Well crap. It's been over a year since I updated this story. I got a little side tracked with my other Darksider's story, Nightfall, a while back but I've been having next to no free time or motivation to write. Either way, I'm finally glad to have scrounged up a few days to write. I really do wish I had more free time without constant interruptions to get anything done… but alas, guess that would be a bit too much of a dream.
Can't promise when the next update will be up. Life has been throwing me way too many curveballs this last year.
Anyway, I hope those of you reading this will enjoy this chapter. It's actually a bit longer than the others so far.
Disclaimer: I don't own Darksiders nor Tales of Symphonia.
The Lost Horsemen. Chapter 5.
Originally, it hadn't quite dawned on Lloyd had being one of the Four Horseman would have required actual horseback riding. After finding Ruin, the feeling had changed into more of a 'Good gods. I really have to do this, don't I?' Noishe had never harmed Lloyd, much less even attempted to buck him in any way whatsoever. Ruin was a very different story altogether. In their brief hour since they met, the young swordsman would swear that the horse was a bigger spitfire than his old teacher Raine if someone dissed history in her presence, and had a shorter fuse than… well, Lloyd himself on any given day. All things considered, learning to ride horseback with Ruin was like learning swordsmanship with live steel right from the get-go.
Yup… the kid gloves were definitely off.
Of course, among the many things Lloyd could envision in his not so distant future, finding himself perched on top of a horse far too big to his liking and sitting in an equally too large saddle was not one of them.
"Um… how tall were you again?" Lloyd could not help but squirm in his spot on top of Ruin's back.
"About half again taller than you are I'd say." War guessed seeing the boy helplessly try to get situated.
The boy visibly went pale after doing some guesswork on how much War would have towered over him. If anything it did make the boy look more like a child on top of a horse than a nearly grown man. But then again, War had not been human. He was Nephilim.
Out of one fuzzy memory War could recall a glimpse of Earth, the original human homeworld, where he could see many frightened humans running off in panic. They must have been reached no taller than his waist. Not to mention, after sifting through some of Lloyd's memories, he knew that the boy was scrawny, but definitely not short as far as humans went.
Apparently, even Ruin was surprised by the difference. The horse had twisted his head to look at Lloyd, eyes blinking and ears twitching as if trying to make sure if someone was actually on his back or not. Likewise, the boy sheepishly rubbed the back of his head at the odd situation.
Granted, War was no expert on all things horses and riding gear, but he was certain that unless they came up with something, Lloyd would be hard pressed remain seated even at low speeds as he was, feet nervously dangling almost a foot above the stirrups and constantly slipping off either side of the saddle.
"I was not expecting the differences to be that pronounced." The Nephilim confessed.
Lloyd fidgeted under the both sets of eyes. There wasn't much he could do about being too small for the warhorse. Without a horse, he wasn't going to be much of a Rider. What was he to do? Find another horse? And somehow fully bond and train said horse for full out war, all the while having Cruxis breathing down on their necks? Magically grow three feet taller and gain a hundred pounds of pure muscle overnight? Yeah, nope.
"As much as I hate to admit it, all of those options are off the table Lloyd." War stated. "One because no mortal steed would be on par with Ruin—" said steed loudly snorted at that, earning a slight smirk from the elder Rider "—and no, we don't have time or the means to get you another horse and train it. That last one isn't happening at all."
The younger Rider grumbled, crossing his arms. "Yeah, yeah. I know. 'Dreams and wishes don't wash the dishes' and all that." Feeling that both War and Ruin were eyeing him due to the phrase, Lloyd sighed and added softly "Or magically shrink a horse in this case."
Ruin lowered his head after that, releasing a soft whine. Lloyd softened up, seeing the horse somehow look sad, so he leaned forward enough to gently pat the horse on the side of neck.
"It's not your fault Ruin." He tried to comfort Ruin. "This whole thing was just… sorta put together at the last second."
The warhorse stilled after a few pats, quickly turning around to stare at Lloyd. Lloyd stilled, wondering if perhaps he had read the horse wrong, far too used to Noishe's mellow and whimsical disposition. The oversized dog really did do just about anything for a good bellyrub and treats. It really occurred to him just then that Ruin might not like shows of affection…
He tucked his legs in and braced himself to jump off and run for dear life in case Ruin decided trample him for the insult.
War looked back and forth between the two, not knowing how they would react. He was unfamiliar with how humans, and Lloyd in particular, were so much more emotional with everything. Nephilim were hardly affectionate at all, War being no exception to that norm. During all the thousands of years War had worked with Ruin, he saw the horse as more of a brother-in-arms, not some… weak willed child that needed constant reassuring. (Those didn't survive long among the Nephilim anyway). For a few tense seconds, he too feared what Ruin would do to the boy if the horse deigned that the boy's actions were an offense.
Normally, War would have a heads up as to what Ruin was thinking, thanks to their bond and their pact as Rider and horse. It wasn't quite mind reading, since the horse wasn't capable of full speech or formulated thoughts like other sentient races, so it was closer to 'sensing' the general mood that Ruin was in. Usually this came as images of whatever Ruin wished to say, a spike of a particular emotion (usually rage, annoyance or boredom), and on a few occasions in actual words. Rarely more than one or two words however. Unfortunately, since War got stuck working with Lloyd, whatever bond he had once had with Ruin had become muted, leaving him almost unable to read whatever was crossing the horse's mind.
To his surprise, he faintly sensed a sliver of pity, a bit of annoyance, and after a long silence, wishful longing. Normally, Ruin would have been all pride, rage and eagerness to fight. Since when had Ruin… gone soft? Had War's own untimely death and four thousand years of being powerless leave scars that War had yet to see? What other long reaching events had come to be as a consequence of his absence? What else happened since he died? What else changed?
What happened to the rest of the Riders?
And what the hell happened to the rest of Creation without the Four to keep everything in check?
War was thankfully saved for further far flung questions and brought back to the present by a faint echoing voice, deep, somber, and haunting like the wind in a deep ravine.
'I help. This time, little colt.'
Ruin. It had been so long since War had actually heard Ruin's voice echo in the back of his mind.
"What the— Ruin?" Lloyd splutters taken aback. "You can talk?"
