Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 3

The thunder crackled loudly enough to cause the timbers of the tiny shed to tremble. Rain, eager to sap whatever warmth was left in his body, trickled between cracks in the ceiling and cascaded onto Artemis Redsleeves’ head. His entire body shook, possibly from the cold, possibly from the noise, probably from the fear. This tiny hut stood as the only barrier between him and the elements, and it seemed the elements were winning.

Then he heard another crash. The entire tiny building lurched, threatening to tear from its foundation and collapse. That wasn’t lightning.

He heard something roar from outside the shack. He couldn’t tell if it was a language he couldn’t understand, or just a bestial howl, but he knew that whatever was outside was coming for him. He sat, huddled in the corner of the hut, sleeves & all soaked to the bone from the rain, paralyzed in terror of what may be outside. Hearing the horrifying roar outside, louder this time, he was shaken momentarily from his paralysis- he scrambled across the hut to the door on his knees, his legs sinking inches into the muddy floor. His body collided with the door, holding it shut, and his slippery hands fumbled with the frail metal latch. Praying to the gods that whatever was outside wouldn’t notice him, he shut the latch finally, and then scrambled through the mud back to the opposite corner, huddling in terror, waiting for the danger to pass.

For the moment, it seemed he was safe. He heard the creature- no, creatures- pass by, and he breathed a sigh of relief. But then the lightning struck once again, so closely this time he feared it might as well have ripped the walls of the shed apart, and he involuntarily let out a tiny scream. He quickly clapped his mud-covered hand over his mouth, and tried to flatten his cowering body against the wall, until he heard a creature utter something right outside the door.

There was another clap of thunder, and the door shook. He told himself that it was simply the wind or the storm, and that maybe he was safe. But he knew that wasn’t so. The creature on the other side of the door pounded once hard enough to shake its hinges, but it stood. The rain continued to fall through cracks in the ceiling and turn the floor into a pool of mud. He began looking around for something, anything, to defend himself. Suddenly there was another roar, and then, timed perfectly with the next bolt of lightning, a massive axe split into the face of the door, sending went splinters of wood in every direction.

Artemis covered his mouth once again, slipping in the puddle of filth as he tried to get to one side of the hut, out of the way of the door. The axe was pulled free by a mighty force, and after another roar, it came bearing down on the soggy wooden surface once more. The metal latch was visibly straining to keep the door shut, but it held.

Cowering in abject terror at one side of the room, he watched, once again paralyzed, as a third and final blow from the axe tore the door off its hinges. It fell flat against the muddy floor, disappearing under a tidal wave of dirt and rain. The water poured down from the heavens, obscuring his sight as the creature stepped into the room. It was tall, black as night, and muscled, its invisible face too horrific to behold. As it stepped into the hut bearing a massive axe dripping with blood, the horrible beast turned to face Artemis, knowing exactly where he was. A momentary flash of lightning, illuminating everything like it was originating within the room, showed the creature’s face- it was gray, gnarled with scars, and its grinning mouth bore untold thousands of teeth, each sharpened for tearing through flesh and bone. Its thick ropy hair hung down over its shoulders, and its stone-like hands held its axe as if the two were one.

Artemis tried to run, but his body wouldn’t respond. In his mind he were running down an endless hallway, the creature always behind it and growing larger with each step. He opened his mouth, looking up into the creature’s black eyes, and tried to scream. But no scream came out. The beast laughed, letting out another roar, and suddenly there were a thousand of them in the room, each as twisted and horrible as the one before. They all wanted his blood, they all wanted to feat on his flesh before he could even breathe his last breath. As he finally felt a bloodcurdling scream pass from his lungs, the monsters raised their axes above their heads, all bringing them down on him at once.

A beam of sunlight awoke Artemis Redsleeves as he lay asleep on the hard ground. He sat up with a start, reflexively glancing around him, remembering little about what he was dreaming and mostly remembering the fear that he felt. The tiny hut he had found was in severe disrepair, and the gaps between the boards allowed quite a lot of light to pass through. The ground was still wet, and he was still filthy from lying in the mud. It had still been raining when he fell asleep, and as he stepped outside through the shoddily-constructed doorway it looked to him like it had continued raining for some time.

