Happy good friday! I hope you all enjoyed your day off, if you got it, and have a great Easter. Eggs and all that.
8-9 Some Knights to Remember
Sitting in the dark woods, Champ was once again regretful that he didn’t smoke. He was decent at flaming, but no good at smoking. He knew the habit would be terrible for a profession that was about 60% cardio, that’s a lot of why he never picked it up. The one thing he did admire was how it always gave you something to do. Something to focus on when you had to hurry up and wait. Plus, he imagined that breathing in smoke would do a certain amount to warm you up on cold winter nights.
Running those thoughts through his head again, he nodded at himself. He was impressed by how roundabout he could be in complaining that he was bored and cold.
Growing bored of complaining about his boredom to himself, Champ turned towards Knot. Ever the stoic, the man was comfortable in silence. Too comfortable. Even now, he was simply staring into the flickering lights of the village, saying and doing nothing.
Champ frowned at his comrade in displeasure. Their only role here, after sneaking between patrols and cutting up the fence, was to move if something went wrong. Well, by this point, nothing could go wrong. The evacuation had already started and any more hands there would only be in the way. They had literally nothing to do here. They were even too far away from the main action to marvel at the chaos. It all looked like blobs screaming at or jumping on other blobs. Hardly titillating.
Filled with that unique exasperation of doing nothing, Champ pursed his lips and cast out for any random topic of interest. Noticing the greying fringes of Knot’s hair, he caught one. “You’re old, have you ever thought of retiring?”
Turning a sidelong glance towards Champ, Knot narrowed his eyes and asked, “Retiring to what?”
“I was more focusing on what you’d be retiring from,” Champ answered without much thought. “Like, not having to freeze your ass off in a dark forest all night.”
“And what would I do?” Knot repeated with a frown. “Not much point in living for the sake of living.”
“Isn’t that for you to figure out?” Champ asked back, screwing up his face as he tried to find things that sounded retirement-esque. “You could… eat dinner at 4:30 every day and… crochet.”
“I think I’ll stick with the forest, if it’s all the same to you,” Knot responded, summarily executing the conversation. At least that was how it seemed, until he gave Champ a contemplative look and asked his own question. “What about you? If your situation was dealt with, what would you do?”
Champ tried not to visibly wince at the words and almost succeeded. As the wave of remembered frustration and bitterness passed, he turned his eyes towards the village and tried to imagine that future. After a few seconds, he concluded that he couldn’t.
“It’s not like I could do much else at this point,” Champ shot back a safe answer with a shrug. “Even if I was free from everything, I’d still have to eat.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Knot immediately shut down his excuse. “You’re not like me, or Cauliflower, or Edge. You weren’t born into this, you’re not broken, and you aren’t locked into this life. I’ve seen you networking and you have your connections. If you didn’t need to get rich quick, you could make a living some other way.”
Hearing that, Champ turned his view to his own feet. He couldn’t think about being done. Out of debt. He just couldn’t imagine being anywhere but the malaise he was in now. However, even if he did get out, he didn’t think he could just leave. ‘Thanks for saving me, now that you have, bye.’ It wasn’t exactly the peak of gratitude.
“It doesn’t matter. That future is too far away,” Champ finally dismissed with a shake of his head.
“It’ll come someday,” Knot declared, his words carrying the obnoxiously heavy weight of one who had been through everything at least once. “Better not to wait until that day before you consider it.”
Champ frowned and turned his attention into the woods. He didn’t want to think about the future. He couldn’t imagine there’d be much good waiting for him there. As he brooded about that by himself, he noticed something. Some movement in the darkness.
He craned his neck and took a few steps forward as he tried to get a better view. Finally, he caught that movement again. A flash of reflected moonlight and a flutter in the darkness. Recognizing only that sent a shiver down Champ’s spine.
Grabbing hold of Knot’s shirt, he rushed behind some nearby trees as he hissed, “Hide!”
“What is it?” Knot asked, shaking free from Champ’s grip, but still obediently slipping behind a tree.
“I don’t know, but it looks like people,” Champ answered, trying to see more of whatever that was.
After a few fruitless seconds, his eyes naturally wandered over to Knot. Then they stopped. For a few seconds, he didn’t blink. He simply stared at the broad man’s shoulders, each of which obstinately stood out from the tree he was hiding behind. If you were looking from the front, it would probably look like the tree had grown two, muscular arms.
