Chapter One: On the Run

 

            The forests of Athar had always been revered for their abundance of life and flourishing sediment.  It’s rumored that should one take even a handful of its plentiful soil back to the barest of land, it would produce crops as healthy as those reserved for royalty.  It was also for this reason that our proclaimed ruler, Emperor Malum, saw fit to lock down the entire lot of trees, placing guards at every road, and restricting the hunt of game to only his personal servants.  While much of the land was now becoming less fertile, the dying populace could rest at ease knowing that at least their mighty emperor was being well fed.

            The two imperial guards that had so persuaded me to seek shelter within the forest appeared in a clearing just over my right shoulder.   Hugging tighter against the tree, I smirked at their determination to bring in one boy fugitive boy instead of sitting back and enjoying their surroundings like I’d decided to do.  The high pitched yet soothing sound of a creek reached me and I made a mental note to pass by there and retrieve some of those delicious fish before I left.  The birds above me didn’t particularly like the idea of the guards trespassing on their territory and I almost hoped they’d attract a local predator to deal with my troubles for me.

            Knowing I could probably hide forever, with my blond and brown mixed colored hair creating the illusion of shade, while the guards below would tire before sunset, made going down there to confront them almost unnecessary.  Then again, eyeing one of the guards’ pouches revealed to me that he’d recently collected his taxes, so swiping that and returning it into the village’s economy could be considered charity work.  Besides, where would the fun be in just letting them go? 

            Glancing up I spotted a large branch just above their position and had to hold back a boyish snicker as a plan formulated in my mind.  The sounds that I made while I climbed up the backside of the tree reached the soldiers, but they knew not which way to turn.

            “Did you hear that?  I told you I saw him come this way,”  I heard one say.

            His partner scoffed.  “You also said that waitress at the tavern winked at you, but if you ask me she couldn’t have been more disgusted.”

            “I’m telling you she did!  She just didn’t want anyone else to see.  She’s a shy one, she is.”  They were both dressed in the heavier armor of Imperial Guards and carried the crest of the emperor on their swords’ hilts.  It was a variation of the crest for the Kingdom of Acerna, which consisted of a ball of flame surrounded by a partial circle, opened at the top.  Instead of a circle, there were iron chains that wrapped around and a sword struck down through the center of the fire, the weapon becoming entangled within the metallic bonds.

            It always amazed me how much attention these mock warriors dedicated to their missions and orders.  If it weren’t for their sheer numbers, the people wouldn’t have to suffer the tyranny of the empire like they currently do.  Being careful not to give them another chance to spot me, I crept across the branch and waited a moment more before dropping my weight and landing square on one of the guard’s shoulders.  In his surprise, he dropped his sword and stumbled a bit, but managed to stay upright. 

            “What the devil—!” His partner aimed his unsheathed weapon at me, but didn’t know how to attack without striking his friend by mistake.

            “Get off me, heathen!”  my steed demanded.

            “I’ll release you when I’m finished.  Now you’d better behave or I’ll not give you any carrots when we get home.”  My own sword sprung into action as soon as I unsheathed it.  Our exchanges were light, mainly parries and blocks, for although my raised height gave me a momentary advantage, it would also only last until my steed figured out how to unseat me.  Not giving him the opportunity, I threw my weight forward and aimed my accomplice with my legs, tossing him into the worried arms of his companion. 

            They landed hard, but not hard enough because neither was unconscious as I had hoped.  The top knight recovered first, angrily grabbing his moaning partner's sword, it being closer than his own. 

            "Nice recovery," I admitted.  "Too bad the barmaid isn't here to see your chivalry."

            My armed combatant blushed a lovely pink hue that was quickly overcome with the angrier tint of red.  "Pretty soon there won't be any demons like you left, brat.  Why don't you chew on that for a while?"  His temperament, although it empowered him physically, did nothing to improve his judgment or rational.  Obviously I had led them here and I had laid the ambush, so what's to say I hadn't set up another trap?

            To prove my point, I confidently batted aside his swipes and thrusts, doing nothing to counterattack and purposefully retreated my steps.  I was trying to give him a chance to realize the flaw of my pattern, but he merely believed he was winning.  The overconfident are usually the first to be proven wrong, my father had once told me.

            Slightly unexpected was the realization that crossed the features of his now fully recovered partner.  Of course two would be better against one, and for this reason the knight had recovered the previously dropped sword, but as he was coming to join the fray, he noticed my retreat seemed a little too well paced.  "Don't move any more forward, it's a trap!"  he shouted in warning.

