Chapter 2

December 21, 2008

Two

 

“Watch your back,” Gaheris said to Felix as he finished loading his saddlebags just outside the main gates of the base. “I won’t be there to watch it for you, and Elthrenian soldiers can be unbelievably fierce fighters, especially unprepared. I’ve told Raffin and Sieker to be as quick on their search as possible so that they can join up with you. Glenn’s going to watch the fort as well as he can, so Aelar and I will try to tag along and catch up before you’re all overwhelmed. If you’re there before Lightning and her group, then don’t attack at all costs.”

“Hey, I can watch my own back, father, don’t worry,” Strider replied carelessly. “What’s the worst that could happen, especially with such a large group?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care to find out, either. And I know that I’ve told you this, but Strider, watch after your sister, alright? If anything happens to her, it’s going to be your ass on the line, got that? And watch after Saphir, too, our reputation would shoot to hell if she was to be harmed while we were supposed to be protecting her.” He gestured to this woman, who was standing a few feet away. She had long black hair and a fair face, and Robin was eying her still, which Felix couldn’t help but notice when he looked up.

“I know, I know,” Felix said; he had nearly memorized each one of the different lectures his father would always give him before a job, and that just made them much drier and increasingly dull with each repetition. All the others in the group had already saddled their horses and were prepared to leave while his father plowed through his rant as usual.

“Well then if you know, prove it on this job,” he said, and turned to walk away from them, leaving Scarlet in control. She seemed to think that they had talked long enough, and quickly galloped out of the gate, leaving them all to follow and keep pace with her.

As he rode, Strider couldn’t help but look over the events of the previous night, laughing while he rode. Diran, who had been left out of their trip to the pub, thought the following day’s job was a cause worthy of celebrating and so he had brought out some of his hidden caskets of alcohol for the celebrations. After a drinking game between him and Raiku, the rest of it had been consumed in almost equal share by a few members of the group, and some people woke up with the headaches to prove it.

 Felix was glad to be able to say that he was not one of these few people who had been in pain all morning and dreading the ride because of the effect of the riding on their headaches. In a twisted way, he found it humorous that the people had been stupid enough to drink so much the day before departing.

The day’s riding passed by slowly, and the fact that so many of his companions were unwilling to speak because of the pain that it caused only exacerbated this problem, and most of the day he passed by simply trying not to fall asleep. When night finally came and they made a hasty camp, he fell asleep, exhausted, almost immediately after eating in spite of the fact that he had done barely any physical activity during the course of the day. Scarlet had agreed to take their first watch shift, and she was going to swap off with Robin halfway through the night. Robin had been one of the few who had barely been affected by his drinking the previous night and had not spent any time whining about it.

“Wake up, man, come on, we don’t have much time,” Inferno said, and Felix reluctantly opened his eyes; he had been having a good dream, albeit a strange one, though it had been somewhat interesting. For some reason it involved him plucking rocks up and throwing them at assorted objects to watch the results from a safe distance. Where it had come from, he had no idea, but it was undeniably interesting in its own way.

Grumbling something indistinctly, Felix pushed himself to his feet and then rolled up the few blankets that he had used the night before. The pot that they had used for cooking their soup dinner the night before sat over the now-dead fire, covered by a by a crudely shaped hunk of wood. Diran was handing out bowls, while Crystal sat tiredly next to the dead fire before standing up to ladle herself a small portion of the leftover soup. Their goal was to distribute enough to feed them all and eat all of it; they could not carry the soup with them through the day without it spoiling, and wasting resources went against everything they had trained themselves to do.

“Better get yourself in on that before it turns into a madhouse,” Inferno observed as he spooned some of his own breakfast into his mouth. “There might not be many of us, but even I have to admit that I’m shocked sometimes about how large of a fight we can cause.”

“Yeah, I get you there,” Felix answered with a laugh as he walked towards the pot, which Crystal was now walked away from. His sister was younger than him and had long brown hair that hung down her back as well as piercing blue eyes that were similar to his own. Her face was filled with kindness, and she wore a white skirt. Other than their similar eyes, they were different in almost every imaginable way.

After quickly getting his own share of the leftovers, he departed from the fireside and went to stand next to Inferno. “You have any idea when we’re going to be getting there, or are they still holding that information back?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I might be the commander’s son, but they sure as hell don’t tell me that much,” Felix answered, shaking his head sadly.

“We should get there by the end of today or early tomorrow,” Saphir said, “As long as we don’t encounter any other obstacles. If we make good time, we might arrive before then.”

“What’s the layout of the area like?” Felix asked. “Is it easy to defend, or an open plain?”

“The soldiers camped a small distance from a small village and had found an abandoned castle, but there weren’t enough of them to man the entire thing. The villagers don’t want anything to do with them, that’s why me and my companion were sent out by the others to the prince and from there to recruit mercenaries to our cause.”

“Interesting,” Strider said, nodding slowly. “This castle was abandoned, right? So how strong are the defenses? Are there any secret entrances or particularly weak points we should be aware of?”

“Actually, now that you mention it, me and my younger brother used to sneak into the castle and play in there when we were children. But since Mother forbade us from entering, we found a back entrance and used it to sneak in. We thought she wouldn’t know if we didn’t use the main entrance. It was probably put in there as an escape for the lord of the castle; it comes up directly to the throne room.”

“Could you locate the entrance?”

“Yes,” she answered, “Easily, I’ve used it so often that I could tell you different details about the stones on the wall, trust me, I can find the entrance.”

“That alone will make this job a lot easier. If we can sneak into their base, we have an element of surprise. And dragons shouldn’t be able to fit into a castle from what I hear, so if we can get in there we can eliminate most resistance without fear of the dragon master attacking us, at least not while with his steed.”

For a few minutes after Saphir left, he discussed tactics of the battle with Inferno, but the topic didn’t really interest either of them and was primarily a feeble attempt to quell their worried thoughts about the fight, so it was put to rest soon. Luckily, however, they were not silent for long because almost as soon as their conversation lapsed, Scarlet told them that it was time to set out.

Due to the lack of drinking the previous night, many of those that he generally spoke to while riding were once more willing to talk during the course of the ride and he passed most of the day conversing with Lucia, Inferno, and Robin, who was being uncharacteristically cheerful. By the time night came, they had located the castle that Saphir had spoken of and they were also close to the village that she claimed to have come from.

Rather than stopping two miles from the village, they decided to push on, their hopes of warm bedding and food spurning them to continue when they would have stopped before. They arrived at the village under cover of darkness, and so Felix was unable to make out much of the village, but they were quickly led deep into the village by Saphir. Finally after passing by countless darkened door shadows and other ominous looking obstacles, she led them into a wooden building larger than all of those that surrounded it. A dim light still shone out in the brief crack between the bottom of the door and the ground.

Saphir pushed the door open, and the dim light streamed out, illuminating the darkened street in a slight glow. Felix threw one last glance at the shadow of the castle where the soldiers were staying, which was a safe distance away, and then stepped inside behind the others.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Felix turned around and looked around. They were at an inn that obviously doubled as a pub, but it looked as though most of the patrons of the place had long since retired. A few of their missing companions were sitting at a table in the corner of the room, waving Felix and his companions over.