'You heard Ruin?' War asked back, just as surprised, but in a more dignified manner. 'Well this will make several things easier.'
'Some. Yes.' The horse snorted softly. 'War back. Good. Colt can't ride, too little. I… fix.'
Lloyd blinked. "I uhh… guess that by little colt you mean me… but um… what exactly are you going to… uhh… fix?"
Ruin moved around a bit before releasing a low, chuckle like whinny. 'See.'
Before Lloyd could ask any more questions, he caught a glimpse of faint crimson gold runes dancing across Ruin's ashen hide before they faded away into nothing. Had he paid more attention, Lloyd would have spotted a spell circle underneath all four of Ruin's hooves. Instead, he saw steam and smoke begin to rise out of every part of the horse's body, blocking off most of the young rider's view. He had been more than ready to jump off when he War called him out.
'No need to run this time Lloyd.' Unlike his young apprentice, War had quickly picked on what Ruin was doing. 'Looks like Ruin figured out a way to solve our latest issue.' He added with an ever so slight grin.
Lloyd remained frozen on the spot, curiosity overlapping the uncertainly and fear that had gripped him not a minute before. Soon he began to see just what War had meant. Between the not so heavy steam and smoke, Lloyd could see that the saddle in which he sat suddenly wasn't as large as it had once been. To his utter disbelief, slowly but surely, Ruin was shrinking in size.
Soon enough, when the last of the smoke dissipated, Lloyd found himself sitting on a normal-ish sized horse with gear that actually fit. He wiggled his feet around until he managed to find the stirrups and discovered that they too had been adjusted exactly to his needs. He twisted around and saw that everything else fit just perfectly as well.
"Well I'll be dammed." The boy blinked at the final results.
Somehow, even War found Lloyd's dumbstruck face to be funny. For someone that never experienced some of the more powerful magics available in creation, he had endured Ruin's little transformation trick fairly well. He had half expected the boy to bolt away in fear after the first few seconds, but perhaps he had underestimated the boy's resolve.
'You are taking this awfully well in stride.' He commented offhandedly, mostly curious to see how well Lloyd was actually holding up. 'At the very least Ruin having kept some of his magic abilities will make our lives easier.'
The boy put on one of his sheepish, nervous smiles. "Oh I'm surprised all right… but I guess, after everything that's happened after these few days I figured I'd outta… you know… go with the flow and… uh… stop trying to break my head figuring out how everything works."
Ruin straight up snorted. War wanted to be annoyed with Lloyd's seemingly carefree answer, but deep down, he felt the edges of his mouth tilt upwards into a faint smirk. Perhaps the boy was a little too optimistic, but then again, they had a lot to do and ground to cover to stop at every little mystery they came across to unravel its secrets. At the very least, the young human was learning to reign in his surprise.
But first things first. Namely, horseback riding. War would later instruct Lloyd on how to fight while on horseback once the younger rider had grown more accustomed to working alongside Ruin.
'Time to see how well you take to horseback riding Lloyd. We still have to catch some of those wild horses for the guild master.'
"Oh right." Lloyd blinked. "Actually forgot about that for a while." He added while digging through his backpack, retrieving the length of rope he had been given for the job.
'Better get you used to riding first. Then we will chase down those horses.'
As it turned out, actual horseback riding was somewhat similar to riding on Noishe, but there were a few key differences that Lloyd knew would take him a while to adjust. For one, Ruin was wider than the cream-and-mint oversized dog, and gave a bumpier ride at high speeds, hence why he actually had to put his weight on the stirrups and sort of stand up, leaning forward, instead sit down and grab hold of Noishe's loose fur just above the front legs. It took some trial and error, and several close calls, but eventually Lloyd started to get the hang of it. With War's guidance, and Ruin's brand of sit-up-straight-or-get-bucked style of teaching, slowly but surely, Lloyd started losing his fear of riding a powerhouse of a horse, and began enjoying the thrill of the high speed run.
Once the Nephilim was pleased with Lloyd's progress, he directed the boy towards the last place they had seen the herd of horses. Sure enough, most of them had gone back to grazing lazily along the few patches of dry grass.
In an interesting turn of events, Lloyd turned out to be a surprisingly good wrangler for being the first time he had tried it on horseback. Back in Iselia, he had helped out here and there, usually little odds and ends or helping his dad out put things together for a customer, but a few times he had helped some of the farmers catch and bring back their wayward goats and sheep. Lassoing down horses proved to be a bigger challenge, but then again, Ruin was able to outrun the horses with little effort, and with Lloyd's somewhat decent aim, the team had managed to catch themselves three escaped draft horses. Naturally, they had put up one hell of a fight, but somehow Ruin had managed to get them to settle down after some quick whinnies and neighing. Probably horse-speak for 'knock it off and come along before I drag you'.
'Not bad for your first try.' War commented as Lloyd looked over the horses for any injuries that might have resulted from their chase. A couple of scratches here and there, but nothing serious. One had even been carrying part of the bridle making it as one of the escapees from the attack they had found in the woods earlier. 'We don't have enough rope left for another one, so it would be best if we took these back.'
"Yeah, they look like they need a good bath and rest." Lloyd replied after giving one of the horses a few soft pats on the neck, then turned around pulling himself back on top of Ruin. "It's a little after noon now, so we might be able to catch a few more."
The way back to Sybak had been mostly uneventful, having taken the route by the sea's edge instead of going back through the woods. It wasn't until they had almost reached the sea side town that Lloyd spoke up.
"Uhh… How exactly should I return the horses?" Ruin and War stared at the boy. "I-I mean, s-should I leave Ruin outside? He'll probably scare half the city!" Lloyd quickly amended.
'So that's what you meant.' War said after picking up on the younger rider's train of thought. Riding into town on top of a horse on fire would surely give them all manner of problems, knowing how humans were so easily scared with just about anything. Problems that would be best to avoid, less they started to draw unneeded attention.
'I scare humans?' Ruin slowed his pace, his thoughts echoing gently into both riders' minds, turning his head around slightly towards Lloyd, part curious, part surprised.