            He had shouted too late, though, for the next step caught my opponent's foot in one of Malum's royal hunter's traps, left behind from the servant's last visit no doubt.  With a snap, the rope tightened around his ankle and he was flipped through the air, left to dangle like a flag in the wind.  Only this flag cursed his fate, cursed the "demon" and his family, all with a colorful array of descriptive words that - I might add - would have most high nobles fainting.

            "How could you fall for a trick like that, Art?  How stupid could you be?"  the knight not hanging upside down said.

            "Because I thought they were stupid, all right?  Everyone knows they ain't got nothin' but air and manure between them ears!"

            The comment was made in ignorance but it did little to soften the blow.  It was always like this.  Where did humans get the idea that they were the only intelligent race in Sirei?  "Careful now," I interrupted, my voice dropping to an icy chill.  "I could bewitch your mind, possess your children, and use them for sacrifices to my 'demon king'".  All of which were terrible untrue rumors about my people that I had heard far too many times.  As much as I tried to pretend that I was human to stay out of suspicion, the Goddess, it seemed, had other plans for me.  "Remember to cut off my head or I might haunt you in my afterlife."

            The warrior now before me showed slightly more brains than his friend and attacked me without wasting any more time with words.  His swordsmanship wasn't much better, but he was more aware of his surroundings and didn't fall for my retreat act that had worked so brilliantly the first time.  Still, my cleverness had yet to run its course.  I simply had to get enough of his attention that he forgot to watch his footing for a moment.

            He thrust twice, once to my right and once to the left, then swiped horizontally across.  I pretended to fall off balance and rolled backwards, avoiding the shrub behind me.  Realizing how close he was to winning, he walked through the bush and I acted fast, coming up from my roll to knock his sword down near his feet. 

            There was a loud SNAP, the sound of metal hitting metal, and a moment of silence after he cried out before he realized the trap hadn't actually severed his leg.  However, thanks to my sense of mercy, I'd knocked his sword down into the trap with just enough space that he'd barely been nicked by the device. 

            "This is what we call an impasse."  I brushed off my pants and sheathed my sword, no longer in any sort of danger whatsoever.  "It's going against my evil nature to spare you," I said sarcastically, "But I've given you a chance.  If you can find a way out of that trap, you can save your friend.  If he can get down in time before that trap breaks your sword, he can save you.  If neither of you is smarter than an animal, you can both remain here until the royal hunter returns to check his traps, which might be oh in a couple of days.  But I will say this: even a fox has enough will to survive that it'll chew off its own leg in order to save itself.  What will you do to survive?"

            Leaving them to their imaginations, though I doubted they had any, I deftly cut the first knight's coin purse before taking my time with the second's.  I counted enough silver to last me three weeks at least.  Not too bad for all the trouble they caused me.

            "Just wait you little devil!" my hanging friend, Art, swore.  "The goddess will cleanse the world of you people just like she did before!  You'll see.  You and your family have nowhere to hide!"

            The mention of my family temporarily fazed me and I grabbed the man by the hair and turned him to face me, ignoring his cries of pain.  "Your emperor has already seen to the death of my family, thank you, and if I remember correctly the Saithins that were punished became humans, so if anyone has to work to clean the sins of their past it's you."  Finished, I angrily spun him like a top.  "Tell your Emperor if he wishes to find me himself, he can come out of the Imperial Castle he's decided to hole himself into and I'll happily judge him for his sins at the end of my sword! Oh and your donation is heartedly appreciated.  I’ll make sure it’s spent well.”  Once I checked to see if he had anything else of value, I raised my fist and properly knocked him out.

            It was then I remembered the crisp sound of the spring and licked my lips as the taste of those cooked fish began to envelop my mind.  “Well, don’t want to keep them waiting.”

 

            Entering the nearest village from my exit of the forest, Fulsi, I sighed with relief because the weight of all the fish was beginning to do a number on my back…not to mention the smell.  This village was unique in the kingdom due to their reorganized functionality.  Where many villages were having bad harvests and therefore having to go elsewhere for food, which in the end is more costly, Fulsi had turned unto itself to survive the times.  Where one man produced grain, he could not only feed his family for a small amount of time, but by simply trading what excess he could afford with the right people he could also keep them clothed during the winter.  No money was necessary, which would all collected in taxes anyway.