He walked towards them, and as he got closer he recognized Arkis, a heavily muscled older man who carried a broadsword and a crudely crafted axe, Lightning, a woman with long black hair and their most powerful magician, as well Joshua, a former member of Elthren’s army who had retired after repeated disputes with his captain. A fourth man who Felix did not recognize was also sitting with them. He had shoulder-length grey hair similar to Arkis’ and had a bandanna covering the lower half of his face. A variety of deadly looking sharp objects were stuck into his belt.

“You know the price, if you need me again, you know how to get to me,” the man said as soon as he caught sight of the large approaching group. Without speaking another word, he stood and seemed to glide across the floor and disappear into the night in the brief second that the door was open. Arkis leaned back in his chair, shaking his head.

“Should’ve known that we couldn’t trust him, their race never is very reliable. I’ve never met a single Shaden that was worth trusting. No wonder the race is going extinct; I don’t see why boss even trusts that one,” Arkis seemed to be talking to all of them as much as himself.

“You shouldn’t stereotype them all like that, Arkis,” Lightning said coldly. “Just because you’ve had a few bad experiences with them doesn’t mean that they’re all bad. Besides, according to the legends I’ve heard they used to be the guardians of the royal family.”

“Used to,” Arkis pointed out in response, not even bothering to open his eyes or lower his chair for his response. He almost always looked this careless, except when he was on the battlefield, at which time he was practically the personification of a demon. He also tended to label people by their race as he had done with these Shaden, ignoring the good done by some or most in exchange for his own personal discrimination.

“What are the Shaden anyway?” Strider piped up, “And who was that man?” Judging from the looks of the companions he had entered with, they were asking themselves the same questions.

“Haven’t you ever heard of the Shaden? That’s one of those things you can’t really be told all at once, and at a time like this I don’t think it’s quite the right timing for a story, you know?”

“I guess,” Scarlet answered. “The others are all here, correct?”

“Yeah, we we’ve been staying here for a few days. The villagers think of us as saviors or something, so they’ve been giving us free room and board. What took you guys so long?”

“We only set out two days ago,” Robin said, and Joshua nodded in understanding.

“I’m surprised you even were able to make it here that quickly. Our trip was from a much closer distance, but we took almost a day to get here on horses. Of course you were probably riding at a much harder pace than we were; we knew you wouldn’t be here yet, so we took our time in getting here,” Joshua said.

“Have you worked on any tactics for storming the soldiers?” Scarlet asked, and Felix immediately felt the cheerful air that had followed their reunion disappear.

“Well, that’s part of why that Shaden was here before,” Lightning said, “He said that he would scout out the castle for us, in exchange for the right price. Said he’d find all the secret entrances and whatever else we wanted. We almost reached an agreement with him, too, but Arkis kept slipping in snide comments so he kept raising the price on us.”

“You didn’t hire him yet, right? I know a way to get into the castle undetected, I discovered it with my baby brother when we were children,” Saphir said. “I thought that you would have been told by Ruby when she brought you here.”

“We weren’t, and since when did she turn into your younger brother?” Arkis asked jokingly. Saphir glowered at him for a moment, but he still had his eyes closed and so he didn’t see it.

“She isn’t my brother, partially because she’s a girl. But I told her about the passage before I left and told her to tell you of it if you were to ask about anything of the source.”

“Then we overlooked her. None of us thought of asking her and then tonight Arkis thought up the bright idea of consulting a shadow man,” Lightning said.

“So we won’t be attacking tomorrow then?”

“Most likely not.”

“Then tell me what you decide, I’m going to bed and I’m going to get some good sleep,” Felix said, “Wake me up when you need me. What rooms do we have?”

“We have a big group, so just about every room up there we booked. The innkeeper was nice and gave us all of them when he saw how large our group was. They really think we’re some sort of savior, but you sure as hell don’t hear me complaining about it!” Arkis laughed as Felix turned away and scanned the interior of the dark room. A lone man sat at the counter, ordering a drink from the innkeeper, who was unenthusiastically washing a mug by hand and attempting to keep his eyes open. At the end of the counter, there was a gap in the wall, and this was where he assumed the stairs to be.

Without a second glance back because of his drooping eyes, Felix made his way to the stairs and then continued up them quickly and loudly.

 

When he woke up the next morning, the sunlight from outside already penetrated the windows and most of the others had already returned downstairs or else dispersed through the village. After stretching for a moment, he pushed himself up out of the rough bed he had been sleeping on and saw the other occupants of the room. Levon, Atticus, and Veruka were sleeping on three other beds scattered throughout the room, and Lucia was asleep near the door, looking as though she hadn’t had the energy to go any further. Looks like someone mixed up the barracks, he thought jokingly. Scarlet and father would snap even over this.

Still stretching his tired muscles out and keeping his eyes squinted because of how bright the light around him was, Felix made his way over to Lucia and then gently shook her awake. Lucia’s eyes opened with a start, and she looked around quickly, apparently unsure of where she was but then after a moment a look of realization came into her eyes and Felix almost laughed at how comical she looked. With heavily lidded eyes, she opened her mouth and asked, “Did I get mixed up?”

“Yeah, just a little bit,” Felix said as he helped her to her feet and pushed open the door.

If Scarlet or any other of their companions were in the hallway by chance, he knew just how bad the situation looked but there were different reasons for not wanting to see anyone. Scarlet would be furious because they appeared to have not followed their rules of different barracks, but he wouldn’t hear the end of it from the others. Already, he could hear a ghostly apparition of Inferno’s voice in his head. “Way to go, man! I didn’t think you’d ever be able to pull that one off!”

He shook his head to rid himself of the voice and asked, “So what happened? How’d you end up in there last night?”

“Well after you decided to unceremoniously leave just after we first arrived here, the rest of us talked to Arkis, Lightning, and Joshua for a while before we decided to head up and by then it was pretty late. I staggered up the stairs after the others, and I could barely keep my eyes open so I just picked a room and got inside, I didn’t bother to look at who was in there, but when I saw that all the beds were taken in here I just figured I’d take the floor… I thought it was the women’s quarters.”

“It’s good to know how masculine we appear to you,” Felix answered jokingly, and Lucia shrugged. “But way to go, even I can usually hold off falling asleep until the timing is right.”

“When would the timing have been right, then?”

“After you found the right place,” Felix pointed out.

“Well nobody’s gonna know about it, right? Scarlet might kill someone; she never seems willing to face something as an honest mistake. With her on your tail, you’re going to be lucky if you ever get any, Felix.”

“It’s good to know I have someone looking out for me, Lucia, but I think I can handle my own ways of getting things. And what is nobody going to know about?”

“I like the way you think,” Lucia answered with a slightly mischievous grin that was a rare sign from her. Felix preceded her down the stairs, doing his best to listen for others that might already have decided to go into the pub early, but he could hear none. This would serve as a blessing and a curse; with nobody, questions might arise about why they were the only people there, while with others it might be asked about why they were together when they stumbled down the stairs. A double-edged sword in most senses of the word, Felix mused to himself.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, it turned out that he was right; none of the others had made it to the pub yet. A few early-rising drunks were halfheartedly clutching mugs in front of them and wiping sleep from their eyes. The others in the bar appeared to be there not to drink but because it was the only place of meeting that was open so early.