"Yeah. Sorry Ruin. It's not every day that someone gets to see a horse that has fire coming out of better part of its' body." Lloyd leaned back and scratched the back of his neck, turning to the side towards where the three horses they had captured had been tagging along. "Most people only see horses like them. Just… normal horses… no magic, no nothing. Hmm." Lloyd brought a hand to his chin, trying to think back to earlier that day. "Come to think of it, when we first met you Ruin, you looked like a normal horse."
'Ah. Horse magic.' The nightmare steed told them.
"Say what?" Lloyd squawked.
'When War gone, I here alone.' Ruin began explaining. 'Other riders gone too. Found scared horses later. Stayed with horses. Hid among horses.'
'So Ruin used some of his magic to blend with the rest of the herd.' War said after connecting the dots. Still, more questions popped into the Nephilim's mind. Did the other riders fall too? What happened to them? What the hell had struck down War? What of the other rider's horses? Where they dead as well or somehow stranded like Ruin had been?
Ruin must have picked up on his previous rider's dark mood. 'I searched for others. No riders or their horses.' The steed grunted, as if still bitter about the whole ordeal. It then vigorously shook his head, probably getting rid of the thoughts. 'Magic I have. I hide… like normal horse again.'
No sooner had Ruin finished sharing his thoughts, its' skin started to shimmer slightly, until the bright cracks and runes faded away, matching the newly formed dark red hide. At the same time, the once bright tendrils of liquid lava that had made Ruin's mane and tail too started to change, becoming locks of thick, charcoal black hair. As for Ruin's gear, it too changed forms, going from the heavy, plate-reinforced chains and leather, to a more nondescript set of well-worn and durable set meant for long distance traveling. From his spot, Lloyd could not see all the changes, but he would have bet his left arm that Ruin now looked exactly as how the stallion had appeared when he had nearly trampled the rookie horseman to death.
Lloyd stared in wonder at the changes, before breaking out into a grin. "Okay, that is going to be seriously handy."
That earned a chuckle out of War. The elder horseman had used the same trick several times in the past, when he had to cautiously sneak into cities or garrisons without revealing his identity. Given their current situation, they would have to make use of Ruin's disguise on a very frequent basis. Ruin seamed to catch onto Lloyd's infectious energy, giving out a pleased grunt.
Returning the escaped horses went on without an issue, thanks to Ruin somehow ordering the others to stay in line. Convincing the stable manager that Ruin was not one of the escapees and that Lloyd wanted to keep him took a little more persuading, eventually winning the argument since no one had reported a missing horse of Ruin's 'normal' description, and as long as Lloyd brought back at least eight horses. With the bargain sealed, Lloyd grabbed some lunch for himself (and a few apples for Ruin), and headed back into the wilderness.
By sundown Lloyd had managed to make three more full trips, bringing back a total of a dozen horses. The merchant's guild had been more than pleased with Lloyd's results, giving the swordsman- turned-wrangler a good sized coin purse for having brought one of the headmaster's prized horses, which had escaped more than a year ago, back safe and sound. After that, Lloyd was given the trip's schedule and told to be at the warehouse bright and early the next day.
Lloyd made use of the rest of the evening to buy a few more supplies for the trip, mostly food rations and healing items, since he had no healing magic of his own and he didn't have Genis around anymore to cook his meals. As much as he wasn't fond of the idea, Lloyd knew that he would have to pick up some easy to make recipes that he could pull off over a campfire, or he would be stuck eating sandwiches for who knew how long. Other than that, he made sure to grab a brush for Ruin, and several treats that he knew horses liked. Ruin had liked the apples Lloyd had gotten for him earlier, so he figured it would be a good idea to say on the horse's good graces, even if it meant bribery. That and… Ruin hadn't been too keen on staying a night inside a stable, but had promised to not cause problems.
Dinner with the innkeeper and his family had been an interesting experience. Between the mutton, the ales, the buttery rolls, and the sweet berry pies, Lloyd had to admit that the old granny could give Genis a run for his money. Dolgan's wife proved to be just as good as her mother-in-law, both women teaming up to keep a steady flow of food coming out of the kitchen for all the coming customers. At some point, Lloyd had been dragged into helping serve the tables –payback for the scare they claimed. He had wanted to protest initially but one good glare from old granny was enough to shut him up and cave into their demands.
After switching out his armor for an apron, Lloyd took over as the main waiter. Between his frequent trips in and out of the kitchen, Lloyd had taken to doing some careful eavesdropping in order to catch any useful rumors or tidbits of information. While Lloyd hadn't been too sure about what was usable and what wasn't, War been keeping an eye on anything worthwhile.
Once the evening rush had started to wind down for the night, both horsemen had picked up a few things of note: The King had fallen sick and there was some internal fighting between the church and the royalty, monster numbers were still on the rise (they had apparently started to increase around a year ago, which coincidently was around the time Colette had started to release the seals on Sylverant), and lastly that more and more people were growing concerned if Te'thealla was heading into decline.
Filing away those notes for future reference, Lloyd turned in for the night.
Around midafternoon the next day, Lloyd had started to wonder if he had unknowingly gotten himself into more trouble.
'That's the fourth time a wagon has lost its' wheel. Something is wrong here.' Lloyd hummed to himself.
'Fifth actually. That one has come off twice.' War corrected him. 'Yes, trouble is brewing here. It won't be a matter of if it will happen, but when.'
From on top of Ruin, traveling a few yards away from wagons, Lloyd had a fairly good view of the ongoing events. One wagon was stopped, three people next to it trying to reset a wooden wheel that kept slipping out, while another wagon further ahead was restacking cargo boxes because several had fallen over after hitting a slight bump in the road. Ever since leaving Sybak the dozen or so wagons had been plagued with problems. Missing items, knots coming undone, loose cables, you name it, just about every kind of setback that could have happened, actually happened. The only thing that had not happen were monsters attacking. Not that they needed the extra problems, they had plenty to go on as they were.
Judging from the looks of it, Lloyd wasn't the only one on edge. Several of the tradesmen had been sending distrustful glances at just about everyone, even their own teammates. The hired mercenaries on guard duty had been particularly annoying, often harassing and bickering with the merchants, calling then some very nasty names since they were unable to get the wagons up and running. Lloyd himself had been one of their favorite targets to harass at the start of the day, believing the now silver haired swordsman to be some kind of rich pretty boy –much to Lloyd's ire-, or some bastard brat of a well-off noble, due to having his own horse and his gear looking too new to have been properly worn in. Or they just plain mocked him for his new hair color.
