Melissa couldn't tell whether Claire was kidding, being completely serious, or some horrid mixture of them both. The smug smile across her lips threw off any guess that Melissa might have had, and her icy blue eyes were as revealing as the murky waters lapping against the dock.
"You're not going to kill me?"
Claire shaded her lips with the side of her hand. "I don't intend to." Her eyes flashed with curiosity. "If you'd like me to, then I can certainly oblige, though it would be a wasteful shame."
"Wasteful?" Melissa said. "Of what use could I be to you?"
"Let's just say that this presents an...interesting opportunity for the Northern Forces, considering recent events." Claire trailed her ring finger down the slope of Melissa's cheek. Between that, and the acrid reek of the blood streaming down Melissa's face, it took an effort for Melissa not to puke all over Claire's pretty black slippers. "Guards, put her under. We sail for Belfort within the hour."
Pain spiked through Melissa's body as the flat of a blade smacked into the back of her head. Her knees collapsed and scraped against the splintered wood of the dock, and the clear skies of Highwind Island rusted into grey and black.
Melissa didn't know when she had snapped. The day had been especially balmy, the fish had been especially smelly, and the customers had been especially rude, but Melissa had managed to hold her tongue throughout. And then one boy pocketed a fish without paying, and that's when Melissa's knees pinned him to the ground, as the point of her dagger stopped just above his neck.
"I'm sorry! I'll pay! I'll pay!"
A hand grabbed the collar of Melissa's shirt, fingers looping through the hole in the back of her collar, snatching her away from the boy. The boy jumped up, threw the fish at Melissa's feet, and ran off, filling the streets with the noise of his sobs.
"Stupid girl!" The hand smacked Melissa across the back of the head. "You can't go pullin' a knife on every pickpocket and vagrant we come across! You'll run us out of business!"
Melissa's collar was snatched against the hem of her scrawny neck, lifting her above the ground, and then dropping her back onto her feet. Melissa twirled around, catching the woman's fat, wrinkled wrist before it had a chance to strike again.
"Good reflexes." The woman wrenched her arm from Melissa's grasp. "Lucky for us that we can't afford pistols, or else that the blood from the poor boy's head would be splattered from here to the markets." She dusted herself off. Melissa couldn't blame her, as she wasn't exactly a poster-girl for cleanliness. Her skirts were stained with mud and fish guts, and her blouse was attracting flies from all over the markets. "Look, kid, you gotta start thinking about the consequences of your actions."
"But ― !"
"But nothing. Just because the kid's a pickpocket doesn't mean that he deserves to die."
"I wasn't gonna kill 'im!"
"Oh? What was the dagger for, then? Were you gonna beat him with the hilt?" The woman pressed her fat fingers against her forehead, sighing. "There's two sides to every story, girl. Kid was probably put up to it by his folks. He's still a theivin' little brat, sure, but he don't deserve a bloody neck. Use your head once in a while."
Grey skies and blackened clouds hung close enough to the city of Belfort to kiss the tallest buildings, while choking mists laid over the valleys of Starlight Field. Cracks snaked across mortared stone, and windows stood either empty, or laden with jaws of glass. Doomseeds floated down from the sky, exploding into clouds of purple and pink as they smacked against the ground. In this suffocating atmosphere, Melissa's heart dropped deeper and deeper into her chest with each step, weighed down in abandoned hopes.
Each breath hammered against the sides of Melissa's chest, leaving her sweat-sodden and panting like the dogs surrounding her. Goosebumps lined along her sides as the still cold enveloped her body, sinking into her bare chest, and filtering through the holes of her ragged clothing. The bastards hadn't given her a break from the moment they stepped off of the boat. She'd received the welcome of a war prisoner, marched through the streets of the port in chains, her head kept below her shoulders to hide the shame of being captured.
It was strange to Melissa, that out of all the people who participated in the Battle of Highwind Island, she was the only one being dragged to Belfort. She was the commander of the Island Guard, but she wondered why she would be personally marched out so far. Commanders in greater positions than herself were being held in prisoner camps in Ruhalt and Oldfox Canyon. Why go through so much trouble for her?