With Lucia, he made his way to one of the empty tables and sat down across from her with thoughts still running through his head. Although she had just woken up, she looked very attractive nonetheless; once, a few years back he had attempted to pursue her but she had spurned his advances by telling him that he was too young. Although he had pretended to listen to her advice, he had not truly and instead simply taken it as a warning that she was not interested in him.

“Felix? Are you with me over there?” She asked, snapping him out of his thoughts. He suddenly realized that he had been staring at her while he was thinking and quickly jerked his head away. She laughed a little and Felix allowed himself a slight smile.

“Sorry about that, I was just thinking…” He answered slightly uncertainly, allowing himself to trail off.

“I really hope that the thoughts you were having were… appropriate,” she responded with another of her usually rare dark grins. Felix couldn’t help but grin back this time.

“Well, now that you mention it,” he answered mysteriously, and she laughed. “But sorry if that bothers you!” He quickly added, hoping that such a simple comment wouldn’t shatter the tender friendship that they had been able to build back up after her rejection of him.

“It’s fine; at least you’re not like some of the others when you do that. You should hear some of the things Robin’s told me when he was drunk!”

“I don’t think I really want to, do I?” Felix asked, and looked towards the stairs at the sound of loud footsteps coming crashing down them. The table that they had made their way to was very close to the stairs. Only a moment later, Levon appeared at the bottom of the steps in his usual attire. He wore white and blue robes as well as a feathered cap and had a knife stuck into his belt. The knife was for use generally in emergencies; he was much more proficient in magic, albeit not as talented as Lightning. His face was sharp and knowledgeable in spite of how young he was.

“I thought I heard you two make your way down here a few minutes ago, and I couldn’t get back to sleep so I figured I’d follow you down.”

“So how have things held up with you guys on your own?” Felix asked. “You left a few months back to aid in a border dispute between two nobles of Elthren… Has anything new come of it since I last saw you?”

“No, just a couple windbags arguing about nothing and deciding to just eliminate each other… Sometimes I really wonder about the intelligence of these nobles, you know? I don’t know about anyone else as dense as them… I mean, who honestly kills over something so trivial as a small bit of land?”

“That’s what you get from nobles.” Lucia said simply.

Felix added, “If not for those bickering idiots, how would we make a lot of our revenue? We rely a lot more on their stupidity than we realize, I think.” For some time, they continued to talk carelessly, but soon everyone had woken up. When everyone had congregated around them, Felix couldn’t help but ask Lightning the question that had been tugging at the edge of his conscience.

“So how was the last job, Lightning? You guys were gone a lot longer than we had thought you would be, it’s a relief that so many of you survived, but… it’ll be hard to forget about those who died.”

“It was a trap,” Lightning said darkly. “Boss told us that it was a big job, but we weren’t prepared for what happened. We scoped it all out, but… The day that we went in to attack, we were ambushed. And you can see the effects of it.”

“Yeah… But I guess it is inevitable that some people will die in our line of work,” Felix said. “So don’t feel bad about it, if you do. You were always more likely to feel guilty than the rest of us, even when you don’t deserve to, so don’t let it haunt you, alright?”

“I try not to, but I can’t help but think that we have a worm in our ranks who told the bandits about our attack… I know it might be hard to believe, but I find it hard to buy into the fact that Levon’s battle plan didn’t work out. His strategies have never failed before. And when I think about having a worm within us, I can’t help but wonder if more of our plans are going to fail because of this same turncoat.”

“I don’t know, but there is a first time for everything, so maybe it was just a fluke. And I hate to dismiss your concern, but… we know just about everyone in our group well, and we’ve saved each other countless times. I doubt that there’s anyone among us willing to betray us.”

“Maybe I’m just paranoid, then, but… watch your back, Felix, alright? I don’t want you dying on me!”

“Yeah, Felix, it wouldn’t be the same without you, y’know?” Lucia added, “So you better stay alive, at least for my sake!”

“Got it, you can count on me,” Felix replied with a grin. “It’ll take more than some traitor to bring me down!”

“As good as that might sound, I think that we have more important things to discuss,” Scarlet said, cutting through their conversation like a hot knife through butter. “Levon is working on a strategy for us to seize the castle, preferably without casualties, and I’d rather you not interrupt his concentration.”

“Why don’t you just have one of those dancers lead us in through the back way like they offered?” Felix asked, looking at Scarlet with something near surprise. The course of action was obvious, especially since, according to Saphir, there were very few, if any, others that knew about it.

“That won’t work to get all of us in. We have to have a small group assault them from the outside to keep them distracted while you sneak inside and attack them there,” Levon said.

“But what about you people on the outside? What about the dragon? How will you survive?” Felix’s voice showed a lot of worry, and he knew that the questions he asked made him sound somewhat immature and childish, but they were all rational concerns. They had come this far together, and Lightning’s group had already suffered enough casualties. Just as Lightning had made him promise to survive, he had promised himself that no one else would die, especially since he cared so much for everyone in the group. The only problem was that he wasn’t in charge of the attack; his father had explicitly put it in control of Scarlet, and any insubordination, warranted or not, would result in a severe punishment.

“I initially hoped for a wooded area to cover us, and without one this will be much more difficult,” Levon admitted, “But I think if we only send our strongest in and keep them armed with bows, we might be able to shoot the dragon out of the sky, and from there take out the rest of the soldiers as we would normally.

“You’re taking quite a gamble with a lot of lives,” Felix noted.

“And I would rather not, but Scarlet was insistent, and she is correct; sending us all in through the back way would inevitably attract attention from their watch, and the location of interest would be put under strict surveillance to make sure that no one else attempted to sneak in. These rebellious troops definitely are a lot more intelligent that most soldiers in Elthren’s army.”

“Who’s going to be where, then?”

“Well, since Scarlet has placed you in charge as second-in-command of this job, Felix, it only makes sense that you will take the group that infiltrate the castle. Scarlet has insisted that she be among those who fight on the field. Deciding who is in what group is part of what is taking so long. But, I am fairly certain that Lightning will be among those on the battlefield, as will I, and Lucia, Inferno, and Joshua will be with you.”

The fact that Scarlet trusted him enough to place him as second-in-command over Arkis or Levon or any other more qualified members of their group made him immensely grateful, and so did the fact that Joshua would be with them. He and Felix had worked together countless times on previous jobs and were frequently sparring partners. The matchup of their brute strength and unrefined skill made for an interesting and constantly changing fight.

Felix opened his mouth to speak, but was at a loss for words. What could he possibly say that would convince Scarlet that it wasn’t a good idea to split up like this? Levon’s calculated reasoning made perfect sense, even to him but he didn’t want to admit it. Levon understood his point of view, he knew, but would follow Scarlet’s order and make the battle plans as she had asked him. It wasn’t that he was weak-willed; he just followed orders when they were given, regardless of his opinions on them. He and Scarlet had probably already argued about it upstairs, or the night before. Felix could only wish that he would someday have such unwavering loyalty and was able to follow orders in spite of the situation; he was too free-thinking and individualistic to do so.

