Lux Aeterna Part II
Chapter 6 ~ Portent
Seville was awakened by soft voices that seemed to heave like waves up and down. Stirring uncomfortably he felt his eyelids and pressed the film away, realizing it was still night and that he must not have dozed long, for the others were still talking. What little sleep he'd had, however, left him rested so he decided to join the others. After standing he equipped his leather vest quickly and made sure to have his daggers ready, then he picked up his empty water canteen and headed to the fire, which sometime in his nap the others had decided to move nearer the forest, almost fifty yards away in fact. No wonder the talking had been so quiet, thought Seville.
The distant walk to the campfire made him feel detached, a single entity pressed against a vast sea of night with only a single beacon to approach, and that beacon feeling miles away. Though late summer, already the trees were loosing their leaves because hundreds of leaves were soaring past, scurrying along the ground like frightened roaches. The wind had certainly picked up this night. The ground had been empty of the leaves before; Seville wondered how long he had been sleeping.
When Seville approached the campfire he found the others adorned with whatever supplies they he brought. Dr. Sylum wore his leather plate with the short sword sheathed on his belt, Edrick was dressed in his robes and had his pack to his side, closed and readied, and Herrick Gipson donned his entire armor suit, lacking only the helmet, complete with each of his weapons. Almost like the effect of a mood stone, Gipson's armor shone black in the deep nighttime as opposed to red. Sided next to each of the sitting light warriors was a water canteen.
Leaves fluttering by on invisible strings or air, Seville sat and joined them. Along with moving the fire they had built it bigger, almost four feet in diameter and at times the flames licked so high into the night that Seville could not see Edrick sitting across from him.
They talked of Chuck Domino, but it seemed Sylum had won them over while Seville slept, because they were considering strategies to deal with Domino, not violently, but cooperatively, negotiating the possibility of complete coverage, interviews, and several other exclusive privileges. Gipson especially had softened his mood towards the journalist, and made friendly jokes at the absent man's expense while seeming pleased at the ideas. Gipson said that, thinking it over, it was a wonderful idea to have a second-hand chronologist for this kind of thing. Though he had developed a following, the public knew nothing of the other three and wouldn't necessarily trust their reports, so Domino could serve as a support man. The whole thing had seemed wary at first, but he said it dawned on him that this was no trivial adventure, but the initial trial of the light warriors, and that kind of thing needs unbiased interpretation. Sylum had mentioned a few things earlier in the day about Domino not being the most unbiased of reporters, but he did not realize that argument at this moment and let the knight say his piece in Sylum's favor. Then Sylum asked to see all the orbs of light, and Gipson and Edrick responded quickly, tossing them over. It took Seville a moment longer but he still delivered. Sylum required both hands to hold them, and he held them forward in the cupped palms and spoke a long rambling soliloquy about their importance. Edrick commented on what a fine painting the stance would have made, and the others agreed. As Sylum handed back the orbs Seville noticed that Gipson's, though still absent of the dark gray gas that filled the others', pulsed with a dull purple bead in the center, a throbbing singularity of shear regal light. The color called to him like the wailing song of an angel, but the other three took no notice of it, and Gipson stuffed the orb back in the pack leaning on the log seat.
Crystalline snaps came from the fire, and they continued to talk, about everything from the days to come, to the Princess, to the festival. It was all rambling and at times Seville realized he couldn't the least remember what had been said and would try again to stay on top of the conversation, but it flowed from one topic to the next, and without goal at all, so often if sounded like the three were mumbling indistinct truisms with no substance at all. Seville felt as if their collective drive for conversation had slackened and that everyone should just get some sleep, but the others were content on the moment, oddly. Since Sylum and Edrick had not retired, Seville knew that he had not slept but for minutes, so it did seem slightly disconcerting that they would have already accomplished what they had, and so quietly, but Seville didn't think on it much, and tried to stay in the wavering conversation.
A little time passed like this, leaves wisping, fire crackling, and the three men before Seville shifting from topic to topic. Above him the few clouds felt stationary and the stars dimmed. A void behind him and a grand forest before him, Seville felt as if in a box, but for once this didn't grant him comfort, but just oddity, misunderstanding, disorientation. Suddenly Sylum spoke up and requested that Gipson fill their water canteens for the next day, better now than in the morning. Gipson obliged, shifted his tar-black armor, and took up each of them, including Seville's, now glad he had decided to bring it, and then he turned and headed into the fields off the direction they had come the day prior. Seville didn't remember a river or pond in that direction but Gipson really was the better adventurer, so he must know what he is doing. The knight seemed to dissipate into darkness as he walked away, only not into the darkness of shadow but into his own darkness. Certainly he had faded from sight long before he should have. Seville could still see the tress at that distance.
Then, Sylum said that nature was calling and asked if Edrick was coming, to which the priest said yes and stood to follow. The two men disappeared into the thickness of the trees and Seville was left sitting alone at the large fire. Seville realized that for such wind to be passing, for the leaves to be moving by so rapidly, that the trees should have been swaying much more, should have been making more noise. In fact, beyond the flicks and sizzles of the campfire, the air was silent. Not a single scratch of branch on branch or the call of a single night-bird. Seville could not think about that though, because whenever he tried his right arm suddenly began to sting.
When he tore back his shirt sleeve to reveal the accursed rot, he found that the bruise had shifted from black to purple, or rather the outlining bruise had remained black but the veins were a sharp purple color, dancing down his arm just as the blood might flow. Even as he looked at it the intensity seemed to build, the light greater and greater, and yet not reflecting on his shirt or the ground. The purple vibrancy shimmering now from his underarm was not reflected by anything, but only existed for itself. And then the lines of color did not follow his veins but moved into new jagged paths, and then moved from those, and then again. The lines were swaying upon his arm, and it was so miraculous a sight that he hardly noticed how the pain was growing. Seville was aware of nothing else. All his vision zoned in on the dancing lights upon his arm.
The lines took shape, but did not return to the shape of his veins, but instead crawled into a single line running down the center of his underarm and sided by two crests on his palms that connected at angles. An arrow. Following its path Seville looked up into the ling of trees and was suddenly overcome with a burning drive. He stood and launched into the brush, not caring that the bushes were spiked and they tore at his face.
Hundreds of trees must have grown while he was napping as the forest was impossibly dense, thickening to the point that each of his frantic steps was aimed at dodging another tree trunk. And still his progress was rapid; he maintained still almost the speed of a run but wasn't sure where he was running. After some time he began to hear the voices of Sylum and Edrick, shouting. Seville wanted to reach them, felt a dire urgency to save them, and yet he felt that hope sinking in his stomach so that it weighted him down. His legs were sore already, his right arm thumping, and still he could not find the yelling men. Next came the sounds of metal clanging. Battle.
When Seville finally burst into a small clearing where all around were trees that almost seemed to have faces, peering in with angry sneers, the sounds of metal had stopped and before him he saw Dr. Sylum bent over the body of Edrick Valance. As Seville approached, very afraid, Sylum raised his sword out of the slain Edrick and began to wipe it down on his cloak. Seville even now took time to note how the Edrick's blood matched perfectly with the cloak's hue, and so no stain would show. But was that his sword? No, no, it was the sword of Gipson, the Werebane. Sylum then turned to face Seville, who had stopped short and could not think of how to act. Sylum came closer, holding the blade low to his side, but still tensed and prepared. When he finally came so close to Seville that a single strike could have sent the rogue to the ground forever, Sylum stood still and let the leaves run past, swirling even between them in that little space. Seville held his mouth ajar but no sound came out. His eyes raced between the cold glimmer of Sylum's and to the corpse of Edrick lying on the ground behind. Then Sylum slotted his sword in its sheath and pulled from behind his robe two glass bottles filled with a dark brown liquid. A drink then, said Sylum, and he handed one of the bottles to Seville, who could find nothing else to do but to open the bottle and start drinking. It tasted sweet and quenched a thousand years' thirst. His entire body felt cool as it ran through him, thrilling him. The pain in his right arm swept away with a single gulp, and the torrents of wondrous love gushed through his body, with such powerful strokes it seemed he might burst. It made him laugh, a giddy girlish laugh. They stood and finished the bottles completely, not leaving a single drop at the bottom of the glass. And then Sylum looked up at Seville with an unwavering severity. His brown eyes seemed almost to reflect the red of a distant fire, and they burned intently. Seville felt like he was falling into a terrible vortex, the sounds of beating kettledrums and wailing strings suffocating him.
So is Gipson back with the water yet, Sylum asked, and he smirked.
Seville was awakened by nearby voices, and instantly looked up to see the three light warriors sitting just near him upon logs and talking over a normal campfire. They hadn't moved, and judging by things he'd been sleeping only minutes. But he was saturated with sweat, and in the night air each drop felt like a spike reaching deep into him. He couldn't stand the humid stickiness of his bedroll so he stood, stretched, and returned to the campfire, at least until the others decided to sleep as well. He tried his best to smile, but could not shake a terrible unsettled feeling in his gut. What really had woken him suddenly? For some reason when Dr. Sylum delivered his obnoxious smile and greeted Seville brightly, Seville became cold throughout. He could only nod and then sit down on his log. Sylum tried to talk to him but Seville remained uncomfortably distant. It suddenly felt like a wall of resistant energy had drawn between them, cold and untrusting.
Chapter 7 ~ The Love Below Pt. 1
Headmistress Glump was quite possibly, no, definitely, the fattest woman in the entire world. Unable to press her folds into any form of constricted clothing, she wore tailor maid dresses of astonishingly hideous floral décor, though, in a pinch, they would make fine sails. Her normal movement was that of a grave saunter, as if in perpetual practice for a funeral march. Her eyes were downcast anyways, the bulging folds from the brow above demanded it. Not that she couldn't run, mind you, just that her run was like an avalanching boulder, ending in nothing but crashes and death. At the waist she circumferenced at least ten feet, though you'd be hard pressed to define where her waist ended and the rest of the fat began. Add onto that a height no greater than five and a half, a pumpkin of a head from anything to size or shape, bread-dough arms slathered with veins crying for release, and feet long and porcine like gluttonous ferrets and you have Headmistress Glump.
In the fall semester, her first year of teaching grade school, no less than five minutes of each day were lost to her agonizing struggle with the door frame. Through soft moans she pressed against the portal, blubbery folds ridging over the frame so that it disappeared, and for that brief terrible moment her and the frame were one, a duality of pressures, inward and outward, struggle and release. By November the children spoke and giggled about the scuttle impressions coursed over the inner wooden slats. For reasons beyond the comprehension of the children, the faculty heads decided to keep Glump on, so over the winter break a work order was signed and the door was widened to accommodate. Three children could enter the room at once shoulder to shoulder and not even suck in their chests.
And she was old too, but this was hard to surmise because her body literally could not afford wrinkles, there was no space within for the indentions. But her badly grayed hair, hanging in multiple pockets like noodles tipped from a bowl was one clue, along with her voice, high and creaky. The dimpled oldness of her face was hidden under millimeter thick make-up anyways, a result no doubt of her never removing a previous coat. Boysenberry blue for the eye lids, syrupy black for the lashes, strawberry red for the lips, and cream white for everything else, her face was a veritable sundae. When she spoke, and she did in great length, her acorn pouch cheeks jiggled like a Buddhist luck-maker; it was always something to watch when you couldn't follow the rant about how kids these days were goin' straight down in the proverbial hand basket, and there wasn't a thing to do about it so shut up and learn your multiplication tables. But they'd learned them already. Nine times seven was sixty-three last month, gee, it's still sixty-three this month. They breezed through the syllabus like Glump breezed through a doorway.
Therefore, it was a breath of fresh sardonic air when the new kid arrived in the early spring. After all, one could only hear the Glump chant (lumpy glumpy, short and stumpy, bag of donuts, still she's grumpy) so many times before it got old, not that the leader of the class clown brigade, Thadwick, noticed this. But a new kid meant a new target to which all the children were welcome. It started the very first day, about a month into spring term.
“Children,” wheezed Headmistress Grump, “we've got a new student in class today so I want everybody to help make her feel…”
“I'm a boy!” said the new kid.
“Oh, of course, dear. Help him feel welcome.” Not a good start at all. The boy's earliest memories were that of childish snickers as he walked to what he thought
was the nearest empty seat, sat and realized it was broken, stood, and then found one towards the back; cruel eyes upon him all the way. His first day of class not but moments passed and already he felt as if in a pit of rattlesnakes, the threatening rattles replaced with jokes. The tall, nasally boy he later knew as Thadwick, sneered and led a rally of laughs. And at what? The little boy, so confused, lost.
Most aggravating to him, and that which he grumbled about as he sat in the back and ignored the lesson on multiplying the terrible sevens, was that he did look like a girl, that this oafish beast ahead the class was not the first to make the mistake. Rather it was a stigma, plaguing him. How else would you expect a boy with brilliant red hair hanging down so that it framed his rosy cheeks to look? And his clothes too were bright red, his pale face sticking out like a fog light.
Early on, a small black-haired boy, probably one of Thadwick's goons, held up a picture he'd been working on diligently since the new kid's arrival, sweeping clockwise around the room and ending with the boy. The picture was cruelly accurate, and under read the caption: Santa called, he wants his clothes back.
“Time for lunch, children!” It couldn't have come early enough, but when the black-haired boy made sure to deliver the picture personally to the new kid's desk, the new kid realized that it didn't really matter.
(Read'em and weep, gents, deuces and jacks…)
He sat alone in the cafeteria and mulled over his five wood-like chicken nuggets, grainy mashed potatoes, and half-melted Jell-O cup. He kept his eyes away from the long table where Thadwick and goons sat, but he heard all the laughing, sharp and distinct as if it was aimed at him, which it probably was. Twice he felt the quick slap of a nugget on the back of his head, but he didn't respond. That would only make it worse, right?
“How did I get here?” the boy asked himself. His head hurt.
(You cheatin' son of a submariner…)
Recess wasn't looking much better, so the new kid stuck to the far end of the grounds, away from the other children. He spent the slowly passing time staring up into the sky, vainly thinking that if he couldn't see them, they couldn't see him. He heard them start laughing again. It was about him, he knew it. No stupid little third grader was that funny on his own. Looking up for so long made him dizzy, so he crouched down and started pressing the gravel around with his hands. What a way to spend a first day at school, he thought. He wanted to go home, but realized he didn't know where that was. His head hurt a lot.
The reaping motion of his hands halted, but he stayed crouched, silent and still like a gargoyle atop a cathedral buttress.
(Yeah…yeah…just deal it again. Hey man, you with us…)
Basking in that tranquil stance the thumping in his head faded slightly, so he tried to maintain it best he could, even slowing his breathing to long silent wisps. He managed to forget everything around him, leaving just him and his small plot of gravel, feeling only the lazy, soothing breeze upon him. But in such motionless sentry he could not avoid the vague mysteries in the back of his mind, a plot of black clouds, a blanket over the past. The boy remembered nothing. Not his family or home, or from where he came even. For only seven days now had he been aware, as he thought of it in his mind. Before that, nothing at all. So lost in his mind he became just then, that at first, and not until they were upon him, did he hear the voluminous, wailing screams.
Before he recognized any sensations he was pulling his face out of the gravel and cupping the back of this head tenderly, and his eyes saw along the ground's horizon several legs running past him. A slap to the back of the head was some warning. He heard several children now screaming, and another sound, deeper and ferocious, but a scream of some sort. Dazed from his falling collision, he bumped himself up and tried to look around, but again without notice he was pushed one way and then another, small clamoring hands pressing him forward and he walked with them with little time to question, they lead wherever he was supposed to go.
Another tyrannical growl came from behind him somewhere, even louder this time, a bellowing sound, a roar. Defiant against the hands pushing him away he spun back, and saw for himself the creature amidst the astonished cries of the children.
“A T-Rex, a T-Rex!!!” they were calling.
The boy screamed instantly as well, but stopped it short and continued to stare, to the point that others were almost pulling him. The giant reptilian beast bounded forward on two thick legs ending in menacing claws. From top to bottom it ran with dimply blue-green scales, and its eyes shone off its head like diminutive yellow beacons. Its shattering roars came out through a maw of gigantic brown teeth that shut in on each other like a cage. As it ran it lashed its tail to each side, accompanied by the mighty swoosh of the wind. Recoiling back, and caught off by the other children trying to pull him away, the new kid lost his footing on a random jut of rock and fell to his back.
The beast noticed and looked as if it would charge, but after a single lunging step it reared back and perked upwards, twisting its head around. The boy winced in confusion, and the other children continued to pull at his shoulders, but he angrily shook them away. They yelled at him, turned, and ran. The T-Rex completely turned then and left his tail to the boy. He sat there a moment and watched the monster duck its head and bobble like a chicken away from him, moving slowly. He took no notice of the other children having left him, only the view before him. The giant beast finally subsiding its growls, he suddenly knew what had attracted it away.
(Come on, man, you gotta pay attention…how many you want…)
A high-pitched squealing, a girlish cry, was ringing over the field, somewhere in front of the boy and also before the Rex. The sound was obvious and terrifying, but before all things had come together for the boy, the beast hunkered low and charged forward. The boy heard the metallic scrapes and cracking wood as the Rex launched its head through the playground, sending splintery logs and many of the long metal canisters that had formed the hideaway pipes soaring through the air. Too lost in this sight, the boy still did not move, and the Rex circled around and sent another chunk of the playground away. The beast ran in circles, mulling its snout through the debris, searching for its food, but seemed to find nothing. It worked slowly, but powerfully.
The boy's head suddenly hurt incredibly, the sharp glimmers of white that pierced the blank darkness of his mind physically pained him. Something was coming to him, something natural, though it hurt to try to realize it. Once more without notice his hands were searching the ground, combing quickly through the gravel and dirt, doing their own searching. He wanted to do something, wanted it so bad, but feared it. Was this right? Finding nothing more suitable than a palm-sized stone, he stood and charged forward at the Rex.
(That's three times now…do you wanna play or not, buddy…)
The T-Rex was taking a fresh chew into a still-planted metal canister as the new kid finished his run onto the ground and halted instantly, finding that he had little to do offensively. For the short while, the monster seemed to care little of him, so the boy followed the wailing cries that had led both adversaries to this point. Hopping a mangled log, once part of a swing set, and cornering around a long grounded pipe, he came up to a short and wide dome structure where kids would hide and make the base for games like knights and bandits. He peered in and saw a milk-pale Thadwick clenching against the side of the dome, trying his best to hide, but still screaming.
“Shut up!” whispered the boy at Thadwick, as emphatic as a whisper could be, but at first the frightened mound either didn't understand or didn't choose to obey. He continued to shoot out the echoing, nasally screeches of fright, punctuated with breathy gasps. So the new kid ducked into the dome, crouched over, and slapped Thadwick across the face.
“Shut up, I said!”
Thadwick was so shocked he actually did. But in that very first instant of quiet they discerned how close the monster now was, so close they felt its hot breath jetting in from the unwelded seams of the metal dome. To Thadwick it must have seemed like some masterful fury, but to the new kid, he was drawing a mental blank and operating on sheer kinetic energy. The boy grabbed Thadwick hard by the upper arm and pulled him from the dome, just as the angry teeth of the Rex were crushing it like paper.
Twisting, the ball in his shoulder tugging on the socket, the new kid slung Thadwick past him and the bully fell forward.
“Run!” the boy screamed, but Thadwick only dug his head down into the gravel like an ostrich, bawling. So the new kid turned and faced the monster that had already discerned there was no food in the little dome. He heard the heavy blasts of air from the giant lizard's nostrils and he also heard the distant shouts of the other children. They sounded almost like cheers, the teasers now cheering him towards his doom. And he felt a terrible urge to go to it, what started as pain and lead to courage now felt like sickness in his gut. The Rex cocked its head, almost confused by this little creature that didn't run, and then with mighty steps it approached.
The new kid lunged his arm only to realize it wasn't holding the rock anymore, so he let out a panicked yelp and then ran forward under the monster's trunk-like legs. He feared the beast would continue on to Thadwick so he turned and yelled, but already the Rex was turning to charge again. To draw it away the boy ran off to the other end of the playground, hurdling the splintered remains of wooden climbing sets, and the Rex charged but stepped hard on a plate-metal slide that did not give so easily and so the creature lost its footing and sidestepped awkwardly to gain balance. The new kid thought he heard the distant voices rally up in applause but couldn't be certain and wouldn't take the time now to look. He scanned the ground desperately and finally found it, a long metal bar torn jaggedly from the dome structure, the end was crude and spiked, but it was not so long that he could not carry it. He fished it up and waited for the beast that had now readied itself and muscled back to release an angry roar. Then it lunged forward once more and for some reason, in that instant, the boy realized that he wasn't even sweating, that he wasn't even afraid.
The T-Rex brought its head down for the fatal chomp but the boy sidestepped and swung the bar around like a greatsword, splattering the creature's eye like a hammer would an orange. The monster lurched forward two bulky steps and turned hard in the direction of its good eye, loosing furious roars and screeches. It was horribly disoriented, it began to charge for a moment only to stop and try to balance itself, always turning slightly in the direction of the uninjured eye. It seemed unable to find the boy, and realizing this the boy backed away rather quickly, hoping that what he'd done would be enough. The amount of blood alone was stealing from him a will to fight; it spurted from the socket in intervallic shots of canon velocities. At last the creature would not handle the swirling world around it, and it both dashed and hobbled away from the grounds towards the forest that, the boy could only assume, it came from, though he couldn't tell if the dinosaur knew where it headed. But he heard the distinct scurry of whipping leaves as it proceeded further and further back into the foliage, eventually beyond his vision, that he just now was noticing was quite keen. He was breathing hard to be certain, but his hands did not tremble, and the feeling of sickness had faded. In fact, all things considered, he felt fine.
He contentedly walked over to where Thadwick was still hulking himself in the gravel, and he saw the other children rushing towards the grounds, despite an incredibly fat woman now a ways behind them yelling at them to halt. They rushed in and circled around him and yelled things that he couldn't make out, it came like a hurricane of sound. But it was good sound, at least that he could tell. The winds had changed as it were.
The bully Thadwick was thoroughly abashed, though he stood quickly when the others arrived to try to save face. He failed, and a grin formed on the new kid's lips. When Headmistress Glump finally arrived she had only pronouncements to deliver but the children gave little care to her, and were in no mood to return to class.
They all faced in to the eye of their storm, shouting stupid little lines of admiration and wonderment. But it meant something to the boy; it hit him as a warmth he'd never known. So there are good things in this world, he thought, and whatever fear may have existed in himself, his confusion over what had come over him, it was slight and defeated for the moment. He beamed.