“Get- get on the ground,” Champ hissed, reaching out to push his comrade down.
Knot gave a grunt of protest, but he still obediently lowered himself until he was laying, face down, in the dirt. Looking down at that, Champ figured it was the best they could do. Knot’s body wasn’t made for hiding. Quite the opposite, actually.
Turning away from Knot, Champ again looked into the darkened forest. In the time that he’d spent punishing his comrade for being born with such an absurd body, the unknown men must’ve been moving closer. He could make out a few of their figures now, intermittently visible between the trees.
It was only silhouettes, but it was much clearer than before. As he watched them move, he could tell that it was more than a couple. At least twenty, maybe thirty men. They were moving in concert and Champ could tell they were trained.
As the men drew ever closer, the options of their identity narrowed down to one. Their methodical movements, the crisp, grey uniforms. Champ could recognize that even from yards away in a shadowy forest.
Champ looked over at Knot to consult with him. Then he looked down as he remembered their previous ‘conversation.’ Champ hesitated for a second, then he found a suitably placed bush and knelt behind it to come closer to Knot’s head.
As he did, he found a pair of, understandably sour, dirt covered cheeks looking back at him. Ignoring the look of smoldering distaste, Champ bent forward and whispered, “It’s the knights. They have to be from the camp. What do we do?”
“How do they look?” Knot asked back, his face losing its residual frustration and immediately growing sharp. “What are they here for?”
“I can’t tell, but they’re coming closer. Marching slow and steady, probably be at the village before long,” Champ reported things as he’d seen it. He wasn’t all that familiar with any specifics of any knight order, so he couldn’t give more than that, however.
As he tossed over the information in his mind, Knot frowned. “If they wanted to subjugate the village, they should do it during the day. They have the numbers for it and it’d decrease the chance of anyone escaping to report back to Aurorias.”
“We’re not going to be able to figure it out,” Champ observed silently. “We should try to regroup with the others.”
Knot gave him a small nod and added, “Cauliflower’s with the kid. She’ll keep him out of trouble. We need to head into the village and warn the Captain’s group.”
Champ gave his own nod, then turned his attention to the village in question. More specifically, to the shoddy fence that marked its border. They still had the bolt cutters, but making a hole big enough for them to pass would take too long. They’d be out in the open while they made it, too.
Looking back at the knight’s group, Champ saw that they were circling around, probably towards the village gate. That gave them a little cover. If they were lucky, they could make it over without being noticed. He looked down at Knot, who returned his gaze.
Simply looking into each other’s eyes, they had a whole conversation in the span of seconds. Then, Knot bend his limbs to move into a crouched position, ready to spring forward. Champ gave one last look towards the knights and found no eyes glancing back at him. Then he nodded and they both took off in a sprint.
They immediately left the tree line and in seconds, they’d crossed the open field to the village’s fence. Arriving at the web of wiring, Champ came to a full stop and hesitated. The electricity had probably been turned off when the Captain entered, but it wasn’t certain it was left off.
“I can check it,” Knot declared with a gruff and resolute voice as he took a step forward.
Champ instinctually held out an hand to stop the man. “I’m younger. I should be the one to check.”
“I’m not that fragile,” Knot complained with a deep frown. “My heart won’t give out from just a little shock.”
“You call a deterrence made to stop three hundred pound beasts a little shock?” Champ asked raising his eyebrows critically. “Just promise you’ll tackle me if I start to sizzle.”
“And here I thought you’d relish the chance to get a little hotter,” Knot responded with a wry smile as he stepped back and lowered his center of gravity, ready to smash Champ into the ground.
For a second, Champ was taken aback by the rare joke, then he gave his own smile and responded, “If I was out of everyone’s league, what would I do on a Friday night?”
Turning back to face the wire fence, Champ gritted his teeth and failed to keep every muscle in his body from tensing up. He’d never grabbed a live wire before, but he could imagine that it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Taking a deep breath, he reached out one hand and let his fingers brush against the gnarled surface of the aged wire. The second he made contact, he retracted his fingers and waited for the pain. None came and he tried again, for a little onger this time. Once again free from the feeling of his heart being exploded from the inside, he confidently grabbed the fence with both hands and started to climb.
In a few seconds, both Knot and Champ and hurled themselves over the fence and landed safely on the other side… mostly safely. After realizing that he wasn’t going to have his eyeballs boiled, Champ might’ve gotten a bit over-eager. He was still trying to claw the taste of dirt from his mouth as the pair moved towards the village.