“It’s just one of those things, leave it,” Levon said calmly from where he sat. “You can’t beat her in an argument of logic, she’ll find some way. I completely agree with you, though, if that makes you feel any better.” Felix looked towards Scarlet to see what her response to the remark would be, but she was turned away, speaking with Arkis about something.

 “How can you follow orders like that without a trace of doubt?”

Levon thought for a moment, looking up from the parchment that his quill had been scratching away on and locking eyes with Felix. “I used to be a lot like you, Felix. What has changed since then? Or the question you’re asking, why have I changed from that to the way I am now? It is a long story, one entirely unworthy of telling. Back in my days as a bard, I might be willing to tell it, but not any longer. You have my most sincere apologies.”

“Don’t feel left out, though, Felix, none of the rest of us know about it either. Really does make you wonder just how exciting of a life Levon had before he joined up with us,” Lucia said cheerfully.

“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better,” Felix answered with a wry smile. “But I guess that now that you’ve put it that way, I can’t help but wonder…”

“Don’t let it bug you,” Raiku said, clapping a hand on Felix’s shoulder. “He won’t tell you, and it makes it more interesting this way. Now we have to wonder what the real story is, makes the whole thing a lot more dramatic!” He laughed cheerfully.

“Raiku, I almost forgot that you were traveling with us,” Felix said, and Raiku looked slightly taken aback.

“Geez, you can forget about one of your best buds over the course of a few days? That really tells me a lot,” he said sarcastically. “I’m mostly already awake ’cause I heard that we might be invading that damned castle later today. Hopefully if we can take it out today, we can get back to the base sometime soon.”

“You really think we’ll be able to take out an entire squad of Elthrenian troops in a single day?”

“I was thinking that if we snuck into the castle at night, when they’re all asleep we’d be able to kill most of them off before they knew we were there, and then the remainder of us could be on the outside; we’d attack them once they left the protection of the castle, and then they’d be done for. We’d have to wait around for whatever messenger of Elthren to come around and pay us or whatever, but it’ll all work out.”

“That actually sounds like a rather… well thought-out plan,” Felix admitted, though internally he was rather disgusted by the thought of killing people while they slept. He recognized that it might spare the lives of their own men, but that didn’t loosen his resentment of the action. It was a cowardly move, but sometimes cowardly moves needed to be used to win the day.

“Scarlet won’t let it go through, though,” Breeze said in an undertone, obviously hoping that the woman wouldn’t hear her comment. Usually, Scarlet was much more loose and kind, but since their departure for the quest, she had seemed rather uptight with worry.

“I wonder why she’s so worried lately… She’s never been this strict with us before. Maybe it’s just worry about the new job. Going against a dragon rider is enough to worry anyone,” Raiku suggested.

“You’re probably right. We’ll pull through, though, we always find a way.”

“I think that’s the reason that we’re trying to come up with a plan, though,” Breeze said. “So we don’t find a way, we actually can really entirely on our own talent for once.”

“But that’s not quite as fun as just leaving it up to fate,” Felix said jokingly.

“Fate’s what’ll lead to us all ending up dead in the middle of some random battle,” Raiku warned. “I’d rather fight it and live life by my own rules, not the whims of some nonexistent higher power.”

“That was quite the mouthful, especially considering who it was coming from. Want to simplify it down?” Breeze asked.

“I think we should just leave it,” Felix said, and then added, “I mean it’s not every day that Raiku says something that sounds smart.”

“Thanks for that,” Raiku replied sarcastically.

“I’m just giving you crap,” Felix said, trying his best to stifle a yawn that exited his mouth forcefully. He opened his mouth to say something else, but he was cut off before making a single noise.

“Okay, Scarlet, I’ve got this whole thing planned out. Tell me if you have any problems with it. Felix will be led into the castle by Saphir and with him will go Joshua, Lucia, Inferno, Robin and Raiku. Their job will be to kill as many as they can from within when the soldiers begin to strike at us. Lightning and I will be on the battlefield and will act as a decoy. Breeze will try to combat the dragon master with Veruka, unless the damned thing is already dead in which case they will help us. Crystal will stay back and heal those who are injured; Diran will stay with her and protect her from harm. Scarlet, you will be with, Arkis and Atticus, and when Lightning and I are attacked, you should leap in from cover and surprise them. It might not be much compared to some of my other plans, but with our limited number of people it just might work and spare us many casualties.”

“About damn time, let’s hurry up and get out there, finish this thing off,” Inferno said, resting an already-gloved hand on the hilt of his blade.

 

I never thought that passages like this really existed in castles, Felix thought as he followed the dirt-encrusted tunnel behind Saphir, who was crawling ahead of him. Hours had passed since they were last in the town, each one more nerve-wracking than the last. I guess this sure makes our job one hell of a lot easier, though, so I’m not going to be caught complaining about it.

The others were hidden outside the castle, taking cover as best as they could amongst the sparse greenery. Whether or not they had been detected was completely unknown, but the fact that he had not yet heard shouts from outside was a comforting prospect. Of course, they were so deep into the tunnel that he doubted he would be able to hear the clatter even if a war were to break out. The dull noise of knees rubbing against dirt still echoed in his head, even when he stopped moving for a moment to gather his bearings. Saphir had told them not long ago that they were close to the end of the tunnel, and he had to admit that the end couldn’t come soon enough. On the outside, they were probably beginning to wonder what was taking them so long to get inside and start the attack. Will this be over today, or will the fight last longer? We haven’t been out for long, but I’d sure like to get back, it’s just not the same being out on a job. I can never get any rest out of the base…

“Come on, hurry up,” Inferno said from behind him, and Felix realized that in his brief period of thoughts involving when they would return to the base he had stopped moving. Rather than argue the point, which he knew he was in the wrong on, he simply nodded and kept crawling ahead. Saphir had stopped to look back at them when she had heard the voices, and she opened her mouth.

“We’re just about there; then you won’t have to waste any more time in this musty old tunnel.”

“Why was this thing built if it wasn’t going to be used?” Raiku asked. “I mean, at least hide it somewhere where somebody from the outside isn’t just going to accidentally stumble onto it! I mean, every other castle with an emergency exit like this only has it accessible from the inside…”

“My brother and I stumbled onto it in our youth, and at that time it was in much better condition and looked as though it might have been used. Valuables were also stored in here, and from signs that we saw, it appeared that the previous occupant of this place, Vantel Castle, were in business with local bandits.  This was probably used as their primary way of trading without raising suspicion, so it probably wasn’t originally intended as an emergency exit.”

“It doesn’t matter now, we’ve gotta take advantage of it and get out alive. If we keep talking like this, we’ll be caught as soon as we exit the tunnel,” Inferno pointed out. Instantly, all noise in the tunnel seemed to be brought to an instant standstill and was as quiet as a graveyard. To Felix, the increased quietness only seemed to make the limited noise they did make even louder, the sound of knees rubbing against dirt echoing in his ears like drumbeats in the deep now.