Lloyd hadn't wanted to start a scene so soon into the trip, mainly because he had no clue how to get to the capital on his own, but his patience had been wearing thin. Even Ruin had been offering to trample or kick the main offenders. Lashing out had never sounded oh so tempting as it did there.
In a surprisingly twist of fate, it had been War who snapped first.
'How good is your punch?' Growled the older horseman after another round of trash talk.
Lloyd raised an eyebrow and looked away from the group, as if keeping an eye out for monsters. 'On those guys? One good Dwarven Punch will probably leave them out cold well into tonight'.
Lloyd had been more than pleased to do so.
Naturally, the guy never knew what hit him.
Out of pity's sake, Lloyd dragged the unconscious bastard and flung him into the back of one of the emptier wagons. For a spit second he marveled and how light the guy felt, but shrug the feeling off as left over adrenaline.
Shortly after that, the rest of the mercenaries had wisely stopped picking on Lloyd. Most of the merchants give him a wary glance, seeing as how the 'skinny pipsqueak' had punched out some seasoned veteran of many years and threw him around like a sack of potatoes, but he did get a few approving nods and a couple of mouthed 'thank you's.
However, the short reprieve that came from Lloyd's little intervention was bound to only last so long. Sure enough, a few hours later, most of the mercenaries had gone back to badmouthing just about everyone else.
By nightfall, the caravan had stopped a short ways away from the main road and sat up camp. The three fires that had been lit provided some light and enough warmth to fight off the slightly chilly cold wind. Dinner had been tense, with nobody really trusting anybody. Even as he quietly ate the bowl of soup he had been given, Lloyd kept an eye out for trouble. Both from outside of the camp and from within.
Since Lloyd had signed up as a traveler, not a mercenary, he was not asked to assist with the night shifts. Still the red clad horseman knew that sleep would not come easy to him that night, not having anyone (trustworthy) to watch his back while he slept. At that point, Lloyd wouldn't have trust any of the mercenaries to wash the dishes, much less put a proper night watch. He could almost feel them plotting something, especially that guy he had punched out earlier.
Thankfully War and Ruin had offered to keep a lookout while he got some sleep.
And good thing they did.
As the sun rose, Lloyd began to stir. Definitely not the best sleep he's had while camping out. Just marginally better when he and the others had been sneaking around the Desian ranches trying to not alert any scouting parties. Knowing that the boy was still mostly groggy from sleep, War gave the boy a few moments to get his wits about him before filling him in on their findings.
'The mercenaries are sabotaging the wagons.'
Lloyd paused mid-stretch. That got his attention. 'Sonuva…. Should have known.'
Both nephilim and ethereal horse shared the boy's sentiment. 'We will have to be weary. The caravan is big, but fifty civilians will not me much of a challenge to a dozen armed mercenaries, should their aim actually be to kill everyone and run away with the merchandise.'
'So why didn't they attack during the night?'
'That did stuck me as odd as well. They could be waiting until we get farther away from the city, or they might be waiting for the group to pass an ambush point further up ahead, meeting up with more of their henchmen. Regardless of what tactic they are planning, if they can tire out the travelers to the point where no one can put up a proper fight, then the whole caravan will be easy pickings.'
Swearing internally, Lloyd went onto putting away his things –the wingpack he had… acquired really was a marvelous thing- and refastening his armor that he had loosened up a bit in order to sleep a little more comfortably. A quick glance around showed that most of the camp was still mostly asleep, with only a few mercenaries patrolling around and a few other travelers that must have tried to fall asleep without much success. Sooner or later fatigue would catch up with them, and for their sake, Lloyd hoped that the bandits-possing-as-mercenaries didn't catch them half asleep.
Given their recent findings, Lloyd knew that he needed to get back into fighting form quickly. He was slightly more comfortable using Chaoseater than when he had just woken up stranded on Te'thealla, but he was still nowhere near as proficient with the great sword as he had been with his twin blades. He'd be dammed if they ganged up on him and he screwed up with his instincts still being attuned to his dual wielding style.
Once he was ready to go, Lloyd took a drink from his canteen, and took a few bites from a pear he had purchased back in town, offering the rest to Ruin, who took it gleefully. Training on a full stomach was a bad idea, but something light like that would be enough to keep his stomach under control until the rest of the group was getting up. He decided to move away from the wagons in order to do his morning stretches and exercises.
His warm up routine brought on some bitter memories, mostly related to how Kratos had dragged him out of bed at ungodly hours of the morning and sparred with him. The undercover mercenary had been a strict teacher, yet the results spoke for themselves. Lloyd had improved. Having an actual person to spar against –or get your ass handed to you by- was been a better learning experience than blindly trying out attacks against wood and straw dummies. Heck, as far as the whole mercenary job went, Kratos had done a dam good job about it, unlike the so called mercenaries that Lloyd was stuck with for the time being. Come to think of it, the traitor had quite the gentleman for the most part. Never did Lloyd see him trying to force himself onto women, or flirt or talk to strangers in a way that wasn't courteous or respectful, much less use any of the courser language that the mercenaries where using left and right.
Something was still off about the traitor. But that was one bridge Lloyd would cross when he came to it. First things first; namely training. And this time he had War teaching him.
Around the time the rest of the camp was making breakfast and packing up, Lloyd had gone through quite a grueling crash course, courtesy of War. He was essentially forced to forget how to dual wield, and learn how to stay balanced, using his own body as a counterweight to Chaoseater, in order to be able to fluidly more from one attack to the next without stumbling. Whatever snickers he had been getting at the start had shut up very quickly after Lloyd successfully pulled off a long chain of attacks without staggering. On a positive note, he also discovered that he could do most of his old arts with a little tweaking. Others, like his old Sword Rain just were not going to happen.
'Good. That's enough for now.' War called out after seeing Lloyd perform another successful chain of artes, finishing with a perfect Tiger Blade. 'You'd better go grab some food while there's still some left.'
Lloyd's growling stomach wholeheartedly agreed. Chuckling lightly, the boy dusted himself off and did as the nephilim had suggested. One plate of eggs, bacon and toast later, Lloyd was once again seated on top of Ruin, doing his own patrols as the rest of the caravan got ready to move out.
