Chapter Four: Alliances & the Dogs of War
Dusk had come and darkness had settled in through out the camp like an ebon blanket. Traveling at night was simply too dangerous, even for one’s as skilled as they. Butterfly and The Three had wasted little time in preparing and beginning the long journey to heed Fisherman’s call, knowing that each second wasted meant one less beating heart of resistance, for such was Raul’s rampage. Each hour brought yet another village to ruin. With each new day, more breathless bodies were strewn across the land, marking for all to see the blood soaked trail too easily followed by man and scavenger alike.
Ranger G approached Butterfly with a look of both surprise and confusion. “Master, we have come upon something but we are not sure of its ilk. We would have you examine it and share with us your thoughts.”
“I have told you often young one, I am not your master. I am your teacher and your friend. We live, train, and travel as brothers but none is your master. We walk the same path and share the same wishes, nothing more, nothing less.” Butterfly followed as the other lead the way. Ranger G was a quiet man often lost in thought, pondering the workings and the ways of things. In another life, he could have easily have been a scholar or an artist instead of the wandering warrior he had become but this he accepted as fate’s path for him. As they came upon a shallow gully, partial obscured by brush, a trail of some pitch shaded liquid came into view. It trailed through the brush to end at the disemboweled remains of a creature not yet human but not beast or monster altogether either. It had a man’s box or torso but the legs of something reptilian in nature. It eyes, now glazed and lifeless, still had an eerie vigor to them as if the creature would yet rise to challenge those disturbing his rest. Amber in hue but unwelcoming and defiant even in death. Its head was that of a large wolf or dog with yellow fangs as big as a man’s thumb hanging over the lower jaw. In one of its reptilian claws, it carried a mace like weapon too massive for a normal man to wield but showed the signs of having fought many battles.
Mr Heretik and Hedkikr stood cautiously eying the surrounding hillside as their teacher took in the abomination and all its detail. Was this but chance that they had crossed the path of this creature or was it perhaps more than that? Had it fallen prey to something possibly even viler and if so, was its antagonist still close by? Suddenly, pouring over the ridge, came a force of six score and five men, each armed and armored. Some were mounted with others on foot. All were human in appearance, which was a relief in one regard, but still, being outnumbered and nearly surrounded did not bode well.
Butterfly, shifted his head slightly forward, his eyes darted through their ranks like quicksilver, measuring each man, judging each opponent, assessing each threat. Each of The Three watched their teacher sharply while still being conscious of every movement around them. If the signal was given, each would wade into the fray with measured, relentless fury, using all the skills at their disposal to rend the approaching force asunder yet no signal came. From the ranks of the armored company, one man approached the front who was adorned more richly than the others. His shoulders were a half measure wider than most men and he was thickly muscled. His eyes told of battles won and blood spilled with little remorse or care. He appeared a cold but calculating tactician, bred for engagement and weaned on conflict. “Where do you journey and what business do you have with the Canisite?” The large armored man pointed deftly at the creature in the brush, seemingly losing patience as if the answer should have been given without the question needing to be asked.
Mr Heretik, as if the question were not worthy for his teacher to answer, offered the reply. “If you refer to yon creature thing, its business was concluded long before we came upon it. We thought you its brethren come to claim the carrion before the jackals and vultures made short work of it. Ne’er had any of my companions nor I ever seen such a thing or its like before. Canisite you called it. How is it that you know much of a thing whose mere existence is not known to those who frequent these regions?”
“Do not over step your bounds youngling. I ask the questions here. You seem to be fighting men but I fear I have the advantage and you would do well to remember that. You seemed no great threat being a group of but four men with little by way of armor or weapons, so I have allowed you to live long enough to at least attempt to offer answers to what brings you hither and in such questionable company, but do not push my patience. I am a reasonable man but not long suffering to have my inquiries ignored or questioned.” The armored man dismounted and began toward Butterfly. The others in Butterfly’s party moved slowly closer to their teacher and friend, ready to engage the enemy if needs be. Butterfly moved them aside and stepped forward guardedly, but with no visible signs of concern.
“I am called Butterfly, Captain, and I take it you and your men have fought these Canisites on more than one occasion.”
“Aye, and when we happened upon a regimen of the beasts a few leagues off, we slew all but this one and gave chase once we regrouped, hoping it would lead us to its camp. 1000 were we in number before the beasts fell upon us like locusts on the wind. Though our number was vastly greater, we barely managed to overcome the Razzwell-spawn. You have seen the evidence of their ferocity and strength, even if it be in the stillness of death. Their strength is like that of 10 men and even if you separate them from their weapon, tooth and fang, claw and nail would still rend limb from limb faster than an infantryman’s sword. By finding their camp, we had hoped to fall back, gain reinforcements, and crash upon them like the tide before they could have a hope to gather their wits or their weapons. That plan died with this…thing. I am Captain Ceralius Xavier Tyranus. As any would say that is far too much for even a learned man to spew out time and again, my men and my colleagues call me simply Captain or CXT. You may do likewise as I can sense neither evil nor treachery from you or your men.”
That being said, each nodded in turn and returned to their parties. CXT, looking back from his large black Silatian steed, lifted the mask of his plumed bronzed helm and declared, “My plan remains the same friend. I shall track these beasts as best I can, find their camp, secure a new force, and destroy their kind before they can do the likewise to my company. If it be to your liking, you and your men are welcome to join us. Your chances be far better traveling with us than alone and you have the look of men who have seen battle before. Would you not agree given the state of things that this be the most prudent course for each to follow?”