            My work here would help keep these families going without alerting authorities.  The idea of a do-good traveler simply giving away money would make it look to the people like the emperor wasn't doing his job.  Yet, even those too afraid to speak knew that this was indeed the case.

            Most of the homes were made of stone and held up well against the sandstorms that sometimes terrorized the area.  The area mainly consisted of desert so it was no wonder there was little water to be found.  Not too long ago, a couple generations, people would come here to enjoy the oasis that sprung up within the village.  It was nicknamed the "jewel of the desert".  A dried up fountain still stood in the town square as a reminder to those happier and more prosperous times. No one knows why the climate changed the way it had, leaving the flourishing town dried and dying.  Some said it was because of what "the demons" had done, some blamed it on the Emperor, and yet even others believed the Goddess had turned her back on them all.

            What was strange was that when one looked upon a map, the desert surrounding Fulsi seemed almost unnatural.  There was grassy fields and rivers no more than half a day’s ride in any direction from the desert town.  Only the village itself seemed devoid of water and life.  The sole reason the people remained in such a desolate town was because for families without much money, there was wasn’t much of an alternative.  The other cities in Athar, the name of the kingdom Fulsi resided within, were all taxed so much that it would be too expensive to live there.

            Coming to the open market of the village, it was all too sad a sight; three or four items lined each table and less than that many people lined the street.  This is all the merchants have to offer and still no one could afford their wares.  I walked up over to the smoke house and nodded to the man there.  “Good day to you.”

            “And to you, fine young sir.  How might I help you?” he greeted me like he would any other human, my outside appearance not giving him a clue as to my real identity.

            Placing three fish on the counter, I dug into my sleeve and retrieved two copper coins.  “Might you take care of these for me?”  The dried meat of the fish would last me a week at the very least.

            Looking overjoyed to have his first customer in what was probably days, the man took the money and hurried to conduct his trade.  If I remembered correctly, there was a rather good eatery in Fulsi.  Glancing around, I spotted it far down on the right side.  Already my mouth was beginning to water as I closed in on what would be a meal long overdue.  I took a seat in one of the outside tables and it wasn’t long before the waitress came.

            “Good day, sir.  I’m afraid our menu’s shrunk a bit.  Not much to offer these days,” she ended the greeting with downcast eyes.  It was obvious that their selection was seen as inadequate by past customers – Malum’s lackey’s no doubt – and it left a scar on this pretty one’s face.  I wasn't much for courting or wooing, but I recognized beauty when I saw it.

            “Don’t look so down,”  I replied, which thankfully brought her soft and gentle blue eyes away from the floor.  “I’ll make it easy for you,” I held up my last two fish and smiled.  “Cook these up however you please with a bowl of today’s special soup and I’ll pay one silver piece.”

            The emotions that crossed her face went from shocked disbelief to joy as she nodded and smiled for the first time since I’d seen her.  “Yes sir!  Right away!”

            As she took my catch to be properly prepared, I leaned back in my seat and placed my hands casually behind my head.  A few moments passed and I could already smell the delicious fish seasoned and sizzling away.  I’d have to thank those guards for following me so religiously.  Now, not only would the people feel relief for a short while but I myself would get a nice meal or two out of it as well.

            I had closed my eyes during my relaxation, but they snapped open when I felt movement against the wooden floor.  Glancing about, I saw the waitress that had served me before moving aside tables and clearing a spot in the eatery nearest to the road.  It wasn’t close enough to bother me, nevertheless, I found myself staring as a woman a little younger than I moved into the now open area.  Placing a small basket on the ground, she began to dance.

            The few other passerby and merchants in the vicinity noticed the girl and it wasn’t too long before a couple of coins were tossed into the basket.  The girl herself was amazing.  Without music, one would think dancing was silly, but as I continued to watch it was like I could hear the music in my head.  It was faint, like whispers lost in the wind, but it was there. 

            Smelling the savory scent of cooked meat I glanced down and noticed my food has been set before me.  How long had I been staring?

            “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” the waitress commented with a smile.

            “Yeah – I mean, who is she?  A worker here?”

            “No one knows.  She just showed up in town one day and started dancing.  Any money she makes she spends here in the market so nobody minds,” she explained.  “She’s never said a word though, so nobody knows her name.  A while back, before our current drought, it was raining so hard we thought the whole town was going to flood.  But just like all the other times, she came to the same spot and started dancing in the street.  The owner was so worried for the girl, that she insisted she dance under the cover of the eatery here from now on.  She’s been coming back ever since.  Everyone loves her, but we're all a bit worried for her too.”