“What was your name again, kid?” asked one of the boys, one of Thadwick's goons the new kid noticed.
“Oh, it's Herrik,” he responded. “Herrik…”
“Gipson!!!” shouted Seville.
Gipson's eyelids fluttered twice and then the image snapped into place, and even before it had focused his mind began to register a count of bodies. Three that he knew, three that he didn't, six all told. To his left was the Dr. Darrin Sylum, affixing a studious eye on him, and to the doctor's left sat Seville, clearly prepared to shout again if need be. Not sitting at the round table was the apprentice clergyman Edrick Valance, who was back a little ways against the wall standing next to a high bar stool. To Gipson's right this time he saw three more or less indistinct men, commoners by their clothes, but not sedentary. Travelers he thought, but not the easy going type as he discerned a gray, foul look about them, the kind of shadow that the mind puts there more than might exist, a very potent reflex in the knight's repertoire. Their faces were hardened, fixed in a permanent scowl, and the one that let teeth show was missing more than a few.
“Are you with us this time, big guy?” asked Seville, a bit perturbed. “The cards don't play themselves.”
“Yes, yes,” he thought quickly, “I'm sorry, I must be a little tired, gents.”
“You don't get tired,” continued Seville, now just playing with the old knight.
“Well, I do have my rare moments. I recommend you take great note of this for it's the last you will see of it. Whose turn?”
“Yours, of course,” said one of the dark men sitting to his right. His voice had the dusty, rakish sound of a seaman too long away from the ocean breeze.
Gipson remembered now, looking at the five cards gripped in his fingers. Nothing, zilch, terrible hand.
“Fold,” he said, and passed the cards over to the furthest new man, who had the deck. They rolled their eyes and spoke to themselves under their breathe, having waited that long for a fold. Gipson said nothing in response though, he kept quiet and let the memory rush back to him. He rarely dozed and didn't care to do it. The cards were played out and a meager pile of golden coins was pressed over to Seville who seemed overly bright, saying something about having all the luck that night. He's acting, thought Gipson, something that worried him and he made sure his blades were still equipped.
It was a traveler's pub, he remembered. They were two days out now from Corneria, and with a second day of travel showing little in the way of progress; the light warriors had grown solemn, against the attempted well-wishings of Dr. Sylum. Truthfully, Gipson still held onto his hope and didn't worry, and he wouldn't think that Seville would question the professor in the least, and so it was only idly relevant at the moment. He would at least wait until they arrived at the next major commerce city, named Jrist, another day's travel to the north, before he considered losing steam. If there was word to find, it would be found there. Looking out the window and quickly scanning the display of stars it was clear that night was long fallen; he wished to rest soon. Old bones don't work like they used to.
“Where'd you say you was headed?” asked one of the men to Gipson's right as he dealt out the hand. Sylum, taking up his diplomatic responsibilities, did the talking.
“Didn't say, and don't know. Just traveling here to there, Mr. Smythe.”
“Ah, but there must be a 'there',” responded the man apparently named Smythe, “It's not a day when people do much travel for no reason.”
“We stopped by the Centennial, on the first night that is.”
“And left so soon?” Smythe was sneering.
“It didn't suit us quite right.” Sylum was flustering. Gipson felt the handle of a short sword under the table, and Seville's eyes were widened and cautious.
“And what does suit you?”
“What suits us is money,” Seville suddenly broke in with a wide smile, “Full house!”
Cards were thrown down in anger and another pile shuffled over to the youngest of them, who amusingly cackled and stacked the coins into impressive piles.
“Don't get greedy over luck, Seville,” said Edrick with his head laid back against the wall, “If you were to have me list things that do not last…”
“Well it's the devil's luck he's got tonight, boy-o,” said a man next to Smythe, and Smythe finished a thought.
“Or cheater's luck.” His raspy voice was instantly weighty.
“Mr. Smythe, we've done this already. You checked the deck yourself. Fifty-two then and fifty-two now, count if you like,” Seville countered.
“Were that the only method then of course, but you and I know it is not. It's your deck so your mark.”
“And what would you ask?” Sylum interrupted.
“Professor, I got it.” Said Seville, “Mr. Smythe isn't serious.”
“Am I not? Well then, sleeves up.” Smythe's gritty face showed not the faintest hint of a joke, and the other's just looked at him momentarily. “A gamer's courtesy, as travelers I'm sure you're aware.”
Seville became still and careful.
“I'd rather not,” he said.
“And therefore admit that you've cheated us,” said the snarling Smythe, and Seville came to realize how ghoulish the gray-haired man looked.
“It's not that…” but then Edrick began to speak before Seville could properly think.
“Mr. Smythe, why do make such … ridiculous requests, when you've no … reason to accuse us … and … on my word … as a priest of the church I can assure you there is no ill-play.” He stumbled over the words frantically, and they diminished almost to nothingness as he spoke.
“Ill-play from the ill-company of a most ill-church. Indeed I have every reason to accuse anyone when the entire world has turned ill as it has, priest of the church. I come from over the seas but here now stay because the winds have turned stale even as the seas churn in fury. The very ground itself has soured. All is slipping into chaos. And if I can't trust the sea, I certainly won't trust a rogue and his friend of the church. Especially those that keep company with an old knight who clearly couldn't keep a watch past supper and a soft-boy of books. You're no travelers.”
“It was a good effort, Eddie,” said Seville, “You've already proven your mettle beyond my highest hopes time and again. But this man here is clearly insane, and only listens to insanity. So I'll give it to him.” And Seville flashed a cautious glance to Gipson and then pulled up the right sleeve of his jacket, revealing the arm flush with black scars. “Do you see any cards, because I don't.”
“My word…” muttered Smythe and even the men to either side became wide-eyed and curious. Gipson, always keeping track of the complete surroundings, noticed that Seville had drawn eyes from other tables as well, so he nodded his head towards him to wrap things up, but Seville was not satisfied with that.
“One more hand then, just to be sure,” Seville said, rolling up the other sleeve and then grabbing the deck. “Eddie, deal.”
“I don't think I should get involved with…”
“Eddie!” The apprentice clergyman vaulted to the table and hastily grabbed up the deck, nearly spilling them all to the floor but luckily saving face.
“One more game?” asked Smythe, still in awe of the odd and somehow frightening black whelps running all down Seville's arm.
“Because I wouldn't want you to lose all hope and think that all in this world is ill. We should at least have a happy game of poker to look to after the day has waned. Surely you trust the priest to deal a hand without bias?” And nobody said anything after that, but rather waited to see the drama played out. Edrick passed each of the six their cards and also handled the swaps, hand visibly shaking as he passed them around. As the turns circled around the table the central pile of gold grew heavy, the largest pot of the night. At the swaps Smythe took three cards, but Seville took only one, not for a moment breaking his stare at the dark man across the way. Gipson had to remember to advise against things like this later. As the only traveler among his crew he knew it was not wise to deal with other travelers. Few were there with such benevolent goals as their own. Perhaps a talk with Seville about the meaning of cockiness.
“That's it then, left of the dealer first, that's you,” said Seville to the man to Smythe's right. It was so arranged that Seville would show last. Wow, thought Sylum, still not concluding on any judgment of the event, did Seville have a flare for drama. He liked it, the professor, liked it a lot. The first man and Smythe turned out with no better than pairs, but the final of the unknown men had a high three of a kind, which beat out both Gipson and Sylum. Seville paused for effect and cast glances to everyone.
“Three of a kind is a strong hand, but it doesn't even come close to my straight flush,” then he laid down the nine, ten, jack, queen, and king of spades, as pretty as could be. “Better luck next time, she's my lady tonight.”
Smythe slapped his fast on the table, downing Seville's golden towers and sending the coins rolling along the floor. He pointed a sharp finger, “You've every look of a cheat!”
“And you've every look of a man walking quietly out the door. I'll get your tab, don't think you can anymore anyways.”
A growl seemed to want to crawl out of Smythe, but the man forced it back, turned, and walked with the other two out of the bar.
Edrick helped Seville fetch all of the scattered gold while the older two sat at the table and gave each other opposite looks. Gipson had always worked his way around such people by playing off his likeability. Actually, he rarely got into such situations because of that. But Seville confused him briefly. The boy seemed to aim for conflict, almost aggressively so. Despite definitely being able to put the earned money to use (the group had decided that all winnings should first handle provisions, and then be given to the victor), Gipson had desperately hoped that the last hand would go to Smythe or his comrades. The knight had always relied on his, usually, accurate ability to judge people quickly, but that first night at the Lux he had not sensed this in Seville. This felt desperately portentous. He checked his blades once more.
Sylum however seemed rather bright about the event. After the three had walked out he had given Seville a slap on the back, another warning to Gipson's heart. It became obvious how little they knew of adventuring. They had little hope of success, he realized, unless the professor be correct in his theories of fate and destiny.
Seville plopped back into his chair like one who has eaten more than his fill, and Edrick set the bulgy coin pouch down and then finally joined them at the table. With a delicious grin on his face, Seville slowly unrolled his left sleeve, and just as it neared the base a rolled-up playing card fell out, the ace of spades.
“You did cheat!” shouted Edrick.
“Quiet down, Eddie! 'Course I did, fools like that are happily parted with their money, trust me. They're not gonna do anything with it for the betterment of society. Where as we are on a divine mission and are going to need food tomorrow.” Gipson didn't like it one bit.
“Even so, fools like that can be dangerous. We're not talking about forest imps here,” the knight said. “That Smythe had a dark look about him, grizzled for sure, but I've no doubt he has skill with a blade, a skill built from use.”
“Eh, you too, Master Gipson? I mean, I expected it from Eddie.”
“It was quite a show to put on just to hide the fact that he was right. You've seen few taverns outside your godfather's, and believe me they are not all so friendly as even this one. I will expect the utmost caution from all of my teammates. Don't speak of fools when you yourself are foolish.” Gipson feared the dark Smythe. He was the first man in a long time to suggest the knight's proper age.
“It was just … eh, fine … you got it, big guy. No more cheating at poker.” Seville reclined the chair back and put his feet up.
They sat there quietly for the moment, letting that topic settle away. Edrick had wanted to go on and scold Seville further, but assumed he wouldn't do as good a job as the knight, so chose to stay quiet instead. Among the many considerations that had crossed his mind over the two long days of walking was the wondering of whether or not becoming a light warrior would set Seville straight. And Sylum too, now that he thought of it. Perhaps now it was his disappointment that quieted him. He'd spent many nights in anger at himself, angry he was unable to stop Seville from whatever crime. If only he could press his will on others. If only Seville would ask to be good, he would teach him. If only he could do anything. The time passed a little longer, the night's animals were in full life.
“What did you think of the man's speech, professor,” asked Edrick to break the quiet, “About the wind going stale and everything?”
“Thought it was a fine speech. A little dramatic maybe but the night certainly isn't short of that. I found it interesting, his mention of chaos.”
“Well, I read this rather depressing essay a long time ago by the famous Dr. Unne,” the others showed no sign of having heard of him, “in which he states that the only innate quality of existence is chaos, a force which he called Sin, and though it seems to fluctuate, in other words seems to be more apparent at some times than others, it is nevertheless ultimately eternal. And therefore, over the millennia, creatures of the world have become bound to chaos, many species have become its puppet, and that is why there is evil, and so evil is unending. Unne made quite clear that this is the only thing you can count on when you're in a pinch. Like I said, depressing. People don't generally hold with it, but I'll admit that it seems a fair judgment of this world, if not a tad too gloomy.”
“So how was he first received? Dr. Unne, I mean?” questioned Edrick, fascinated and needlessly nervous.
“People thought he was nuts. Would have put him away were it not for his work on the ancient language, which is astonishing.”
“So whenever we find the princess and the stakes get high, at least we can count on everything going wrong,” entered an amused Seville.
“Right on the money!”
“Peachy. Hey, you guys wanna play some more? No money, of course. I'll even roll my sleeves up.”
So they set out to the cards once again, and since no coins were crossing the table, Edrick joined them, much to the other's dismay as luck was truly with him. After he could have potentially made more money for the group than Seville even when cheating, Seville spoke.
“We have got to get you behind a real game, Eddie.”
“You already know the answer, Seville.”
“Yeah, but hear me out. If we had the kind of financial security we could count on with you playing, then I wouldn't have to cheat anymore. I'd be a better man.”
“It's our choices, Seville, not our options that make us who we are.”
“Buddy, haven't you been listening to the good professor? We're workin' for fate now, there are no choices.”
“Professor, is how Seville plays cards effected by fate?” Asked Edrick while he absent-mindedly stared at his hand. Sylum passed two across the table and cleared his throat.
“Well, technically yes. It encompasses everything. It decides when you go to the bathroom…”
“That's kinda creepy,” said Seville, trying to get a rise out of anybody, his dark dream of the night before forgotten, or at least forgiven.
“But like I said…”
“Wait a sec,” interrupted Seville, “Let me try. I wonder how you combine the infallibility of destiny with the eternal presence of chaos. Your basically saying that there is a one hundred percent chance that our life is going to suck. We've no choice to escape chaos.”
“Well, like I said…”
The arrow shuttled just over Dr. Sylum's ear and he yelped aloud and scrambled to the floor where he met the eyes of Seville and Edrick. Then they heard the wooden thunk of another arrow striking the table. They saw Gipson stand and pull free two of his swords. He dashed over to the wall next to the window and called again,
“Move! Move! Next to the wall!”
The three men scurried like salamanders from the flame to the wall beside Gipson, who was checking with quick nods of his head out the window, one long sword and one short sword drawn. By their magical aura it was clearly the expensive ones. Seville made to get up, already having pulled his daggers, but Gipson pressed him hard down by the shoulder and told him to stay.
“Smythe returns,” the knight said. “And his friends.”
He couldn't find them out the window so he slowly and silently stepped to the door, expecting a charge. Every patron in the establishment hunkered under a table, and the barkeep was kneeling down behind his counter. Gipson checked his surroundings in his routine manner. Seventeen bodies under tables, three against the wall, one behind the counter, three windows, two against the back wall, one along this wall, open!
“Seville,” Gipson mouthed, “Close.”
The rogue understood and flipped the shades of the window shut, but didn't reach up to lock them. Apparently the attackers had been waiting for that sign, for the instant it happened the front door was smashed open and three bodies came running through, the first two falling just as quickly as Gipson had sliced them as they came. The dark Mr. Smythe entered last with a long sword drawn, but he survived for all of two parries before the knight had swiftly strafed sideways and run the man through the lower back. Smythe seemed to hiccup once, and then cough, then his eyes glazed and he fell. Gipson stood momentarily breathing heavily, rotating his head to see every direction, and then he looked out the broken doorframe to find backup but saw none. He was already back inside and checking the vital signs of the bodies before the others thought to get up. It was so fast.
“Hah!” Gipson said, pleased, “Three moves! I expected more from the old rascal. Didn't expect a fogey like me to hear the pull of a bow from fifty feet I'd wager. Hard learned lessons!”
The knight laughed and started piling the bodies.
“Was that entirely necessary?” said Edrick after he stood and brushed down his robe.
“Necessary?” asked Gipson, confused.
“With your skills, you could have subdued them just as easily.”
“I don't think they were trying to subdue us, Edrick,” responded the knight.
“That's no reason to … to just kill them.” The apprentice clergyman spoke loudly.
“And what reason had I otherwise? Is defense not a reason?” asked Gipson, now with an almost dumfounded look on his square face.
“What reason had you not to kill someone?!” shot back the clergyman, aghast.
“Don't get me wrong, Edrick, I take no pleasure in it. But I kind of figured I just saved three lives.”
“At the cost of another three, Master Knight!” Edrick shouted angrily. “We can't … do that!”
“Defend ourselves from attack?!” the old knight looked offended, as if a personal hobby of his had been dejected by the entire population of Corneria.
“We can't have a body count!” For once Edrick was not concerned about those around him, who had all meant to return to their seats but only stood as the two yelled at each other. The bartender had been moments away from kicking them out before it started.
“I don't understand how you can accuse me for keeping you alive…”
“You mean,” Dr. Sylum said suddenly to quell the others, speaking to Edrick, “You mean as those who carry the orbs. You mean because we are the Lux.”
He chose an archaic way of saying it in hopes the other patrons would not follow, and they didn't appear to. To the doctor it seemed only natural to spread that the light warriors, or the Lux, had begun their quest, but realized then how uncomfortable Edrick or even Seville might have felt of this, so he decided to keep it low. Between not being believed and potentially being persecuted for their insanity, it probably wasn't best to bring it up on a regular basis anyways, at least not until after the rescue of the princess. The thought cast a dim feeling on Sylum as he spoke. Fame would have to wait.
“I mean that, yes,” continued Edrick, “But I shouldn't have to mean anything, should 'not murdering people' not stand on its own?”
Seville spoke, “Edrick, I know how you feel, but it was defense of an unprovoked attack. We should…”
“I would hardly call it unprovoked, Seville,” said the priest bitterly, “One crime leads only to another.”
“Beg your pardon,” broke in the bartender, clearly having had enough, “But I think it's time for you fellas to leave, and take out your garbage with you.”
Gipson glanced at him with a stern grimace and then turned back to the others who seemed unwilling to look at each other at the moment.
“Besides, Domino could be around. He works out of Jrist,” Edrick said, surprisingly shocked and angered.
“Yeah, a report of this is the last thing we need,” said Seville, trying his best not to make it an attack on Gipson's actions. He motioned to the others that they should start to leave.
“We go, then, we'll find a place to stop along the road.” To that the others seemed agreed.
The night road was silent but for the uneven, albeit weak, wisps of wind low along the ground. They walked further apart than usual, with Gipson far in the lead. Nobody even considered mindless talk to keep spirits high; at the time they simply had no spirits at all. Edrick was filled with sick feelings he barely knew, if at all. Three men murdered just before his eyes, by a close acquaintance, a friend even. Of all things he had thought of in the quiet solitude of his normal demeanor, the taking of lives had somehow not occurred to him. The light warriors were not meant to deal death, he was sure of it. They were life savers, not takers.
As usual Seville and Dr. Sylum thought along the same lines, both being of general disinterest in either case. They both cared about not getting caught, not whether or not the event went down. But Seville had one peculiar realization as he watched Gipson tear through the three men with such graceful precision. He thought that if the time came, he could do it, and would.
Herrik Gipson was mainly confused, but felt distant from the group now, detached from it by the sharp words of the priest. He didn't feel that he'd done anything wrong; only protected those he'd come to care for. The scolding almost gave him a physical sensation, like a plasmatic substance had been released through his whole body and was running up and down his spine, making him weak. He knew what he felt. It was criticism for something he'd always done for praise. Until he finally fell asleep that night under cold stars and beside meandering fire, he felt for the first time since long ago in a small classroom the bitterness of shame. But when sleep did come it bid him no welcome.
Chapter 8 ~ The Love Below Pt. 2
The great cat-like beast marked the boundaries of its cage by walking in incessant, hungry circles, always staring out with its grim yellow eyes. It was monstrously large for a cat, even for a tiger, whose shape it most distinctly resembled, and all muscle, as any of its ferocious lunges into the metal bars made clear. They were bending just slightly. Along with its extraordinary size the tiger had two front canine teeth over six inches long, with both inner ridges and points as sharp as any forged blade. But perhaps most amazing of all was the creature's fur, not that it was too fine or bushy, the pelt would not be a waste but not suitably luxurious either, but that it was an incredibly peculiar hue of dark purple, with deep black spots running laterally over the back and hind legs. In the night the tiger would blend well enough with the shades of jungle canopy, but under the sunlight one could not ignore the brilliant violet sheen of its coat. Black panthers had been seen often enough hunting on the edges of the Onrac forest, but never a beast of this color, indeed, never this beast. The purple tiger halted its spiraling march momentarily to press its face up into the bars and stand high on its back legs, letting out a guttural hiss. A hefty metallic clang answered its paws as they collided down with the surface, but the beast did not return to circling. With another hiss it shot its right arm, bearing wide the five inch-long claws, out through the bars and slashed into the grass, reaching as far as it could. And sitting not a foot away, close enough that the slinging dirt and grass splashed onto his feet, was Herrik Gipson. He shook the dirt off his right foot, not even looking up.
Herrik was busy chewing a crude wooden lead pencil between his front teeth, deeply in thought. He wore khaki clothing, light traveling clothes that ironically he preferred when he didn't have to go anywhere, and for the day his glowing red hair was let hang lazily down, as he kept it when it he didn't have to see anybody. Along with the pencil he had only a thick journal, with pages bent and folded with wear. It was open to a mostly empty page opposite a page filled with a sketch of the caged tiger. Written across the top in Herrik's professional hand, as he called it, was the word Sabertooth. He seemed to take no heed of the snarling creature's attacks and growls, but only sat like tree stump, lost in his thoughts. Eventually he concluded on something to say and wrote down in the journal, rather small and sheepishly,
Only eats meat.
He wasn't very good at this part of things. Passionately he could orate every idiosyncrasy of any animal he'd met, listing volumes of facts from average height and weight to attack patterns and habitat, and had become very good at testing for this information when it was not obvious, for instance by offering vegetation to such beasts as the sabertooths, quickly to realize they'd have no taste of it. But he didn't have the patience for written words, or for sketches for that matter, since his realization of the tiger on the page was lucky if it could be called a vague example. All things get better with time he thought to himself whenever he thought about it at all, which was every time he set out to catalogue his thoughts in writing, but in two years of practice there had been no improvement. It just didn't come to him like hunting the creatures did. He recognized this only with sleepless frustration. Annoyed with himself, he slashed through his previous marks and added a new, equally unimportant thought,
Only eats meat. Larger than most tigers.
But Herrik only had to look at those words for a moment before they too were crossed out, the young monster hunter shaking his head in disbelief at his difficulties at what should come so easily. Then finding himself disgusted with everything he'd written down he tore out the page and put the tip of his pencil to the clean one below. Might as well start with the name, he thought.
“Magnificent creature!” said a gentle voice behind him, and with his lips instantly curling into a smile, Herrik turned around to find a short, stocky man in work pants and a white buttoned shirt looking down at him. The man had a face covered with milk-white hair, beard and mustache and countless whiskers, and he wore a flat-top hat with a narrow brim and gray ribbon tied around it. He held a long and wide leather flap used for rolling maps under his right arm. “It really is, Herrik, an astonishing find.”
“Professor Maddox, I hoped you'd come by,” Herrik said as he stood and shook the old man's hand. “It's more astonishing than you know. The fur, you notice the color of the fur?”
