Title: No Reason
Summary: A boy from Karse comes to the Collegium. A group of Trainees pull a prank on Alberich, and suffer the consequences. All the while, Selenay is trying to avoid a high-ranking, half-mad Herald who tries to win her hand. Stress ensues.
Genre: Action/Adventure (with suspense, horror, humor and a little bit of romance, too)
Rated: PG-13 (for later mentions of blood, some sexual hints, language etc…)
Notes: Simply put, I'm going to enjoy writing this. Why? Because it's fun to get Trainees in trouble and see the brilliantly planned schemes Alberich uses to punish them. Also, because I wanted to create a new Herald character of a different kind…an older one, slightly insane, nothing much. Oh, and because an even newer, young Herald Trainee comes to befriend our Weaponsmaster and is a bit of an eccentric himself. What is the relationship here? Is there some kind of conspiracy? Heck, I dunno yet. That's the joy of writing a new fanfiction…sigh…
Creigh stared at the letter in his hands. The parchment had been folded so many times that the words had distorted partially and the creases had faded the ink where the paper was beginning to tear. Grimacing to himself, he tucked the thing back into his boot, where he knew it would be safe from his antics. It was his nervous nature to occupy his hands when he was bothered
He sat on the back of a rolling wagon amidst seven other 'students' with similar 'papers of notice'. Each one of the boys bore painful expressions of anxiety or wonder. Altogether, Creigh could not blame them. He was just another one of them, being hauled away from his birthplace, his family and every other item of intrinsic value he had found in life.
His father had tried to protect him. He did so by telling his son that the border towns of Karse were never bothered with during the war, at least, not when it came to choosing warriors. It was only wise to keep the men of youth and power at these outermost stations, to defend the brinks of their nation should a skirmish occur.
But now, now everything was different. Karse was different. After the War with Demons, and even though Karse had achieved glorious victory, the Demon King had charged forth and torn the righteous Karsite army asunder with his evil and sinful magic. And even though the evil King had died with the Karsite victory, Karse herself had been badly damaged. Now every able-bodied man was required to travel to the nearest Temple for training.
He drifted out of his misery a moment, and then realized that the boy next to him -- Haschel, the tailor's son -- was whispering.
"Vkandis Sunlord, and…the Sunpriests…they'll protect us…won't they?"
A response to this did not come to Creigh immediately. What could he say? It was no duty of the Sunpriests to protect the protectors of Karse. It was now their duty to protect them.
"Perhaps," he said slowly. "We are men now, Haschel. We have honor. This is a privilege, not an arrest. We should be proud to…serve our country."
"Horse manure," spat another youth, one two or three years older than Creigh. "If we're serving our country by abandoning our families, then I'd rather be trampled by a red-eyed witch-beast."
"Careful," said another boy, although old enough he was verging on the years of manhood. "You just might get what you wish. Besides, witch-beasts have blue eyes, not red."
There was a brief silence, before Haschel cleared his throat. "Is it true, that in the midst of battle their eyes change color? I've heard it said. Just before one kills you, their blue eyes change to red. Just like it says in the legend, 'the arbiter of true evil casts off his mask in every murderous deed.'"
"If that were true," said the oldest, "How would anyone know, if the victims are all dead?"
Haschel paled. He clearly was suffering from this conversation, as his hands twitched in his lap and his eyes darted everywhere a noise drew them. Creigh felt sorry for him, but that feeling didn't extend as far as pity. He was not the only one to be taken from his home and forced to take up arms. They were all in the same position. They had to endure it together.
"Do you suppose…we'll have to fight them?"
The question was apparently on everyone's mind, for not one boy looked up to meet each other's eyes. Even Creigh couldn't bear to think of a battle against the demon horses without a grimace. Until today, no one had ever imagined taking up arms against a foe thrice as large, and just as murderous. Not once.
"That doesn't matter," said the oldest. "If we do, they'll train us for it. We probably won't see real battle for ages yet, not until they've taught us properly."
"No," said another, slightly younger than the first speaker. He was a bright-eyed, lean boy named Torik. "This is wartime. They'll have us peeling the front lines before the week's out for sure."
"That's suicide!" exclaimed the oldest. "And daft. They'll give us time to learn, you'll see. Right, Creigh?"
He was slightly surprised to be called upon. Quietly, he lifted his head and exchanged a mild glance with the oldest boy. "I suppose," he said. Then he thought of Haschel. "They will not make war of us prematurely. We may be little more than resources, but even resources are not meant to be wasted."
The others stared at him for a moment, as if taken back by his usual bluntness. The oldest recovered first. "There, you see? We're important. They'll train us and they'll train us hard; that's the end of it."