A glimmer of light appeared in his eyes, illuminating Saphir. The end of the tunnel was getting ever closer, and he almost thought he felt his heart skip a beat. They were almost out… Almost to freedom… And almost to the newest battle, which he felt more nervous about than he had ever felt in the past. His insides seemed to be contracting anxiously, making this even more uncomfortable for him. Inferno would most likely be the first one to depart from their group; although he was not yet incredibly talented at it, he had the most experience as an assassin out of any of them.

Saphir began to move faster, more anxiously, to make her way through the last stretch of tunnel as soon as possible, and Felix struggled to follow as quietly as possible. It didn’t take long, and all the while the patch of light got larger and larger until finally light flooded around him on all sides, albeit a very dim light that had obviously struggled to find its way through the castle’s walls.

As soon as he exited the tunnel, Felix straightened up and felt his pulse increase radically. He quickly cast his eyes around, and upon clarifying that there were no others in the narrow hallway they stood in, he glanced around for somewhere to hide. The problem with that was very simple, though; they were in a narrow hallway with only two sides, one in and one out. The stones that made the hall were cold and weathered, and there were several windows that were little more than indents in the wall where light shone through. A single torch lit the place, and it was still filled nearly to the brim with oil. That means that this hall is being used… And it also means that they either aren’t going to come through here until it needs to be refilled, or that they lit it so that they can use the light for something they’re doing in here… We better get out, and quick.

Inferno clapped him on the shoulder as he climbed out, and then said, “Well I’ll get to work, shall I? I’ll meet you on the other side!” As Raiku began to pull himself out of the tunnel, Inferno turned and made his way down the hall and away from them.

“So where are we going to from here?” Saphir asked, looking surprised at Inferno’s course of action.

“I think I should be asking that, after all, you know this castle a lot better than I do. We’ll follow him,” Felix answered. “He’ll be clearing the way ahead, and so we’ll stay behind him and back him up if he comes across any groups or in case the bodies are discovered.”

“You act like you’ve done this sort of thing before… Isn’t it just a bit strange?”

“Look, lady, you’re talking to someone who makes a job out of killing people, so don’t ask me whether it’s odd to do my job,” he said with mock sternness, but he hoped that his point still came across.

“So even your hands are stained with the blood of the dead?”

“…I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve killed many times in the course of battles. Almost every time it has been in order to protect myself from harm or death, but I still do feel for those that I fell. Now isn’t the time for those kinds of emotions, though. It’s time to finish this job, and then you might be able to persuade me to talk about this again.” He turned away; but he was unable to get rid of the thought that he had spoken much too formally, something he couldn’t stand.

Ahead, he thought he could distinctly hear the sound of metal striking stone, most likely the noise of some soldier as he fell over lifeless and Inferno proceeded past. They swiftly followed, and Felix heard the snick of an arrow as Robin lifted it to his bowstring. Felix reached for his own bow, and drew out an arrow but did not prepare it for a shot yet; he could use a bow, but he was a much more talented swordsman than an archer.

They reached the end of the hall and turned, and Felix was shocked to see the first body of a soldier. The armor of the man was entirely silver, like some type of large shell that had failed to protect his body. The breastplate of the armor was mottled with the dark red of blood, and the sight of the dead body made Felix gag. He had seen his fair share of death, but it did not make seeing things like this any easier.

Quickly, he passed over the body and was certain that behind him he could hear the sound of Saphir retching; she might have recruited their aid, but he thought that when she had agreed to assist them she had not quite realized what she was getting herself into. I guess that just can’t be helped, he thought.

“W-Who are you?”

Damn, already found, Felix thought as he turned around towards the voice. A single guard stood in the hallway that they had just exited, quivering uncomfortably where he stood. A spear was held in one of his hands, and he was quivering in surprise, apparently not expecting to see them there. “We’re here to-”

“You’re some damn sell-swords hired by Elthren, aren’t you?” He asked viciously, and opened his mouth to bellow this out. Instantly, the arrow that Robin had had the time to nock earlier left its string and struck the man in the chest, piercing his leather armor and digging deep into his chest. With a final death rattle, the man fell to the ground, and Felix turned away sadly, doing his best to hide his emotions under a mask of indifference as he had done countless times in the past. The expression of terror at his final moments and the unavoidable way in which Robin had killed him made bile rise in the back of his throat.

As Robin prepared another arrow for a shot in a moment’s notice and Joshua had begun to drag the two bodies into a less obvious spot. Lucia looked rather repulsed by Joshua’s actions, and he could see why. Felix was glad that he didn’t have to do the job. It was disrespectful to the corpses, and on top of that gave off an aura that they were there to do something very sinister, which, in Felix’s opinion, they were not.

“Okay, good work Joshua. We’ll just have to keep moving and hope that they don’t stumble onto any more bodies alright? Or if they do, let’s just hope we’re long gone by the time.” He turned away from them once again and plunged into the depths of interconnecting labyrinths that made up the castle, led the entire way by Saphir, who still claimed that she had traversed the entire length of the castle and knew it as well as the back of her own hand.

She led them for only a brief period of time before they encountered more of Elthren’s deserters, standing with their weapons already drawn in a wide hallway. Most of them looked as young and inexperienced as the soldier that Robin had struck down earlier, but some of the men that stood across from them were obviously much more talented in battle, displayed by the scars that showed through their helms and the dents that covered their weapons.

“So…” One of the men said, and it sounded as though he might have been the leader, at least of this particular group. “You are Elthren’s mercenaries, hm? They thought that we might be killed simply by a small group of ragtag weaklings like you? Hate to disappoint, but there isn’t a chance of that.” Frantic footsteps echoed down the hall and another soldier burst into the hall, this one weaponless.

“Captain! Captain! There are two people outside the castle, putting on some sort of magic show! They look dangerous, though, and after what you said about mercenaries I thought that maybe…”

“Thought you might be able to trick us by hiring some cheap magicians, did you?” The captain asked, “You, go and get some men and go out there and take out those two magicians. Their illusions are to come to an end by the time that I’ve killed these men.”

“Damn,” Inferno said as he looked at the soldier who had just charged in. “I thought I told him to stay quiet!”

“Inferno? When did you get here?” Felix asked incredulously. Up until he had heard the man’s voice in his ear, he had assumed that he was still out assassinating as many of their enemies as possible while doing his best to lie low.

“Ah, you know… I’ve been poking around and just decided that now would be a good time to rejoin this merry little band.”

“Drop your weapons and cease talking at once,” the obvious leader of the soldiers said, stepping forward and drawing a long blade, pointing it at Felix’s chest, albeit from a distance.

Felix, ever the resistant, opened his mouth to refuse, but before a single word came out another, foreign voice cut across him. The voice was deep and refined, but at the same time had hints of malice within it. “Those words should be said to you, not they. Soldiers of Elthren, drop your own weapons if you value your lives.”

Shocked to hear the unexpected noise, especially from an unknown source, he spun around with most of his men and saw a knight striding towards them. The knight was entirely clad in ornate ebon armor darker than night, and a naked blade stood in his hand. A chill filled the room, and even Felix was aware of it; in spite of them being outnumbered, the situation had clearly just turned in their favor entirely because of this mysterious knight.