The professor raised his hand as if to make the young man yield, “Herrik, my lad, there's something I want to talk about.”
“There's always something you want to talk about, it can wait, it can wait.” Herrik was smiling very intently now, and though he had only the one smile he really knew how to use, it injected itself like an infection into any who saw it. He moved closer to the cage and rounded about to give a demonstration.
“But I really would like to discuss this while the time suits us,” the professor said.
“The fur, professor, surely you find the color out of the ordinary.”
“Well yes, but…” the professor instantly flustered in the face of Herrik's zeal, hard-bitten by his own love of science.
“And had I found him somewhere in the Onrac forest, or even as far off as the Cardian Islands I might have agreed with you, but to find this marvelous beast I had to search the hidden places of the world,” Herrik said, to which the professor sighed and let his yielding hands slouch to his sides.
“Hidden places, Herrik?”
“Absolutely. I'll admit I was finally beaten over by the myths of a great monster dwelling in the north lake that feeds the falls and runs into the Onrac River. So I hiked along its path, with a canoe of course, for the trip back, but when I came to the mountain wall it was too steep to climb. But I found something better. A cave, behind the great waterfall, and the walls of this cave run with dark purple stone, identical to the sabertooth's fur.”
“So,” concluded the professor, not showing signs of surprise, “What would seem nature's folly is truthfully its miracle. Time and again we've discovered this together, lad. I think we should…”
“Oh, but that's not the half of it, professor,” Herrik shouted energetically. “Watch, watch!”
Herrik ran over to his journal lying on the ground, shook it up in the air, and scooped up the small flat mirror that fell out. When he stood upright he spun his head in towards Professor Maddox and gave a boyish grin, to which the professor only shook his head acceptingly. And then Herrik called out:
“Hey! Hey!” and the giant, fanged tiger perked its ears and stopped circling once more. It scrunched its eyes menacingly, filled with hatred. Herrik looked up quickly and found the sun, and then he held the mirror low and cast the white rays into the cage over the face of the sabertooth. The purple cat looked confused for a moment, but then it blinked tightly and turned away, annoyed.
“What did you notice about the eyes, professor?”
“What was I supposed to notice, Herrik?” questioned the professor right back, eager to finish this up and get to his topic which he felt quite dire. Herrik realized this, but didn't show that he cared.
“The eyes didn't reflect the light.”
“Sun's bright today.”
“Professor, cat eyes glow in the dark and they shimmer under bright light. Every one I've ever dealt with has been that way, check the journal if you like.” The professor did not check the journal. “So why, professor, why would this cat, and a cave dweller at that, not require darkvision or at least low-light vision?”
Against all the responsible powers in his body Professor Maddox could not ignore the question, it stuck him as precisely as would a blade, and he rummaged through his tired brain for the answer, returning with nothing but mystery.
“It is a strange scenario,” said the professor.
“I thought so too,” Herrik responded, happy to have found the man's interest, “but the answer, now that's really amazing! Come on, come on!”
Herrik tugged hard at the professor's arm, and caught off his balance, the professor hopped over on his left leg and dropped the leather flap, which fell into the soft dirt with an impressive thud.
“What? Have you got every map from the college in there?” Herrik said mindlessly as he pulled the old man behind a slab of wood that was propped up just by, long and wide enough to completely cover them from view. The red-haired monster hunter quickly sparked up a flame in a pile of roughage that had clearly already been prepared and once it began to climb he threw a long stone over it.
“Let's give things a few seconds to die down,” he said. “Now, this works better at night but you should find this suitable enough.” The professor only widened his hands in a gesture of agreement, acknowledging the futility of trying to stop things now that the young boy had really gotten into it.
“Ready,” said Herrik. He grabbed a short-handled, wide-bladed shovel that was laid down next to the plank and held the blade up above the top of the wood. He bounced it a little, and swayed it back and forth, never letting much more than the top of the handle breech over the rim of the plank, but there was no apparent reason for it. By the time he brought the shovel down, the professor had gone to itching his plump, sunburned nose and wearing a face of confusion.
“Nothing right?” Herrik asked rhetorically, “Well, how about this?”
Then Herrik lifted his hand above the rim of the wooden plank and spread out his fingers, and then proceeded to bounce and sway it around just as he had the blade of the shovel. The professor wanted to find a sterner way to indicate his confusion, but then the sabertooth in its cage about ten yards away started to growl, beginning with an upset hiss. It spit and yelped a few times and finally settled for growling from its chest, and then the silence fell once more, and likely it had returned to frustrated pacing. Herrik looked at the professor intently, knowing just what he would say, but wanting to hear it first.
“So the instinctual animal can recognize foe from … gardening tool. I wish you would just tell me…”
“Not quite, professor, not quite. Now watch.”
Herrik grabbed the long stone, which actually represented a shovel in its basic dimensions, out of the fire with a thick cloth and, as he had everything else, held it above the lip of the wooden barrier. Within instants, the angered sabertooth set to his snarling once more.
“It's heat, professor! It sees heat! Even in the middle of summer a canyon breeze would mist the cave I found cool to the skin, and no manner of camouflage from any prey could hide it from a hunter that sees body heat.”
Professor Maddox was suddenly struck with a sad feeling, one of severed attachment and abandonment that he had trouble curbing. He did not allow it to show. He tried to voice affirmation.
“It's,” and he paused for effect, shaking his head, “It's a remarkable discovery, Herrik. Really remarkable!” Herrik laughed brightly.
“Thanks!” Herrik jumped to his feet, pressed out the small fire, and walked over towards the cage, ignoring the tiger's attempts at slashing him. The professor stood and then picked up the heavy leather flap he dropped. He stood for a moment watching the young man, just a month over twenty, as he walked around the cage, speaking random things. The sour feeling within was so difficult to decipher. He understood at least his affections for the boy, the father-like affections the entire town had developed for the strange red-haired kid that could master any beast. It was such a terrible burden watching him go. Then, feeling almost sick with a sudden urge to out with his concern, the whole reason he'd come, the professor approached.
“I plan to see if the curator will let me have one of the monstrous iguanas...” Herrik was saying, “...from the reptile exhibit to test its sight with a cold-blooded creature. Maybe its sense of smell is also…”
“Herrik, what day is it?” asked the professor with definite force.
“Huh?” was all the Herrik gave back, but he did stop and look.
“What day is today? The date?” Professor Maddox asked again, standing still and trying to be tall.
“You come all the way out here to ask me that?” Herrik said jokingly. “Let's see, I left on the seventh, so ...” He counted days off on his fingers.
“The thirteenth,” he finally said.
“Fifteenth, Herrik. It's the fifteenth.” The professor remained still, and the young man cocked his head slightly, half-confused, half-looking for the point. “You were out for two days; doc didn't think you were going to make it this time.”
“Out for two days?”
“Do you remember, Herrik? Do you remember bringing that monster into town with only an inch of life left? Do you remember collapsing just before the tavern fountain? Anything?”
Herrik was startled and uneasy. He walked over to the professor slowly, bewildered.
“Collapsed?” he questioned distantly.
“That creature, the tiger, must've put up a fight, more than even you could handle.”
“But I don't feel injured.” Herrik was looking around not only his body but the grounds, as if he was scanning for a charging enemy. Out for two days? It was completely blank. The vast expanse of the Onrac field suddenly felt small, and he paranoid.
“Yes, yes, but you never do. Time and again you've proven to us your threshold for pain, and poor Doctor Thane could make his life's work of your incredible resiliency, but I must again urge your caution. Whether you feel it or not this dangerous lifestyle of yours has repercussions. Life threatening ones.”
“I ... I don't remember any of it.”
“We'll let that speak for itself.” The professor patted the young man on the back, who then knelt down by his journal and became stationary. When the professor knelt down beside Herrik, wincing at his painful joints, he was heartbroken by the incredible look of loss drawn on Herrik's face. It certainly appeared that more than two days had just been stolen from the lad. He ruffled his beard in his hand and thought of what he could say.
“Look, Herrik my boy, your contributions to this institution, to this entire city, have been and continue to be incredible. You have a gift, and more raw talent for what you do than anybody I've ever heard of. But more important, Herrik, than these stunning creatures you bring to the institute, is you. Onrac would rather have you than animals to fill up its zoo and bring tourists. Your coming was mysterious to us, but now your presence is too endeared to be broken by the claws of some beast. This thing you do. People rally around you for it, your drawing power is unquestionable. Don't let it be the end of you.”
Herrik felt both obliged and grievous, almost drawn to tears. He ran his hands through his long, red hair a few times and remained silent on is kneeling legs. He didn't want to hear what he was afraid the professor was really trying to say.
“You mean for me to stop?” he asked lowly, his voice depressingly sullen. And to this Professor Maddox found a warm and friendly smile.
“No, my boy, of course not. I don't make your decisions. I was just worried, that's all. Caution is what I mean.” The professor stood and patted Herrik once more on the back. He stretched his old spine with a groan. “Why, that'd be like taking your life away myself. You're a bright kid, and filled with an uncommon zest for life. The joy you put into everything you do revives this old man's heart, but the love below, Herrik, the love below is in your animals. We all know it, and we want you to remember that though it be love, it's not worth dying over, not when the reward is better. So caution, that's all I came to say.”
The young man kneeling on the soft grass now looked as if he himself had just been revived and given a golden world to rule. He brought out that perfect smile of his and beamed it out to the old man standing above him.
“I will, professor, I will,” he said, and was then struck with a desire to flip through his long journal. All those many adventures and bested monsters, still there to last, not going away. He sailed through every encounter with vivid memory, and for the moment didn't even get down on himself when he saw the jagged, hasty lines of his amateur sketches. He realized one instant that he couldn't remember a time when he'd felt more proud of his work, and he forgot the foreboding gap covering the past two days of his memory. He felt bulletproof. It was more than a few minutes before he realized the professor had not gone, had not even budged, actually. He looked up.
“I wish you would let us pay you,” the professor said.
“Not that again! My answer's always been no. We both know that I don't need money.”
“But we need to give you money. It would make everybody more comfortable, to alleviate some of the liability, I think.”
“But at that point it would be a job, professor,” Herrik said, standing and throwing down his journal and pencil. “And a job just isn't how I feel about it. The love below, right? It's in the animals. What could money do? Besides, I get my rewards, something better than gold.”
“I know, my boy, I know. You do it for us, and that's commendable, but why not can we do something for you in return?” The professor had done his best to maintain a calm, fatherly, and scholarly voice. He outstretched his hands to punctuate his words.
“My dear professor, for ten years now you've been all I know of a father,” Herrik placed both hands on the shorter man's shoulders and looked in deeply, “You can trust me as you would a son. You do so much more for me than I do for you. You do more than enough.”
Without waiting for a facial response, Herrik released and turned back to the sabertooth cage, wanting to place his eyes elsewhere.
“I will not take pay for the animals. The love below.”
“Well, you are going to take something,” the professor pulled out front the leather flap he'd been carrying and started to untie the middle fasten, “And this is non-negotiable.”
“Oh, what's that?” asked Herrik, smirking. He came back around and faced the old man square.
Professor Maddox loosed the flap, and swung it open, revealing in its folds a vibrant, shimmering blade. A longsword, the handle was of intricately carved steel, finished with spirals of blue silver, and the two sides of the hilt were fashioned like dragon heads, the artisan smith accounting for every nook and scale. Metal fire wreathed from their mouths and coursed down the handle to the base where they burst in an octagonal flare of spikes. And the blade itself was a dim and somehow calming aqua, as if to look upon the steel was to look upon tranquility itself. The pulsing aura of the sword ran watery lines over Herrik's face, like the shadows of a dormant sea. And ornately etched along the blade was a name in the glyphs of the ancient language.
“This is Drâco, sword of dragons. The ancient creatures know no greater fear than a blade such as this, but its power goes beyond the winged ones. The might in this sword casts a terror in nature itself when in the wrong hands, but in your hands, will be a just ally. Take it, and master it.”
Herrik, already having formed his love of blades for many years past, felt his knees weaken to the brink of buckling as he took the sword by tip and hilt. His breaths became like heavy sighs, his eyes as bright as if he were cast into a star.
“How ... how did you get this?” His voice weak and stammered with awe-found shock.
“A story for another time, Herrik. Put those thoughts aside. Use it now. Drâco will be your servant.” The professor summoned from his wise age the full power of eloquence. He stepped backwards with arms spread wide to the side, creating a reach of space before the Dragon Sword's new bearer. “Swing!”
Herrik took the thick hilt, unsure of the random pattern of bulbous blue swirls down the shaft, but instantly it felt as if the handle molded to his hand, fitting his contour naturally, and the sword became light, almost floating in his grasp save for the very tip which seemed to yearn forward and down. Drâco wished to swing itself. Lost in his amazement, Herrik sliced the blade gracefully through the air and felt yet another wave of serenity wash from head to toe, skin to bone, as he heard the delicate song of the vibrating blade.
He took the blade through every formation he knew, beyond impressed at the unique but unquestionably perfect balance of the sword's weight. But a few moves into it he realized that the whistle of the blade was not controlled by how swiftly he swung, but that it was actually singing, the sincere, soft melody of an ancient lullaby. Two thousand years into the past that song had been sung by the mothers of the world's descendants and now once again with glory graced the good earth with vitality. The young monster hunter of Onrac swung that sword until he giggled with delight, until he was singing loudly along with the soaring melody like a boisterous drunk. So ridiculous it seemed from a distance that even the professor laughed heartily. At long last, Herrik finally came down.
“Beyond words, professor, it is truly beyond coherent words.” He took it again by tip and hilt and held it up to the professor as if showing off a discovery. “Though, I must admit it is curious that you advise me towards caution and then give me a sword with which to slay dragons.”
“Just be sure to slay the dragon instead of trying to capture it, Herrik. That's the caution. I'm quite sure that a blade so fine will keep you safe, whatever choice you make, as long as your choice be for good.”
“Well, in that you can always trust me.”
“As I always have, my boy,” said the professor with one final double pat on the back. “As I always have.”
Then Herrik went back to his forms, moving in close to the caged tiger and laughing at the creature's dazed, frightful reaction to the blade. And only yards away, watching with the mien of a goodly king, the old professor revered his knight.
By the time noon had come on the third day, with the sun perched in the gray sky amongst heavy funereal clouds, it seemed the countryside had set its will against the light warriors. The combination of the balmy air, feeling of a sickly moisture as if the morning dew never drifted to the grass, and the quiet, torpid character of the adventurers had tarried their progress to a near crawl. Coming into the northern country they were leaving the relatively lush grounds of inner-Corneria, and so they had found no place better than the dusty roadside to make camp. Sleep was difficult and unsteady for all, and under the bitter memory of the tavern the night before, the day's road gave no absolve. The only warranted condition of travel was the silence, a shadowy vow among them, they starved for no conversation; doubtless a key element in the waning rate of their march, with no one attempting to boost them forward, no talk of spirit. Once the sun hung at three o'clock and the swamp-like, mushy heat of day was unbearable, the promise of an open tavern and a soft bed somewhere in the city of Jrist seemed just a dream.
Darrin Sylum led them, if for no other reason than it felt as if someone needed to be in front and none of the others was willing. But regardless, once there he became territorial of the position, he wanted to be there. Whenever they arrived at the distant Commerce City, he wanted to arrive first, if even by a few meager steps. And pacing those steps next behind him were the young two, Seville and Edrick, whom in the face of such strange feelings realized that paramount was there friendship. If something had been severed between Edrick and the Knight of the Coast over the events at the tavern, and Seville couldn't discern if it had, that something Seville would also have to question. He liked the knight, how could you not? But when times were down, even facing all his knowledge of the clergyman's bumbling disposition, he trusted Edrick. They two were something special in this whole mess, Seville thought. It was happening because of Professor Sylum, and because of Herrik Gipson it would succeed, but plain old Edrick and Seville would go down in the history books. Somehow they were the ones that mattered.
Opposite his usual placement, Gipson trailed, and by more than a usual share of tracks. The spires of his scarlet hair, the only thing that didn't seem to age, were allowed to hang low, unconsciously fitting his low demeanor. So many things on his mind it seemed, but actually it was one thing that was spread over so many parts of his life. So few masked as so many, but so real and comfortable and safe. He'd fight it if he could or wanted to, fighting was all he knew how to do, but eventually, no matter the battle, things were going to change. The priest, Edrick, or Good Edrick, as Gipson found himself calling the lad in his mind, had just as well shot an arrow through him, but he was happy to receive it. Things have to change one day. He thought of how hard life would be for him in the future, and he gripped the handle of a dull silver and blue sword sheathed around his belt, as one might put his hands in his pockets.
Only the recession of the dark clouds just in time to allow the horizon to display its final chromatic flurry of reds and purples gifted the warriors enough cheer to continue when evening came. The pace even quickened a little, finding they had plenty of energy for the circumstances and each of them secretly desiring at least some good effort for the day. As the sunset settled into its fieriest hues, the light warriors even let out a group sigh, wondrously happy to see the large city of Jrist lying humbly on the horizon. So they would make it after all, within the next hour if their newly freshened step held. But, there was one more delay before the first leg of the Lux Aeterna was done.
A strange echoic popping sound surrounded them. They each perked their ears and scanned the circle of their vision, uncertain of whether it came from the western forest or eastern sea. The sound was pronouncedly crisp, but dark and heavy at the same time like an ogre clapping his claps, only sporadic, quick and slow, overlapping bursts. The four men pooled together.
“What is that?” Edrick stammered, worried.
“The sound is foreign to me,” said Gipson, and that couldn't be a good thing. As they stood the sound continued its random occurrences, but the volume neither rose nor fell. It was just a distant, stationary sound.
“Master Gipson?” Seville said imploringly, to which the knight looked all around again and then became burdensomely still, feeling the movement of sound. His demeanor was trance-like, near meditation. But then just as quickly his eyes snapped open, and holding a sword firmly by the hilt, he said “This way!” and started jogging north along the line of the forest.
The distance was not so far as the culprit noise made it seem. Careening inward around an abrupt turn west along with the border of the wood, they were nearly plunged into a circular assembly of covered wagons, five from Gipson's immediate count. Slowing and approaching the wide, wagon-enwrapped disc of grass all but the knight was jumping jerkily to each recurring pop, which at this distance was like a medium-pitched boom. They sight before them as they passed between two of the wagons set them aback with mystery and wonderment.
Five traveling peddlers, by their clothes, and a half dozen in day clothes, likely from Jrist, stood in a natural enough gathering but all faced in the same direction, looking out through a wide gap of space that opened on the first woody pillars of the forest. The two front men, both salesmen, lifted long, narrow contraptions up and held them firm to their shoulders, letting the long mouth of the things point to the trees. There was a loud call of “Ready!!!” and instantly followed the shattering crack of noise. Puffs of white smoke released from the cylindrical ends of the odd devices, and jagged splinters burst radially out from the tree trunks, all fast as magic! So fast that a second shot came before the four light warriors had the least registered what happened. After the third display of smoke, destruction, and alarm, the presumed residents of Jrist jumped into happy applause, talking now like a reverent mob.
“Wonderful, wonderful!” the light warriors heard as they moved in closer, “This is gonna change the world!”
“Change the world?” asked Gipson, skeptically.
The salesmen and townsmen wheeled around in surprise and though the people of Jrist stepped back and squinted questioningly, the peddlers instantly went into their act.
“That's what you heard, sir,” said a man in festive, magenta cloth, clearly now the leader of them, “And hardly could a truer thing be spoken.”
The salesman waved two of his helpers over; they brought the machines. The Jrist-folk continued displaying their distrust of traveler's, but also showed in interest in hearing the pitch once more. It must really be a fantastic product if it can draw people out of a town near evening.
“The roots of our marvelous product began to grow three hundred years ago, a time pitting the fearless brawn of mighty Corneria against Elvish villains from the south. 'Twas the time for which we hold the festival occurring in the capital this very hour. Unfortunately, the battle was turned sour by the Elves' dastardly weapon, the cannon. And fortunately, times have moved passed that, but all is not safe.” The salesman was filled with hand motions like a magician feinting the audience before his spell. “Once sewn fields have now fallen into ruin, prosperous sea merchants find themselves landed and grown old as the waves rage with peril, and the king himself has a daughter stolen away. The world had become ensnared by chaos, and only those strong and prepared will survive to see the good times returned.”
He stopped there for a pause to let such dire words sink in; Gipson noted dully enough that the tradesman had enthralled the townsfolk once more.
“We, good gentlemen travelers, provide that preparation, and though it may seem late in the coming, it is well early enough that yourselves are not yet considered late.”
“Why do salespeople always talk funny?” Seville thought to himself and shifted his weight.
“What do you sell?” asked Sylum, an endless buff for new things, but when he spoke Gipson sighed very quietly and walked around his companions so as to be in the back, vehemently disinterested. Since the knight had been disinterested in everything that day, the group, beyond Seville of course, read no implication off the action and eagerly awaited the salesman's response.
“Perhaps a demonstration will best prove our case, hm?” said the man in magenta cloth, waving to the others.
“We saw your demonstration walking over,” Gipson said.
“Ah, but only so close can you respect the ease of the thing. Presenting the Version One Single-Shot Hunting Rifle, or as we like to throw around the campfire, the Hand Cannon, and from loading to firing is less than twenty seconds.”
Next to the pitcher, the demonstrator cocked open the long shaft of the rifle and fed in a cylindrical iron pellet with a bead on the end, and then closed the thing back up. He pulled back a switch near the trigger.
“Ready, sir!” he called dramatically, as if it were some military display.
“Pull, and fire at will!”
The man thrust the rifle up to his shoulder and aimed into the trees, found his mark, and shot. At this distance the report of the rifle was ear-splitting, everyone but the salesman and Gipson flinched. Once the smoke had risen slightly into the air and begun to dissipate the man in magenta turned back.
“Marvelous accuracy, marvelous power. You could take down an elephant, or even an Anklo-beast with only two shots, maybe one if your sights are true. All you need is the gun itself, a stock of ammo, and one of our patented cleaning kits , and in your hometown you will forever be acknowledged as Master Hunter. And in dark times like these, when the enemy comes, you will show them power unlike what they have ever seen. Now who could say they've no interest in such amazing science.”
“Twenty seconds?!” Gipson broke in with a condescending sneer, “I could have loosed four arrows in that time, man.”