They ignored most of the lizards they saw as they rushed onward. The lizards, for the most part, returned the favor. They were obviously starting to calm down now. They’d weren’t stampeding anymore so much as they were mulling about aimlessly and they were starting to remember their place on the food chain. The bottom.
Pushing into the center of the village, they found a broad road, or more aptly put, the only road, and followed it. At its end, they found an open air garage with a large truck a few people looking anxious outside it. As the pair of unfamiliar men drew near, the villagers grew visibly defensive, but Edge and Lotus stepped forward from behind the truck and stopped the hostility.
Jogging forward, Edge narrowed his eyes in mild criticism as he asked, “What’s going on? I thought you were supposed to wait outside.”
“Except for emergencies, right?” Champ asked, exasperated. “Well, there’s an emergency.”
“If that’s the case, then just answer his first question,” Lotus responded coldly. As always, she kept herself expressionless, but she couldn’t keep her hand from moving to the rifle on her back at he word, ‘emergency.’
“The knights are coming,” Knot declared flatly, cutting through the mild tension.
“Knights?” Edge asked, turning a dumbfounded look towards Knot. “Like, San Ranto Knights.”
“We couldn’t confirm, but I would assume,” Champ responded with a shrug.
“Damn,” Edge hissed under his breath. “The ranger must’ve sold us out.”
“How long do we have?” Lotus asked, ignoring Edge’s indignant fury.
“Like, no time at all,” Champ answered, looking over his shoulder to confirm that the enemy wasn’t already upon them. “They’ll be here anytime.”
“We need to get the people out, then,” Edge declared, already turning around to head back towards the anxious villagers surrounding the truck.
“What about the Captain, where is he?” Champ asked as he moved to follow.
“He went to check for stragglers,” Lotus answered quickly, keeping pace. “We can find him after. First we have to get the villagers out of here. Then we can figure something out.”
As Edge drew close to the truck, he called out, “Get in, you have to leave now!”
“What about your leader?” one of the anxious men around the truck asked back immediately. “He was doing the last check, right? We can’t leave anyone behind.”
“He’s already done,” Edge lied easily. “He just sent message that it was clear. More monsers have been attracted by the sounds of fighting. You need to get out before they arrive.”
The last pseudo-truth sent a shudder of renewed worry through the gathered people and after a few hurried whispers amongst themselves, they boarded the truck. After the engine roared to life, they tore out of the village.
After watching the last of the villagers leave, Edge turned to his companions and ordered, “Let’s find the Captain and get out of here. As long as they don’t see us, we should be fine.”
“Depends on your definition of fine,” Champ observed bitterly. If the ranger really did sell them out, they’d have a damn time getting anywhere.
“It’s the best we’ve got,” Edge declared, already turning away from them and moving towards the center of the village.
Champ and the others naturally followed him and soon found themselves standing between a series of homes that could barely escape the word ‘shacks.’ Looking between them, they scanned for signs of a human silhouette and found none. Without enough time to waver, they split up and searched through the available huts.
Champ, for his part, ran in and out of the small houses, barely taking the time to be disappointed in their destitute interior before moving on. In his brief inspections, he found a few small raptors hiding in corners. One almost have him a heart attack by hiding in a cabinet. Thankfully, it only hissed and flailed its claws through the air and didn’t seem keen on jumping down to pick a fight. Champ wasn’t keen on going in after it, so they left each other alone.
After the fifth hut of nothing, Champ exited to the open air and regrouped with the rest of his comrades. Their expressions didn’t leave him any room for optimism about their results.
“Where the hell is he?” Champ asked no one in particular as he reached them.
“Only one place left to check,” Knot observed turning towards the large stronghold at the center of the village.
It was barely visible in the darkness of the night, but now that Champ looked closely, the door seemed to be standing open.
Noticing that, they hurried towards the stronghold. Before they made it half the distance, gunshots began sounding from the front of the village. The knights had arrived and made contact with the grupisanths. Without a word passing between them, all four broke into a run.
Passing through the open door, they didn’t slow their pace at all as they moved into the cramped hallways that formed the stronghold’s choke points. As he ran a tingling spread across Champ’s spine. He couldn’t shake off the knowledge that he was willingly rushing into a dead end.