However, the leader of the rebels was not about to let his goals slip through his fingers so swiftly. “Men of Elthren, stand strong for freedom and rebellion from such a cruel and unforgiving kingdom! The fear that this man gives off is entirely caused by you; ignore it. He is a mortal man, much like you and I! Think of your families and the peace they will live in because of your heroic actions!”

To Felix, the speech didn’t sound very inspiring, but nevertheless the soldiers drew their weapons once more and Felix shook his head. The ebon knight didn’t make a move, but Felix wasn’t waiting for some anonymous fighter to lead the charge; it was his job. Certainly is a weird job in more ways than anyone could have predicted.

The closest man of the enemy group came forward, his sword arm sturdy. On either side of him, Inferno and Raiku quickly engaged themselves in similar battles while Lucia and Joshua double teamed a forth man. Robin shot the arrow he had on his string, and then drew two hunting knives and made his way towards another man, who backed away from him because of the vicious look on his face.

Taking in all these details had detracted from Felix’s attention to his own swordplay. He only noticed at the last second that the other man’s blade was swinging towards his neck, and was barely able to parry it in the moment’s notice that he had. In an angered response, he retaliated with a mighty blow, but the opposing swordsman blocked it with relative ease, responding once again with another swing.

As he turned to avoid the swing, he could not help but notice that the ebon knight still had not made a move to join the battle. He raised his sword to block another blow and shot for a small hole in the swordsman’s defense. The swordsman struggled to block the gap, but the damage had already been done; Felix’s blade punctured deep into his chest, and the man fell to the ground with a gasp. How nice that our little savior knight is too high and mighty to join the battle himself.

The thought flashed through his head as he saw the flash of steel out of the corner of his eye and stepped aside just in time for the weapon to skim the edge of his tunic. Luck I guess… If only I believed in that crap. As the soldier who had thrust the weapon forward tried to pull it back in and prepare for another strike, Felix lifted his own blade and struck the man in the chest with a sickening crunch.

Almost subconsciously, he scanned the enemies for a sign of their leader, who had thus far stayed back, a safe distance away from the battle. Before he was able to locate the man, though, he had to engage an axe wielding soldier. The heavy, mighty blade of the axe struck against his sword, and it took him a great deal of effort to knock the axe carrying soldier back. Luckily, the weight of the weapon that he was carrying prevented the soldier from retaliating, and Felix brought his sword around to kill the third man, quickly leaping forward to eliminate a forth.

He quickly lost track of the battle as he ceased looking specifically for the leader and instead attacked any enemies who dared to come too close to him. Rather than seeing the battle from his own eyes, he seemed to drift outward and watch it from an outsider’s perspective, disgusted by the death that he alone was causing. None stood to live after challenging him, but still none fled. Outside, he was certain that the battle was similarly in their favor; the strength of this unit of Elthrenian soldiers had definitely been exaggerated, unless the dragon rider was still alive.

When finally the last of their enemies had fallen, Felix cleaned his blade on a tunic of one of the fallen and look around; in total he had killed nine men in the course of the battle, a feat he had never accomplished before and hoped that he would not accomplish again. The leader of the rebels who had incited the battle was still alive, but Robin had shot him through the leg to impede his movement, and after briefly attempting to limp away he had collapsed.

The ebon knight that had apparently appeared in their favor had never joined the battle, but as soon as it was done he walked out from the place where he was standing. Although they were both on the same side, Felix felt a chill run down his spine as he looked at the nameless, faceless armor clad knight.

“Your talent with a blade is mighty, but unrefined as of yet. It reminds me heavily of another man that I knew once, long, long ago.” The knight’s voice was still deep and refined, but now Felix felt something else there; perhaps it was grudging respect, or perhaps his gut instinct was right and the knight was sizing him up. The knight’s armored hand remained at his side for nearly a minute, and then he moved it away.

“I never really had much of a teacher; I learned to fight like I do by simply practicing and creating my own style.”

“Do you? Regardless, you possess an unimaginable amount of raw power, I look forward to seeing you continue to grow in your battles,” the knight said. “But for now my business here is done with. The other who is here will handle your pay, until then you might wish to help your companions outside. Leave this traitor where he is, I will handle him when I feel the need to. Until then, I am fairly confident that he won’t be moving anywhere.”

The ebon-clad knight turned and left slowly, the ominous aura that had surrounded him fading away as well. As soon as he was entirely gone, Felix turned to Inferno and asked, “Do you have any idea how many troops will have been sent out to attack Scarlet and the rest of them?”

Inferno, who had been tying a strip of cloth around a wound to stop the flow of blood that came from it, looked up and said, “The man who was sent out was a coward. I saw him lurking through the castle when I was wondering. Rather than taking the designated amount, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got most, if not all, of the other rebels with him. We better find a place where we can see outside and then we’ll be able to figure it out.”

Felix prepared to stride out of the room, but a rattle stopped him and he turned around. “Stop… Stop…” The man collapsed on the ground behind them was wheezing desperately. Felix looked at him emotionlessly.

“You… You are mercenaries, are you not?”

“Yes.” Felix didn’t elaborate on his answer. He had no desire to speak with the rebel, especially considering how degrading and hateful the man had been when he was in control of the situation.

“So… You know nothing, then.” The man rolled over and turned away, gasping in pain from the arrow that was still lodged in his leg.

“What do you mean?” Felix asked, unable to contain his curiosity. “What is there that I know nothing about?”

“It… It does not matter; now leave me to die in peace… Go and save your companions out there or do what you will.” Felix walked to the other side of the rebel, but the man closed his eyes with a look that clearly told him that the matter was sealed. After glancing at the man on the ground for another moment, Felix straightened up and proceeded to lead the others out of the room as he had been doing before.

When they did find a vantage point that they could see the battle from, Felix was shocked by what he saw. Though they were few in number and looking as though they were long ago overwhelmed, the mercenaries were cutting their way through the rebels. Even as Felix watched, both Lightning and Levon cast down another enemy.

He couldn’t be sure, but he could see a muscled man fighting a group of enemies, and he assumed that it was Arkis. Scarlet, easily recognizable by her flaming red hair, was fighting two men at once, overpowering both of them with the spear that she carried. As one of the men briefly fell back, she jabbed him with the lance and he crumpled over.

High above, Felix heard a mighty call and looked up to see Breeze engaged in battle with a large beast, presumably the enemies’ dragon. Although the dragon clearly had a strength advantage among other things, the tactics that she was employing were putting it on the losing side of the battle. Light briefly glanced off a silver surface, and Felix realized that Veruka was far above as well, fighting from Breeze’s back.

Levon was casting away any who came near him, and a single bolt of thunder shot down from the sky, controlled by Lightning. Atticus, the least talented of the three sorcerers, was doing his best to keep pace with Levon and Lightning, but the effects of his magic were much weaker than that of his companions.

Diran and Crystal were standing a small distance from the battle. Diran was leaning on his sword, looking rather uninterested with the battle. The thick armor that covered his body gleamed in the sun. Crystal, however, was wearing no armor and looked rather small, especially in comparison to the man that she was standing next to.

They’ll be able to take care of the remaining men, Felix thought, turning away. We’ll just go and do as Scarlet ordered and look for any stragglers left in the castle. He turned away from the window and alerted the others to his decision, but the same calm and deep voice of the ebon-clad knight echoed through the room. “Don’t look; the castle is empty, that coward took the remainder of the rebels with him when he departed.”