“Indeed, your skills with the bow may be very considerable, but the arm of our rifle reaches far beyond the arm of any man and his archaic weapon. Consider this, if you would…”
The leader waved once more to his partners, and one of them quickly loaded his rifle and faced off the opposite direction through another gap in the caravans. He lifted the rifle to the ready position and aimed it at what seemed a tall metal canister set against the backdrop of sea. There were five of the canisters, all in a row with the first on the left knocked over.
“They are filled with superheated water. When the bullet strikes, it will pierce through and vent out a jet of steam, that will be proof of success.” The salesman looked rather hard at Gipson, almost a challenge. “That mark is two-hundred and fifty feet away.”
The riflemen took time setting his aim, employing the most minor of adjustments, taking long enough that the spectators started noticing sounds like birds and the movement of the winds. But finally, the man depressed the trigger, the booming pop came, smoke misted up into the air, and the second canister from the left sprayed steam out from its midsection and was thus propelled back. The Jrist-folk instantly went into applause, and the lead peddler gave a content look to Gipson.
“Imagine that kind of range on the battlefield, sir traveler.”
“Why imagine what I've already seen?” Gipson responded, taking down his bow and pulling out an arrow.
“Your mad, man,” said the salesman.
“As is relying on powder that could burst in your face, step aside.”
The rifleman gave Gipson his room, and the grand red knight readied his shot. It seemed he was taking the same care as the demonstrator, since the resonant snap of the bowstring did not come as quickly as in Gipson's usual style. But he seemed more in thought than in a mind of target practice, and the predicted coarse of the arrow did not flux. Ending a quiet moment holding everybody on a leash, Gipson lowered the bow and arrow, still looking to the distance. A ridiculous shot of course, but knowing this man, Seville had little doubt of success, so he decided to break in.
“Too difficult for you, Master Gipson?” he joked, and got an even better laugh within when he heard one of the further salesman whisper to his partner “Did he say Gipson?” The knight turned.
“Never, for me, Seville. Too easy, that's all.” And then the knight used his smile for the first time all day and pulled out two more arrows.
Feeding them strongly between all fingers but his thumb, Gipson once more aimed his bow, now loaded with three arrows, off towards the canisters. He made the pull quick, set the coarse, and released, as if he were aiming only twenty feet away. Then came that majestic flight through the air, and the complimentary drama, the tongue-holding, breath-stopping awe of anticipation. Something these rifles lacked.
“My god,” said the man in the festive clothing, “It looks that they will go over.”
“Not quite,” Gipson retorted.
The lances of sky started a quick descent, and as they fell every set of eyes in view was for that moment tethered to the success of the shot. Then they struck, and from the top of each standing canister came a feather-white up-shooting geyser of steam, so perfectly from the top that the pressure forced them down into the earth, but did not tip them either way.
“You did not knock them over?!” shouted one of the peddlers.
“No, no, I felt the game needed some challenge,” Gipson answered, “So I just nicked off the caps.”
“Splendid, Master Gipson, splendid!!!” Seville shouted happily.
A joyful commotion rose up among the townspeople. The clapped and hollered, and one young woman even called for an autograph. The peddlers, however, were tense and paranoid, humbled. They looked between each other, looking for one who could divert the shame, but none of them had a strategy. The man in magenta especially seemed to melt back into the others and disappear from sight.
“And therefore, sir tradesman, we will have to decline your offer for today. I'm all the cannon we'll need,” Gipson said, and there started to walk out, almost as if to avoid the voluminous applause of admiration from the Jrist-folk. Even if one of the other light warriors had truly wanted a gun, it wasn't doing to buy now. They each gave a victorious smirk, and quickly followed after the extraordinary bowman.
When they caught up to his rabbit-like stride and tried to speak to him, anything from questions to simple congratulations, he gave meek answers and seemed little interested. In fact, you'd almost think he was sad about the entire event, given the dark and empty stare that lead him forward. They were confused by it; Edrick even was frightened by it. He did not slow until the city was upon them, but then only tried to find an inn. Whatever reason for the sudden haste, the light warriors at least felt that some of their loyalties had been re-sewn even if only weakly so. They somewhat proudly followed the mysterious but great Herrik Gipson, master of all.
An ethereal halo of purple was all that remained of the sunset, and the night's crickets had begun their serenade, but another melody hung on the air, quiet and motherly. It was a calming progression of notes, serene and almost tender, sounding as if it were sung by some lady of the lake. Like a siren song, it drew the tired Seville out from the edge-of-town inn, and he followed the sweet crescendos and vibratos to the grass-line just before the beach. There he found Herrik Gipson sitting alone with his legs crossed and a book pulled before him. Also he swayed a dim watery sword out before him, as gentle as it might sway in a breeze. The weakly pulsing haze of aqua shining off the sword gave him just enough light to see. Seville stopped a moment, considering going away, but since he had come within a hundred feet, the knight already knew he was there.
“Come, come,” Gipson said without turning towards, and Seville was greatly relieved to hear the friend in his voice. He walked up quickly to where the knight sat, pressed scattered fragments of reed to the side, and sat next to him. He noticed that the book before Gipson was one of the full-sized monsters manuals. As he got comfortable, Gipson slammed shut the book and scooted it under him.
“Ya know, I don't think it's normal for a sword to sing, you might want to get that checked,” Seville said, and the old man chuckled appreciatively.
“This song,” and he rested a moment, letting a few bars of the melody pass, “This song was sung in the Ancient times, a simple lullaby. The words, could Drâco sing them, speak of little more than resting beds and gentle stars. It was nothing to them, you see, just a song, not caring that it might be the most beautiful sound in this world over two-thousand years later.”
Seville cast interested eyes, but found nothing to say at the moment. Gipson continued to sway the blade and produce the poignant notes, but he talked openly to the young man sitting next to him, taking his free hand to annunciate further.
“The ancients, you see, were masters of knowledge and science, always making discoveries, inventing things, but they placed little precedence in ceremony. Especially, they gave no value to the concept of age. Well, what an odd concept. This world relishes, cherishes its old, its old people, its old things, its old traditions. And here I have the oldest sword in existence singing the oldest song in existence. Can you even imagine such a thing? Over two thousand years ago this blade was forged. And to them, that would be nothing.”
“I hadn't taken you as a lore man.” Seville said.
“No, and you shouldn't, it's really not my field. But certain things do draw my interest. Old things, for instance.”
“Well, the world is filled with the past.”
“But it's more than that, Seville, more than that,” Gipson said and he spun himself towards Seville to speak more forwardly. He let the sword down to the grass, but the singing continued, for at least a brief moment. “The world is becoming the past. Look at it! The centennial, all those things filling the booths, or that ridiculous display today. People are creating again, they've begun to discover things anew.”
“The better to the world then. The ancients are a revered notion.” Seville was becoming excited by Gipson's oddly placed passion. The knight was alight with interest, but skewed his words to make them sound more like a warning.
“I suppose so. But now the old will fade, like the Dragon Sword. Its powers have waned for many years now, but even tonight I recognize the hue is weaker still. Things now begin to change.”
Seville contemplated a moment, sad to hear such dark comments from a man he'd come to intimately respect. At his last words the knight dropped his eyes down into the grass, like a child might when losing interest. But the down-curved shape of his brow, something he'd never seen from Gipson, was a dire effect on the visage.
“There is more on your mind, Master.”
“Many things, Seville, many things.” He looked up and traced the faded line of the sunset with his eyes, and then he turned to Seville and looked very deeply in.
“How old do you think I am?” he asked, placing much wait on what Seville felt was a silly question.
“How old do you think I am? Seriously.”
Seville raised both hands to either side and shook his head questioningly.
“I don't know. I guess I'll go with the professor's choice, forty-five. Seems close, I suppose.” To that Gipson laughed out loud, but not meanly, rather, self-approvingly. It was such a self-fulfilling question.
“I know I don't look it, and in fact, it doesn't even feel that way, but it's the truth.” Gipson never told anybody his age, so what was normally so plain a detail caught Seville back like a strike to the chest.
“There's … there's just no way!”
“Thank you, I know I look good.” Gipson smiled warmly, “The hair, especially, should have grayed by now. But my bones are old, and my mind is old.”
“How's that? You've got crisper reflexes than anyone I've known, and your hearing is beyond challenge.”
“Hunter's training, Seville, that's all. And now my training will prove worthless because the new age is going to forget about me.”
Seville, still wracking his brain to discern the old man within the fit knight before him, hated to hear such talk.
“I don't think this age or any age will soon forget the coming of the light warriors, Master Gipson.”
“Light warriors?” Gipson asked distantly, studying the white tides with his eyes, “I'm not so sure about all of this, Seville. That vibe I had two mornings back is gone now. We're walking into a trap, I guarantee you.”
Seville suddenly became very frightened, shaking at the portentous thoughts.
“Then we will stop!”
“No, we won't stop. We will continue, if we have faith in the good doctor. And I know you have more faith than me.”
“Professor Sylum doesn't know anything about adventures, he gets everything out of books!”
“But he believes what he gets out of those books. And I'm ready to trust someone with their beliefs.”
“How do you mean?” said Seville, energetic and fearful. His neck was craned inwards and he hung on every dire word of the knight, but Gipson did not respond immediately. He let things settle a little. 'How do you mean, Master Gipson?”
“You will have to keep my age a secret from the others, Seville. That's what I mean. It's an act. Everything's an act.”
“Hiding your age, especially in so odd a case, is nothing to lament.”
“But it's all an act. The sales pitch I do at the festivals for this damned book,” Gipson pulled out the Monsters Manual and threw it away into a high patch of grass, “Or the battle displays. Those rifle salesmen, just an act for them. And you Seville, that little display of yours last night was quite the act. It's all an act. And it's not gonna last, Seville, it's not gonna last. Eventually, the act you put on will go out of style, and it hurts!”
Seville was almost brought to tears, and such emotional weakness angered him. But the great knight's voice was so final, piercing and infinite.
“What has brought this on?”
“Just, everything. Those contraptions selling over in the field, today. Ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. But, that's where things are headed. They will sell; they will become popular, and in a decade nobody will even know what a bow is. I'm surprised it didn't come sooner.”
“But you reminded at least a dozen people of just what a bow is today. They won't forget. The world is not ending, Master Knight.” Seville grabbed Gipson by the shoulder and spoke loudly, and the knight responded acceptingly.
“Not for all of us!”
“Not for you! You are the Herrik Gipson, the most renowned hunter of all time.”
“But it came at a price, Seville, it came at a price.”
“What do you mean by these thoughts?!” Seville was frantic.
“I want to give you advice by them, something I've just figured out for myself today.”
“You must learn how to change. Not today if you don't want, I can't chide anyone for taking the easy road, but someday you must learn to change. So that when the world asks it of you, you can do it. I always took the easy road, did what I knew to do to make people like me, and just stuck to it for so long. Never growing.”
“Your road was not easy, it was filled with danger, it's all recorded in your book. How can you look away from that? It's vulgar to cast away what people love you for.”
Gipson chose another moment to rest from the conversation, and once more Seville could tell that the fragile thoughts were aching in the knight's mind, screaming to get out, but he wouldn't let them. Gipson then turned back towards the shoreline, no longer facing Seville, and pulled out the miniature book tied to his belt.
“My age is not the least comparable to the secret I keep for you, I should tell you a larger one,” Gipson said slowly, with much thought on his choice of words. “This book, and others like it, the dragon one, the elemental one … I didn't write them.”
“You asked me how I ever wrote a book, that night at your godfather's tavern.”
“I didn't mean to insult … or … I was just…” Seville just didn't know what to say.
“And the answer is I didn't. I have a ghost writer, he's a very good friend named Maddox.”
“But do you lie about the within.”
“No, of course not. The information is true, just the presentation is false. Only one thing in here is mine.” Gipson flipped open the small book and turned to a page.
“What's that?” Seville found himself more interested in this small piece of information than in the secret he had just learned. Given a few moments for it to sink in he wasn't that surprised. Gipson never did strike him as a writer; it never did seem to fit.
“One sketch, and just this one.”
“Sabertooth Tiger?” Seville looked up with a confused brow.
“My favorite monster.” Gipson tried his best to smile, but it was little more than a weak grin.
“Well, I don't look down upon you for it. How could I? You've got over a foot on me.” And Gipson chuckled to that.
“No, only I look down upon me for it. It's probably the last chance I had to change my life and do something greater with it, but I didn't because I wasn't ready. So just learn to change, Seville, and avoid a pain you can't imagine.” Gipson seemed to be finished this, tired of talking and venting. But Seville finally had something he could respond to.
“I know pain, Master Gipson.” Seville lifted his right sleeve and revealed the ghost rot inflicted arm, the sores glowing the odd shade of dim purple they always did in the twilight. “And if this is any indication, I may have no more time than you to learn.”
Gipson sighed heavily. Not for a single second on the three days of journey thus far had he forgotten about the rot, even when it seemed the others had. Only when Sylum gave Seville his dosage of medicine was it ever brought up.
“How is it?” he asked, sounding wise.
“No pain yet. Professor Sylum's medicine is very good. But I am still afraid of it.”
“That's good. It shows your mind is still where it should be.”
“You've been very protective of me.”
“You've been wise enough to allow it. I can protect you from monsters, but I can't protect you from the world.”
“Change, again?” Seville asked, slightly wishing the topic would drift away.
“Change. If we've both no time left, then we will make our last stand together, and my first charge will be to put faith in the professor, after all, we can't prove that he's lead us astray, and the journey is young.”
A sudden warning called back to Seville, and under his breath he said, “I would rather you trust in Edrick.”
“Oh, nothing … just thinking of bad dreams.”
“Well, stop, you don't want to give yourself another one.”
And there the conversation really did halt for along time. For at least half an hour they sat and let the stars open their eyelids so they could glow down onto the sparking ocean. The soothing sound of the waves made them docile, and though the night had contained talk of dire things, they allowed themselves to become comfortable, drifting with the ocean jostle. The night had assumed it full crystalline grandeur by the time either of them moved, and it was Gipson, who chose to rearm fearsome Drâco and once more fill the air with beauteous song. The blade seemed to know that the air was quiet, so it dropped its volume as if not to disturb the sleeping life. If Seville had ever known his mother, he liked to imagine she would have sung such a melody to him in the cradle. Voice now filled with friendly, humorous fervor, Gipson spoke.
“Ya know, if you can get your mind out of legend, this is the greatest sword in the entire world.” He smiled.
“Out of legend, Herrik?” It was often dangerous to call a knight by his first name, but finally it felt right and necessary.
“Well, the Dragon Sword can only be bested by a legendary sword,” Gipson said to which the young man looked towards intently. “Excalibur, Sword of the King. I don't know which king, and since it cannot be forged without a substance no longer on this planet, I'd say it's a safe bet that mine is the best.”
“You're the best for a lot of reasons, knight, I'm sure the sword just goes with package. But can I ask you something?”
“Your ghost writer, Maddox? He's not … ya know … really a ghost is he?”
Gipson discovered anew that smile he used to push heckler's out of a crowd and said, “Come now, you must let an old man keep some of his secrets.”
And over the many repetitions of the ancient lullaby the two men, forty-seven years apart, laughed and joked about each of their own adventures. There for a moment, lost in a past filled with so much happiness, they stopped worrying about change's coming. Among your friends, there is no time left for the great design of things.
Chapter 9 ~ The Scoop
Though the second largest city on the Cornerian strip, as they called the long narrow gash of land isolated by the two mountains, and a port city at that, the town of Jrist was of a subdued complexion on the fourth morning of the great quest. Indeed, the urban pallor was that of a ghost town, with only the occasional traveler making his or her way across the empty market. Certainly, people didn't seem to want to be outside very much. It wasn't a standard market day, but still the harbor was filled to capacity, the sailors and merchants packed away in waterside stay-houses, none of them peddling as the horizon filled with light as one would expect. Once brave seamen no longer risked the sea; the waves grew treacherous just a hundred yards from the shore. The suffocation of the harbor town brought into quick realization the growing pain of Corneria, and likely the world; the land-locked vacuum that not so slowly choked away the life. Since the surrounding lands weren't filled with farms, Jrist had maintained its spirits a good while longer than the agrarian southerners, but now tempestuous oceans had finally brought them to the current state of things. A dead market; a sullen people.
Unbeknownst to the great majority of the world though, was the existence of its rescue mission. When all the world reeked of a new emptiness, the light warriors finally felt the pressure of their quest, the singular perspective they possessed. It was finally hitting home. This was their responsibility, whether they asked for it or not. Regardless of whatever amends were made the day before by at least two of the warriors, their waking hours were filled with dark awareness of the nature of things. Anger seemed to build out of nowhere. Mistrust. Paranoia. Once again amongst scores of people, if ever they came out of their homes, the light warriors felt tense and defensive, the episode of two nights past still fresh on their memory (and possibly their record). And in one of the few places where people did know of their great quest, the sacrifice of life's prosperity to the world's survival, the prospects of their reception were gloom.
Among the few open businesses early that morning, maybe the only place with something new to sell, was the news stand. And sitting front and center in the largest rack was a tall stack of the day's copy of the Corneria Chronicle, hailing as its cover story a grim message.
The Trite Warriors
Charles Domino, Senior Editorial Correspondent
Does an illusionist exiting the stage before a sonorous crowd not return for his encore? Do the players of some valorous game visit the stadium only to greet and withdraw? Does the politician cite vacuous asseverations only to master his throne and sulk?
No. No. And yes. But even more exigent, diligent reader, is the despondent state of our so-called Light Warriors. On the eve of their glorious ascension they were granted appreciable leave to, we can only postulate, draft extensive means by which to procure their most humble ends. But when came the next morning, the impassioned folk of Corneria and their festival tourists received not noble speeches of hope and joy, not the assuring succor of well-laid plans, not even the respectful ceremony of auspicious farewell, only the news that the Lux had escaped early into the wilderness. Perhaps they were just eager to affront the great quest, their rich spirits prompting them forward. Or perhaps their brainstorm came up barren, and they rushed out, without plan or direction, to avoid their shame. The track record I will soon account leaves only one of these options realistic.
But first let's break down just what we're talking about, since a survey conducted in Corneria yesterday shows that only 15% of people have heard of the presently evoked legend. Dan Haroldson, 42, resident of outer-Corneria, sums up the average affirmative interpretation: “Yeah, I've heard of that, you see, four warriors, each with some magic orb, go off and save a princess…” Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.
Based on the controversial translation of a short Leifen, or Ancient, script by Professor Ted Unne, the entirety of the “Lux Aeterna” reads:
“When the world is in darkness,
Four Warriors will come...”
Controversial because Professor Unne, most senior member of the century-spanning line of Doctor Unne's that continues even today, was equally famed for his extravagant love affairs with ale and women. Though the history of the legend is almost entirely unwritten, scholars speculate that the myth of four elemental orbs entered the lore over two hundred years after the Lux's original transcription. As stated by lore scholar Bently Housend of the Corneria College History Department, “The elves, you see, the elves have always loved stories about magical ornaments, and I've found just in this last year several sources providing information on a tale about four orbs containing elemental powers that were used to keep four respective mythical monsters at bay. No doubt some historian unearthed the story and felt it looked good when combined with the Lux Aeterna; but likely they have nothing to do with each other.”
In Words of the Ancients¸ the current Dr. Theodore Unne reveals, “The exact words of the Lux Aeterna were vague enough to lend themselves to modern variations, but the particular disparity of elemental orbs is utterly ridiculous, one because the Leifen texts make no mention of them, and two because the Ancients did not believe in magic.”
Any logical mind should then discard any telling of the Lux containing magical orbs as one would discard a tall-tale. That the primary antecedent of the King's Lux exaltation is the supposed discovery of these orbs lends little credit to our heroes.
The inclusion of a Princess-saving plot is more deeply rooted in an analytical phenomenon known as the recency effect, whereby the mind associates the most recent, and therefore most urgent, discoveries with all other current situations. In this case, the present disappearance of our fair princess lends itself only too well to the first chosen goal of the Warriors. Via the recency effect, the two events are combined into a single thought. Of course, without conferring to the text of the legend itself, this elucidates that the savior of any person, Princess or no, has nothing to do with the Lux Aeterna.
But even if their proof be nugatory, can the Light Warriors still claim valid purpose? After all, their number is right, and all the legend requires is a world in darkness. So, is it in darkness? Of this there can be little doubt.
Land-locked in our town of Jrist, a successful merchantman who goes only by Bikke comments, “Well, I can't speak for much but I'll tell you that the seas have turned nasty over the recent months, even in this past week they've started turning harder and harder. The bravest captain on the ocean wouldn't take his lady out these days.” Henry Black, a leading Jrist Union organizer, shares a similar sentiment, "After twenty-three years of up-and-up, we have in just the last six months experienced high percentile decreases in membership application and re-application and also productivity, while oppositely showing high percentile increases in unemployment, job termination, and pattern downsizing. The job market has truly gone to hell.” The omens stretch beyond the human sector. The Ecological Society, based out of Corneria city, has listed several recent studies noting increasingly aberrant weather patterns including the severe diminishing of warm air currents from the Western sea and ocean tides measuring highs of up to six feet higher than recorded averages. Another of the studies even mentions a shift in behavioral qualities among several local animals, suggesting an increase in “ferocity” and “cunning”. That study went on to list several startling statistics, among them a 26% increase in animal assault cases over the past three months.
It seems indeed the globe has taken a malevolent turn. So it is not surprising that these four men lost in the wilderness are believed as Light Warriors, nor is it surprising that several rather competitive Light Warrior fan clubs have spawned in the festival city, but for the sake of the country's mental health I must report my findings in regards to these four men. They are not our saviors, they are not heroes, and they are most certainly not the Light Warriors.
Who I must assume is their leader, although the structure within this group compares its solidity to a ball of cotton, is Dr. Darrin Sylum, mid-thirties, a political science professor at Corneria College. What place he has on a no-doubt battle-saturated quest is beyond me, but his diplomatic skills, in my first meeting with him, did prove competent, at least for the part. The strong arm of the group, the famous Herrik Gipson, clearly looking to pad his résumé even further, does possess those physical skills he's famous for, but in person is standoffish, even rude. He in no way personifies the grace and benignity of a world savior. To attempt to keep their image true, they have enlisted a healer, an apprentice clergyman named Edrick Valance, who did not speak at our first meeting, and, by witness of several Cornerians, has the magical skills of a pile of dung. May bad fortune never fall their way that it should be dependent on Valance to remedy. And the final of the four, a twenty year-old who spent time in jail just moments before his divine unveiling, mysteriously goes only by Seville. For the whole of my interview he offered only one brutish, uncivil word, something characteristic of the iniquity inherent in avid prison-goers.