            “Why’s that?”  I asked.  I'd eaten most of the fish already eaten during the story I looked forward to the soup next.

            She must have felt she’d said too much, because she started to shake her head.  “No, I’m sorry.  Forget I said anything.”  Bowing to me she took her leave.  “Enjoy your meal, sir.”

            Now I was more than curious.  I continued to watch the dancer's movements with growing interest.  Her eyes were closed, but she didn’t seem to lose balance even once.  Her long light brown hair seemed to dance upon the wind as much as she did.  I wanted to learn more about her but staying in one town for too long was risky and dangerous for everyone here.  They may be stupid, but those guards from before would track me here and I wouldn't bring unnecessary pain and suffering to these people.  I’d buy what I needed and be on my way.  I wished her luck though.  Sometimes all that’s needed to survive the darkness is to keep focused on that one speck of light left.  My guess would be this girl would end up doing more for the villagers than any money could. 

            Smiling, I stood up and left the promised silver coin on the table before digging into my pocket for another coin, this one copper.  As I passed by the dancing girl, I casually tossed it into her basket. 

 

            Just past sundown, I bought my last supplies, leaving me with money to spare, and secured my satchel to my back.  I thought I’d head to the kingdom of Aingeal next.  So many people pass through there on their way to the Imperial City to the East, that my trail would easily be lost.  On the other hand, there were more people there who wanted me dead should I get caught.  No one said life was meant to be easy so Aingeal it was.

            While walking, I heard a male voice in the darkness. “So have you given any thought to his proposal, little missy?”  I looked down the street and noticed an inconspicuous alleyway on the left.  Walking over I peered around the corner and saw two young men blocking in a girl.  When one of the boys moved to the side, I realized it was the dancing girl from the eatery.  What would they want with her?

            The clothes they wore were nicer than any of the villagers there could afford, so chances were they were nobles, or worse yet, noble lackeys.

            “He wouldn’t hurt ya none.  He just loves your dancing so much he wants private shows back at his manor.  He’ll even pay you.  What’s there to think about?” the second male attempted to convince.

            A private show was right.  I could only imagine what would happen to the girl once she was behind closed doors.  Obviously she also had a good idea because she adamantly shook her head and held her arms closer against herself.

            “You know that if you don’t agree, he can make life very uncomfortable for you.  You wouldn’t want that now, right?” The first male grabbed the girl by the shoulders and forced her harshly against the alley wall.  “So why don’t we just take you to him now so you can see how sincere he is, eh?”

            Wincing, the girl reflexively pushed out with her arms and the man instantly found himself careening into the opposite side of the alley.  I was startled by the movement and could’ve sworn I saw her eyes flash yellow for a second.  Had she just used magic?

            The second boy got mad and raised a fist.  “He knows your secret!  He promises not to say anything if you’ll just come with us!  Otherwise you’ll be in the next cage headed towards Imperial Castle!”

            Having seen enough I placed my satchel on the ground and walked slowly around the corner.  “Call me crazy but I don’t think she’s interested at all in your proposal.  Am I right?”  I glanced at the girl and she once again shook her head rigorously.  “There, you see?  Now it looks like its going to be a sandy night so why don’t you head back to your overseer, climb under a nice warm blanket, and drink some hot tea?”

            “Whoever you are, you better think twice before messing with us.  We’re with the man who owns this village,” the man thrown against the wall picked himself up and joined his comrade’s side. 

            “Well, he may own the village but he doesn’t own me.  Now get out of here before I get testy.”  I stepped forward to emphasize my point and both predictably took an uneasy step backwards.

            “You’ll be sorry about this, commoner.”  One of them said, though I couldn't tell who.  Both glared at me one last time, before rushing away into the darkness.

            Sighing, I walked over to the girl.  “Are you alright?  Did they hurt you?”

            She looked like she was about to cry but nodded slowly with just a few sniffles escaping her nose.  Bending down she picked up her basket, which had gotten knocked down sometime before my arrival, and lifted it up to me.  Was she offering me a reward?

            “No, no, keep it.  You worked hard for it besides I didn’t really do anything.”

            She looked shocked as she glanced up at me and I noticed for the first time that she had unnatural grey eyes.  She suddenly gasped and jolted back and my senses picked up movement behind me.  Ducking down as I turned on my heel, I nearly missed a crude swipe to my skull.  Acting fast I planted my hands against the ground and raised one of my legs up to strike the assailant’s stomach.