As if on a cursed kind of cue, the wagon suddenly jolted to a halt. Immediately, Creigh took notice of the sudden lack of mounted soldiers in his sight. Where there had been men a few moments before was now empty, and they were quite apparently…alone. Then his eyes traveled to the spot the other boys had already discovered.
A slight young man was riding up on his mount. He stopped just beside the cart and reigned his horse in. "Out, the lot of you. You're needed, boys."
"Needed for what?" the oldest ventured. He stood up in the cart.
"What's that supposed to mean?" ventured another youth Creigh could not recall the name of.
"Demon Riders," panted the young soldier. His eyes gleamed behind his dirt-streaked face. "Two fresh ones they've caught, and their beasts. Lieutenant wants to have fun with them."
Creigh stared coolly at the older man, yet made no sound of any kind. The others around him were either approving with loud, crowing voices and others with onslaught of questions. Someone jabbed him in the ribs with their elbow, which earned them a sharp glare. But he had a hunch about what kind of 'fun' their lieutenant was expecting.
The group of nine began piling out of the cart. Creigh stepped onto the hard track, glad enough he was allowed to stretch his legs, let alone given a chance to prove his strength. He hung around at the back of the group, preceding only the finicky, fidgety Haschel who looked as if he would have preferred a lashing than a chance to face the famous Demon Witches, or their wicked animals.
They did not travel far. Just as they climbed over the hill behind their cart, Creigh began to understand why the lieutenant's men had vanished so abruptly. Approximately forty men, five mounted on their nervous mounts circled a flat, rocky plateau some yards off the road. In their midst stood three pure white horses – no, White Demons, two of which were bearing young men. The third was rider-less and tack-less and there was nothing to compare the wild fury in those sky blue eyes, even from a distance.
Two foreign magic-users, sinners of the heathens to Vkandis Sunlord and a wild demon horse. Surely the lieutenant was not expecting his brand new, untrained, forcibly recruited charges to "have fun" with such dangerous enemies?
"Ah, there you are," said a breezy, almost delighted voice. Taken slightly by surprise, Creigh raised his head to find that their envoy had stopped just on the edge of the plateau. The lieutenant grinned with no gleeful humor at the scraggly youths. "Time to get your farm-hard hands a little dirty, eh?"
Creigh was scarcely interested in getting anything of his dirty. Not that being dirty – blood or dirt be damned – bothered him, but the prospect of battling two unarmed men on their steeds, demons or otherwise, seemed slightly insane.
"What're you lookin' so frightened for?" snapped the lieutenant, almost good-heartedly. "The fun's good for you. You know what to do, you half-breed ingrates. Now pick a weapon. They're not armed. You are."
His instincts were right. Surely the lieutenant was a little eccentric, but he would surely have been a sheer madman to send nine green village boys against two armed Demon Riders. Unarmed, they still had a chance to bring them down. But there remained the beasts…
Creigh was no stranger with the wrath of a full-grown stallion. As a farm hand, subduing and controlling a stud in the breeding season was the equivalent of facing a trained warhorse on the battlefield. This was not an experience that was going to end neatly.
"No?" growled the lieutenant, scowling at their fallen faces. "Cowards. There is no better honor in the Sunlord's eyes," he went on, reining his horse up short as he spoke. The nervous mount skittered to one side. "Especially the Sunpriests eyes…than to kill one of these treacherous spawn of our enemies! These are traitors to the great Vkandis Sunlord and users of forbidden magic!"
His grated words had little effect on the boys. Even the oldest, who had been one of the more eager faces moments before was paling.
Unfortunately, Creigh was easily provoked. His patience was drawing thinner than it had ever been, but he did manage to restrain his voice when he broke the uncomfortable silence.
"Very well, then. Where are they?" he said wearily.
The lieutenant shot a look that would pierce steel. "They're right there, boy. Are you daft?"
"No, sir," he replied flatly. "I meant the weapons. Where are they? I don't suppose staring at them will kill them any faster. Assuming looks do not kill."
The round man's face reddened. "You had better watch your tongue, boy," he seethed. "You're not even an officer yet. You rank lower than the mules that carry our packs! Private!"
A sallow-looking man appeared at the head of the lieutenant's mount. He looked up gravely, with no compassion in his obedient glare.
"Give this young pig here your sword," the lieutenant ordered. "See to it the others are armed as well. Swords, knives, maces, clubs, pitchforks, anything! Bows and arrows. A slingshot, for the Sunlord's sake! I want those fools dead, and these daft urchins broken! Understand?"