It doesn't paint a faithful portrait of the warriors of Lux, at least not in my mind or in the mind of anyone else I interviewed over the past two days in Corneria and Jrist. But legends can work in mysterious ways, so only an account of their work can truly gauge whether or not we should put our eggs in this basket. For this, diligent reader, I have spent time following the warriors and have spent even more time asking around their various stops to bring you the facts, no matter how lamentable.
My first and only meeting with the warriors, which I've before now invoked as “the interview”, was begun ever so comfortably with the iron-grip of Mr. Gipson propelling me face-forward into the dirt. What followed was not an interview but in actuality a brief exchange of intelligent words summarily proceeded by a bout of verbal parrying. Upon making my intentions clear, the roguish band decided it better to assault me than delegate to my stead their no doubt just word to here deliver. Because our meeting went so in the way of laconic, I was unable to ascertain whether or not calling me an “Asshole” was the message they wanted percolated through the people. I'd hope not, but they seemed rather proud of it.
So, respecting their legend-mandated wishes, I held back and chose to follow their tracks rather than be there for the making. This brought me to a small traveler's inn, called the “Way-House”, where the tender had quite an ominous tale to tell, events starring our subjects and the previous night.
That night three of our warriors joined a lucrative card game with three indefinitely anchored seafarers that frequented the pub. At least attempting to keep to their roles, the clergyman, Valance, opted not to play. Lookers-on attest that the money flow was unusually, even “supernaturally” as a witness put it, one-sided. As holds with common travel-stop traditions, a request was made by one of the seaman of the warrior named Seville to “Sleeves up”, an accusation of foul-play. Stated by Marcon Sunders, the bartender, “Now that boy didn't want to do it, and even his priest friend, who'd spent most the time in the shadows stood up for him, but [Seville] finally came up with his sleeves. And his arms were covered from top to bottom in the most awful sickness you've ever seen. Bruises and scars, unnatural things.”
Based on similar accounts by other witnesses of the night, my research led me to Dr. Friedrich Brazer, once again of Corneria College, a doctor of lore and science, “The symptoms sound like an MOS (that's Multiple Overdose Syndrome) of a beat narcotic called 'Soft'. It has certain medicinal uses but is without doubt a controlled substance. The sensations are intense and long lasting, but abuse commonly leads to black welts along the extremities as you describe them and eventually catatonia.”
But the revelation of one of our warriors as a drug-addict does not end the night's woes. Finally convinced of fair-play, the three seamen left the pub, and within the minute Seville announced to the whole place that he had indeed been cheating. When the seafarers returned to rectify their abuse, Mr. Gipson, blood-lusting grunt that he is, killed all three of them before a gentleman's word could be spoken. Realizing they could accomplish no more good that night, they ventured out and have yet to show again.
And so the query: does this sound like the people we want to call the light warriors? Do we have any reason to believe these four men? They certainly haven't put on a convincing show, they certainly haven't provided any good, and they certainly don't know what they're going to do about saving the princess. I object to these inane clubs brewing in the capital spouting misplaced hope after misplaced cry for these actors, these fakes, these rogues. They are not legendary heroes, but counterfeit idols playing a ridiculous popularity stunt at the sake of a nation's hopes. All their purpose for being is based on false notions and even in carrying out those notions they present themselves as brash warmongers. The hailing of these men as Light Warriors needs to cease. A tough tale for true believers, but believing that it will rain gold doesn't mean it's going to happen. They are no reserve for our faith, and they can fool the people of Corneria no more. If they should come to Jrist on their aimless journey, they'll know where to find me.
“I'm gonna kill'em!” Seville exasperated, crumpling the off-white paper and slamming it onto the flat counter, “We've got to kill'em!”
“Gently, son!” shot back the man behind the news stand, jumping off his high stool to restack the towers that Seville's slam had toppled. Seville snorted and threw a silver coin onto the counter, and it skidded forward and off into the debris of the papers.
“Can it!” the boy yelled back and turned away from the booth. Edrick Valance jaggedly pumped into motion and followed him with a stomp. After a heavy, thoughtful sigh, Herrik Gipson folded up his copy of the paper delicately and handed it back to the news man.
“Much obliged,” the knight said, and he ran his fingers through his tall hair. Dr. Sylum absent-mindedly rolled the page, put down a silver round, and walked off with his eyes tethered to the cobblestone.
Seville's exclamations led them past several closed stands and around a corner into an alley as deserted as any other part of the city. Only fragile arches of the early morning sun stretched into the road and the resulting slivers of shadow made their skin gray, golem-like, and streaked as with rained down war-paint. The air was quiet, the town was quiet, every breath that escaped them felt urgent, a spirit rushing past and lifting the wind. The thick, leathery skin of their valiant pretense slid down and sagged like a zombie's flesh, leaving show their vitals, their vulnerability. Every passing inch of waking minutes and the belly-hot fear of accusing eyes surrounding were sharp teeth that punctured the organs, the pressure points, the weakness. It was suffocation in an un-motherly cradle.
Seville rounded and then walked to the stone wall of the building, slapped it, and turned and grimaced. His chest heaved with an uncommon anger, which from there bore into instant fatigue.
“We're screwed!” he said, with a furious shake of the head.
“Calm down,” Edrick said.
“But we're screwed! How can he do that to us?” Seville paced unevenly, and slapped the wall again. “We've got to kill'em! He as much as invited us to at the end of the column.”
“Seville, clam down,” the priest said once more, keeping his distance from the angry twenty-year old.
“Of course you'd say that, he didn't mention shit about you that the world didn't already know.”
Edrick dropped his once receiving arms and went to stand next to the others. Gipson had just arrived and was pressing his keen eye onto Seville, but Dr. Sylum kept his glance way-wards, a non-committal stare.
“I don't think anybody is arguing that it isn't bad for us, but...”
“He called me a drug addict, Eddie!”
“And do you think throwing a coin at a shop-keep and stomping off in a tantrum is going to better that image?” Edrick persisted.
“Well, it's not making it any worse. What the hell are we supposed to do? He's gonna have all of the Corneria set against us. We're gonna be a laughing stock!”
“Quiet!” Gipson suddenly said with rounded force. He lifted a hand forward, as if to command one to his knees. “If someone were watching this very moment what impression would they get?”
Seville snorted again, “A bunch of unorganized hacks!”
“Right! Not Light Warriors, for sure.”
“When you told me you were raising your faith,” Seville yelled at the knight, “I missed where you told me it was going to Domino.”
“Understand something, Seville. My experience in this realm doesn't really include the negative, but beyond a few of his more spiteful statements, Domino is basically telling the truth.”
“And how commendable of him for doing that!” Seville shouted sarcastically. He paced in incessant circles.
“And how does this help?” Edrick joined the shouting, and then he looked to each end of the alley quickly.
“It doesn't.” Gipson said, reigning in his voice to a low but weighty level.
“So what'll you have us do? Disappear back into the woods and slip further into rejection?”
“It's not so bad as that,” Edrick said. “It's a stupid newspaper article. An editorial! We'll just get back on with our mission!”
“Our mission?! What mission? We're not gonna rescue any princess just walking around, there's no reason that we would. Light Warriors aren't destined to do anything like that.”
“What for, Seville? This you already knew but you didn't doubt it then.” Gipson tried to be calm. “None of us understands our role, so we can only do what we think is right.”
“And get pissed on for it?!” the rogue screamed.
“If that's what it takes.” Gipson said.
“Seville,” Edrick broke in, “You know that Domino is not altogether wrong. You cannot be surprised, so why this anger in you?”
“Because…” and Seville stopped walking, and let his chest slowly ease its pounding. His fists unclenched and for a moment it seemed he would calm. But then just as quickly he threw his arms out in anger, went to the side of the alley, and kicked the stone wall of the building. “Because it's my fault! Because I'm the one who screws things up. I'm the one who just got out of jail. I'm the one with the sores all over his arm. I'm the one who cheated at the poker game. I'm the one who provoked Smythe into his attack. It's my fault! Because everybody's failing on my account.”
Seville fell down into a crouch and forced his forehead down into his palm, scruffing his hair with the free hand. Then he began to shake his head angrily. He looked much like a bum long out of his wits.
Herrik Gipson slid the steeples of his kept red hair through the gaps of his fingers several times and squeezed his chin, covered with three days growth. He suddenly felt himself getting furious, and he wanted to fight it back for the sake of this group. This young boy with so much potential, so like himself, giving up. Any advice he would want to give was going to come out like a scolding. He tried.
“Seville, your problems are small, and you can reverse them in an instant. But I'm the … I'm the one who has murder on his record. So you are not going to take all of this blame for something I was too foolish to avoid.”
“Murder?” Edrick said, speaking frantically with his high boyish voice raised to even higher registers. He shook with nerve. “So now it's murder? But at the time it was something else, right?”
“Edrick, you do not want to press me on this point!”
“It's my job to press you on this point. That's all it is. Thieves and murderers. We're no warriors, we're no saviors, we're no destined heroes. I shouldn't have come with you; I never should have done this.”
“It's not clean, Seville, you know nothing about my oath, my responsibilities. And now I've consorted with Gipson the killer, and you Seville, you've been breaking my conscience for years.”
“Then why stay? Go home, if that's how you feel!”
“I stay because I'd never survive the trip home. Because I'm useless, I can't even keep people I would call my friends on the right track. That's my part, Seville, that's my part. Nothing.” Edrick shook all over, he had to walk to the wall and press against it to soothe the sickening bursting within his chest. “And I can't go back to the church, now, my oath has been broken. And when they get the paper in Corneria the minister is going to find out, and you know what little life is left for a clergyman who has broken with the church.”
“So,” Seville said, now dipping into the black, hateful shade of depression, “It is over then.”
“Over.” Edrick said, “Unless one of us would like to go alone. Like the … professor…”
All three of them turned to find the doctor Darrin Sylum facing away from their combat, looking aimlessly down the alleyway and into the jutting mesh of market booths and carts. For the entire time he'd made no mention of his presence, made no sound to call attraction his way. Even at the mention of his title then he did not turn, or nudge, or show any acknowledgement of awareness. He leaned against the opposite wall, and from where they stood they could see only a patch of his brown hair above the high rim of his maroon cloak and under the brim of his steepled-hat, and a metallic sliver of glasses frame curving around his face. His stare, or at least what they could feel of it from behind him, was treacherously distant.
“Professor?” Edrick managed to pick up his thought, “Professor, you've not said a word.”
They were unable to tell whether or not Dr. Sylum had heard Edrick. He again seemed to take no notice. Once more the ghostly quiet of the town set in upon them, the incredible death of the wind placing an awful stagnation on their skin. They waited for Sylum to speak, if he would at all. After an almost nauseating pause, he did, his voice plain and normal, but he did not turn toward.
“You're right, Seville, we're screwed,” he said. “But it's not over.” And Sylum walked down to the end of the alley and turned the corner.
A silence followed. Edrick made two steps to follow, but Gipson held him back, and Seville maintained his seat on the cobbled ground, now picking up loose rocks and chucking them into the wall. The knight and priest turned towards the thief, and then just stood and breathed, but for once looked amongst each other without squinted and calculating eyes. For a brief moment they had understood how light the weight of their responsibility was, having then compared it to the weight of denying that mission. Over was a terrible word, a fearful word, but it wasn't, was it?
“Yeah, well...” Seville said as he pushed himself to his feet, “Whatever the hell that means!”
He threw one more rock into the gray stone and left the alleyway, turning opposite the professor.
“Master Gipson?” the priest said.
“I don't know, Edrick. I don't know.” Nothing was certain.
Like a million beetles over your skin ... some that bite and burrow within ... and choke and drown on all the sin...
That's what it felt like; like an invasion of bugs that set up camp in his arteries and bones and chewed the marrow for sustenance. Like the heart in his chest was replaced by a bubbling witch's cauldron that tipped and let the poison flow down. Like every hair and organ of his body was turning undead one by one. It felt like his eyes were too big for his sockets, and that the soft sides of the orbs were pushing into his brain, making it sting. And that sting made him dizzy, the road tossed like a ship's deck. His feet were dead weights, his legs dead weights, his arms dead weights. It felt like anger. A scared and scary anger. Sylum could barely bring himself to the newsstand without collapsing and giving patronage to the palpitating ugliness growing in him. It flared like the heat of a grease fire splashed with water every time he looked at the disgusting page. One sentence. He got one sentence. He was more nothing than Edrick, more nothing than any of them. Not even worth the time of a pundit. While each of them moved to whatever great or gruesome end, he was moving towards nothing. For five years his name was synonymous with hack, his unpopularity in the capital city was common public mention. And his path to greatness didn't just lead him wrong, it lead him nowhere. He was nothing in this thing. That short name, preceded by the worthless title, Dr. Darrin Sylum, burned out of the page and seemed to glow an intriguing white. But all around was covered in red. He realized then it was getting away from him, and that's why he turned ugly.
Sylum placed twenty silver coins on the counter.
“I'll just ...” his voice was barely audible. “I'll just take this many.” He pulled up a stack of twenty papers and turned to walk away. The news man said nothing, just scooped up the coins and placed them below.
“This princess is in the Temple of Fiends.” Sylum turned to find the source of the voice, and instead of one found two men, one short, one tall, coming around the side of the booth. They grabbed Sylum, weak with emotion and turmoil, and pulled him behind the stand. The doctor did not even yelp.
“What did you say?” Sylum said, dropping the stack of papers onto the cold cobbles.
“Think about it,” said the tall one, who by his voice also spoke earlier, “Where else on the strip could you hide that kind of VIP without getting caught immediately? Where but a castle that only exists in myth? You can find it you know, but you have to go through the forest, and the paths are overgrown. At the end of the trail you will find a castle, broken down and half demolished, that will be the Temple of Fiends. You've heard of it before.”
“Of course, but...”
“Just go, that's where they're keeping her. Do you want this to be the final article of the Light Warriors?” The tall man pointed at the single paper that Sylum had managed to keep in his grasp.
“But ... how can I ... who are you?”
“The name's Biggs, this is Wedge. We support you, we just wanted to help.”
“Stop stammering! You're the diplomat for God's sakes. Just find the Temple of Fiends, alright?”
Biggs and Wedge left Sylum standing there between two booths with a messy stack of newspapers at his feet, confused and disturbed. He let the last paper drop from his childish grasp, the new sickness within him seething afresh. Biggs and Wedge?
Edrick and Gipson had finally followed Seville out of the alley and into the nearest stone building which happened to be a tavern. They rested there, speechless and happy with that fact. Seville rolled a coaster back and forth across a table, Edrick read from one of Gipson's Monsters Manuals, and the knight himself just drifted his eyes stoically into the wall. They all faced generally inward, but not close together. The tavern was empty but for them and the bartender, who, clearly surprised to have people in his establishment so early, had come forward and kept a careful eye. After a few moments of nothing the barkeep went back to his lazy business, reading the day's newspaper. Whether he put a connection together or not didn't seem to matter. The three Light Warriors made no sign of moving without provocation. The blue depression of each hampered the whole room. They each of them including the knight jumped when the tavern door kicked forward quickly. Sylum walked in.
“We're going. Now!” he said, and walked back out.
Like trained dogs the three of them rose silently and began their dull march out. They followed Sylum to the edge of town and then into an overbearing forest. It had a foul look, but so did everything behind. They ran closely at the heels of their good professor, the only one of them still clinging to faith. But unknown to them, that faith was darker than chaos itself.
Chapter 10 ~ A Mending of Ways Pt. 1
The professor led them out of the gaunt, heartless berg of Jrist, and into the heart of darkness. The immense forest, that cupped the harbor town like hands do water against the sea, was inconceivably thick with steeple-tall trees, whose vines swooped low at the warriors' knees and feet, as might leather whips. And the monstrous branches, most of them battering ram thick, jutted low off the trunk and writhed like broken arms, and they were covered in a silken, hanging moss of a dismal green, that made their step perilous whenever the warriors had to climb upon and over them. As the hairline trail of flattened dirt diminished to a narrow tawny strand of a path, the spears and levers of old wood completely dominated the sight. The trees all around were prison bars, and the branches the cross thatches.
Seville, holding the middle ground with Edrick, tried once to climb a few branches upwards and pinpoint their path, but two branches up the trees started to run with an off-green, gelatinous sap. Accidentally squeezing the substance into his hand after an unsteady move from limb to limb, the slathers quickly set hard on his skin, and he finally had to chip the stuff away with the point of his dagger.
“Not the path I would have chosen,” he then said, to no particular response. He didn't bother mentioning that it took over half of an hour for the feeling to course back into his fingers.
As they deepened into the woods the body of their vision seemed to sway in a preternatural motion, all the vines and foliage swept up in a light breeze they couldn't feel on their skin. Far into the lair of such menacing density, it would seem unnatural that any wind could penetrate. To the contrary, it was uncomfortably moist and stagnant, like a jungle climate very familiar to Herrik Gipson, but uncommon if not impossible on the Cornerian Strip.
Any accounts of a discernable trail long past them, it looked like everything around them was pulsing, as if they stood on the heaving chest of some sleeping beast, and if only subconsciously they had walked whisper-quiet in hopes of not waking it. But that quiet, that patience, hinging on the will of discontented individuals, only brought them to a point.
“We're lost!” Seville said, forcibly enough to demand attention. “We've been lost. For hours!”
The leading Dr. Darrin Sylum hedged on stronger, without any nod, and as such the other two followed.
“We have no idea where we're going. Scratch that, we can't know where we're going, because there's nowhere for us to go. And I don't mean to interject in this little gloom march we're having, but since we're just heading towards nowhere anyways, we probably could have chosen a better way to get there.”
By now Seville was deliberately aiming his voice at the professor a few feet before the rest of them. Early that morning he might have been thankful for a release from the paralytic funk of their argument, but now any appreciation of that antidote as given by Sylum had been lost, even as quickly as the light warriors in the dark forest.
“I've always been one for hikes featuring short stints of potentially neck-breaking acrobatics, and I dig being able to drink water from the air and everything.”
They finished a treacherous and unsteady crawl over a mountainous rise of overlaying tree branches, and faced a long downhill dip into blacker forest. Without any kind of provocative hesitation they continued into it. Their feet moved over dead bark, wood, leaves, and thick rotting vines. All signs of a trail were shrouded in vegetation.
The beams of the sun completely choked away as they advanced into the deeper forest, and without its light, the progress of the warriors was greatly hampered. They had nothing to see by but the dim columns of white gold finishing as hazy circles on the retched tree trunks, a light produced from four of the small wooden flashlights that Seville had, now quite thankfully, taken along.
“And you know, scraping off killer tree sap is somewhat of a hobby of mine. But I greatly recommend we at least try to start heading back. I mean, there's no trail, we have no idea what direction we're going. And the sun doesn't seem to come down this far anymore, so we've got no idea what time of day it is.”
“It's about fifteen minutes past twelve,” Gipson finally responded, “And we're heading generally northwest.”
Seville looked around as if the knight was reading it off a sign, “How do you know that? You can't know that?”
“Have you learned nothing yet, Seville?” Gipson asked.
“What?” said Seville.
“I know everything. I'm amazing.” But Gipson didn't follow it with his characteristic chuckle, or bend it positively with one of his practiced smiles; just craned his head up to look for some kind of existing trail and then resumed the sulky march as if nothing had passed.
But to the rogue, it seemed something had passed.
“Then you know where we're going? And how to get there?”
“I know we are going wherever it is that the professor is taking us, and clearly the way there is through the forest or else, being a sensible man, he would not have taken us this way.”
Dr. Sylum still showed no response, and his light still sniffed the nearest ground to find surest footing.
“Sensible? Right, sensible.” Seville jumped a few logs forward and turned to address the knight, “Because four glass orbs show up one day and suddenly you're a legendary hero; that's sensible. Because we're out here in the middle of the creepiest forest in the entire world searching for a Princess which, if we even are the light warriors, we aren't destined to find; that's sensible. Because...”
“Harking accusations at something neither you nor anybody understands is not sensible, Seville.” Said Edrick, getting more and more accustomed by the day at speaking with his voice raised.
“Dry up, Eddie! I know I'm not sensible.”
“Still, I would take this dark forest before your dark words. I ask once more today what you're trying to accomplish.”
“You wouldn't take this dark forest for all the world, Eddie.”
The pressing weight of the trees seemed now to circle around their entire forward vision, funneling them towards some unseen singularity. As often as not they walked upon the slick branches while holding onto similar ones above for support. The precarious movement became so dexterity intensive they could barely manage to keep the lights before their eyes.
“And in response, I am trying to get a rise out of our fearless leader. He's been acting funny all day. I just wanna know why we're in this forest, all right? It doesn't have the most natural look to…”
“They say it is haunted, the people of Jrist.” Dr. Sylum said suddenly, with a low and cool voice. He had paused just briefly to take his magical short sword, still pristine from its Centennial vendor, to an entwined cable of vines. After slashing and digging through, he created enough of a hole, and led the light warriors dauntlessly through a wall of trees. Then he continued.
“A legend now, of course. The story is of a corrupt king, named Lichern, who dwelled in a palace at the end of the forest. He achieved his throne through villainy, and the common word of the day said that the king sprouted from the angry soil, a demon sent to punish the people. Because the palace was said to crawl with the most hideous and awful of supernatural creatures, and because many of the Cornerian towns were set to waist by armies of these monsters, the palace became known as 'The Temple of Fiends'.”
“How does it lead to the haunting of the forest?” Edrick asked.
“Well, actually there was no forest at the time, you could see the retched castle even from a high tower where Jrist is now located.” As he spoke the professor hacked mechanically through dead branches and trunks, looking for the path. But he never looked back, and his voice was so very calm, very disinterested, serving if nothing else to quell the argumentative Seville. “The people did what they always do, they rebelled. Hereabouts is where the battle was fought. When the villagers finally overtook Lichern they say he cursed them all for eternity and returned to the soil. Or, as it's been more dramatically put, a great, earthy fissure opened at his command and he returned to his demon throne below.”
“Well, that comes next. Not wanting anything more to do with the foul refuse of the fallen fiends, the warriors that survived returned to their homes, leaving nature to sweep clean the battlefield. But this was a grave mistake. The quick decay of the hordes made the soil rich, but, and this is legend remember, it also infested the dirt with evil. And worse yet, from the very spot where Lichern, the demon king, returned to the underworld, a sapling quickly emerged; the first tree of the evil forest.”
“Evil?” the priest said, now returning to his normal, wavering voice.