This shed was the first still-standing structure he’d found in days. Every home he had come across, every wagon, every sign of civilization it seemed was completely and totally destroyed. There were pools of aged blood, sometimes an animal carcass or two, but what confused (and terrified) Artemis was the complete and utter lack of… well, people. It made him wonder why the Keverses’ bodies were still in their home when he found them- but he tried not to wonder about that. The signs of struggle and puddles of blood he found from homestead to homestead sickened him, and it wasn’t until just recently he found he was able to see one and not wretch.

But he had to keep on this path, he had to look for people. It was difficult enough for him to survive on his own even with scavenging through the remains of homes he came across- he wouldn’t survive out in the wild on his own, and he knew that. So far, almost everything of value in every home was either taken or completely destroyed- he had found a few scraps of food here and there, moldy cheese and dried bread and the like, but that was almost all. In the most recent home, it seemed quite a battle had ensued: there were several pools of blood-some of which, Artemis reasoned, had to have belonged to the attackers- and lots of bloody footprints going in every direction, from room to room. In this home he found an old shield, it surface dull and scratched, pinned under a piece of the crumbling wall, and a sword lying in a pool of blood near what must have been the master bedroom. The sword looked to have been quite long at one point, but the tip looked to have been broken clean off- by what, he had no idea.

So far he had put little thought into what would happen if he were to encounter something hostile- whether it be a hungry animal, or whatever men or beasts were marching across the countryside. Now that he had this sword and shield, he began to feel more confident- when he first left the remains of the Keverse home, Artemis had been living on a high of hope and determination, but that slowly began to wane as he spent every day walking through the wilderness, searching for meals, and hoping and praying that he survive each night. In his mind, it was still a paradise compared to his life as a slave (where he lived off scraps and spent his days toiling with no hope of a goal or an end), but now that he was out here, he began to doubt that the world was as romantic and heroic as he had dreamt.

But now, he had a sword, and a shield. The fact that the grip of the sword was still soaked in blood bothered him, of course, but living in a dirty and scary world was something he was going to have to live with. The road to becoming a knight and a noble would come some day, if he was determined enough. So he continued on, spending his resting hours thinking about swordfighting, trying out various stances and swinging the sword at imaginary enemies, using his shield to block invisible arrows.

As he rested on a fallen log in a small clearing, he sat with his eyes closed, breathing in the air of the woods. He was Artemis Redsleeves, head of House Redsleeves, and he was sent by the king on a vital mission to save a nearby village from a group of enemies. His eyes snapped open, and he knew- they were sneaking up on him, likely under a magical veil. He leapt from his seat, holding the shield in his hand, moving it from side to side, blocking the enemy’s arrows as each one threatened to impale him. He deftly dodged to one side, deflecting the sword of an enemy warrior materializing out of thin air. He was surrounded, but it was exactly what he wanted. He swung his sword in a wide arc, catching the warrior unaware and cleaving straight through him in a single blow. Another came at him from behind their magical veil, but Artemis stood tall, holding his shield out, colliding with the warrior’s torso and knocking him backwards onto the ground. Another volley of arrows came at him, but Artemis raised his sword, cleanly slicing the arrows out of the air. He was unstoppable- until the wizard came.

He saw the black-robed wizard standing on the other side of the clearing, raising his staff above his head. He drew a circle in the air, and the staff began to glow- the mage aimed the glowing rod at Artemis, and suddenly, he couldn’t move. He felt his feet turning to stone, and he couldn’t move as the petrification crept up his body. As it reached his midsection and his arms began to stiffen, he knew he had to fight it off. As he steeled his mind and body against the dark magics, he felt himself being taken over.

“NO…!” he heard himself scream.

