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Chapter Three: Tristan's Trial

The trek was a long one. Haikur lead the group far out into the wilderness, the walls of Bywater vanishing far behind them as they wandered almost aimlessly through a snowy wasteland dotted with trees here and again. Cindred very soon lost track of where they were, and Sliver, too, was becoming more and more edgy as the journey wore on.

"These farms, wherever they are, are already too far south to be much of a concern to Bywater and King Stephens," she muttered to no one in particular. "Why even bother with all of this?"

"Because," Haikur replied, hearing her, "if the creatures think they can get away with such matters, it will only embolden them to strike out for greater prey. Bywater could easily fall victim as well, and we cannot allow that. Times are too troublesome as it is."

"How do you mean?" Cindred asked curiously.

Haikur fixed him with a stern glare from beneath his helmet, the shadows cast by the cold metal making the expression all the more harsh. "It concerns not the likes of you, beast," he said plainly. "For all we know, you could be a part of our problems. It's not often that creatures of the Abyss…grace our presence."

"Cindred has bothered no one, good sir," Tristan spoke up from in front of them. When all the attention became centered on him, however, he visibly faltered. "He's…he's always kept to himself."

"As far as you know," Haikur stated. "And how long have you known him?"

Cindred and Sliver both rolled their eyes and shook their heads. The boy's argument could only end in tears. Of laughter or shame was yet to be decided upon.

"A good while," said Tristan bravely, quite to the surprise of all gathered, including himself. "Years, in fact. Solestri and I found him shortly after he'd apparently come through from the Abyss. The holy symbols wouldn't turn him. He's as pure as any of us gathered here this day--if not more so!"

The dwarf gaped at his ward for a short while before clearing his throat and regaining his senses. "The captain doesn't need to know all of the details, lad." His voice was solid even as he attempted to move right along with Tristan's ploy. Cindred didn't know why. There was really no reason at all for the pair to be lying for them, but they were. Was it just to remain on as good of terms with Haikur as possible? The man, quite obviously, wasn't the most amiable of people, but Cindred highly doubted that he'd be running into him very often after this just as before.

"You've peaked my curiosity, actually," Haikur said honestly. "Why the likes of you would tramp about with the likes of him is, indeed, a great enigma…given the fact that his companion is a murderer of the lowest ilk."

Cindred noticed Sliver tense up at that remark, and if she could go any more pale than she already was, she probably would have done that, too.

When this is all over, he felt her say into his head, I'll have his blood and you have his bones.

I doubt that'll get you much further in your unlife, Sliver, he responded tonelessly in the same fashion.

It would sure as hell make me feel better, though…and I highly doubt he'll be missed. Not even by the king, I'll wager.

That's not for you to decide.

Shut up.

Fine.

I mean it.

Cindred snorted. Not talking to Sliver by any means for a while never was too much of a problem for him as close friends as they were.

It wasn't long after that that the ambush came.

Goblins, the feisty, foul little creatures armed with bows, short swords and flails and covered in rotting leather breastplates and rusting chainmail, seemed to spring out of the very cracks of the earth itself, quickly surrounding the party with a wall of gibbering voices and vicious steel. Once the shock wore off, everyone quickly prepared to defend themselves, Cindred pulling his axe from his belt and reflexively testing its balance, as usual, by giving a twirl of the wrist. Sliver drew forth a slender dagger from within her robes, clutching it in her gloved hand and crouching slightly as if ready to pounce on the first goblin that came her way. Tristan had his broadsword at the ready just as Solestri was prepared with his spiked mace. Midnight's hands were already busy weaving patterns in the air even as Wyrmwood notched his first jagged-tipped arrow.

"Keep them busy!" Midnight shouted the moment the goblins started closing in, the Bywater watchmen already cleaving them with swords and axes.

There had to have been scores of them, Cindred analyzed as he ran forward, axe swinging while his empty hand slashed just as easily through leather and flesh. Tristan and Solestri took positions at his flanks as he plowed through the mass of creatures that hardly came to his waist. Giving his axe a swing from above his left shoulder straight down to his right, he struck a goblin hard enough to not only split his skull from temple to jaw but to send him reeling backward, toppling several of his companions with the force of his landing. The demon was upon them in moments, pouncing with a mighty roar as he hacked at them like an enraged butcher.

Off to his left, Tristan fought valiantly with his blade, though it was obviously too big for him to wield properly. The goblins he struck were usually left merely wounded, but that didn't mean that the boy wasn't improving in his art. In fact, as Cindred finally rose from where he'd been busy with his pile of goblins, his forearms dripping with their foul brownish blood, he noted that Tristan actually seemed to have a form of strategy about his attacks…unlike with the rats just the other night.

He also saw Haikur and some of the other guards just a bit further beyond, using their positions on horses as much to their advantage as possible, but the numerous goblins seemed to still have the upper hand. Midnight was looking frantic, weaving whatever spell she was working at faster and faster as Sliver and Wyrmwood fended off all goblins that tried to get anywhere close to the sorceress. A glowing orange orb began to take form above the head of the lattermost, casting even deeper shadows over her hooded, dark-skinned face.

Cindred turned back to the task at hand, mercilessly felling any goblin that came within reach of his axe or claws, letting out a mighty roar that shook the very hearts of the cowardly to the core. Several goblins ran in screaming terror but hardly more than a handful.