Butterfly paused a moment, looked to his men, and replied sullenly. “It would appear the best course of action for all. We have little desire to be fallen upon in the night be a legion of these Canisite. With your knowledge of their skills and tactics, your greater numbers, and your familiarity with this part of the region, it seems as good a plan as any. Yes Captain, we will join you for a spell.” Each of The Three looked to their teacher and each had a different potent expression. Ranger G’s was that of dedicated agreement with his teacher, as was always his nature. Respect, admiration, and loyalty were always his way. Mr Heretik’s was that of concern and caution but no less loyal to his teacher was he. And Hedkikr, as always, questioned the wisdom of everything and his faced showed no less. He did not trust these men regardless of their offer, their lack of aggression towards his party, or the shared mission for the mutual good of all. Something simply did not feel proper and he would not feel at ease until he knew why, yet his teacher had accepted so he could do no less for the moment. He would pray his feelings were amiss and protect his teacher should the need arise. For all Butterfly had been and done for each of them, for all of them, he could do no less.
Victor Smith awoke soaked in sweat and instinctively clutching his sword, holding it in such a manner as to behead any would be attacker in range but none loomed. Again it was the dream. Again it was as if he lived through another’s eyes and walked another’s path. As quickly as the dream had come, the images now began to fade. He remembered scattered bits and pieces but what had once been as vivid as a picture he had painted with brush in hand was now dust scattered to the wind, barely leaving a trace.
He recalled an image of a village set ablaze and a sword at full apex, ready to crash down. Then, the flight of an arrow, a phoenix rising from the ash, and then all else faded. What could it mean? He could ponder no longer. His retainers had arrived with full envoy. A group of four scholars, with attendants, and two serving girls awaited a few strides outside Victor’s chambers. None were allowed any closer and to attempt meant death by the Aesirian Blood Guard who watched over their king at every moment. The guard was made up of all manner of fighting men and women and only Victor knew all members. At any time could you be standing beside one and never deduce their true nature. All were trained warriors, loyal to king and country, and ready to die at a moments notice for either. Should any be fool hardy enough to make an attempt on Victor’s life, they would drown in their own blood before that thought could be made reality, possibly by the serving girl, scholar, or even cleaning slave close to them. The Blood Guard had a fierce reputation and none dared present themselves too openly as a target by outward disdain of the king or by even the slightest rumor of disloyalty.
Of all the Blood Guard, four names were feared more than others. No one knew the visages accompanying these names, just the depths of legend and blood that accompanied the talk of their deeds.
Bossman, leader of the Blood Guard and master in the ways of stealth, assassination, weapons, and tactics. Wristtwister, master of joint locks, bone breaking skills, and the ways of pain. It was said he could shatter every bone in a man’s body in less time than it took for a man to beg for mercy. Next was Still Wadowoman, the “Angel of Death”, as she had come to be known. Thrice had she been killed, thrice did she rise and appear again to rend limb from limb her would be killers no matter how many there had been. The “Still” of her name had come to represent her apparent immortality when faced with death. Of the four, it was said hers was the most macabre of tales. Some swore she was part demon while others still, because of her rumored beauty and unassuming manner, swore she was part guardian angel sent from the gods themselves to protect their king. Which ever the case, none wished to ever cross swords or even paths with her, whoever or whatever she was. And lastly, Dullblade 42, the only member of the Blood Guard not to guard his identity. He stood beside his king at all times of ceremony, on all public occasions, and at anytime his king would openly be exposed to possible threats. Dullblade 42 stood nearly two horses high with fierce black eyes. Named for the blade he constantly wore at his back. So massive was this blade, that a normal man would have trouble merely lifting it from it sheathe let alone be able to wield it effectively in battle. Its edge had long lost its razor-like keenness but this did not stop him from separating the heads of would be assassins from their shoulders. He used it as much as a bludgeoning weapon as he did a cleaver, rending a man in twain or smashing him to a bloody paste. His eyes were coal black and his mane, which ran half the distance of his back, matched. He was densely muscled but agile as a mountain cat. Never showing any signs of fear, or any other emotion for that matter. He simply stood motionless next to his king, moving only barely enough to be assured he was a man and not some stone carving set in place as tribute to their king.
Victor took a moment to gather himself. He sheathed his sword and rose from his bed of goose-down and silk. He had still not become accustomed to such lavish surroundings even after years of reign. His was the way and manner of a mercenary and warrior born. His rise to power had seen him adjust to many things but this was still the most trying. To someone raised on the battlefield, dirt for a bed and a rock or saddle for a pillow was all that was needed. He somehow felt these surroundings made him soft. He praised his Blood Guard for their efforts but in the same secretly, it displeased him to have guardians. He was a warrior, was he not? True, but he was now also a king, a king with more lives to think about than his own. The guard was needed in these troubled times and they did their job well.
After a short but brisk bath, he wrapped himself in his customary light scale armor, strapped on his short curved tulwar, and proceeded into the main passage. Dullblade 42 joined in at his side, nodded to his king, and the motley procession moved down the hallway to the sounds of clanking armor, discussions of this and that, and the unnoticed whisper of a panel being softly slid back into place from above.
"The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be."