The private nodded solemnly, unsheathed his sword and handed it to Creigh without a trace of a glance or grunt. In a matter of a few moments, the remaining Leindal youths were carrying an assortment of weapons, ranging from finely crafted blades to crossbows with lead-tipped arrows. Not one looked at all happy, but their fears were somewhat relieved with the quality of their arms.
"Close the circle," grunted their pudgy superior. "Make sure not a man or beast escapes. That includes our impatient young…friends." He added the last word with a sneer. "Move out, you green dogs! I want witch blood on those rocks, now!"
Creigh paced forward stiffly, ignoring the deepening stares of the soldiers surrounding them. He had no training with a sword outside his skirmishes with the other boy sin mock-fights. He had even less skill with a crossbow, as he'd never touched one before in his life. Regardless of those facts, he was feeling unusually confident that he could triumph over these crafters of forbidden arts.
The remaining boys fanned out beside him. Creigh noted with uneasiness that they were forcing their pace to be stiff, like his. At least he'd impressed this group, despite his bad confrontation with the lieutenant. Haschel was nowhere in sight.
Now he could see the two Demon Riders closely. To his surprise, they were younger than he'd ever imagined a dangerous "witch" could be. They were dressed in elegant, white robes with tightly woven chain mail tunics. They bore no weapons at all, at least, none that were visible.
They were staring at their opponents with…fear? Impossible. No artisan of witchcraft feared anything. They were too shrewd, careless and heinous in their actions and they had little reason to fear anything.
But there was no mistaking their expressions. Even their graceful, disgustingly beautiful steeds seemed skittish. Except for the wild one, a full body length or more separate from its allies. It watched Creigh approach with a burning, even thoughtful gaze that sent an unusual tremor down his spine.
It felt like an endless staring contest. He stopped strutting confidently and slowed to a halt; transfixed on one demon horse apart from the others. There was something not right about this. This was…wrong.
Of course, as soon as everything seemed to come to a peaceful standstill, war broke loose.
A single arrow sped forward, poorly aimed as it was. Before Creigh was aware of the soft 'twang' of the bow in Hashcel's hands, the arrow embedded itself in the thigh of the closest Demon Rider. The young man cried out and gripped his bleeding leg tightly. His companion surged forward, bearing down on the scattered group of untrained boys.
At once, Creigh's eye contact with the stray beast was severed. An overwhelming instinct to defend himself, an instinct that was not his, caused him to dive out of the way of the charging demon horse. The rider and mount sped by and broke through the line of weakly scattered boys.
Creigh snapped his head up just in time to avoid the flailing hooves of the second white beast. He swung his sword wildly, hoping to drive it back. Apparently he missed, for there was scarcely another second before he felt something hard strike the side of his head. It was a glancing blow, but it did send him to the ground.
The fatal blow he'd been expecting did not come. Instead, he saw a flash of silver as the beast's hooves landed on the ground beside him. Another flash, and they were gone. The air was full of men's shouts and the screams of horses as they did battle for their riders. Their mounts were protecting them. These were not mere war-trained horses taught to crush attacking opponents underneath them -- theses creatures were the ones doing the attacking.
At once, he had scrambled to his feet. His vision was slightly blurred, but he could make out the ghostly forms of the witch-beasts dancing to and fro between his friends. The boys were obviously inexperienced and it was also obvious that they were losing the battle, armed as they were. Creigh felt a sudden surge of anger and resentment towards the lieutenant, whom was still sitting on one side and remaining uninvolved.
Yet it was not over and he was not unchallenged. With the two mounted beasts occupied with the others, Creigh was now left alone to do battle with the remaining stallion. Fighting such a creature was unthinkable; defeating it would surely be impossible. It bore no rider or tack, leaving it free of burdens. It was wild.
And subdued. One look at the stallion brought a cold chill to his spine, and not for the first time. No, the wild one did not attack him as the others had done. In fact, it bore an expression -- a look only a human should privilege -- of gratitude. Almost plaintive, and expecting. Protective, like the protection that drove the other beasts to fight for their masters.
No, corrected a faint voice. Not masters at all. Companions. Chosen.
That word was like a bucket of cold water drenching his head. How did he know such things? How was it this creature was so receiving and still? Why would it not fight like the others? And, to much of his own shock, Creigh found himself unwilling to lift the sword and end the life of the vile beast so close to him.
The voice was in his head! Stunned, he stumbled back and clutched his head with his free hand. "Wh-what?"