The second day had gone on almost the same as the first. Weird accidents and problems ran rampant. At one point, Lloyd got off of Ruin and had helped do some of the repairs, putting his dad's teachings and craftsmanship to good use. Lloyd took care to make his work extra sturdy, in hopes that it would lessen the number of accidents, or just plain throw a wrench into the mercenaries' plans.
Sure enough, whatever Lloyd fixed, tended to not break down again. The few things that did break again were rather telling as to why they came apart to a craftsman like himself.
Someone was breaking them. And both horsemen had a pretty good hunch as to who was responsible.
Unfortunately, the blasted long-as-hell bridge had made keeping an eye on the mercenaries almost impossible. The bridge had been considerably wide, allowing two wagons to travel side by side if needed, but they had stuck to a single file, close to one side as to allow traffic to flow in the opposite direction. The pillars and steel cables greatly blocked his view, and with the high midday sun, they casted long shadows over the bridge itself, providing plenty of cover and hiding spots for trouble makers.
It also left Lloyd with no room to practice his sword fighting safely, so he had to forgo it completely. Still, Lloyd managed to fight off boredom, by playing cards around meal times with some of the friendlier civilians, or listening to the stories some of the people were sharing.
The third day had gone almost the same. Just about everyone had been glad to finally put behind them the bridge from hell and feel solid ground beneath their feet. Lloyd allowed Ruin to run around freely for a few hours, letting the horse release some energy from having had to walk at an agonizingly slow pace for nearly two days straight in cramped corners. Ruin would catch up to him later, once he had burned off all the extra steam.
With everyone in a better mood, the next few hours before nightfall had gone smoothly. Or as smoothly as Lloyd could have hoped. There were still a few hiccups here and there –more like really suspicious events- that fell in line with what had been happening the previous days.
In fact, if the strange disturbances had stopped completely, both horsemen would have been even more suspicious.
Regardless, Ruin had returned around dusk, covered in a good layer of dirt, grass and… blood? A quick inquiry revealed that a pack of wolves tried to pick a fight with the horse. Lloyd wasn't sure which was scarier, Ruin getting attacked by wolves or Ruin beating them senseless. War had chuckled loudly at that, later explaining that Ruin had gained a love for fighting just as much as War himself did.
Knowing better than to mother-hen all over the clearly uninjured (and rather pleased with himself) horse, Lloyd gave Ruin a quick bath while the rest of the camp busied themselves with dinner.
Later that night, as everyone was starting to settle into their sleeping arrangements, all hell broke loose.
A high pitch scream that was cut short had been their only warning. The hired protectors had quickly turned their blades on the very same people they had offered to protect. Lloyd quickly got on his feet, glad he had yet to nod off, and charged towards the closest mercenary that was pulling a bloodied sword out of one of the merchants. He grit his teeth, knowing that there was little he could do for the injured, having none of the professor's healing magics. Instead he focused on what he could do: take down the double crossing mercenaries before they could kill more people.
The first mercenary fell quickly, to one of Lloyd's Demon Fang and a Tiger Blade. Another was cut in half with a land based, horizontal Tempest. Off on the side, Ruin had taken to attacking the mercenaries as well, quite eagerly even, his blood splattered hooves enough of an indication that the horse had crushed or kicked to death more than one bandit. Knowing that the horse could hold his own just fine, Lloyd darted towards the next group of bandits.
More screams soon filled Lloyd's ears, as more of the civilians were being cut down left and right. A few were trying to put up a fight, but just as Lloyd and War had predicted, tired as they were they could barely block a few weak attacks. Lloyd cut down another pair of bandits, easily dancing around their attacks, and kicking their limp corpses off of Chaoseater. He spotted a few more bandits a few yards away, cornering a couple of crying children near a collapsed wagon, their most likely dead mother a few feet away.
Those bastards really were no better than the desians back in Sylvarant.
It made Lloyd's blood boil.
Lloyd charged at the trio. To his side, he spotted another bandit charging at him. At the last second he ducked, allowing himself to fall into a slide, passing right under the man's wild swing. As soon as he cleared the man's arm, Lloyd twisted himself, Chaoseater cutting away the man's legs as if they had been little more than hay to a farmer's sickle. The man's cries were cut short as the rider kicked off the ground, and this time separating the man's head from the rest of his body, never breaking a stride. Not waiting for the corpse to touch the ground, Lloyd dashed away.
A quick tempest brought the rider close to the crying children, surprising the bandits whom probably expected the swordsman to fall to their accomplice.
"What the?! How did–" Lloyd didn't give them time to react. With a Beast he knocked them back, away from the children, and descended upon the group in a mad flurry of strikes.
Within seconds, there was nothing left of the bandits but a mangled bunch of limbs, scattered body parts and puddles of cooling blood.
As he stared at the carnage he had just created, Lloyd's hand trembled. Part of him had been wondering about just how terrifyingly easy it had been to take down so many of the supposedly veteran mercenaries. Had they been real, trained mercenaries or just a bunch of ruffians acting like they knew what they were doing? It all felt just… far too easy. The bandits Lloyd had fought off a few days back after becoming the new Red Rider, had given the young man a lot more trouble. He highly doubted that he had grown so strong literally overnight, Charred Council's blessing or not, so he figured that something else was involved. The question was what.
A few times he had felt that same tugging feeling he had felt before, as if his body was responding on instinct. Like something else was guiding his movements, somehow just knowing how far to swing, when to dodge a well-aimed attack, when and how to swat away a pitiful excuse of an attack, and when to counter with devastating results. But those were instincts that Lloyd had yet to fully develop. War did bark a few orders here and there, but mostly it had been just Lloyd. Or at least he thought it was all his doing… well mostly anyways.
With War's warning, the silver head immediately side stepped, barely dodging another mercenary that had managed to sneak up on him during his brief moment of contemplation. Instinct guided Lloyd, as he elbowed the man hard in the gut and knocking the man's sword out of his hand in a single move. Lloyd caught the loose blade midair, flipped it around and skewered the gasping man through the heart with his own sword. Not batting an eye at the dying man, Lloyd grasped Chaoseater once more and began searching for any remaining bandits.