            I recovered from the preemptive strike and took position in front of the girl.  The two from before had returned and this time were armed with metallic rods of some sort – branding irons, perhaps.  “Where does this sudden boldness come from?”

            “We just figured it’s two against one.  We’re leaving with the girl whether you’re dead or alive to see it.”  Charging forward, the taller of the two teens took a quick angled swipe at me.  Leaning my upper body back, I easily avoided the un-trained swing and made sure the girl was safe behind me.  Thankfully, she seemed to have reacted at the same time and accordingly moved to the rear of the dead-end alleyway.  The metallic rod sounded hard against the wall and the resounding pain was obvious in the youth’s face – if only for a few moments.  I couldn’t help but snicker at his self-inflicted punishment.

            “No, I’m thinking it’s three against two,” I pointed out.

            “Three on two?  How do you figure?”  The shorter one asked.

            The smile had yet to leave my face as a strategy already began forming in my mind.  “Well, there’s me, the left wall, and the right wall.”  It took both boys precious seconds to catch onto what I meant which was all the time I needed.  Jolting forward, I ran my elbow up to clip the first boy’s chin.  His head slammed back and I was sure he saw stars as his head collided with my hidden ally.  His grip on his weapon loosened and I relinquished him of it, countering the slow strike of his enraged partner.  Both rods clashed with sparks, which illuminated the slumped, now unconscious form of my previous enemy. 

            My hold of the weapon was awkward, and I shook slightly against the pressure I was withstanding.  This feigned weakness, so I let him believe it as such.

            “I would have let you live before you hurt my partner.  Now, we’ll just say accidents happen,” the cocky boy threatened with narrowed slits.

            “Such as this one?”  Placing my free hand on the other end of the rod, I succeeded in gaining ground and pushed him back.  Recovering my stance, I raised my knee into his exposed stomach. Lowering one shoulder as his stature vanished, I pushed him towards the opposite side of the arena where my other ally waited.  He bounced off the wall and came towards me where I instantly relieved him of his weapon and crossed both rods under his throat, acquiring his full, undivided attention.  He struggled, but the wall behind him limited his choices.  “As you said, accidents happen, so if you don’t want to become one like your friend, you’ll tell your boss to leave both of us alone or you can be sure I’ll pay him a “personal visit” of my own.  Are we clear?”  When the teen stubbornly refused to reply, I pressed more weight against the bars until he gasped unsuccessfully for air.  “Need I repeat myself?”

            “Alright.” Heave.  “Alright!  We won’t harm the girl no more!” he submitted.

            Releasing my hold, I kept both rods at the ready.  “Now take your friend and get out of here.”  I received one last venomous glare of defeat before he dragged his companion out of the alley and away from us.

            I remained alert for only a couple more minutes before returning my attention to the girl.  She looked no more shaken than she had previously, but I knew I had just made the situation more complicated.  Sighing, I ran a hand through my hair and went over what options we had at this point.  Yes, ‘we’.

            My actions, though honorable as they were, had only ensured the enemy’s return and this time there would be greater numbers.  “Look, I know this may sound rash, but we have to leave the village.”  The dancer blinked worriedly at me.  “Whoever they work for will probably not take too kindly to my intrusion and although I would prefer to take the heat myself – he seems pretty adamant about getting to you.”  I paused; remembering how the thugs had mentioned some secret of the girl’s that would be revealed.  “I know not what information they have on you and even if you wanted to tell me, you’re unable, right?”  The girl’s mouth fell open in shock, but it quickly clamped shut and she looked away in sadness.  “Now, don’t worry.  I’m not one to come to the rescue only to leave the rescued to face inevitable danger again.”  Though it was not the easiest of paths to take, I really have no choice.  If I leave her here, those goons will surely follow through on their threat.  “I can take you to a friend I have in Aiea.  They probably won’t chase you that far and even if they did, it’s easy to become lost amongst everyone.”

            The girl smiled in gratitude and passed by me, seemingly intent on leaving the alleyway unescorted.  I reached out a hand to her.  “They’re sure to know where you live.  You return there and…” I stopped mid-sentence when she bowed to me then ran around the corner and out of sight.

            “Hey!  Wait!”  I rushed to where her form had disappeared, but to my continued surprise, she was already gone.  The foolish side of me wanted to search for her and convince her to leave but the rational side knew I controlled her no more than the emperor controlled me.  If she was content with her decision, I was no one to tell her otherwise.  I would worry though.  She looked so frail and innocent.  I pray to the Goddess Vindica, should you exist, that you protect at least one of your children.

