few awkward seconds. It would have been silent, but the dignified shell of a man was making a ruckus on the ground next to us; rolling about and groaning. I don't know if Chris knew what was going on or not just now, a question for another time, but we needed to get going. Now. Luckily we seemed to all have the idea at the same time. Chris and Susan took off up the stairs and I followed behind them, leaving the poor man to wallow in a new world of pain reserved only for him.


I looked up and saw the dark of night we had let shield us when we first slipped into the port and onto the ship had been replaced with the orange light of dawn. A welcoming sight along with the warmth of the spring sun. The confines of this barge's bowels were soon to be behind me. I'd once again enjoy the warm light of day and... snow?


The further I got up the stairs, the closer I got to the entrance, white particles began to flutter through the air. They dusted the steps in a layer of grey, but the back of my throat burned and when I took a breath through my nose, I smelled something burning. I choked and coughed, a haze of smoke lingering in the air amongst the dancing snow. Dancing snow that scalded my tongue when they swept into my mouth. No. It wasn't snow. It was... ash.


When I came out onto the deck, I saw Chris and Susan's backs, their tails hanging low. I looked out and saw... Devastation. It was the only word that could do the scene before me any justice. The orange glow wasn't the sun. It was fire. All around me was the smouldering wreckage of whatever had been on the top deck. Raging infernos flickering in the backdrafts from fresh winds carried by the lake. Billows of smoke being carried off by those very winds that lapped up against the surface of the lake. Among the debris and the piles of ash and dust, I saw the occasional mercenary. Face up, face down, buried, it didn't matter. There was a trail of them, like bread crumbs. My eyes followed them until they reached the origin. A pile of them.


There had to be dozens of Silver Bannermen on this ship. We had the misfortune of running into the mess hall a number of hours ago. The mistake that led to this chase. Where they had all been gathered before. A third had hunted for Susan and I in the cargo. A third had chased after Chris. The final third had gone after Rose. From all the mercenaries gathered all in once place before, I had to be looking at a fifth of them. Almost two dozen bodies strewn around, most of them in that one place. At that once place there was only one person left standing.


I stepped forward, putting my hands on Susan and Chris' shoulders, pushing my way to the front. Their faces were... vacant. Maybe terror was the right word? Their eyes were wide, their jaws slightly slackened. As I stepped forward I got a clearer view of the one standing atop the ruins. She was standing tall even though there were a couple arrows sticking out from her back and one out of her left bicep. A sword in her right hand. The ribbon in her hair had been shredded, her scruffy long red hair fluttering in the turbulent winds behind her. Her tail swished back and forth, quietly but on its ridge was a raging inferno, spitting our embers and crackling like a campfire.


It looked like she was in a trance, her eyes cast downward, her shoulders slightly slumped over. But when my foot snapped a black charred floorboard, she raised her head. Her head slowly turned toward me and I could finally see her eyes.


A pair of amber colored eyes. Crocodile eyes. They glowed with the fire shining in them, except those eyes didn't have any light themselves. It was as though her pupils had vanished completely. They looked dull as they stared right into me, no emotion on her face.


     My throat was parched from the heat, but I spoke out despite the choking smoke, “Rose?”


Or maybe... Just maybe, for the first time... I was meeting The Thorn Knight.

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