Except as the petrification instantly ended and the imaginary wizard vanished, he realized something. It wasn’t himself he had heard scream, it was someone else. It took him a moment to realize the magnitude of what had just happened, but then he realized- he heard someone scream. Someone. A living person. Nearby.

He ran over the nearest hill, and had to fight the urge to believe that this was a dream or a silly fantasy. In another clearing, there stood three men, surrounded by seven knights, all wearing armor and wielding swords. On the ground in the middle of the circle, another person lay, face-down, slowly stirring. The three men in the middle looked strange to Artemis- one of them had blood-red skin, and thick horns sprouting from his forehead and cresting backwards through his head of black hair. At his side hung a wide-bladed curved sword, looking as worn and battered as the sword Artemis himself wielded, and a thick red tail snaked behind him. Next to him was a man who resembled the pictures Artemis had seen of dragons- his skin looked dark red and scaly, and his face ended in a toothy maw. He wore heavy plate mail that covered most of his body, and at his feet there was a large, heavy axe, nearer to the knights circling than to himself. The third man bore a striking resemblance to the evil wizard Artemis had envisioned himself fighting- he wore dirty black robes, he had a long grey beard, and in his hands he clutched a gnarled staff. As the person on the ground began to stir, Artemis realized that it was a woman, wearing leather armor and with a long head of silvery-white hair. All four of them looked heavily bruised, beaten, and bleeding.

One of the knights stood closer than the rest, and held a heavy flanged mace at his side. He wore a tabard bearing an image of a horse’s head against a red and black background, and from the looks of things, he had been the one to knock the woman to the ground. The red-scaled dragon-man had seemingly been the one to yell out, and so most of the surrounding knights had their swords pointed at him. The man with the mace, who seemed to be the leader, held a gauntleted hand frozen in mid-air, as if he had just used it to hit someone.

Seeing this sight before him, Artemis quickly dropped to the ground, quite unsure of what to do. What was going on here? Were these knights capturing dangerous outlaws? Did a flashy and heroic battle ensue, and he just missed it? Should he wait until everything was finished and reveal himself, or should he interrupt what was happening? After all, perhaps these knights were looking for survivors when these criminals attacked them, and maybe they were here to take Artemis somewhere safe. But… it looks like that man in charge just hit that woman. If those people are criminals, why were they not tied up or something?

The gauntleted man pulled a scroll from his belt, and held it aloft. He unrolled it, and began to speak.

“By order of the mighty king of Eodon, you are hereby sentenced to death by the sword for crimes of treason and heresy against the throne.”

The old man in the black robes spat on the ground, and some blood went with it. He clenched his teeth and glared at the gauntleted man.

“That ‘king’ is no king of mine. I serve the one true king of Eodon, and no false-king can pass judgment on me. If you’re going to kill us, then kill us; the Ebony Raven shall have your life someday, be it today, or after a long life of betrayal and following a coward who calls himself king!”

One of the knights spun his sword around, bringing the pommel down hard on the old man’s head, knocking him to the ground. The gauntleted man held up a hand as if to stop the knight from such a cruel action, but the knight kicked the old man again anyway. He nodded towards the two criminals remaining- the scaled dragon-man and the red-skinned man with horns.

“I see the accounts of treason are not without basis. Do either of you wish to contest the charges before your sentence is carried out?”

The scaled dragon-man bared his sharp teeth, and was visibly restraining himself from going for the man’s throat. Artemis could see his hands clenching, wishing he had his axe in his hands. Speaking of which…

The axe wasn’t where Artemis had just seen it. It had been on the ground, almost right at the feet of one of the knights. But now, it wasn’t. Where did it…?