 

            The hour was late but I managed to seize a room at the Red Sun Inn for a mere twenty copper coins.  Anywhere else the price would have been three silver or more, but travelers were scarce so they were happy to accommodate me.  Unfortunately, though the blankets were soft and the bed was warm, my hours were filled lying awake, staring at the uniform creamed-colored ceiling with thoughts and worry for the poor dance girl.  Her misfortune was not unheard of – corrupt nobles often sought broken-homed women in hopes of adding to their collection of secret possessions.

            Aside from that, I had to admit there were other reasons why sleep eluded me more and more as the days went on.  My father has always taught me to defend those that could not defend themselves; that one should never turn a blind eye to the suffering around them, but the situations I'd encountered in Sirei were beyond such that there wasn't anything I could do.  Buying this and donating money to that, it wasn't going to change the fact that hundreds, no, thousands more would soon perish in a land too poor to sustain itself.

            I tried to adopt the theology that looking out for number one was most important, that if it was too much trouble or placed me in too much danger, I wasn't at fault for moving on and not lifting a finger to help someone.  What was I to say to myself when justifications like that didn't seem to work anymore and simply left a foul taste in my mouth for trying?

            I tossed and turned at night not because of the suffering I was witnessing, but for the actions I failed to take because of my own justifications.  Even the word itself contorted my face because no justice came from it at all.  I wanted to make my father proud by doing what I knew was right so...what was holding me back?

 

            The next morning I decided to quell my more immediate worries by discreetly asking around in the inn’s basement tavern about where the dance girl lived.  It seemed she found it most comfortable to stay in a house just outside the village; she just came into the village to work and trade.  It was only right I checked to see if she was okay and to make sure those from last night didn’t follow her afterwards.

            I was just outside the inn when I noticed a group of people gathered outside the restaurant.  As I inched closer, I could see one of the boys from the night before pointing accusingly at someone.  Quickly working my way through crowd, I was horrified to see the dance girl – her wrists locked behind her with cold iron shackles.

            “I swear, I saw it with my own eyes!  She used magic to steal from all of us!” he shouted. 

            Narrowing my eyes, I cursed the inbred fool (with these noble types you never know).  Then in shock, I looked over and saw who he was talking to.  The two guards I had ditched in the forest yesterday seemed to have either followed me here or, more likely, stopped by here for supplies before returning to the castle.  The large smiles on their faces told me all I needed to know of their intentions.  Having lost track of their primary objective, that being me, bringing in an accused magic user may save them face in the eyes of their emperor.

            My suspicions were correct then; the yellow eyes I’d seen on the girl last night were from a magic spell.  Magic and those who wielded its power were outlawed when the new emperor assumed the throne.  Humans could not use magic, only those with the "tainted blood", as ignorant people called it, were able to tap into its might.  Now because of that, this girl was going to be locked away…or worse.

            I couldn’t allow that to happen.  With so many villagers present, making a clean getaway was going to be impossible…which meant a distraction was called for.

            “Can you believe that nice girl is really a demon?”  a man in the crowd commented.

            “She could’ve bewitched us all!” another woman said.  “I hope the emperor has her executed.”

            It was sad how quickly people now turned upon one another.  Withholding a growl, I exited the crowd and ducked behind a few crates placed conveniently outside the inn.  This way I could work in peace and without fear of being spotted.  The last thing we needed was for both of us to be captured.  Those with tainted blood could use magic…tainted indeed.

            My anger fueled the spell and I performed the chant with a whisper, “Animon, Lord of Wind, I summon thy power.”

            “Your loyalty will be rewarded.  The emperor acknowledges your contribution.”  Art spouted obnoxiously.  Then, looking down, he saw the sand at his feet begin to pick up as a funnel of wind encircled the gathered villagers.

            “Curses!  I can’t see!” his partner cried out, burying his face in his arms.

            Acting quickly, I found an opening and dove straight for the girl.  Without even noticing her absence, the guards left their prize behind to run for cover from the unexpected sand storm.

            Frightened, the girl began to struggle in my grasp as I leapt across rooftops, the wide jumps easy for my people, and away from danger.  The feat is draining, but avoiding the rest of the villagers was paramount if I was to succeed with the rescue.  I stumbled slightly when the girl – eyes shut from the sandstorm – bit down on my shoulder drawing blood.