Looking around, Lloyd caught sight of Ruin crushing the skull of another bandit, wincing at the loud bone snapping crack. After that, there were only a few stragglers left, thanks to their combined efforts. Those few stragglers were now looking at Lloyd and Ruin as if… well, as if they had seen the grim reaper himself. Granted, splattered as they were in blood, the pair made one terrifying sight.
Wrong horseman maybe, but close enough.
One mildly questioning look later, the mercenaries broke rank and fled for their lives.
'Get after them! Don't let them get away!' War quickly ordered. Sad as it was to attack fleeing men, both riders knew that letting them live would only cause problems in the long run.
Bringing a blood splattered glove up to his mouth, Lloyd released a sharp whistle to call Ruin. The horse must have sensed his rider's urgency and ran towards the swordsman at full gallop, skidding to a stop a few feet shy of Lloyd. Lloyd placed Chaoseater on his back and pulled himself up, urging Ruin to catch up to the fleeing men.
'Lean towards the side you are going to swing.' War instructed as Ruin charged forward. 'As if you are trying to do the first swing of your Tiger Blade, and lift up afterwards. '
Ruin caught up to the fleeing bandit quickly, and with a sudden burst of speed, the horse cut off the bandit, forcing the man to turn sharply, and right into Lloyd's uppercut. Chaoseater cut through him, armor and all, without any resistance.
Another bandit met the same end. The last one Ruin threw down and trampled, to which Lloyd finished him off.
With the double crossing mercenaries dealt with, and seeing no reinforcements of any sort, Lloyd returned to the campsite to help out with what he could. He was met with many weary glances, but eventually a few recognized him as the one that fended off the backstabbing mercenaries. A couple of tear streaked women greeted him with hug, blood soaked as he was and covered in gore, their limbs still shaking in fear from the near death encounter, one even giving him a quick kiss on the cheek as a thank you. Lloyd didn't need a mirror to know that his face was doing a fairly good impression of his old jacket.
After a few more round of thanks, the surviving people pulled themselves together and started to tend to their wounded. Luckily, a few of the cargo boxes had contained medical items and salves. Their lids were popped off and their contents distributed among the injured, prioritizing those in critical condition.
For the dead, they couldn't do much other than dig a grave for them. Six graves were dug that night for the travelers and merchants that didn't make it, while the corpses of the mercenaries were doused in oil and set aflame. No graves would mark their passing, only scorched patches of grass that within a few weeks would all but disappear.
Despite everyone being scared, tired and injured, the group picked up their things and moved away from the sight of the attack. The fear of a second attack was much too real, as was the chance of attracting monsters and wildlife with all the fresh blood.
About two hours later, the caravan stopped once again to set up camp. Without any guards to defend them during the night, the few people that were still more or less in good condition were asked to take turns keeping watch. Lloyd being the only real fighter left, he felt that protecting the group and getting them to Meltokio would be mostly his responsibility.
He stayed up all night, making frequent patrols around the camp with Ruin alongside him. Between rounds, he worked on cleaning all the blood out of his gear –Chaoseater being surprisingly free of even a speck of blood in its' disguise as a regular broadsword- and checking on those that were most injured. With no medic among them, they all knew that their survival would depend heavily on how quickly they could get to the city and into a proper hospital. All Lloyd could do for them was pass out gels to those in need or rewrap their wounds in fresh bandages.
Between patrols, Lloyd took the time to ask War something that had been bugging him since the fight earlier.
'Hey War. Back when I was fighting those mercenaries, a few times I pulled off some moves that I had never really done before. But… they felt natural. As if I had done them a thousand times over and more. Like that guy I disarmed and… killed with his own sword… Got any idea what that's been happening?'
He felt War ponder for a few minutes before hearing the former rider speak up. 'Those were my skills Lloyd. You did them as if I had done them myself. I haven't taught them to you yet… so now I am wondering about how that is possible as well.'
Lloyd frowned. 'Could it have been the Council's doing?'
'I find it unlikely. No matter how natural you are with swords, it still takes years upon years of practice to achieve such results.'
The Nephilim had a point there. Those moves had felt natural. Lloyd brought a hand up to his chin. The only thing the younger swordsman was sure of was that he had only started to do something like that after War had been more or less shoved into him. So, if the Council was not the ones behind Lloyd's sudden jump in battle prowess, then maybe it had to do with War himself.
'What about you? You're kinda suck in my head so… maybe you somehow manage to take over for a split second?'
That gave War something to think about. While it was true that the nephilim was stuck with the boy, he hadn't tried to take over so far, other than that first few moments after awakening where he discovered that he wasn't in control, which didn't work anyway. Since then, War was left with little else to do other than offer the boy some guidance. During the few battles Lloyd had come across, War had dearly wished to be able to fight once again. Mostly due to the jarred feeling of thinking about what move to take and feeling Lloyd do something else.
However, there were a few times where Lloyd had actually done exactly as War would have done. Killing the mercenary with his own sword after disarming him was one of them.
Maybe the boy was onto something.
'Hmm. I haven't been able to take over as you suggested. But… perhaps… you are somehow responding to my instincts. We will have to test this theory out later, when we are away from people.'
'Yeah. You're right.' Lloyd agreed, glancing briefly back to the group he was now watching over, then turning to the shadows on the horizon.
Vaguely, Lloyd could make out in the distance a large city spread out at the foot of a long ridge. He just hoped that it was Meltokio. Or at least some other city with a doctor and resources to treat all of the injured.
The next day, the group made a beeline for the capital. Despite the large amount of injured people, they made excellent time, now that they were not being sabotaged every hour or so.
The city that Lloyd had seen during the night had indeed turned out to be Meltokio. The sprawling metropolis was huge, several times the size of Sylvarant's Palmacosta. Bright, multicolored roofs dotted the skyline, along with some buildings that Lloyd couldn't quite make out, and huge castle that dominated the highest levels of the city. Lastly, the whole city was wrapped around by pearly white stone walls that shone with the sunlight, like the finishing ribbon around a fancy cake.
Never had Lloyd thought that he would see something as majestic as that city.
War allowed the boy to gawk a bit, before telling him to knock it off. They had reached the gates –the city's only gates actually- after all.