Drawing close to the end of the series of halls, they could hear a faint conversation. More aptly put, they could hear the traces of a conversation. The muffled echoes of two men’s voices. Recognizing the cadence of their Captain mixed in there, they put in another burst of speed and came to the end of the last hallway.
There, they found an unexpected tableau. Their Captain was being held at the end of an ancient gun by an old man whose wrinkles could almost make one mistake him for a dying tree.
The elder and the Captain both ceased staring at each other and turned to face the team that came barreling down the hallway. Once they arrived, the Captain wasted no time in asking, “What’s happening outside? What about the other villagers?”
“We don’t know why, but the knights are here,” Edge answered hurriedly. “The villagers have already left and we need to do the same.” As he finished, the turned his eyes to the elder and the few people huddling in the room beyond, then he frowned.
Cham could echo that sentiment. Sneaking through the woods away from the knights was dubious enough a strategy without carrying the extra baggage with them. There was no way the Captain would accept leaving them behind, though. Even if they ignored his orders and carried him off, the elder would give them up in a heartbeat. Then they’d lose all their plausible deniability in the villages evacuation. Either way, it wasn’t looking good.
“Knights?” the creaking voice of the elder broke into the conversation before the Captain could respond. “What knights? Who are you working for, really?”
“We don’t have the time for this,” Champ complained looking back at the gunshots that were growing ever closer. “We need to move.”
“You’ll tell me what’s going on,” the elder declared shifting the aim of his old, but clearly maintained, rifle towards Champ. “Until then, no one is leaving.”
As the old man’s words sunk in, the atmosphere grew tense in an instant. As the barrel of the gun crossed his path, Champ could feel a line of painful queasiness pass through his core. That only lasted a second, however and his attention was quickly recaptured by the sounds of the knights growing closer.
Knot must’ve felt the same. He took one step forward in front of Champ. Then his hands moved like the flash of lightning. His left palm grabbed the rifle and pushed its aim towards the wall, while his right thrust forward and clocked the old man right in the face.
Seeing the elder collapse like a broken doll, Champ couldn’t help wincing. In spite of the fact that the man was in the process of threatening his death, watching an old man get assaulted was hard to stomach.
Knot, for his part, showed only a stoic expression. Holding fast to the rifle with his left hand,he reached out his free arm to catch the elder before he could hit the ground. Then he turned to the cowering villagers further in the compound and declared, “You will be coming with us.”
They gave a collected shudder to Knot’s heavy words, but they showed no signs of resistance. The increasingly anxious team turned to leave through the path they’d followed and the Captain hung back to gently usher the frightened villagers along.
They rushed to the compound’s exit, but they didn’t run. They couldn’t and have any confidence that the civilians would keep up. Especially with children amongst their number.
As they moved, Champ tried to picture their options. Once they exited the stronghold, they could loop around to the back. Use the building as cover as they pushed the villagers over the fence. Once they were in the forest, they would at least have freedom of movement, but he had no idea what they’d do with the villagers. It wasn’t like they could hide them in their tents. Things were cramped enough as they were after that damn insect destroyed his.
Dozens of thoughts swirling through his head, Champ pushed open the door that led to the stronghold’s entry. Then he stopped, frozen, in his tracks. For a second, he couldn’t process what his eyes were seeing, then a cold chill ran down his spine as he recognized what was standing before him.
It was a young man, with short black hair. Overall, he was relatively non-descript In fact, the only thing that stood out about him was how little his body differed from the average man. The reason why that was something worthy of note, was the crisp, grey uniform. That of a knight.
Looking over Champ, the slender knight’s eyes narrowed and he took a step back, reaffirming his grip on his rifle as he asked, “Mercenaries? What would you be doing here? In an Aurorian village.”
Looking behind the unimpressive youth, Champ found over a dozen men who left much more of an impression. Not mentioning their increasingly sour expressions, their astounding physiques would make it hard to blend in anywhere.
As the whole world seemed to freeze over and the knights didn’t hide the preparation of their weapons, a thought shot through Champ’s mind. It was stupid and crazy, but his body moved before his mind could tell it that.
Taking a bold step forward, Champ stared down the slender youth and demanded, “What are you doing here!? Didn’t you receive the commander’s orders? About the special request. You’re going to ruin the whole operation!”
In the face of Champ’s outburst, the eyes of the slender knight narrowed further and a wave of uncertainty ran through the knights behind him.
Champ, realizing the path he’d just started down, felt a cold sweat develop over his whole body. At least they seemed to be taking the bait. For now.