            “Stop!  It’s me!”  Recognizing my voice, her eyes snapped open and when she saw me, she gasped in surprise.  “You didn’t think I’d leave you to the emperor’s lackeys did you?  I meant what I said last night when I told you I don’t save people just for them to face danger later.”

            Stopping in front of what I imagined was her house, I placed her on her feet and smiled.  “Sorry about scaring you.  I would’ve warned you but that would’ve spoiled the surprise.”  She looked like she was giggling, but I knew no sound could come out.  To prove my intentions, I grabbed a tool lying on the floor amongst a few other pieces of gardening equipment she owned, and used it to pick the lock on her shackles, freeing her wrists.  “I hate to ask it, but will you leave now?  The guards will be here any moment.  Unless you want to get captured, you can’t stay here.”

            She nodded and dashed into her house.  She emerged moments later with a small pack on her side.  “Is that all?”  I was surprised she needed so little, though it was better for us because traveling with more weight would only slow us down, making it easier for the guards to track us.  As I began to formulate our next moves, I noticed the girl’s expression change to one of fear.  Her eyes were locked not on me, but over my shoulder and it was then that I picked up three auras coming towards us.  The Goddess' touch that created us glows as energy around the outside of the body.  When one is trained, they can learn to pick up this energy as auras.  I turned to face our "guests" now and witnessed them sauntering down the road towards us.

            Up until now, I’d almost forgotten about the sword lying across my back; I'd grown so used to it that its weight was now nearly indistinguishable from my own.  Speaking of weapons, I hadn’t used magic in some time either.  Both were considered a last resort for the fact that magic was draining and sword fighting for any extended period of time was just as physically taxing.  It seemed these guards weren’t going to give me much choice in the matter though.  Hesitantly I unsheathed the blade and held it defensively in front of me.

            Although two of them had been the guards I thought I’d previously taught a lesson, the third caused me much more worry.  He was almost a head taller than the other guards, with a physique resembling an ox.  He had short, un-kept black hair that curled slightly on the sides.  His brown eyes seemed sunken by the sharp outlines of his predominant nose and chin.  A large, great sword rested upon his back in the same manner as my own.  Armor covered his shoulders, chest, forearms, and shins, but what struck me as most concerning was the birthmark that lay upon his right upper arm. It was one that till this day still haunts me.

            “Look surprised?” one of the guards began, the smile of victory already plastered upon his face.  “Don’t think you’re getting away this time, hell spawn.”

            The words made my blood boil, but I forced myself to ignore him and placed my attention back on the third warrior.  “Where did you come from?  I didn’t see you in the crowd before.”

            Smirking, the man simply replied, “Because I wasn’t there.  I’ve sensed your aura since we first entered Fulsi.  You didn’t make it very hard.”

            Shock struck me as I realized what he meant.  During the time I was focusing on the girl and preparing her rescue, he was watching me and my movements, meaning that he knew I summoned the sand storm.  “So you two didn’t run away from the storm, you left to draw me out.”  I slowly caught on.

            The second guard nodded, smiling as broadly as his partner.  “Once Gollan here told us you were near, we knew you’d try and save the girl so we staged the whole thing.”

            “What about that boy?  He accused her of magic.”  Was I really so far behind in the grand scheme of things?

            “Oh, he told us about the girl last night, we just waited until morning to make sure you’d see us capture her.”

            I cursed my lack of common sense to not have caught on faster.  Looking up at the warrior, I addressed him with as much venom in my voice as I could muster.  “How can you do this?  How can you sell out your own kind to a tyrant ruler like Emperor Malum?”

            “Survival, boy.  There aren’t many of us left and soon we’ll be extinct.  There’s no escaping our fate.  I only do what I can to make sure I’m the last that goes.”  Reaching back with his muscular arm, the warrior unsheathed his massive weapon, wielding it as easily as if it were as light as a feather.  “Now, don’t make me use more force than I have to.  If you come quietly, you’ll live longer than if you die here.”

            “You only want me alive long enough to sell me to the emperor.  Aren’t I worth more alive?”  I countered bitterly.  As much as I tried to stall, no ideas of how we could escape came to me.  If I was to fight him, it would only end in my death and the girl’s capture.

            “As many of us as I’ve fought, though I do not pride myself upon the work I do, I am skilled at it.  Though I do not wish any bloodshed today.”

            “By your own hand at least.”

            The warrior let the comment slide.  “Tell me your name so that I may know the youth who fought to the death.  You already know I go by the name Gollan.”