“The trees grew at unnatural speeds, and were said to hide the Temple of Fiends from all who search for it; that only a single path could be cut to the palace, and that it was a dangerous road.” And then Sylum stopped and turned very quickly, his eyes but dim pricks of light under his brimmed hat, and he stared directly into Seville's eyes, a very precise and sharp look. “Of course, it's just a legend. Probably shouldn't let me choose what to do with it.”
He turned and began to walk again. The path sloped downward quite noticeably, enough so that the heavy weight of each step fell hard on the ankle and they descended with their backs bent. Each of them felt tired, none of them said so.
“You know, that doesn't actually answer…”
“The Temple of Fiends, Seville. We're looking for the Temple of Fiends. It's secluded and virtually impervious to any kind of large scale attack, the perfect place to keep a ransom … if it exists.”
“But since we're counting on a legend here,” Seville continued with his breathy, aggravated voice, “We can assume most of the rules we're going on aren't true.”
The professor hopped a tall knot of wood and slid to a comfortable stance, then continued. His answer came after a rest, after thought.
“Well, I know the Jrist folk used to maintain a path through the forest, and I can only think of one reason they might have done that; to keep a watchful eye on the palace. Of course, that's long ago, and that path is overgrown.”
“If the path is overgrown then how did the captors find it without leaving us a clue?”
Once again the professor stopped and turned to gaze forcefully into the rogue's face.
“Seville, I don't know. I don't know anything. But if I say we're going to look for the temple then we're going to look for the temple. I don't know what we'll find when we get there, if we get there. I don't know if we'll ever leave this forest again. But for now this is our road, so let's just walk it, okay?”
Then Sylum spun back to his course and continued moving, showing no care to hear a response. Seville stopped walking, so Edrick turned and waited for him to speak, and Gipson, in the back, had to stop. Seville looked down to his feet, then up and around the forest, and then down again, clenching his fists and squinting his eyes. He was inhaling and exhaling heavily from the stress of the hike, but anger was in it as well. Once the professor got far enough ahead, he too stopped and regarded the rogue. Seville spoke.
“No, no that's not okay. I don't want to go on chasing nothing anymore. I'm tired, and too much of our energy has been spent on this false mission. It's just chaos, professor, whether we're in the right or wrong we're going to fail. I'll do it with dignity, and admit it. I'll tell everyone that we we're wrong at that we're sorry. I'll apologize for you the most, professor. I'm going home now, that march starts right here.”
Seville veered off the hasty path they were forging and disappeared through two black trees without a word more.
“Seville!” Edrick cried. “Seville, no!” And the priest followed him in.
Left standing was Sylum and Gipson. The knight was grasping the greatsword hilted on his back as he often did while traveling and keeping his light shining on the professor. Sylum, who held his light down along the shaft of his leg, was motionless, so motionless that the oscillating rhythm of the unnatural forest seemed to settle into equivalent stillness, the mighty beast had taken its final lumbering breath and died. There was so much darkness surrounding, and they were so small.
“You do not join them?” Sylum asked, almost aggressively. Gipson did not move in response, but answered exactly as he stood.
“Seville is a good fighter; he can defend Edrick if such a situation comes up. You would need help though. So this is the choice I will make ... for the light warriors.”
Again Sylum was slow and careful with his words. Waiting for his replies was tedious.
“A knight's honor is a marvelous thing these days.”
“And I also do it for Seville. His emotions must be excused. He is intelligent, but also young, too young for such an idealistic venture. And despite his words, he still thinks very highly of you.”
At this Sylum downcast his eyes, and he twisted the wooden rod of the flashlight between his fingers.
“But he is confused, doctor. You do not seem yourself.” A pause.
“Nor does it feel that way, Master Gipson,” Sylum said. “I have felt many pangs of failure over the last four days, and even for all my experience with the stuff, I somehow can hardly take it this time.”
“Built up too much?”
“Just too much hope. I really thought we had something.” Sylum slowly turned and faced deeper into the jungle, deep into a fearsome blackness into which every step promised less and less chance of return. With his light shooting down, he could only discern the faintest tall, cylindrical patterns of the trees before him, and he could just make out his shadow from Gipson's flash.
“He will return, doctor. And wherever he goes Edrick will follow. Where do we go from here then?” Gipson asked, with the noble quality of a servant awaiting a king's command.
“To the palace, Master, to the palace. As long as you wish to follow.”
They started the sullen march again, and Gipson pulled closely in so that they could walk together. But the knight was fearful, and kept a stern eye on the professor as he would a prisoner, one who might pull a hidden dagger and strike. Some truth was in Sylum's words, no doubt, but also there was something hidden under. A gray cloud the doctor would not puncture and let dissipate. Heading into the very heart of darkness, Gipson felt weighing him down a prodigious pall of deceit.
“Seville! Seville, just wait!”
“You should not have come, Eddie. You must have some rules in your church about allying with quitters; failures.”
“But there's no proof you are a failure and you are only a quitter because you so choose. Just hold up a second.”
Seville was walking briskly through whatever cracks in the forest he could find, dexterously slashing away the green tendrils from the shadow-hidden canopy above. Edrick the priest, who was ceaselessly catching his long white robe on the knobs and spikes of low branches, was huffing desperately to keep up. The white robe was pathetic now, ripped into fleshy frays and streaked with brown and green; another trespass against the office of clergyman.
“It's over for me, Eddie, no turning back from turning back. If it's not over for you then you've made a bad decision in trailing me.”
“But... but...” Edrick flummoxed as he always did, “But there is still hope, you can't let that braggart Domino control you like this. Would this not be what he wanted?”
“What he wanted? He didn't want anything. Remember, no agenda, just the truth. You and Gipson were right, he's telling the truth, so I don't see why we'd continue. He's right, we're not light warriors, we're not saviors. We're just Seville the thief, Gipson the murderer, and Edrick the incompetent priest. Spot on, Eddie, he was spot on.”
Seville stopped when there was nothing left to hurdle and he swayed the light all around. He saw only the solid, sentry-like columns of trees, all pressed squarely against each other like fence posts. No paths, nothing. Edrick finally caught up with him and breathed heavily while crouching over and holding his hands on his knees.
“You're just choosing to believe that. Domino doesn't know anything that doesn't help him prove his point.”
“And I don't know anything that disproves it!” Seville shouted back to the priest. He walked up to the barrier of vegetation and felt his hands along it, gliding quickly around to find a break. When he got to the end he kicked the final tree hard and stomped back into the middle of their path. “Dead-end!”
“Well,” said Edrick. “At least attempt to disprove it then. We can at least get as far as the temple, and if that proves dry, then I'm sure everybody will join your sentiments. Don't give up now. You're acting rashly.”
“Oh, thanks for the expert counsel. Look, here, we might be able to climb up over that.”
Seville pulled a thick vine free and tested his weight upon it. It held. Bracing with his feet against the trees he climbed to a narrow rift in the wood and pulled himself into it.
“Seville, you need to stop this now!” Edrick said emphatically, walking up to the vine. “I can't do that!”
“Well, then you better head back to catch the others.”
“But you know, it's not that much of a climb.” Seville slipped over the crevice and disappeared.
“I just remembered; you say the forest is haunted?” Gipson asked.
“I say that they say the forest is haunted. The royal they.” Sylum returned.
“How is it haunted? And with what? Complete the story,” Gipson requested. As the two drudged torpidly over the similar, gloomy scene of black and green the knight tried to keep the professor talking. He was searching, probing for what was really on Sylum's mind. The feelings were more extreme than disappointment, Gipson knew.
“Well, there you're just getting into superstition, a bunch of old wives' tale nonsense.”
“Humor me, Sylum, humor me.” Gipson had to keep digging.
“Just remember the story. We stand on what is probably the largest battle field in Corneria history, hundreds, maybe thousands of creatures without proper burial, the entire mass left to rot. An evil so great it affected the soil, and from there the ghosts of the fallen supposedly made home in these woods. And they say...”
“There's that they again...”
“...well, they're the only ones that ever say things. They say that the ghost of Lichern himself even makes residence in these woods occasionally, waiting for the day when Corneria is weakest and he could reclaim his castle from beyond the grave. That's not even legend, that's just myth, a story used to keep kids out of the forest.”
“There are no recorded reports of ghost sightings, and they've had no trouble in the city limits?”
Then Gipson sighed of relief quietly to himself. If he'd had reason to truly suspect ghosts were near he would not have let Seville out of his sight. He wasn't sure how one ghost my react to the rot inflicted by another, people rarely lived as long as Seville, and this was something he didn't want Seville to find out. Still, his sigh of relief was almost completely for show, even though he had kept it personal. The inner-chest pumps of worry began regardless.
“Do you notice that?” asked the professor suddenly.
“What?” Gipson said.
“The light. Quick, turn off your flashlight.”
They both twisted the bottom of the wooden rods but they didn't fall into absolute darkness. There was a faint resonance settling on the roots and vines and the tall trunks. Their eyes so accustomed now to pure darkness the colored haze looked like gray smoke, like an early morning fog. They could just make out the design of the trees with their eyes, completely unaided by their magical lights.
“Reaching a way out perhaps,” said the knight.
“Come, let's hurry,” Sylum said.
“This just doesn't seem like the Seville I know, running away from things.” Edrick employed earnestly. After developing the energy to vault up through the rift, the apprentice clergyman had followed Seville in another ceaseless charge through the sticky maze of plant life. “What happened to the Seville that pressed men twice his size to their last wits?”
“You have to learn to change, Eddie, take that lesson from the great Herrik Gipson, and learn to change. Look what rash behavior has got me, time in jail, a reputation as a thief, and the murder of three men not by me, but by a friend I forced into it. If I leave that behind, then just maybe I can fix my problems. I feel better already.”
“You don't feel better, you just tell yourself that.” The priest cried.
“And how would ya know that?” Seville said conversationally. He and Edrick alone, it almost felt like old times, but for a slight warning inside.
“I know what people think of me, Seville.” The priest responded. “And it's not much. I know my backbone isn't exactly made out of iron. And my magic is sub-par in an understatement. You think I don't realize it? But that doesn't mean I can't read people, and you, Seville, are a clinger, you have been since I've known you, probably since your father died.”
Seville tightened as he always did at the mention of his father. Why should the death of his father have anything to do with his life today? Why did people always have to have such nerve to bring it up? The rogue stopped hurtling around the fallen limbs and listened, the hairs on his neck crawling.
“You're not a widely social person, but you always find those small things to hang on to. This group, this adventure is no different. I never believed for a second that you bought into this whole Lux Aeterna thing, that's not what this is about. You came all this way because you wanted to be in the group, because this was a safe bet at the time. Why change that, Seville? They're depending on you, too. You don't want to leave, I know you don't, and I don't want you to leave. But you're afraid of something, and it's pushing you away.”
Seville turned and scratched the back of his head, sloshing around his scraggly neck-length hair. Then he put his arms at his waist and sighed loudly. He looked into the priest's eyes, the one he sometimes called a boy and sometimes a man, he now realized was much more man than him. Despite Edrick's childish look, the chili-bowl hairstyle, the tender blonde, the face full of freckles, he was no child. He didn't pass a kid's judgment, or yell and call names. Just stated the facts, just tried to help. Edrick had always been such a good friend, so impossibly good.
“You've got a good bead on what it was, Eddie, but not so much on what it is.” Seville paused a moment, the ominous stillness of the surrounding ink pressing hard, and he tried to compose his thoughts. Edrick only stood with his light cast at the rogue, and waited. “The truth is that, I'm afraid I actually did start to believe, sometime that first day. It just became so right. But it's been downhill since then, and in my anger I've acted so stupid, so rash. And I refuse to bring anymore pain to the group.”
“If we should fail our mission, and by my inclusion I truly think we will, then maybe you could get back in with the church, the minister always liked you. And Gipson still has his book tour, nine-tenths of the world doesn't know any of this has happened. But all that's left for me is to go back to the Lux and tell Mr. Dunnings that I messed up again, that I've done some more bad things, that I even got some people killed.”
“Seville, it's not...”
“That night at the tavern, after ... well, you know, I had these thoughts in my head. I thought that, if ever I was placed in Master Gipson's situation that I could have done what he did. Just, killed'em! And ... and what kind of thoughts are those to be having? Did I ... did I look on it with some sick joy? Or did I revel in causing it? I don't know, I don't know what's wrong with me. But this adventure, Eddie, this adventure brought me to it, and I don't think I should continue that way. It is a terrible feeling when you realize how much awfulness is inside of you, and when you realize that you don't even understand it yourself. That there's no contention, no ill will, just chaos, just some compulsion towards evil. That you are just innately an evil human being. And I'm sick about it. I'm especially sick that I've clung to you all these years, you who actually manage to stay pure in this world. And I have crushed the professor's dreams to the point that he's not himself anymore. I did it all. So I should stop doing that, right? That's ... the right answer, isn't it?”
Seville wore the gravest face Edrick had ever seen, even through his many ceremonies of the funeral sacraments. The priest finally charged with his most honored office, advice and counsel, and he couldn't think of a thing to say. He stuttered quiet syllables looking for the words.
“Se ... Seville ... I ...”
“Do you believe in the legend, Eddie?” Seville asked like the last hope stint of a wounded child.
Edrick was hotter with nerve than he'd ever been. He knew how delicate his friend now was, and cringed to realize that at so perilous a time his word was finally being tested, his knowledge was to be heeded. Whatever he said now Seville would follow, the rogue had finally dropped all pretenses of the tough guy and just wanted to be lead by someone he could trust. The wrong word and Seville would never harbor faith again. Edrick thought of what he would say and drew the time out, fearing commitment, biting his lip in anger at his inability to be strong.
“Do you, Eddie?” Seville asked again.
“I ...” he shook his head aimlessly, but then decided and stood tall, “I still believe in the group.”
Seville nodded affirmatively. “Then so will I.”
“You will return with me?” asked the priest, reaching out a hand.
“May it be the only rational thing I've ever done.” But when Seville reached out to offer his hand as well he suddenly yelped with pain, seized up tightly, and fell forward.
“Seville!” Edrick cried as his friend toppled to the ground, and he hunkered to his knees to push him over. Seville was board-stiff, just like another branch fallen to the ground, and there were growls of anguish coming from his throat. Seville's eyes darted their hurt look to Edrick, confused and afraid. Edrick started to shake once again, and cried, “What is it, what is it? What do I do?”
But he stopped as his ears then caught a sound. A serene, slithery whisper hanging on the air, coming from behind.
“This is remarkable,” Gipson said, “But not altogether a good thing.”
The forest was gray, light gray. The trees were ashen and peppery, and no trace of furry green moss could be seen. And the afternoon sun trickled in from the sparse canopy and lit up diamond shapes within the shadows. All the green, all the omnipresent lushness, had stopped instantly; a single, final battalion of life and then gray, rows and rows of thin, mirthless trees. They were dead, the leaves long fallen, the once pumping sap dormant, and the hard shells of the bark was cragged from petrification. No seasonal life would return to them.
“The forest is dying,” said Sylum.
“But still, this is not natural,” the knight replied. “What do you think it could mean?”
“That we should be careful,” was all the professor gave back.
The two men sauntered conscientiously down a rather wide and breathable path. There were no scuff marks, like those from the trod of boots, making a particular way for them, but their course was straight and unhindered by refuse; they almost basked in the comfort of the sudden emptiness.
“Did your gainful efforts ever receive such ... well, bad reception, Master Knight?” Sylum asked with dark confidence. Gipson sucked his breathe in a few times and planned his move; the curious professor might soon reveal something of his ponderous mindset. Gipson had was too used to dealing with kings and players, or even small-time showmen like Seville or the rifle salesmen, but rarely the abstract; the obscure and recondite nature of Sylum was a challenge to his wits.
“I have never been unpopular, no, but I have had some chastisement from the journalistic circles.” The professor looked at him sketchily, so he continued. “I'm often accused of formulating 'been there, done that' ideas, though I don't hang around literary minds enough to realize it. I'm a hunter, I just gather the facts.”
“What do you do when that happens?” Sylum asked. This has much to do with Domino's column, Gipson thought to himself.
“I try to decide for myself whether or not the critic is right, but always in the end I just decide that I'm happy with what I've got and to trust myself. I've never harbored much anger over it.”
“Of course not. But it sounds like you've never truly felt the pain of it either.”
“What's on your mind, doctor?” Gipson asked directly but reflectively. “You have not been yourself.”
Gipson watched Sylum think as they walked steadily and comfortably, and he saw the scholar tighten up at the thoughts. He was searching, searching ceaselessly for the words. But whether to express or conceal, the knight could not divine.
“It's, well...” Sylum spoke cautiously. “I don't entirely trust my ability to handle another failure.”
“If it should happen it would be one you share with others and not of your doing.”
“Did you hear me claim fault?” the professor said with a swift snap of his head, a surreptitious glance of offense. Gipson widened his eyes briefly and then shook in the negative. They moved a few more paces before Sylum continued his thought.
“I don't possess Seville's pension for dramatics, though I do envy him for it, and therefore I usually don't blame myself for my shortcomings, you get over that quickly when everything you do could be categorized as a shortcoming.”
Gipson repressed a supportive comment, better to let things come out while they could.
“I don't even think I ever told Seville, but I also write books, or I did a long while ago.”
“I always felt you seemed the type.”
“Yeah ... I'm the type. But in ten years of the craft I never got a single publication. Not one. Thirteen failures. Thirteen books in ten years is quite an accomplishment in itself, but it could just have equally been zero for me. Not that one my of my books never saw the light of a tour, just that my name wasn't on it.”
“My mentor, oh, I must have been about Seville's age, told me I didn't have the spirit to create publishable work and discontinued our relationship. A while later one of my manuscripts got him famous ... and rich. He didn't even change the author's note. That at first made me believe that I at least had the stuff to make it, but my work was always so disenchanted after that. As a nonfiction writer I'm sure you don't have that problem very often. I lived in a kingdom in the northern continent called Gaia...”
“Yes, I've been there many times.”
“Well, then you probably remember, or at least heard of the Books' Rebellion. Gaia was under a smothering system of law, a dictatorship run with fear. But the people lived with it because they didn't understand anything about rights and natural liberties. When I was hired on as a history teacher there, I started to present such ideas to them, the ones I had collected through my books. I didn't know my own popularity, nor did I know how extremely the duke despised me. One night I was awoken by a mob come to my door, calling me to lead them to battle against the king and establish a democracy like my unpublished works preached. I somewhat reluctantly told them that violence wasn't the answer, but the battle came anyways, and all those disciples I didn't even know I had until it was too late were slaughtered, and what survivors there were chastised me, and chased me out of the kingdom. Then I came here.”
Sylum paused for a moment, allowing the knight to speak if he wished, but Gipson was looking down their path calmly, waiting for more.
“Corneria is a much more civilized society, so my ideas have never gained popularity here. But Gaia was just one more failure on my part. A big one. A costly one.”
“And now this?” Gipson asked.
“And now this.”
“Ah, but we don't know everything yet. There is still a destination before us.”
“You know,” Sylum continued as if Gipson had never spoke, “I can't really decide what gets to me so much. That it happened or that I was never officially affiliated with it. The rebellion was my fault, no doubt in my mind now nor was there ever, but not a single text on the events leading up to the rebellion mention Darrin Sylum, teacher of history. They cover extensive economic backgrounds, some texts go centuries back. Some texts report crop yields in years before the rebellion, and mention every last word the king ever spoke. But the true reason behind it remains in shadow.
“As if it were something you'd desire,” said the knight sternly. Sylum looked to Gipson coldly, as if he'd been challenged, contradicted.
“Maybe I do. For good or bad, maybe I do. My problem is that I can't get any recognition at all. No matter what great or evil thing I commit. Like I don't exist. What a cruel twist of fate that I should be likewise born with a crave of it. It's an academic curse, Master Gipson. I want to be known, like Unne or any of the others. But I'm the ghost of academia. And ... and I've got so many good ideas to share, but ... but I can't ... I'm unable!” Sylum was getting angry.
“That might not be in the cards for you, doctor,” said Gipson rashly; not understanding what would be accomplished by it.
“But it's the only game I've been playin'.”
“But if you believe in who you are now, then your fate has decided against it...”
“Fate? What fate? I've given up on fate, Master Knight; our being the light warriors is really a toss up to me, given things as a whole. No, I just continue because I truly believe the princess will be in this temple, if it exists. But ... fate? I just couldn't...”
The professor stopped walking then and balled his fists. He appeared that he would explode that very moment, and then he kicked his boot solidly into a tree and screamed, “Why couldn't something just work out for once?!”
The loud, ferocious voice of Sylum echoed in the stillness, bounced from tree to tree and soared back to them from distances their eyes could not appropriate. There followed a hushed rustle in the dead branches from an unfelt breeze, and then silence pervaded.
Sylum didn't care about the disapproving look that Gipson started with, and the quick shift into a sad, empathetic semblance was almost disgusting to watch. Inside was all fury. When the knight raised his hand to lay down another steady line, Sylum viciously cut him off.
“I'm done talking,” Sylum snapped, “If we're going to go to the temple, then let's go there already.”
Then the professor started with a vast stride and kept it at a pace so resolved that even Gipson himself had hurry to catch up.
The knight knew then how inadequate his preparation was, and he had nothing he could think to say to Sylum, nothing that would tarry him or give him brighter thoughts; for once he was useless, and therefore for once he was truly frightened. Frightened that he was following this man, this stranger dressed in a maroon cloak with a feather-topped steepled hat, into a boundless terror, a man-made destiny of wickedness. What malevolent ideas ricocheted in Sylum's mind? Was it all really nothing?
“Wait!” Said Gipson fiercely, drawing his long sword Drâco. Sylum swerved, choked at seeing the naked blade, and tumbled back over his foot. He landed as a dull red pile on the forest floor. Gipson approached carefully on light hunter's steps, and the professor threw a hand up and recoiled for the strike he knew was coming. But then he paused, and saw the eyes of the knight; not staring menacingly into his destitute soul, but rather scanning some unknown spot in the distance. Sylum made to get up, feeling horribly foolish, but Gipson just said “Wait” once more. So the professor turned his head to look.
It wasn't hard to see, its vibrant color like a flare against night's helmet; a bright, alarming, almost breathtaking hue of pink. So jarring a shade it was near violence to be set against the neutral, livid backdrop of endless pale forest. At that distance, a goodly twenty trees away, its shape was unclear, but for sure its aggressive, flowery tincture did not agree with the bulbous mass it formed. Hugging fatly to the bottom of a narrow trunk, the object of fascination most closely resembled a bean pod, though grossly large. Herrik Gipson, Knight of the Coast, Lieutenant First Class, approached, and this time didn't stop Sylum from standing and following.