Artemis realized the axe wasn’t the only thing that was missing. The silver-haired woman, the one who had been lying on the ground, wasn’t there anymore. His eyes darting to and fro, he spotted her- she was behind the knights, crouching almost flat to the ground behind a nearby log. Her face had a huge gauntlet-shaped bruise on it, and her nose was bleeding profusely. She had the axe in one hand- she must have grabbed it when everyone (including Artemis) was distracted by the old man’s speech. But how did she move her entire body out of the circle without anyone noticing? And that’s when Artemis realized- she was staring straight at him. He froze in place, eyes wide open, terrified. What was he supposed to do? Was she going to kill him? Was she the criminal these knights made her and her allies out to be? Or were the knights the bad guys?

Artemis opened his mouth a few times, as if to say something, and was relieved when he realized she was trying to gesture towards him. He saw she was pointing- pointing at a bow which lay about ten paces from where he was currently crouching. She looked him in the eyes, and he saw her mouth the words, “please help us.” He paused for a brief moment, and he knew what he had to do. He nodded.

The gauntleted man spoke again.

“If you have no last words, then your fate is sealed. By order of King Galex, I sentence you to death. Men, carry out your duty.”

Artemis got up, ran over to the bow, and picked it up in the same hand as his sword. He tried throwing it, but he hadn’t really thought it through- he almost threw the sword with it, and the bow slipped out of his fingers and landed a ways away from where the woman was hiding. She apparently anticipated this, however, because before he could even look where she had previously been, she had already moved to where the bow lay, and was grabbing an arrow from an unseen holder at her side and readying it. He rushed towards the gauntleted man, whose back was to him.

A couple of the guards had noticed Artemis, and diverted their attention to him. The red-skinned man, taking quick inventory of the situation, spoke for the first time.

“As a matter of fact, I have two last words. Eat boot.”

He raised his foot in the flash of an eye and brought it to the gauntleted man’s chest while simultaneously drawing the wide-bladed curved sword at his side. He knocked the man backwards, throwing him off balance, directly in Artemis’ path. Artemis let out a battle cry, and swung his sword at the man in a wide arc, slicing through the air.

The man easily deflected the blow with one of his gauntleted hands, and brought his other hand around in a fluid motion, punching Artemis square in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and bringing him down to his knees.

But the rest of them were ready. The woman yelled out, “Grash! Catch!” and tossed the large axe through the air directly to the scaled dragon-man, who caught it easily. As he caught the weapon, a semicircular image began to glow brightly on both the axe and on the chestplate of his armor. He brought his axe down with both hands onto one of the knights, who tried to block the blow but was crushed under the sheer force of it.

The old man in black robes, pulled himself to one knee and raised his staff, which glowed bright red for a brief moment as he quickly used it to draw a circle in the air above him, and the ground nearby under two of the knights began to glow as well. With a loud crack, the ground erupted in flame under them, and they were thrown in either direction by the force of it. The silver-haired woman let fly two arrows in quick succession, both penetrating the armor of one of the remaining knights.

The red-skinned man used his wide-bladed sword to deflect two blows from attacking knights, and called out to the gauntleted man. “What’s the matter? Looking for another woman or child to beat upon? Perhaps I could direct you to a nearby convent…”

Seeing the gauntleted man was distracted, Artemis tried to swing the sword at him again, but the man once again deflected it easily. He looked down at Artemis with complete and utter hatred and disdain, but simply shook his head and laughed coldly. The tide of battle may have been turned, but it was not over yet. He turned around, and began to walk away, towards the man with the red skin.

As soon as his back was turned and he began to walk away, Artemis saw an opening. It was too quick of a reaction to be intentional- he was acting on pure instinct. His sword pierced through the air, in a quick thrust rather than a wide arc, and struck true, sliding between plates in his armor.

It was not enough to take the man down, however. His body went rigid momentarily as the blade punctured his side, and the man grabbed Artemis’ sword with a gauntleted hand, pulling it from his grip and tossing it aside. With his other hand he grabbed the mace from his side, and swung it hard down at the boy’s head.

Artemis raised his shield in time, but with the sheer force brought against it, he could feel the shield shatter, along with the bones in his arm. As Artemis fell to his back writhing in pain, he looked up at the man standing over him. He watched the man raise the mace one more time, and everything went black.

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