            “I don’t plan on dying here so giving you my name is of no consequence.”  I retorted.  I don’t seem to have any other options except maybe… “But if I surrender, will you let the girl go free?”

            “As long as she does not use her supposed powers against the Emperor I see no reason why I would have to bring her into custody,” the bounty hunter replied.  “Now lay down your sword.”

            I glanced back at the girl and gave her a sorrowful expression.  The empire didn’t have a good track record of keeping their word, but maybe if I gave her enough time to find a new town to hide in, she could start over.  Slowly, I bent my knees and placed the sword on the ground.  The two guards snickered at my disarmament while Gollan walked forward.

            As he got within range, my hand ducked to my boot where a small dagger lay hidden. I jumped up and aimed for his chest, but the brute showed more agility than I gave him credit for and he blocked with one arm.  The blade embedded nice and stuck there.  I managed to land a pretty deep gash on his upper right arm – just below the birthmark – before flipping back to protect the girl, my sword back in my hand.  “Sorry, but you’re not the only one who wants to be the last.”

            He didn’t seemed fazed by the wound, but I knew wielding that giant sword was going to be next to impossible for now.  I knew it and he knew it.  Hesitantly, he lowered his right arm holding the sword until it touched the ground.  “You do understand this does not change what will happen to you.”  Taking out the dagger he tossed it nonchalantly to the side.

            “It might and it might not, but it gives me better odds, don’t you think?”  Knowing I had a better chance now than I did before, I rushed at him with my blade, only to be knocked aside like a rag doll.  The backhanded swipe left me dazed and I couldn’t believe the amount of power he had in just one arm.  I felt like I’d been kicked by a stallion and tested my ribs to see if any had been broken.  Wincing, I was lucky to find only a few were bruised, but my window of opportunity was gone.

            Looking over I saw the guards had begun to close in on the girl and growled at Gollan.  “I thought this was between you and me!”

            He looked calmly at me, his eyes showing no regret.  “And I believed you had surrendered.” 

            Dammit. Seeing my dagger within arms reach, I quickly grabbed it and assessed the distance.  Flipping the small weapon so the cold metal of the blade was between my fingertips, I carefully threw it at one of the guards and smirked when it buried itself deep into his shoulder.  “Get any closer, and I’ll make sure to spill more of your blood.”

            He growled, but his partner didn’t listen and continued to approach the girl.  She looked to me in fear, but upon seeing me still slightly dazed, started backing away towards her house.  Pushing the pain away from my mind, I leapt to my feet and attacked the closest guard with an upwards swing.  My ribs screamed in protest when the guard blocked with his own sword.  “One way or another kid, the emperor will get what he wants.”

            “Not today.”  I kicked him away and brought my sword up once more, disarming both his sword and his hand from the rest of his body.  He screamed as I wiped the splattered blood from my cheek.  For the moment my eyes were locked on the cursing form of the guard, Gollan caught me by surprise from the side and brought his large sword to bare in an overhead swing using only his left arm!  I scarcely had enough time to raise my sword to block it, but the sheer force of the blow knocked me down to one knee.  In the next instant, the second guard, still owning both of his hands, used my own dagger to slash me across the back and grabbed the girl around the neck with his free arm.

            “I commend you for lasting this long, but now it’s over,” Gollan said to me with those same annoyingly calm eyes.

            Through gritted teeth I managed with a strained voice, “I won’t become the emperor’s guinea pig.”

            “You have no choice.”  He pressed down harder and in that instant, the sword protecting me split in two.  The sound of the blow ripping open my flesh and shattering my left collarbone barely registered over the scream that escaped my lungs.  Excruciating pain like none I’d ever experienced striped me of my vision, sending me into a realm of torture and punishment. My body shook with each pulse of hot blood that soaked my clothes and chest.  Falling now to both knees, only the steady arms of the girl behind me prevented me from crashing head first into the dirt.  When did she get free?

            The girl…

            The hunter…

            And the imperial guards.

            The enemy was closing in, the effect of which sucked up whatever hope I’d held in escape.  If I didn’t do something, the emperor was going to have another plaything to add to his collection.  But…I’d sworn upon her deathbed that I wasn’t going to die in vain. 

            I was going to live…

            Mother…

            Non-stop adrenaline continued to pump the blood through my body and out my wounds.  The last word to escape my lips before darkness consumed my world was one I had not heard in over a decade.  “Teleport!”

 

Author's Note: Interested in reading the rest?  Go to http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/warriors-of-sirei/8464138 to buy it now!

 

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