:This is a trap!: the voice commanded again, this time with a due amount of force behind it. At the same time, the silvery beast glided towards him and circled him once. :They want to kill you, not train you. You must flee. We must flee…together.:
Creigh re-gripped his sword, realizing that it had become loose in his hand. He swallowed and stood, confused and stunned at this new revelation. Was this creature actually speaking to him? How? More witchcraft?
"What are you waiting for?" roared the lieutenant from his mount. "Kill it! Kill it now, before it knocks your bloody skull in!"
:No, run!: the voice warned. A flood of panic came upon him, a feeling that was given to him from the source of the voice. :They mean to give your lives to the Fires. Climb on! I must take you away from here!:
Creigh was shaking his head and backing away. Ride a witch-beast? Flee? From what? He was here to prove his worth, not run away from an invisible enemy. And if they had been planning to burn him after all, what for? First of all, they needed a Sunpriest to authorize the Fire and a reason to call him a traitor. He was supposed to defeat these enemies before him, and they were surely not helping him.
They only burn witches, he reminded himself. I am in no danger.
:They will burn whatever they please,: the creature told him, staring relentlessly with his cerulean blue eyes. :They know of your gift! It is a trap, and clever! There is no time! You must listen to me, or…:
Somehow, Creigh felt the 'twang' of the bowstring, as if it had been released in the pit of his stomach. Even though the man and the bow were twenty yards away, he felt the path of the arrow headed for him. No, not him. The arrow that was approaching was for this vile, stupid, evil and ultimately beautiful and kind creature.
How he knew this, he had less than a tenth of a second to imagine. A surge of emotion and much, much more erupted in that moment. A stunning, unseen force that literally reached out and surrounded the sharp projectile with a barrier flowed from him, pulling a deep well of energy with it. Creigh gasped and sunk to his knees, dumbstruck at the amount of strength it took to stop the arrow. In mid-air. Somehow.
All around him, the prancing and fighting ceased. Men were murmuring loudly, and most were staring. One hundred eyes were affixed on that arrow, embedded in the air like a dart on a post. Then, those eyes followed it as it twitched slightly, and dropped soundlessly to the ground.
Creigh realized only too late that had he managed to stay on his feet, shown no signs of fatigue whatsoever, they would not have linked the unnatural phenomenon to him. But he had, and even a blind man would have seen that he was the cause of this…this witchcraft.
"Heathen!" bellowed a voice that could only be the lieutenant. "Traitorous witch! The whelp has defiled the name of Vkandis Sunlord! Seize him! Seize them all!"
Those words were more powerful a blow than the force of the witch-beast's hooves. At once, he recognized the clever disguise, the trap as it was. The lieutenant had changed in all but appearance now. Creigh knew the power in that kind of voice too. The man he'd thought was a lowly ranked officer in charge of an impossibly large number of men was in fact, none other than a Sunpriest. A man he'd thought was just another religious fanatic and too bloated for his own ego was another man of high power and the messenger of the Sunlord himself.
And he, Creigh, the farmer from a small border village, was a traitor with a death sentence that poisoned the air and made it difficult for him to breathe.
:Now! Please!: The voice pounded in his head. :You are my Chosen. I will protect you, here and on! Onto my back, and we will flee together!:
He did not know what finally compelled him, but the sudden roar of voices and the startled cries of his fellow village boys frightened him beyond any moment of true horror he'd ever experienced. Suddenly, the circle of soldiers collapsed and dove in on him. He stared wondrously, unable to move, until a large white boy obstructed them from view. The stallion had placed himself between the onslaught of soldiers and himself.
He shook himself out of his daze and seized the beast's mane in one hand. Hardly had he managed to swing his leg over the white stallion's back, than it surged forward and charged right through the loosely grouped men. It was dumb luck and an overwhelming desire to live that kept Creigh seated on the unsaddled back of the beast.
The speed he was traveling alone nearly unseated him. However the brute was managing to gallop so fast slipped beyond his reasoning. All Creigh could concentrate on was staying on the back of the creature and not looking down at the ground as it sped by. That was challenging enough.
By not looking down, he managed to catch sight of what was around him. Scenery simply flew by, like a blur. He could not tell tree apart from buck, or rock from animal or crevice. Slowly, his eyes focused on another white figure off to one side. It was another witch-beast, with its rider intact. The other was there as well, slightly farther off. Draped across the front of the mount's saddle and in front of the rider was a dark blot. It was either a bundle of rags or a very limp man.
The wind whipped at his hair and caused his eyes to sting and water. He was faintly aware of his head throbbing and a dull ache just above his eyes. The pain increased for one dazzling moment before his grip slackened and the world around him faded to blackness.