Half the distance to the odd pink distraction Gipson slowed once again; three more of them had come into vision, lying mostly in the same way, suckling on empty tree husks a few rows behind the most immediate. They were soundless and motionless, but pulling closer to the front one the stench grew terrible. Rotten, acrid, putrid smells permeated, and the climate grew syrupy again. It was the funk of decaying flesh, of a long dead and sweating corpse, Gipson had no doubt.
The knight proceeded closely to the nearest pink blob, still looking for features, and more importantly, weapons. He could just handle the mordant dew in his nostrils, so questioned the professor's stomach. When two stern pokes came to his back he assumed that Sylum was falling, but turning to catch him, he was caught aback. Behind them, squatting all over the very ground the two men had just tracked, Gipson saw a platoon of the creatures, at least twenty that were not there even a minute before. And they were close, some on two trees away.
“What are they?” exasperated Sylum, but the response did not come from Gipson.
Off the nearest infected tree, the pink blob slithered down and took the shape of a fleshy slug, dripping with a translucent ooze. Gipson turned and readied his long sword and took a short sword in his free hand. He could not find the creature's eyes if it had them, but it made perfectly clear that instant it had a mouth. The creeping slug opened its toothy, blood red maw and struck.
Neck hairs standing like soldiers, devilish whispers pervading his mind, and his friend, just moments from savior, stony and pained at his feet, Edrick was engulfed. Sweat made curved streaks down his round face, and his eyes were unable to escape their dead stare forward. Then came a curdling scream with enough force in it to push Edrick up and over the paralyzed Seville. He completely flipped and landed sourly with a tree knot jutting into his back. But the pain was secondary to his vision. In his jaunting, reversed sight he saw the monster, floating on the air with a billowy black cloak that seemed made of no more than wisping gas. It was topped with a smiling skull that glowed orange from its sockets and its two skeletal hands braced out to the sides and made clawing motions. Edrick was frozen in his back-aching stance, wholly stopped with fear. The awful, bulky breathing sounds of the specter seemed to press him flat into the rotting branches with each gust, and the fire from its eyes and the two dropped flashlights only gave the faintest idea of its terrible size. It could have been half as tall as one of the lumbering trees. Seville recognized it immediately, but could not for all his effort speak out a warning to the priest.
The ghost floated a little higher and crossed over the two pathetic men. Its fluid body melted into the nearest solid patch of trees and for the brief second it was gone, but just as quickly is it had come the first time it flew back into sight with another banshee-like wail. The poltergeist seemed to have resolved that its prey was passive enough, and it reached down its giant hands and clasped Seville and Edrick firmly between the hard, rawboned fingers. Seville gurgled and choked, still inflexible, and Edrick squeezed his eyes shut and pressed against the tightness. The wind rammed out of his chest and the lung-wrenching pain brought on tears. The end was just upon them, when suddenly the wraith started moving, flying expeditiously through the tight-knit trees. To Edrick's unavoidable wonderment, he noticed that he and Seville were passing through the trees just as smoothly as the apparition. Soon the forest grew sparser, and light flushed over them.
“You're sword, man!” Gipson screamed, as he strafed and plunged a blade into the belly of the pink worm. The loose innards, shiny garnet and hot enough to steam, splayed out onto the soil and dug a shallow crevice into it.
Sylum danced back in his surprise and recklessly fished his magic short sword from its hilt, so much so that it nearly flung from his hands. He took a good grip of it and closed in with Gipson, who had stuck his short sword into the dirt and scraped the acidic blood of the creature off with Drâco; then he held it up. The very outer skin of the blade was dull and pattered with miniature teeth marks.
“It eats the metal; I hope your blade's the real deal.” Gipson said. “Stand at my back. Here they come!”
Sylum did as told and saw before him five of the horrid monsters deftly sliding towards. A hasty glance over his shoulder showed that Gipson had just as many to handle. Having nothing but to wait their approach, Sylum tried rigorously to stop the weakening tremble of his hand, but could not, so he held the small blade in both hands. Gipson's monsters arrived first.
“Dodge!” the knight roared and somersaulted to the right, leaving Sylum a standing target. But the acrobatic attracted the slugs, and they turn and hissed. Gipson ran into their fray and hacked at them across their width, beheading two before having to juggle his feet out of the pooling bleed. “Act Sylum!”
The professor turned and made an incautious swing at the closest worm, but it ducked its head around and growled, and displayed its teeth. It catapulted mouth wide, but only sided Sylum, who spun clockwise to meet the creature and did with a forceful thrust into its opened throat. A geyser of red heat spattered onto Sylum's hand and all feeling was lost. His grip fell away from the blade and the anguished slug flopped to either side, spitting its blood in higher and higher arcs until it finally died and slapped its heavy body once more to the ground. The corpse shriveled as normal slugs do, and as the inner-lodged blade pierced more and more within, the freshly ripped pockets of the hot liquid splattered out the creature's wounds like popping boils.
The doctor thought his right hand was dead; it hung limply and was completely without response. And that was only one creature. Sylum charged at Gipson and pulled from out of the knight's hilt his Werebane short sword, which Sylum readied in his off-hand.
“The blood is numbing!” cried Sylum in a girlish frenzy, but Gipson hadn't the time to give response. The knight forcefully kicked another fallen worm to the side and dashed into melee with two others. He pushed the first strike to the side with a dexterous slap of the flat side of his blade, and then fenced off the second strike by spiking the tip of Drâco into the slug's soft palate and twisting it to its back. He pulled the sword out before the red streams could run to his hand. Taking a quick inventory around him he tossed his head every direction, but then turned to meet the worm he'd only delayed.
Not even giving it the chance to finish its dramatic hiss, Gipson tore his sword into the monster's gums, slicing free the entire top row of teeth. It spat with anger and gnashed its sore head into the dirt, but the knight quickly finished it with a lengthwise gash and ran off to aid Sylum, scraping the blood off his short sword as he did.
The doctor had just axed through his second kill, and now his entire right arm slung haphazardly as he parried and thrust. Three of the pink slugs approached from one side, and he caught the first attacker in its teeth and with a tiring shove he pushed the sack of ooze backwards. It shook its head as if startled. Sylum treaded backwards, uncertain of where the assault would come, and then as if initiating some kind of group tactics, all three approached with an equally weighty momentum. Sylum almost keeled and fell to his back once more, but just then Gipson ran before him, and stopped one of the coursing slugs short with a savage drilling into the monster's side. Losing the synch, another of the slugs stopped and twisted its head at the knight, leaving just one for Sylum to contend with, which he did with a timed sidestep and downward slash. But he only cut a scar into its tail, and the worm slid around and scrunched in for a pounce. Sidestepping once more the professor swung wide and met the flailing vermin as one would with a club, digging in and through and effectively bisecting it. The two halves spurted inwards madly and landed and shook. Then they shriveled.
Turning to Gipson to give him aid, Sylum couldn't help but notice that the knight looked impressed, but he couldn't hold that face for long. He held his tongue between his lips and took combat to another of the pink creatures. Sylum rushed in to double team, but was caught off guard when he accidentally put some distance into his vision, the slugs kept on coming. To every direction he then looked; twenty, no, thirty more, moving fast and in large, organized squads. Some still a ways back, but many that would be upon them directly. Dead arm dangling at his side, Sylum screamed barbarically and charged an attacking worm.
He beat it accurately to its quick death, and helped Gipson put down another of them. All around them they heard the crackling of sliding bodies and the sizzle of the blood cooking into the ground. All the dirt under them was red and wet, and the ground and been burrowed until uneven. Stepping into the pooling juice it melted their boots.
“We move!” Gipson instructed, and they jumped over the thickening rivers of the boiling material and onto dry soil. No direction they could choose would lead them away from the advancing army. Once more the knight cleaned his blade and then did the same for the Werebane short sword. Then he grabbed Sylum's arm and looked at it closely.
“Pain?” he asked hurriedly.
“None,” answered the professor.
“Probably just paralysis,” Gipson said knowingly with a raced but assured voice. Sylum gulped and nodded, and quivered at the foreign feeling of his distant arm and at the surging adrenaline inside. Then he readied his blade, with Gipson following suit.
“Be careful,” Gipson said finally, and the second wave was upon them.
The wraith slung them down on the forest floor, Seville still suspended like a brick and Edrick tumbling over onto his stomach. The priest coughed and sucked in short, spasmodic breaths and scurried crab-like over to Seville, who had landed on his back.
At the end of their journey the forest had turned pale and lifeless, seamless acres of gray, stony trees. And the sun shone in brightly so that it hurt their eyes. Edrick, fighting his awe of this sudden sight, focused on Seville as well he could, but had trouble collecting his breath.
The fearsome ghost, now revealing its gargantuan size, soared above them, its undulating black cloak making whipping and cracking noises as it sloshed in its own wind. The demon eyes of the ghoul burned scars upon them as it floated there. Then, with a menacing, cruel and stupid cock of its smiling head the ghost reached within itself and pulled out a colossal scythe that wreathed in and out of spectral nothingness and glowed an ugly white. Edrick was sure then it meant to strike and finish them, but it did not. Instead it took to speedy flight and maneuvered around the surrounding trees, sometimes venturing a good distance out. And it started to screech its most awful sound through the trees, sailing over the two men again and again, calling its devil-voice out. And the flight was so fast that the phantasmal scythe whistled in the real air and the orange glow of the eyes left tails in their vision.
“Eddie...” came Seville's weak voice.
“Seville! You can speak!” the priest called.
“Eddie ... sleeve ...”
“What? What is it?” Edrick scampered his hands along Seville's body looking for injury.
“Eddie!” Seville was finding strength from somewhere, but his words were almost all aspiration. “Sleeve!”
The priest cast a confused visage but followed the order and went to Seville's right arm and pulled the sleeve up carefully, afraid that harsh motion would injure his friend. But then beside himself with nerve he shot his small hands away from what he saw. The ghost rot, the usually dull and empty scars of black pelting Seville's arm glowed a ghastly, shocking shade of purple. And the long veins of the underarm especially blazed with phosphorescence, so bright he could almost see it vessel like blood.
Edrick wanted to scream with fear but choked on his own voice, his tongue was too thick in his mouth.
“I've ... seen this before ...” Seville revealed at no more than an utter.
“What? What do you mean? Where? How?” Edrick's voice trilled and quaked. He grasped Seville by the shoulders and peered in to see and here.
“I've ... seen this before ...” Seville could not move his limbs, but still he could cough and hack at the pain. He could close his eyes and did so repeatedly, the pulsing agony so powerful he was sure his bones would shatter. “Dream...”
“What dream? What dream? I don't understand!”
“Dream...” And then it looked that Seville would pass under forever, but just as uncertainly he opened his eyes wide and alert, and forced his stare into Edrick.
“You have to be careful...”
“What do you mean? What do...”
“The professor! You have to watch out for...” He stopped then, sickeningly aware of a sound. Edrick picked it up that instant as well. So loud and definite even to beat through the howls of the poltergeist, was the all too nearby shuffle of feet.
Gipson bullied the snarling worm up onto a tree, bracing his sword flat against it, and then ran it through with his other weapon, slashing out and away from himself to let the toxic blood spill there. Then he sliced the flat of the sword against the tree to wipe away the blood, and the red poison instantly began to eat into the stone wood.
The true offensive had come. The brilliantly shaded pink slugs were only slowed by their trying to crawl over themselves. Like pools of overgrown maggots the monsters slithered forward. The knight took another of them, pronged it with both of his swords simultaneously, and flexed all his muscle to toss it into a patch of the others. A yelp from behind and Gipson turned to join Sylum who was having a harder time of it; the first battle he'd had a part in and down one arm.
“Together!” the knight declared, and the two warriors circled oppositely and flanked a slug. It rotated its head either way but made no decision before Gipson and Sylum tore into it. Now each of the warriors skillfully shifted on the balls of their feet and dodged the outpour of blood. They turned face to rejoin, but as they moved an angry line of the barking slugs intercepted their rank and proceeded an attack on each.
Gipson rolled into them, knocking two to the side with fierce kicks and then he skewered another down the long shaft of its body. Unable to pull the sword from the tight flesh of the worm's mouth, Gipson had to release the blade, to which the monster then gnarled and thrashed. It tried to swallow the short sword but only pressed its sharp edge inside of it, then it curled and died. Gipson cleaned Drâco on the slug's shivering body and sheathed it. Readying for the two he'd kicked behind him, Gipson pulled his greatsword. As he turned he already set the five foot edge into motion.
The apex caught the first monster while airborne from its pounce and split its head into halves, and Gipson cleaved it straight through to the second slug but only managed to catch it on the blunt side. Although the worm lost its lethal aim, its formidable weight still thrust it into Gipson's side, and the knight flailed and toppled. His knowing hands rummaged the ground, but a sly snap of the slug's tail put the blade out of reach. It approached and showed its teeth. But as the worm reveled in its victory Gipson found a glass vial on his belt and pulled it free. The slug let out a hiss, but too late. Gipson shook the bottle frantically and then shoved it directly into the monster's throat. He rolled away quickly as he could and covered his eyes, then came the crystalline shatter of the vial. Gipson only glanced to see his success before running to grab his greatsword. The slug was motionless, in fact, completely frozen through, and covered with ice.
Darrin Sylum was tired. His endurance did not keep up with the skills he was discovering, and the creatures started to amass. Their attacks had become routine, but his reflexes dragged slower and slower with every swing of the sword. The heart in his chest was like a giant's hands beating on the prison of his ribcage.
“Gipson!” he cried, desperately needing aid in this last leg of the battle, but had to concentrate too closely on the next move to see if the knight was coming. He strafed, hammered the sword into a slug's head, cut away, and scooted to avoid the rogue spray of blood. Three then grouped against him and covered three of his flanks. Sylum backed but didn't know enough of what was behind him to risk a dash. He waited for one or all to close in. The middle one pounced and he met it hard at the mouth but only managed to slice at its lips, which started to perilously drip with the red venom, and then the other two followed with a second attack. Sylum cringed and dropped, and then he heard a leathery pop. The struck slug launched over him and rolled dead along the ground, an arrow protruding from its head. His chest leaping at the opportunity Sylum took the Werebane and gutted the nearest worm and against all the pangs of his muscles he forced himself up one-handedly and prepared to continue. But then he saw that most of his quarry had already been put down by Gipson's arrows. And before he could turn to find the knight, Gipson was already upon him, brandishing his mighty greatsword and joining him in the foray.
The knight cleaved through four worms like air, bellowing ferocious war cries, and in the time it took those bodies to settle dead upon the ground, he had already scored extra lacerations into the arrowed slugs to finalize their defeat.
The end was near, just a few lucky slugs left in their proximity and none on the horizon. This invigorated the fatigued Sylum, made his battle thirst unquenchable, and he charged opposite Gipson to handle a further flank. He cut into an unready monster and then kicked the corpse off with his boot, already spinning to face the next one and final one in his obligation. It must have realized it was alone, for it was careful, and it ducked its head and tried to fake. Sylum made preemptive chops at its maw but could not land a solid hit. It went like that for a few moments more, gain-less attempts from Sylum and slick retreats from the slug. Finally, the professor could have no more. He flipped the sword in his grasp so that the blade ran down his forearm and just javelined it into the worm. It festered and rattled as they did, but when Sylum pulled the Werebane free, he heard not the sputtering sounds of its death, but the aching, gut-rending scream of a man.
He turned and saw Gipson. The knight's left shoulder was completely lost inside the mouth of a pink slug, and that slug swizzled its back end in the air as it chewed down on the bones. Before Sylum even registered a thought he saw the only other remaining worm slide up to Gipson and pounce onto his side and starting digging its teeth in just the same. Sylum cried in fury and charged them.
There was so much inertia in his legs that Sylum could not even stop to aim the strike, but rather he just ran through with his blade out and halved the high slug. The violent gushes of blood settled before Sylum returned and when he did he ferociously pummeled the Werebane into the final slug and tore it free of the knight. It latched sternly to the blade as it could, but Sylum just kept hacking the air until enough strikes fell into the worm to leave it dead. Gipson finally dropped his greatsword and fell to the ground, landing in a rippling pool of the hot entrails, and the misty cloud of jetting blood that Sylum reaped from the last two slugs rained down on the knight's back, completing the saturation.
“Gipson!” Sylum whelped. He knelt to embrace the knight but landing his left knee in the dirt it quickly ran numb, the sluices of red burning through his clothes and soaking against his skin. He hobbled to his feet, with just barely enough left in his numb leg to stand and pulled Gipson over so that his face wasn't buried in the refuse. Then he took the knight by his collar and pulled as mightily as he could to little avail. But the burning of the hot blood left the dirt like mud, and Sylum, straining every bodily muscle, and stressing every artery, pulled Gipson to dry ground.
Most of Gipson's armor was deformed and warped, and enough of the stuff had dripped into the inner cavity to leave him completely paralyzed. Sylum haggardly stepped into Gipson's vision and tried to speak.
“Can you talk?” But the old knight only gurgled. Sylum couldn't tell what blood was Gipson's and what blood was that of the creatures, and against Gipson's plate mail, which was already red, the damage was hard to see. But the deep incisions in Gipson's shoulder and side were not trifles. A weak but steady spout of Gipson's blood was produced from a low shoulder wound, and the blood from his side ran black. When Sylum lifted his good hand to his mouth to stifle a shiver he realized he could feel little of it, and saw that most of the left hand had soaked in the deathly life-venom of the slugs.
He peered at Gipson.
“What do I do?” The knight's life was waning. “I can't help you with all of the ... stuff.”
It appeared then the knight was trying to speak.
“What's that?” Sylum was intimately forward. “Can you talk?”
Sylum bended lowly and carefully on his good knee and put his ear to Gipson's mouth. He clearly heard the only two words that Gipson was trying to make.
He looked at the knight gravely.
“I ... I can't ...” Gipson could not make a face, which was direly frightening to Sylum's composure. “I can't. They're gone. I can barely walk.”
But that cold, lifeless face stayed on the front of Gipson's head, and his eyes started to glaze, and they rolled up slightly and studied the back of their lids.
“Gipson!” Sylum yelled one final time and then hunkered down and took the Werebane as best he could in the weak, unmanageable grasp of his left hand. And then he staggered away from the battle scene, down a lonesome road of untouched gray forest, moving half a step at a time on his numb leg, and letting his lifeless arm flap at his side. The unbelieving light warrior, lost in the middle of a haunted forest on way to a temple that might not exist, found himself searching for a priest.
Chapter 11 ~ A Mending of Ways Pt. 2
“What are they, Seville?” Edrick gasped, eyes wide and lip trembling. His two frantic hands anchored to his paralyzed friend, grabbed around his arm and there held tightly. Seville groaned at his pain. “What are they, Seville? What are they?”
The shuffling feet brought creatures. Human creatures, except with lax flesh of morbid grays, browns, and subtle greens, and the skin about the head was wrinkled and cadaverous. Several wore armor, but the mid-straps were eaten away, and the long plated metal hung a skewed angles. The suits seemed more confining than shielding. Others wore only clothes, or what was left of them; the tatters seemed simultaneously earth-soaked and moth-eaten, and some were of astonishingly dated fashion.
“Seville...” Edrick's mouth still chattered. The humanoids came slowly, not dodging trees when they came to them, but just slamming into them and pressing around them in time. They grunted and moaned, but the sounds were low at this too short distance. The wraith was calling them, it's shrill cries bringing the monsters to Edrick and Seville. It seemed they had come from nowhere; the priest looked up to find them off in the trees, dully moving towards him, their gaunt arms held out and the thin fingers grabbing the air.
“What?! Seville, can you speak?” Edrick dropped his quivering head low, but still didn't drop his eyes from the approaching ghouls. Seville's voice was sorrowfully dim.
“Zombies...” the rogue said finally.
Edrick whimpered and panted. He darted his eyes all around. They were coming faster now. They could smell the humans.
“You ... you stay back!” Edrick yelled, of course to no avail. “What do I do, Seville? What do I do?”
Coming through the final trees the zombies put speed in their step, their withered, filth-ridden hands reaching out for the prey, the food. The circling ghost stopped calling; it raised high in the trees and looked down with its cruel glittering smile as its children came into the attack. There were so many of them, a dozen on the brink and more behind, and they had been hungry for so long. Their guttural sirens were angry and syrupy so close.
Hand shaking awfully, Edrick pulled one of Seville's daggers free and pointed it in the air like candy on a stick.
“I can't do this,” he said, and the zombies closed in.
It was the same, everywhere the same. Endless gray trees, endless death, hopeless bounds of distance. So infinite was the path that he developed some lateral kind of vertigo. He felt like his eyes would set to the pattern; that this lifeless forest would burn onto his vision forever. The knight had shrunk to nothingness behind him, and that same nothingness lie ahead.
“Edrick!” Sylum called. “Edrick!”
It was all in vain, he knew. They were gone for good, and so would come the death of the greatest hunter of all time, Herrik Gipson. One more thorn in Sylum's insignificant side. What was one more failure? That thought made him stop, and he stood eerily motionless and let the stifling air kiss his neck. Pain and fear subsided, and anger moved in. He slumped his back against a tree and breathed heavy. What was that feeling? Was it just anger? Was it nervous? That same crawling sensation that hadn't left him all day, like his veins and arteries were filled with caterpillars. Could it just be nerve? Or was it ... realization. A final understanding of one's intent; one's capabilities. He just couldn't say.
Sylum gripped down as hard on the Werebane as his numb hand would allow and launched from the tree with a vehement growl. He looked every direction and spited the emptiness.
“Edrick!” he pierced into the sky, and started moving again.
The dagger did nothing. So useless in his pitiful hands, Edrick gouged the first zombie in what remained of its belly but the blade only gashed in slightly and then scraped across the surface. Completely un-phased, the looming zombie stomped Edrick sideways and draped its feasting hands onto Seville. The rogue yawped mutedly, and strained despite the pain to move, but could not. Two more of the lurching zombies circled onto Seville and hunkered to feed
“No!” Edrick cried, pushing himself up and fishing the dagger up out of the dirt. With frenzied mind he charged and tackled shoulder-first into them, and he just managed to topple them back. Contrary to their rotted features, they were incredibly heavy and dense. And relentless, the zombies began to stand immediately, and one of them chose to crawl to the rogue. Edrick changed his grip on the knife and then like an ice pick stabbed it down into the crawling zombies back. But it just kept scuffling along its course, as if nothing had happened.