“How do you know? And who are you, anyway?” Felix asked darkly.

“My identity and intents are not for you to know. Now go and allow me to witness more of your swordplay.” Felix opened his mouth to speak, but instead darkness filled his eyes and when he blinked, the next thing that he saw was the battlefield. What… What was that? Just who is that knight?

He glanced around and saw that Lucia and Inferno were also there, and as he watched Raiku and Robin appeared followed closely by Joshua and finally Saphir. Diran and Crystal looked surprised to see them appear out of nowhere, Saphir looked incredulous about everything that had happened; after standing still for a moment, turned and began to walk away from the battle. Apparently the events of the day had been too much for her, or she had fulfilled what she had thought to be her job. Either way, Felix couldn’t deny that he was happy as he saw her go, because she was only a weight in their battles.

“More of them! The mercenaries are trying to ambush us!”One of the soldiers bellowed, and Felix drew his blade in preparation.

Diran lifted his sword up with one hand and leaned it over his shoulder. “So, Felix, you think you’ll be able to take this one? This job isn’t quite as big as I thought it might have been.”

“We’re about to find out how well we’re going to handle,” Felix said offhandedly, lifting his blade up above his head, and then snapping it down as soon as a lance-carrying soldier came into his range. The blade bit deep, cutting through the man’s leather armor and slicing down his stomach. The man behind him was carrying a mace and his armor was much thicker; luckily, this also greatly reduced his speed.

Felix exchanged a few quick swings with the man, and then knocked the mace aside. Before there was any time for the man to raise the mace again, Felix struck, but his blade merely dented the heavy metal of the man’s armor. The strength of the blow sent vibrations down Felix’s blade and he fell back just in time to avoid a heavy swing from the mace. Damn, I really hate these heavily armored soldiers.

Next to him, Diran prepared to help him out, but then was drawn away by a speedy swordsman who was leaping towards Crystal. He didn’t even think; his body reacted for him. He parried a blow from the mace with such power that it knocked the mace from his foe’s hand. Although he knew that the blow would not entirely finish off his enemy, Felix struck the armored man twice, knocking him backwards with the second swipe. Then, without a second thought he leapt towards Crystal, parrying a swing from the swordsman that was about to strike Diran, who was too weighed down by his armor to block it.

Surprise and fear simultaneously crossed the man’s face when he saw that he no longer had an advantage against a heavier, slower foe. Felix didn’t make a reply to the man’s expression, and instead swung towards his head while Diran swung at his legs. Feebly, the soldier raised his blade and parried the blow aimed at his head, but his legs were cut out from underneath him and he let out an agony-filled howl.

“Sorry about that, but there was no other choice; I wish things could have turned out differently,” Felix said, and pulled his blade back to end the man’s painful last moments. The soldier resigned himself to his fate, obviously realizing that going out quickly would be much less painful than laying there and bleeding. He leaned his head forward and Felix allowed Diran to finish the deed, looking away with disgust.

The armored knight, however, had pushed himself back up from the ground, mace in hand again. Diran stepped in front of him and lifted his bloodstained blade up. “Double team him, you think? That should make it easier.”

Felix only grunted and ran forward. The knight swung his mace heavily, and although Felix attempted to parry the weapon, his blade was cast aside and he had to leap out of the way. Didn’t expect that… But I guess I shouldn’t try to use strength against a foe that I can easily run circles around… Use my advantage, don’t but the battle in his favor.

Diran lumbered past him when he stepped back from the armored knight, and the two exchanged a fierce, but slow, volley of attacks. Felix prepared to circle around and deliver what he hoped would be the finishing blow to the knight, but then the knight fell to the ground without him moving at all. Where it had fallen, Inferno now stood with a lazy grin on his face. “Come on, Felix, can’t you at least take out some stupid soldier? These ones are slow and everything!” Jollily, he laughed and then disappeared amidst the many combatants of the battle as though he had never been there.

“Well, Felix, I dunno what you’re going to go and do, but I’ve gotta stay here and watch your sister, so good luck.”

“Thanks. Make sure nothing happens back here, alright?” Without waiting for a response, he ran off into the fray. Although they never stuck together for long, Inferno continually aided him in the battle whenever he was in any kind of trouble, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing instantly afterwards again. Raiku in turn often needed Felix’s help when he was overcome

The battle lasted much shorter than Felix had thought it would; apparently the rebels had looked much more numerous from their vantage at the castle. Most of them had sustained minor wounds that Crystal was scurrying to heal, and a few of the rebels had surrendered and were handing over their weapons, obviously scared of the few mercenaries who could overwhelm so many of them. Felix cut through the defenses of the final rebel soldier he was fighting and killed the man before looking around at the battlefield. As always the place of the battle, once dotted with peaceful trees and hills, was now smeared in blood and the stench of sweat and metal.

This was not what caught his attention, however. Amidst the shining silver and dull leather of the soldiers was a single man, laying face up in the ground. Felix’s heart plummeted and he sprinted towards the man, worried that what he thought he had seen was actually true. The run took him almost a minute from how far away he was. When he made it to the place, he crouched down next to the body, hoping that the blood obscured the face and was distorting his vision.

“Felix…” The voice was too familiar; despite all of his hopes to the contrary, Arkis was lying on the ground, overwhelmed by the numerous foes that surrounded. His long silver blade had been battered until it smashed, and the shards were scattered around his body. His axe had begun to chip, and some chunks had flaked off, but the remainder of the weapon remained in his hand. In his desperation, he had drawn a short dagger that was whole and clasped protectively to his chest in an obvious attempt to stem the flow of blood that poured out of a gaping wound. “Looks like I screwed this one up, eh? Tell your father… Tell him that I said I was sorry, that it was an honor to be able to serve him…”

With that, he laid back and closed his eyes; for the first time since Felix had seen him, a look of peacefulness took over his face and the wrinkles around his face seemed to smooth as he passed into the void. Even though he had not spoken to him much, Felix could not help but feel hot tears begin to leak out of his eyes as he looked at the body of Arkis.

It seemed like no time had passed when he felt a hand resting upon his shoulder and he looked up to see Scarlet. “It’s fine,” she reassured him, “He’s… He’s at peace now. We have to bury him along with the others, though.”

Felix nodded and stood up, turning around as the ebon-clad knight appeared once again, and a dark aura still surrounded him as it had before. Scarlet gasped and took a step back, obviously surprised by his sudden appearance. “I look forward to watching you progress in your abilities. You remind me of a man I once knew. You have my condolences for your loss, but I assume that it was necessary.”

The offhanded comment about Arkis death infuriated Felix beyond belief, though he did not know exactly why. A flash of rage passed through his mind and he leapt at the knight with his sword drawn, only to be effortlessly knocked backwards and collide painfully with the ground. Though he did not see how the knight had been able to move fast enough to pull it off, he had drawn his sword and effectively disarmed Felix in their brief contact.

“I would watch my temper around the man paying me next time, if you heed my advice,” the knight said, and drew, seemingly from nowhere, a large sack of gold that he tossed on the ground next to Felix. “I’ve added a little to compensate for your loss. Don’t lose your temper again and make me decide to take it back.”