Suddenly, as he was about to strike out at a heavily armed goblin captain, Cindred felt an excruciating pain shoot from his right shoulder down his arm and back. Grunting more out of shock than anything, his attack missed and his axe dropped from his grasp, the chosen foe taking advantage of his sudden appearance of helplessness and got in a glancing blow or two from his whip-like flail. Cindred clumsily batted him aside with his left arm before groping with it along the shoulder that was injured, seeking the source. He pulled free a vicious-looking arrow and only glanced at it briefly before snapping it in half in his hand and tossing the remains to the side.

"Archers!" Solestri cried out as an entire volley of the missiles came raining down upon them from the outer skirts of the battle. Many hit their marks within the grouped guards of Bywater, felling some and merely wounding others, while most simply, harmlessly, buried themselves deep in the snow.

Cindred howled as two punctured his left thigh.

"Cindred!" he heard Sliver scream out at the sound he made, obviously trying to get to him but unable to escape the wall of goblins about her, Midnight and Wyrmwood.

Midnight, herself, let out a shriek, but not from pain. The ball of light above her head had grown to about five feet in diameter and now exploded, spikes of fire and energy shooting out in all directions. Not a single goblin was missed with that spell, and only a handful remained alive once the barrage came to a smoky end. They, however, were too charred to fight on and either died of pain after a few moments or were cut down by the blades of Tristan and the town watch.

Once all the enemy was assuredly destroyed, Haikur took a count of their own losses.

"We've been victorious this day," he said, walking over to where Solestri and Sliver were tending to Cindred's wounds as well as their own as the rest of the guards looted the dead. "And we have the lot of you to thank, I must say." The smile he gave was tired but obviously well meant. Cindred and Sliver, though both surprised, gave small nods and smiles in return. The man had fought just as hard as the rest of them, his red cloak sullied and torn and his helmet lost somewhere with his rather handsome face bruised and scraped. His deep brown hair blew, tangled, on the cold winter wind.

"My apologies for my unfairness," he then said to Cindred, particularly. "We of the Material Plane have stereotypes for such matters as yourself, noble demon."

"Understood and forgiven," Cindred replied through clenched teeth as he winced. Solestri was pouring some unknown salve onto his leg wounds and chanting a healing spell at the same time. The burning sensation was almost more painful than the punctures themselves. "Though it's nothing I'm not already used to."

Haikur let out a low chuckle and nodded. "Indeed…indeed."

"Captain!"

Everyone looked up at the shout, Haikur turning where he stood, his right hand poised over the hilt of the great sword belted at his waist.

"Lieutenant Ganthor," he replied, relaxing as he saw the green cloaked soldier dashing over, snow billowing up in his wake. "What is the tally?"

"My captain," the other man said shakily, bowing hastily and glancing warily at those gathered about Cindred, his eyes resting on the demon himself after a moment or two. "Sir, all the men say we've been cursed, sir."

Haikur's eyebrows rose in slight disbelief. "What was that?"

"The mercenaries, sir," Ganthor went on, his voice quivering all the more as he felt Cindred's green eyes solidly on him, unblinking. "We've lost more than half the watch while they all still live! They've cursed us!"

The captain shook his head. "They've fought just as valiantly for our cause! Loyally! And they've had just as hard a time about it as we." He motioned to Cindred's gashes in particular.

"But they still live, sir, and once that demon is back to strength, he'll go after us as well! The others are sure of it! Once they've tasted the frenzy of battle, such creatures never relent until they are the sole survivor." The man's voice lowered. "The men will mutiny if you bring him back with us."

Haikur sighed and shook his head sadly, Cindred's ears flattening at the sight. He knew what the captain's decision would be, be it out of necessity or otherwise. He, at least, would be left behind and, more than likely, banished from Bywater forever…unjustly. The captain soon looked up at the six mercenaries with a look in his eyes that proved he had reached a conclusion.

"The demon must stay here," he said. "The rest of you are free to return with us, but it will be forever impossible to maintain order within the city watch if Cindred, too, comes along."

Tristan took a bold step forward, his simple, dented helm beneath his one arm. "Then none of us go back," he said flatly, the others making no move to disagree, least of all Sliver who was bent over her only friend, her hand firmly resting on his good shoulder while she glared daggers at the lieutenant. "We will never abandon any that we consider friend and ally--be it demon or otherwise. Cindred has proved himself worthy to us yet again, and we shall not simply ignore him because of petty superstition. Return to your city with the watch, captain, so that they may go about and proclaim this victory to all and claim it for themselves if that is their desire. We'll be fine on our own."

The lieutenant's face turned a bright scarlet, and he scuttled off several yards away where the other surviving guards were waiting for their captain, poised on their horses with a stiffness that more than hinted at their readiness to leave.

Haikur took a few steps forward, a smile coming to his face, and he reached out with his hand to grasp firmly onto Tristan's right shoulder.

"Well said, lad," he said quietly so that only the companions and not his men could hear. "If my rank is raised high enough in the near future, I'll make certain that you are all well rewarded." He reached to his belt and pulled forth a folded sheet of parchment and handed it to the young man. "Give that to the magistrate of Bywater if you somehow manage to get back into the walls."

With that, he gave Tristan's shoulder one last brotherly squeeze, Cindred a well meant friendly smile, bowed to the rest and turned and strode back to his chestnut stallion. He mounted in a fluid motion and kicked the horse into motion, leading his superstitious battalion off without a single glance behind.