The priest pulled the dagger free and kicked at the zombie's head, and then did again and again. The creature was unstoppable. Spinning he saw that another four had arrived and bolted and lunged into another group that was circling around Seville. They fell and rolled as before, and just as before began approaching instantly after.
”Back, you devils!” he screamed, punching his small arm into a tall zombie. It landed with a meaty thud and Edrick flinched back with a hurting wrist. The zombie took only enough notice to slap Edrick away to the side before it continued on to Seville. The priest landed hard on his head, and the trickling blood soon fell into his eyelashes. He smeared the gash on his forehead to stop the flow and then looked. So soon, Seville was completely lost behind the gaggle of hungry creatures. Edrick saw only a mass of rotted legs, arms, and backs scrounging into the center.
Edrick rushed them with the dagger-point forward and collided abruptly with one of the hulking creatures. Nothing. Furious, he freed the blade and went in again and two more times after that, and finally the zombie turned and swung its lanky arms in a surprisingly quick pivot of the waist. The gust of air from the swing startled Edrick, and he stumbled backwards, but he just as quickly regained composure and went into the zombie once more. Striking its side hard, Edrick forced the monster back and into a group of others. Moaning and horridly thoughtless, they crumbled to the floor and clamored over each other for a foot's grip.
There was the gap, and Edrick thrust himself into it, pressing between two undisturbed zombies. It wasn't as bad as he thought it would be; Seville had not taken any severe damage but only minor cuts. The zombies were having trouble digging through his leather armor. Still the rogue gurgled and hiccupped at all the pain tearing through him. Fighting to impress his way in, boxing himself against the mesh of arms and heads, Edrick dropped his pleading hands onto Seville and squeezed as tightly as he could to whatever material he could grab. And then he started pulling, screaming relentlessly at the undead abominations, resisting the gnashing faces. But he could not move Seville from his spot, lodged among the soon-to-feast villains.
Pulling, pulling with all his might, Edrick was suddenly aware of the many feet around him. More had arrived, so many that only the greediest few could get into the paralyzed rogue, and the others either attempted to muscle their way in or circled the feeding mindlessly. Edrick's back was arched out, his feet scuffling through the dirt as he tried to gain leverage enough carry Seville away from the zombies, but it would seem hopeless. The zombies were too many.
Then without any expectation, Edrick cried out to the horribly sour pain of rotten teeth tearing into his arm. He'd not even seen the head shoot in to strike. With another yelp as the teeth began to chew, his right arm twitched, raced in and out of his control, and flushed brightly with scorching blood. Instinctively he reared his injured arm back, but the anchored teeth kept their prey, and the flesh tore free. Edrick received back against his chest a swollen red rod of flesh; with a laceration so deep across the outer-forearm the bone was revealed. Before his mind could register the true pain, before it could consider the sanguine sluices drenching his mottled robe, before it could translate any action beyond cupping his left hand to the gory wound, that same zombie struck Edrick across the face and put the priest prone into the soil. So sudden it had been, so instantly an unimaginable horror had overtaken him; his eyes filled with tears and he coughed at the rocky itch of inhaling the ground's dust into his throat.
Reverberating pain was superior to everything; grievous sickness came from his torrential arteries. The world around, the trees, the dirt, the creatures, the gray, all spun and motioned and filled him with noise, and sparkled like chattering sequins. Edrick knelt his head into his ragged arm and felt his tears mix with the blood, both loose and hot. He thought he could smell the rottenness of the teeth in the wound.
He had to right himself, had to do something. He couldn't stop now when nobody would have stopped on him. Imagining that the pain lie just in the one arm he tried to roll over, and when succeeding found himself stared down by a hungry zombie, its maw shimmering scarlet still from its first bite.
The grabbing hands lowered.
Edrick kicked it away, not forgetting, but overcoming his anguish for at least long enough do that. He scuttled backwards, like half crab-walking, still caressing his hurt arm in the other on his chest. Challenged, the zombie tottered forward to take another taste, and Edrick racked his brain to find a use for his time. Then, summoning more power than he thought he could muster, he kicked both legs into the trailing zombie's abdomen and it faltered back and fell. It of course returned to its chase as readily as it could, and Edrick knew that such strength he might not find again in his condition; not with the gaping injury of his forearm. He had to cure himself; had to test his true weakness as a priest of the church.
Like a mother, precariously releasing her safe child into the world, Edrick released his comfort grip on the injured arm and held the red-blotched fingers of his good hand up and rubbed them together, summoning the magic. He chanted, the runic words coming infantile from his shaky throat, and he tried despite everything to keep his eyes straight up, reading up the straight rails of the bare trees, concentrating, heavily concentrating. His tongue was too dry, his lips inoperable, they couldn't find the words. His eyes swayed to the impending zombie hastily, and then back up, and then back down. Like this, the magic would never come.
A pained moan from Seville then struck him viscerally and the grumbling zombie left his thought. The direness of the situation finally set him into a moment of clarity, and shimmering glades of white air circumscribed his shuffling fingers. They heated up, and the transparent foam of the white magic began to bubble. Edrick belted out his cantrip frantically, not noticing that the zombie had stopped approaching.
A single burst of vibrant snowy warmth shockwaved out; the cure was ready. Beside himself with marvel, Edrick brushed the spell across his injured arm and instantaneously the frayed fibers of muscle stretched and connected, and the shield of skin expanded and melded back into its place. Light feathery steam rose from a healthy flat where had once been a pit of flowing blood. The injury was completely gone, along with the pulses of pain.
It was more revitalizing than anything he'd ever felt, and it seemed the zombie, if such a thing were possible, had been put into fear by it. It stood with its closest example of a dumfounded look planted on its face, its legs still, its arms to its side. No attack. Overcome with zealous excitement and confusion, Edrick made to stand, and went hot with revelation when he realized the stunned creature was following every motion of his glowing hand with its cocked head.
“It fears me,” Edrick thought. “White magic!”
The priest advanced.
The zombie shuddered and clumsily back-stepped, but Edrick was far too quick for it. Benign energy radiating from his hand, he slapped his palm flat into the rotten monster's chest and sent the magic in. It sounded as if every petrified bone in its body had shattered, and looked as if the shrapnel had pelted into the inside of its skin. It slumped to the ground a broken, puffy mass; and laid still. As the last willows of white dissipated from his hand, Edrick was immobile, paralyzed with the most wide-eyed, awestruck gaze imaginable aimed at his righteous fingers.
The entire army of feeding zombies stopped and turned. Their vacant eyes found the priest, but the legs didn't chase. They stood and feared him.
Coming down, Edrick saw them, ready for his attack. He breathed heavy, confused and nervous of own power. This was something he'd never seen. Edrick brought his hands finger to finger and then pressed them flat, closed his eyes, and chanted the spell once more. With a surprised spark through his chest, he opened his eyes and saw the holy cure wrapped around his digits, channeling in hot currents, ready to cast. The magic had come instantly, instantly.
He looked at the zombies once more, watched their dumb stares, and caught that same sound of his friend hurting on the ground. Edrick gritted his teeth and then growled ferociously. He charged them.
“That sound!” Sylum said under his breath. “Screaming!”
His chest heaved, the fatigue washed through him, waves of gut-sickening tiredness tried to drop him to the ground. But hanging on the air, the sound of a voice, high and angry, and joining it crisp crackling sounds he couldn't identify. It was close. So close.
Sylum put vigor in his burdened steps; all that remained.
Edrick slapped them to the side, and the heavenly transfer of energy thrust them back. The undead clamored and writhed among each other get away from the murderous priest, but their slow legs could not grant them solace. The white foam of the cure spell was so potent it leaped off his Edrick's fingers like short tails of lighting. He rushed into two more zombies and left them flailing through the air and colliding back into the dead trees.
The spell faded, but even before the last sparkles of white were gone Edrick put his hands together and chanted the next one in its place. It came into being even before the words were done; so natural.
He tore through them like paper, reaching for the nearest and launching it forcefully back and returning it to its long past death. The furthest zombies recoiled so violently they even managed a sort of run, though on their questionable legs they mostly fell to their stomachs. Edrick would get to them soon.
He made his way to Seville, knocking back every fleshy obstacle in his way. Edrick jolted onto the rogue and straddled his feet around him, and then he spun his arms every direction and ended five zombies more. So quickly the daunting army was put into retreat, but the priest wouldn't allow it. He chased them down, and with a single pat on the back the entire inner-structure of a given zombie collapsed along with the creature itself. Rearming his spell once again, he followed further into the trees and downed ten more in the surrounding area. They put up no resistance to his holy magic.
If they had emotions, it seemed then they were moaning with anger, bitterness as the priest took time to kneel low to a crawling zombie and grab it by the head, zapping its skull through with white bubbles and leaving it still. Sure, his heart pounded, and he was dizzy with kinetic electricity, and the draining exertion of such incessant casting was starting to reveal itself, but the battle was his. A smile even found his lips as he ran down the final few.
They were done, twenty, no, thirty, maybe even more. Unholy creatures of beyond the grave put down in a matter of minutes by a hack priest, Edrick was beside himself. He let the last cure drift off and ran to Seville. Coming onto him he saw the blood and heard the groaning, and the purple shine of the rogue's arm still stuck out like an ominous beacon. It wasn't until Edrick dropped to his knees that the whelps of fatigue set on him. Heavy gushes of bodily drooping, as if all his muscles relaxed in a single instant. He shook his head and stretched his eyes wide, as if he were about to go to sleep. And just then, when he was going to set himself to Seville's aid, he was pressed down into his friend's chest by the screeching wail of the banshee.
He'd forgotten it, floating silently as it chose up amongst the treetops, granting only a grinning stare to its children. Edrick rotated himself around so that his head lay on Seville's stomach but at least looked up, and the ghost was there; just above him, with its smile turned to an enraged scowl and its incorporeal scythe bared and readied. It screamed again.
Edrick tensed and his throat closed up, and when he brought his hands together they stayed cool. He attempted the evocation again but got nothing. The poltergeist drifted lower and grinned once more, its bony fingers of its hands crawling together and preparing a sweeping strike. The scythe shot up.
The priest rubbed his hands together frenetically and yelled out the words as if possessed by a demon and darted his eyes straight into those vacant, orange sockets of the ghost. Then it hit, the exorbitant hotness of the magic, just as the wispy blade fell. No time to move, Edrick put his palms up and out and scrunched his fearful eyes.
A bright flash above him and the radiating, mechanical sound of the scythe grinding against his palm above. The boiling wraith slapped the reaping point down twice more, but the incredible force that the priest put against him bounded it back. Then Edrick grabbed the airy blade, felt the cold metal in his powerful hands and clenched it to himself. The ghost flapped up and down on the shaft of its weapon and spun in circles around it, creating voluminous winds, but Edrick held fast to the blade. With a final scream the wraith banished the scythe in ribbons of smoke and flew off through the trees and disappeared.
Edrick lay panting and aghast, gazing blankly into the dormant canopy. Not until the last echoes of the banshee's wails had come and gone did the priest bring his sweating hands down and release the strained muscles throughout his body. He thought he would pass out that moment; the tiring wallops of thinning adrenaline pummeling his limbs. But then he thought of Seville and wedged his eye lids open for a little longer. He sat up and turned.
Seville was breathing; just looking up and breathing, letting the comfort of the most immense of pains suddenly vanishing lull him into a state of floating, as if he was drifting down some timeless river, forgetful of past and future and only enjoying the moment. Each open and welcome breath seemed to carry his healthy blood further into his hands and feet and returned the life to him. It was a marvelous climax to such an infinite pain.
But Edrick was aware of things. His scan of Seville was more positive than he'd expected, but still his friend was not in good shape. Mostly he would bruise, the punching motions of the zombie being most commonplace, and never did the monsters get in a bite like Edrick had known, but Seville had been slashed twice down his left arm and there was some blood seeping up from a crease in his leather armor. Also his lips were cut and the spotted blood dressed his teeth and gums. His eye was already blackening.
Edrick took Seville by the hand and was relieved to feel it grasp back.
“Can you sit up, do you think?” he asked.
“Heh, why not?” Seville responded with a light chuckle. The priest had to help him do it, then he began to ready a cure spell, but Seville called him off.
“Don't worry about it!”
“You're hurt. You can trust me...”
“There might be more, save what you have left. I'll be fine.”
Seville wasn't sure about that, but couldn't really offer anything else. He wanted to lay back down.
“By the way...” said Seville, catching Edrick's eyes, “That was ... pretty good.”
“Only pretty good?” returned the priest. “That was amazing! You couldn't see everything, Seville. Look! Look! I got'em all!”
Indeed, there was quite the collection of fallen bodies fanning out.
“I never thought you had it in you.”
“Heh, I got plenty. Let me cure you...”
“No! I'll be fine. This is what I get for running off.”
“I don't think you can...”
There were footsteps on the air, lanky footsteps like those of a zombie. The lack of barriers to every direction made all sounds mysterious; the source was always jumping from side to side. Though beaten and well drenched with his own blood, Seville quietly pulled his remaining dagger from its sheath. Edrick gave him a concerned look and shook his head disapprovingly.
You can't, he mouthed, but it didn't matter. From two rows over, and looking the most pathetic that man had possibly ever looked, appeared Doctor Darrin Sylum, beaming with sudden relief.
“Professor!” shouted Edrick gleefully, though the sudden rush gave him exhausted pains again. It looked however, that his exhaustion in no way compared to Sylum's. The professor hobbled over, the Werebane armed in his left hand, and he was scratched with battle, and his right arm and legs seemed to droop.
“Eddie, stand back!” Seville commanded.
“Professor, where's Master Gipson?”
Sylum didn't answer; he could no longer move and speak simultaneously. He came in close and rested down on the eerily dull Werebane, wheezing and gathering breath. When Seville asked again Sylum raised his index finger and waved the question off.
“You're hurt, professor,” Edrick asked, already moving to cast the cure, but Seville called him back again.
“Eddie, stand back!”
Sylum flashed hurt to Seville and finally recaptured enough oxygen. His speech came in gasping bursts.
“What's ... that ... about?” But then he waved off any answer. “Edrick ... Gipson ... needs you ... now.” It was barely more than a whisper.
“He's hurt?!” Edrick exclaimed.
“Yes ... bad ...” Sylum turned. “We go...”
Edrick looked at Seville nervously.
“Wait,” said the rogue. “I'm coming.”
“Seville, you can't stand.”
“I can make myself stand.” Then Seville pulled Edrick down and spoke very quietly into his ear, “I'm not leaving you alone.”
Edrick shifted his face, rotated his neck slightly, and seemed confused, but he decided to trust a man who owed him his life. The priest nodded and took Seville by the arm.
“Help me,” Edrick asked of Sylum, and the professor rolled his eyes and shook.
“Sorry!” he uttered.
But Seville finally got to his feet with the priest's aid and staggered as best he could. It turned out he could pace Sylum well enough, and they started they're sluggish trek to the fallen Knight of the Coast.
“Gipson! Master Gipson!” Edrick left the others behind the moment the gory battle scene and the body of Herrik Gipson came into view. Doctor Sylum offered his shoulder to help the unsteady Seville along, but the rogue gave back a cold look and took to his own feet for better or worse. It was mainly for the worse.
Edrick ran haphazardly, giving little attention to the ground before him, and was caught funny by a sudden numbness in his right leg. Looking down it appeared that it had been bleeding, but it felt like nothing. After two more steps the tingling dead feeling caught him so off guard he tripped and fell to his chest, just at the knight's side.
“Master Gipson! Master Gipson!”
The knight was motionless and his eyes were closed. The wound was awful, like his entire left arm had been almost bitten off and that three lances had been thrust into his side, into his liver where the blood flowed black. The blood no longer flowed, but either from clotting or because the unconscious knight had no more to bleed, Edrick couldn't say. He studied the piercings a few moments longer and then clapped his hands together, with so much energy the first time he misgauged his balanced and fell to his side. It was difficult with his numb leg.
Edrick righted himself and rubbed his hands together; saying the words as calmly as possible and praying with his entire soul, but no magic entwined his fingers. Sylum and Seville finally arrived after a long route around the dark pools of magenta, but they were quiet and respectful of the priest. Crumbling under the terrible pressure of failure, tears came to Edrick's eyes and he shook his head as if defeated. He tried again and again. Was there nothing left?
Then finally he screamed, “Aw, come on!” and the familiar but brilliant flash of power illuminated the dead gray around. Then he muttered under his breath with absolute conviction, “Please,” and laid his palms on Gipson's chest.
The bubbles transferred slowly at first, and then faster and faster until a complete waterfall of healing light was cascading from Edrick's hands. His shoulders reared up and he tightened throughout as every chink of his soul streamed into the knight, each of his powers and prayers brought together in a single hope. And then it stopped with a final surge of intensity and things were still once more.
Two terrible beats of silence were all it took, and Gipson awoke with a frantic bout of coughing. The wounded pits molded over and were gone and refreshing life percolated through him. Resplendently joyous but unbearably tuckered, Edrick fell and lay on his back. He couldn't take any more of this. Despite the cure, Gipson didn't try to sit up.
“You gonna make it, big guy?” said Seville with a sudden return of his smile. By now Sylum had a better hold of his lungs.
“It's the paralysis, it needs more time to fade. I can still barely move my hands.”
Gipson just managed to turn his head and he looked Edrick straight in the face.
“Master Edrick,” he said with a weak kind of bow, “That is a good cure spell.” Then he rested his head back down on the soft earth.
“I can't feel my leg,” was Edrick's choice of answer.
“It's the blood,” Sylum responded. “It paralyses. It'll go away, in time. Here, let's get Gipson against a tree.”
Seville and Sylum worked together and lay Gipson up against a dead stump. Then Edrick crawled over and sat next to the knight, and next to him Sylum was more than happy to collapse. And finally Seville plopped down last, and the four of them sat in a row, lucky to be alive.
“Have a bit of trouble, did ya?” Seville asked, surveying the scores of shriveled pink worms.
“More than a bit,” Gipson said humorously.
“Yeah, well, we had zombies and ghosts. So don't be talking about no pink ... whatever they are. They smell awful.”
“Wasn't at the top of my list, Seville, I was too worried about the biting. I mean, what kind of creature has blood that paralyzes?!”
“What kind of forest has zombies?!”
“A haunted forest,” Edrick said blankly.
“I don't care, man,” Seville said, “Something's not right about this place.”
Nobody spoke for a little while after that. They were happy to be quiet and restful and entirely pathetic. It was one pitiful, almost debilitated warrior right next to the other. And completely against that, Seville suddenly got the most irrepressible grin on his face.
“What are you smilin' at, boy?” shouted Gipson playfully. “I could'a died.”
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't help it.” Seville chuckled, looking at the other three, watching them sulk and bleed and pant. “What a crappy day this has been!”
“Finally some sense,” Edrick said, smirking himself.
“But you've got to admit,” continued Seville, now with enough fervor to make hand gestures, “We are ... we're pretty good at this part.”
“This part?” asked Gipson.
“You know. Battles, pressure, action. It's when nothing's happening that we suck. But in times of need? Wow! We can really kick some ass.”
Then the four of them, even the gloomy professor Sylum, took to the most ridiculous laughter. Half of it was just the euphoria of life, but something else there was too. Maybe that malcontent Domino was wrong in the end. Afterall, what were the chances of Sylum finding Edrick in that wide forest, or that Gipson could survive his wounds for so long, and that not a single zombie's stroke had fatally wounded Seville. What were the chances of that? Maybe things really were going to work out.
“Now wait a minute, Seville,” Gipson said, coming down from the joy and putting on a false visage of concern, “Are you saying you're a light warrior again?”
“I'm saying that after coming out on top of this, I believe. I mean, even Eddie did something good.”
“Thanks, guy,” said Edrick.
“I believe it myself,” Gipson confirmed, rallying it to the man next to him, which Edrick instantly picked up.
“And I, too,” he said. Then the three looked to Sylum, the mysterious, obscure, but vital Doctor Sylum. The professor realized he was singled out and faked a look of disgust before settling back into his usual scholarly haughtiness.
“Well, I... I guess I do, as well.” They beamed at him. Seville spoke.
“Alright! So let's do this thing.”
“Hold your horses, Seville” the knight said. “Some of us still can't move yet!”
“The path was already so thick. It will be completely overgrown on the other side, I think.”
“Then we'll cut a path,” the rogue boosted on, “Mend the way and find this Temple of Fiends. Now that I think about it, the professor's right. That's exactly where the captor's would hide the princess. It's impermeable to an army's invasion. It's genius.”
“Then give us a half-hour to heal, lad” Gipson said again, “And then we'll head out.”
Seville seemed to be finally satiated after that so he returned to his back-sitting position and just talked of things. What had happened to Edrick and him, what he should know about what happened to Gipson and Sylum, what they should expect in the future. For once he wasn't look for change, or expecting it. Despite how passionately he egged on the team, he wanted to stay right there and enjoy this moment of connection while it lasted in case it should never return. He really wished Chuck Domino could be there to see them; the light warriors, whole again.
It was magnanimous. The shining achievement of creepy architecture. The temple was there, huge and unmistakable in a clearing just beyond the edge of the haunted forest. It wasn't a particularly large building, not as castles of evil usually go, but every nook and cranny of each turret and every window and planting up and down its gaping mouth of a gate, with bars hanging down like teeth, added to the ominous aura it exhaled. Although evening was falling and the land was fairly dark, this temple was covered in more than its share of blackness. It was painted in preternatural shadow. Shadow cast down from the solitary tuffet of gray clouds helming the highest steeple. The grounds all around were long starved and dead, and were undisturbed. Footsteps had not trodden the hard soil for ages. But it was not empty.
Two windows, second floor by their looks, glowed with moody candlelight. The infrequent flickers, as if disturbed by some wind, caught their eyes in the twilight haze. Something was in there. Something...
Understanding where the real power in this kind of thing lie, three of them turned to Gipson, waiting for the command.
“Um ...” and he looked at the temple again. “We'll ... we'll try to find away in around back. The front door wouldn't do any good, would it?”
“Right,” they said together and moved they're feet. They moved like quiet silhouettes, shadows no more real than the daunting temple, over the field and around its stony walls. They looked to each other solemnly. They were tired, they were scared, they had had a really bad day. But finally they were here; in what each of them was certain was the answer to their quest.
No turning back now, at the beginning of night on the fourth day of the great journey, they hopped a ground level window, and entered the halls of fiends.