After the head merchant, or the acting leader since the original had been killed, exchanged some papers with the city's guards, the caravan was ushered in quickly. Another guard was sent to fetch some doctors, while the tired and weary merchants dragged themselves over to the tradesmen's quarters to hand over their goods. Lloyd followed at the back of the line, making sure no one was left behind.
When they reached the warehouses, the main building quickly erupted into a frenzy. Doctors and a small brigade of knights soon arrived, the former quickly tending to the wounded and stabilizing them for later movement to one of the city's hospitals, and the later inquiring about what had happened. Lloyd made himself useful in the meantime by helping to unload the goods they had brought.
Eventually, one of the workers had called him to go into the office. Inside, he met with the company owner, the manager of the warehouse, and the captain of the knights that had arrived. They asked him about what had happened on the trip, and what his role had been during the whole thing. He told the truth mostly, going by his dwarven name and keeping the part of him being one of the Four Horsemen to himself. He told them about the sabotaging, and how the mercenaries had been harassing the rest of the travelers. Lloyd also added how he had fixed some of the damaged wagons several times, only later to have been forcefully destroyed by someone, which had been what made him believe that it was the mercenaries' handiwork. He glossed over the fight against the mercenaries, not mentioning quite how he and Ruin and teamed up and took down all of the mercenaries, painting it more like having heard a scream and rushing to the person's aid, only to have seen the mercenaries turn on the merchants. The last day of the trip had really been trying to get everyone to the city quickly without pushing their injuries.
Lloyd got several skeptical looks during his story, likely that they were having a hard time believing him at all. Thankfully, a couple of the other travelers and merchants had verified Lloyd's claims, also giving the knights the rough location of where the attack had taken place if they wished to verify the facts. Eventually the captain accepted the stories, thanked Lloyd for rising up and protecting the civilians and took his leave.
Just as Lloyd was about to get up and leave himself, the caravan's stand-in leader called out to him.
"Hey Bronzefist. Come here a second."
Lloyd stopped and turned around to said man. He looked pretty beat up, one arm in a sling and leaning heavily on a crutch, but he was alive and in one piece. The merchant limped his way behind a counter and dug through some drawers, eventually pulling out a coin purse and a ledger. He scribbled down a few things quickly, tore the page out and handed it over to Lloyd, along with the curse.
"Here. This would have been the payment on arrival for the mercenaries."
"The hell?! Rogan!" The manager spoke up. Clearly the man did not agree with the other's sudden decision.
"Knock it off." The other man bit back, not backing down. "Since he saved our collective asses out of there, this can go to him. Not that those double-crossing ruffians are going to need it now. Had you not been there Flint, none of us would have made it back, and we would have lost the whole shipment too. We lost some good people back there, but honestly, I'm just glad most of us made it back." The man looked solemn for a bit, before returning to the conversation. "Anyway, that voucher is for a night the inn, so that you can get cleaned up later and get some rest. I'll get you a set of clothes later, since I'm fairly sure all that blood will never come out."
"Fine." The manager grumbled, lifting one hand up to massage his temple. "We are going to need to find a mercenary guild of some repute to safeguard our future trips, not any more stay pickups. This is going to delay us several days at least. Not to mention we don't have enough hands now to deliver our orders."
"Why not ask Flint here to do some of the more urgent deliveries? He was moving crates around like they weighed nothing a while ago."
Lloyd was still reading over the voucher when he heard his other name. He quickly pocketed the items he was given and turned towards the merchants. "Huh?"
War sighed. 'You really do need to put more attention to what's going around you, Lloyd.'
Lloyd managed not to make a face at the nephilim's reprimand.
The manager did not look very much convinced at his coworker's suggestion. A quick glance outside at the impromptu field hospital must have made the man reconsider.
"Up for a few delivery jobs boy?"
Lloyd mulled over the offer a bit. 'Hmm, it could be a good way to learn the city's layout. Still, I have no clue where anything is right now.'
"This is my first time in Meltokio actually." Lloyd said, trying to sound diplomatic. "I won't recognize any of the addresses."
The coworker shook his head unconcerned. "We can give you directions on how to get to the delivery points. Most of them are hard to miss anyway."
With nothing really to lose, and since they didn't have any real idea as to where to go, he figured that another odd job was better than nothing.
Besides, Dwarven Vow #2: Never abandon someone in need.
'Well here goes nothing.'
As it turned out, the delivery runs weren't so bad after all. Once Lloyd had checked into the inn to take a quick bath and change into clean clothing, the merchant's had given Lloyd a quick rundown of what needed to be done. Most of it was taking crates of goods to specific stores or vendors, with one last delivery going to a noble's mansion. Lloyd had been tempted to throw all of the crates into his wingpack, but a passing comment from another warehouse worker hinted at them being actually somewhat rare and expensive. Not wanting to explain how he got his, Lloyd was forced to do the deliveries the old fashioned way, on foot and with Ruin pulling a small cart with the goods.
Naturally, Ruin had to be heavily bribed with all sorts of treats. Mainly carrots. Lots of carrots.
The directions supplied by the merchants had been fairly easy to follow. Also, since most of the stores were within the same commercial block of the city, Lloyd only had to travel a few dozen yards to reach the next delivery point. He saved the noble's mansion for last, since it was the farthest away.
If Lloyd had to describe the noble's quarters in a few words, he would have to say gaudy as his first pick. Ridiculously expensive next, and seriously unnecessary last. Most of the resident nobles Lloyd had seen so felt as if they had an ego problem around the same level of the Desian Grand Cardinals, with their overly fancy talk and fake expressions. At least his delivery point was close to the main road that went all the way from the gates straight into the city's castle.
'This must be it.' Lloyd looked at the soft yellow mansion with white trim before him. Glancing back at the page with the instructions, he looked for any further details he needed to know.
The delivery to the Wilder mansion should be done at the service entrance. When looking at the main entrance, to the right hand side of the mansion, you can see the side door. Knock on the door and wait for one of the manor's servants to answer. They will likely ask that you carry their shipment inside, do so. Let them inspect the contents and have the person sign the delivery sheet.
War would have raised an eyebrow if he could. 'That is oddly specific. Must be a very important customer for them.'