Felix only grunted from the ground, but the knight didn’t seem to care; he sheathed his sword and disappeared just as quickly as he had appeared. With a pained grimace, Felix pushed himself up, off a soldier’s breastplate that he had landed on, reaching for his sword.

“Who was that?” Scarlet asked, looking over at him with a curious and slightly disturbed look on her face. “He didn’t seem to be the friendliest person to be fighting alongside.”

“I don’t know who he is; he was in the castle, he showed up there right before we fought the rebels inside, but he didn’t fight at all himself. He watched our group do the work, and then he… transported us out here somehow, I’m not entirely sure how he managed to pull it off.”

“That’s… Odd,” Scarlet responded. “I wonder who he might be, and why he was here today.”

“From what I’ve gathered, I’m fairly certain that he is one of the generals of Elthren, and one of the most important at that. He was probably sent here by Lonele to give you our payment. I saw him give it to you, and from what I’ve learned of him and his habits it is just like him to appear and act so cryptically before disappearing. Don’t worry about it.” Felix looked up to see Levon standing behind Scarlet, blood running down one of his arms from a shallow but painful-looking wound that Crystal had yet to heal.

“They sent a general?” Scarlet asked. “That’s odd; I don’t see why a small group like us would elicit the attention of a general, especially one who wouldn’t even help us out.”

“He might not have been sent by Prince Aeolus. That man is a known mystery, even to the other generals and nobles of Elthren, and frequently travels and fulfills his own whims, only following the prince’s orders when there is no other choice.”

“So he’s basically a general only in title?”

“In times of peace at least, yes, he is only a general in title. From what I’ve heard otherwise, though, when he gets involved in combat he is nearly unstoppable, and he fights alongside his men religiously. But for all intents and purposes, yes, he is usually a general only in title.”

“Sounds like quite the interesting man, but I still hope we don’t have to run into him again, I personally thought he was a jerk,” Inferno said with a smirk on his face. As Felix turned and saw Inferno walking towards him, he couldn’t help but glance up and see Breeze spiraling down from the sky. Sometime before, presumably while he was speaking with the ebon-clad general, the body of the dragon had fallen from the sky some distance away, and now looked crumpled and weakened, especially when compared to its living glory. It’s a relief that dragons that are ridden are considerably weaker than wild dragons, at least from what I’ve heard.

When Breeze had nearly reached the ground, Veruka leaped from her back. There was a flash of bright light, and where a raven had been flying only a moment before, Breeze now stood on the ground, looking completely normal.

The strangest part about her and Raffin’s transformations was the simple fact that their transformations were much larger than their wild counterparts. This was presumably because it would be difficult for a regularly sized bird or dog to participate in a fight, therefore negating any positive effects of having the form. He had also witnessed, primarily with Raffin, that as he got stronger, he continued to grow in his dog form. When he stopped working out so intensely, he stopped getting larger, but did not shrink at all either. The Anilam certainly are interesting, I wish that I had a chance to meet more of them. Maybe with time, Felix thought as he nodded to Breeze.

“Nice flying up there, I was a little worried for a second that you two might have some difficulty with the dragon.”

“Nah,” Breeze said offhandedly. Her brow was shiny with sweat, and a few beads dripped down her face. She quickly wiped it off, appearing slightly disgusted by it. When she saw Felix’s strange glance, her only comment was, “Very unappealing.” Then, she continued on her previous point, “But I almost felt sorry for that brute of a dragon. It never even stood a shadow of a chance with me and Veruka up there.”

“Good point, I guess it was stupid of me to worry for you, then?”

“No, the warm feelings are appreciated, even if they aren’t needed,” Veruka said. “How fared the battle down here? I hope that brute’s corpse was able to take some of those rebels down with it when it fell.” As Felix realized that it was entirely possible that the dragon might have crushed some of their enemies, he cringed; being smashed by such a large beast would be a very unpleasant way to die. Maybe that’s what they deserve for betraying their kingdom, though. He resolved to ignore the thought; he was being paid to do a job like any mercenary, and it was not his place to complain about it.

“So I’m guessing that now we’re done with our job, we can head out, right?” Aragon asked, not even trying to hide the hopeful look that was plastered onto his face. Now that Felix saw his hope, he couldn’t help but wish that they would be leaving soon as well. After all, they had been paid and finished their job, what reason did they have to stay behind?

“We should get you something to do so you’ll stop complaining,” Robin said. “You know that there’s a treasure map hidden in one of the village’s latrines?”

“Hilarious,” Felix commented dryly. “I’m not that dumb.”

“I suppose we probably should head out soon, though,” Scarlet said, cutting off their chatter. “Commander Gaheris is probably done with his first job by now, which means that he and Aelar will be heading out for their second soon. Raffin and Sieker will almost definitely run into us on our way back, or else Raffin will pick up our scent and tell Sieker that they can turn around. Leaving that drunk, Glenn, in control of our base for too long definitely won’t turn out well.”

“Yeah, remember the one time when him and Lucia had to look after the placer a few months back?” Inferno asked. “We came back, and he’d gotten Lucia to share a few drinks with him and-”

“You better shut up now, or I’ll cut your tongue out,” Lucia interrupted, only half-jokingly. Even Inferno had learned that she could occasionally follow through on her threats, and he didn’t want to be one of the unfortunate examples of this. Still, in spite of the fact that Lucia had stopped him from finishing the tale, Felix knew exactly what he was talking about and his memories painted a vivid picture of what they had walked in on.

“Felix, you have the pay you received from Falkyn, right?”

“What?” Felix asked, snapping out of his thoughts and looking at Levon. “That who gave me?”

“Falkyn. He was the general that you encountered back there. You have the money that he paid you, right?”

“Oh, right, yeah, here it is,” Felix said, and he handed the sack of gold over to Levon.

“We have our payment and even if the villagers want to give their thanks to their heroes, I doubt that any of you really need to hear them.”

“I do,” Diran called out.

“That’s just because you hope that some of the village girls will be willing to do things best left unsaid as their form of thanks. No, Diran, we’re not going to wait for you to get rejected by the village’s population of women again.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Robin commented, patting his best friend cheerfully on the back. Diran, in spite of the warm gesture, seemed unsure of whether to take the comments as a joke or as a serious attempt to get at him.

“And as such,” Levon continued as though he had not been interrupted from his initial point. “I believe that we should depart as soon as possible, especially considering Scarlet’s new information that the commander is going to be leaving the base soon.”

Following his declaration, they began what was easily the most tiresome, repulsing, and boring job as a mercenary: gathering the bodies of the fallen for either a mass burial or a mass cremation. Generally, they cremated bandits and buried rebels or other, less wicked men than bandits, though it was very rare that they were forced to fight such enemies.

Hours later, as they slowly dragged their way back into town, covered in dirt and mud from the long process of shoveling dirt and burying the bodies, Felix finally realized what had struck him as odd for the duration of their work. His father had never told him about any other job that they had. Was this job that Scarlet had mentioned something that his father had wanted to keep secret, or was it a simple mistake on his part to tell him about it?

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