'Yeah. Probably. I just hope it's not one of these snobs out here.' Lloyd tucked away the instructions and lead Ruin towards the side entrance. Sure enough, after passing a well-trimmed row of trees, a pristine white door was visible. He maneuvered Ruin and the cart so that they did not fully block the small alleyway and went over to knock on the door.
A few moments later, an older man dressed in a crisp black suit opened the door. Lloyd couldn't tell what was going on through the man's mind, but he was fairly sure that he assessing Lloyd for all his worth. Then again, Lloyd's spare set of traveling clothes did make him stand out against the overly frilly and uncomfortable looking garments favored by the nobles.
"What business have you with the Wilder manor young man?" The elder asked, his eyes sharp and alert despite his age.
Lloyd took out the papers from the merchants and offered them to the elder. "I'm here to make a delivery on behalf of the Twin Moon merchants."
The older man took the papers Lloyd had handed over and carefully read through them, gently folding them once he was done. Briefly, his face grew grim, before going back to neutral. "So that explains the delay. Very well. I am Master Wilder's head butler. Allow me to see the crate if you will."
"Sure." Lloyd led the man over to the cart, pulling the last crate towards the edge. With a crowbar that he had been leant, Lloyd easily pried open the crate. After removing the lid and placing it to the side, he moved so that the butler could inspect the contents inside, which happened to be neatly folded bundles of fabric.
'Cloth? Really? Well I guess it's quite a lot to carry back home in one trip so the guy had it delivered… still the master of the house probably is some sleazy, lazy jerk that doesn't want to lift a finger.'
The butler moved closer to take a look, reaching in and touched a few of the fabric items near the top. He moved a few around, looking for bundles deeper inside.
"Looks to be in order." The man retreated his hand with a soft nod. "I shall inspect them inside the manor before signing the delivery papers."
Well, if the butler wanted to take the stuff himself then Lloyd wasn't going to stop him. He figured that the man probably didn't want some delivery boy to dirty up the spotless floors or something. Or That, or the master didn't want strangers inside.
However, when the butler tried to lift the crate, the old man discovered that he actually couldn't. The elder gave the crate a few tugs but he wasn't so much as able to lift it an inch from the cart. It made Lloyd raise an eyebrow at first, thinking that maybe the butler was a little bit too old to be moving things around like that. However, the crate hadn't felt all that heavy back when Lloyd had been loading the cart just outside of the warehouse.
Come to think of it, none of the crates had felt overly heavy at all. Even the ones that he had delivered to a weapon's shop that he later saw the shopkeepers pulling out several sets of heavy armor. To Lloyd, the crate had felt as if it had contained robes and tunics like those that the professor and Genis liked to use.
Maybe he would ask the warehouse workers about just how heavy those boxes had actually been. Because there was no way he should have been able to lift several hundred pounds of armor as it if was a barrel of apples.
Was this another change caused by taking on War's powers? Some weird bleed off effect from War?
But first, he probably should do something before the old man pulled a muscle.
"Uhh, sir. Maybe… I should take that in?" Lloyd offered to the struggling man.
The butler released the crate, stepping back in order to catch his breath. He looked at Lloyd skeptically.
"I may not be as young as I was once, but this is rather heavy young man. Surely you would need someone to help you."
Lloyd quietly reached over, grabbed both sides of the crate and lifted. The crate was light, or at least to him. He scrunched his nose briefly glancing down into the crate. No, the wooden box was not empty, and those bundles of fabric looked thick. Surely the whole thing must have some considerable weight to it.
'Ok, something is seriously wrong here. This feels like it weighs like dad's old empty toolbox.' Adding another thing to his mental to-do list, he turned around towards the butler.
The man was wide eyed and speechless. He was looking at Lloyd, unable to believe what he had just witnessed. It made Lloyd fidget a bit under his gaze, releasing a nervous laugh.
"Umm… so where do you want it?"
It took the butler a good minute to regain his bearings. Once he did, he guided Lloyd inside.
The inside of the house was just as lavish and ornate and the outside. Not that Lloyd got much of a look, seeing only part of what he guessed was a kitchen and dining room, when the head butler ushered Lloyd towards some kind of storage room that was off to the side.
"On the table if you would." The man directed, picking up a few things that had been on a rather plain wooden table –well, plain compared to the rest of the house Lloyd would guess-, leaving enough room for the crate Lloyd was carrying. Once the table was clear, Lloyd placed the crate down, his hands hovering near the handles when he heard the table underneath groan under the sudden addition of weight. When he was sure the table was not going to collapse, Lloyd stepped aside. The weary glance of the butler told Lloyd that he had not been the only one worried about the table.
Quickly, the older man began to pull out the bundles of cloth, careful not to add his own weight to the suffering table. Lloyd stayed nearby in case the thing started to make any suspicious noise, ready to pull away the crate, or in the worst case scenario, pull the butler away.
Soon, a large assortment of curtains, tablecloths, napkins, blankets and many other oddities laid spread out over any nearby flat surface. At the bottom of the crate there had been several ornate vases. The likely culprits as to why the butler had not been able to lift the crate in the first place. Once all of the contents of the box had been removed and accounted for, Lloyd removed the empty crate from the table, setting it gently on the floor right next to it, waiting for the butler to sign the papers from earlier.
Just as Lloyd had been about to leave, a voice came from another part of the house.
"Oi Sebastiaaaaan! I'm heading out. Something about that old fart of a pope raising a stink over in the castle about something. Later!"
Lloyd paused, catching only part of a long mane of ruby red hair and… pink? Hadn't that been a man's voice just now? Sounded annoyed too. Lloyd did a double take, however the person in question had already been out the front door.
"That was the master." The butler walked up to Lloyd and handed the younger man the signed papers. "Here you are. You may take the empty crate as well."
Lloyd shrugged off the oddity about the man dressed in pink, preferring to not even think about it. He thanked the butler for the papers, grabbing the now empty wood crate and took his leave.
A/N: quick little side note here. For those of you that loved the soundtrack for Darksiders II, the guy behind it (Jesper Kyd) is once again working with Darksiders' creator on another game: Battle Chasers: Nightwar. Feel free to look it up, they got a few songs up for listening at the website.