While Melissa couldn't understand their reasons, she couldn't blame them ― from a strategical standpoint, at least ― for the abnormally large pack that was assigned to keep her from escaping. She'd easily slain around ten Northern dogs at the Highwind Island prison camp, and she'd kill even more if given the slightest chance. Melissa figured, and knew it in her gut, that the Northern dogs wanted her alive. For some reason, they'd paid every expense to make sure Melissa was safely transported to Belfort. That fact hung above Melissa's head as clear as the Belfort Gate in the distance, and once she was given the chance, she would use it to its full advantage.
Aside from clonking of boots against the ground, and the sharp ring of Melissa's chains whipping against her legs, silence reigned. Soldiers ringed Melissa, hands resting on their scabbards, and fingers tapping against the cold, coiled metal of their hilts. They were animals wearing the skins of men, as far as Melissa was concerned. During the sail to Belfort, Claire promised that any hands found on Melissa's person would be cut off, but that didn't stop the men from hooting and hollering at her like rapid wolves.
Melissa could slay this group easily with a good sword in her hands. The sword of the soldier to her right would be the easiest to take. His scabbard hung loose off of his hip, chains wrapped around his thigh keeping it barely in place. He was a fool. Melissa would have snatched the sword from the man's scabbard, and cut him clean through his neck if she had met him under better circumstances. The man had spit on her the night before, so it was only fair to return the favor. She'd cut every single one of the bastards down, for each life taken on Highwind Island.
As Melissa conceived ways to strike down the curs surrounding her, she couldn't help worrying about the folks left alive on Highwind Island. She worried about the Chief, about the men that had served under her command, and most of all, about Juto. The boy was hopelessly clueless about the world, and the Northern Forces wasn't like to mother him the way that Melissa had to. Knowing Juto, he'd keep fighting until the soldiers had reduced him to a bloody pulp ― assuming that Juto was still alive, of course. Melissa tried to keep those morbid scenarios from plaguing her thoughts.
She'd taught Juto to the best of her ability, but the likelihood of him taking down that monster Elgar was as bleak as the skies surrounding Belfort. Melissa remembered how Juto had reacted when she gave him a metal sword to use, how his hand had jumped from the hilt like it was hot off the forge. She had yelled at him for that, as the boy had been a pace away from slicing her toes off. Then Juto's head had dropped below his shoulders, and before Melissa knew it, she had wrapped her arms around his chest, and told him that everything was alright, that he didn't have to use a live blade until he was ready for it.
Even now, as the memories of the past flooded her thoughts, the wet, putrid dirt of Starlight Field was dried and pummeled into the soft, warm grains of sand from the shore. The clanking of armor smoothed into soothing thunder of the high tide, and the vast Gates of Belfort hardened into the rocky, sun-beaten cliffs of Highwind Island. Juto stood in front of her, his eyes locked in a staring contest with the ground.
"I don't know why I can't hold it, Melissa. I just..." Juto stared towards the tide, carefully avoiding Melissa's eyes, his voice low and weak. "I just can't."
"I don't know."
"Juto, I'm sure if you just talk to me about it, we can ― "
"I don't know!" Juto swept himself back from Melissa, his teeth barred and his eyes desperate, like an injured, cornered animal about to be devoured. "Quit talking to me about it, Melissa!"
Seeing that Juto was nearly at his wit's end, Melissa decided not to press the boy any further. She brushed her curiosity off for the moment, and tried to calm Juto down. "It's alright, Juto. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." She took careful steps towards him, bridging the distance between them, and trying not to seem too forward. Juto remained locked in place, until Melissa was able to drape her arm across his shoulders. "Let's head back to the Chief's house, alright? I bet he's cooking something good for us."
"More fish, right?"
Melissa shrugged, hoping that would be enough of an apology.
"Aw, c'mon! Don't you guys eat anything other than fish?"
"We live on an island, Juto." Melissa rapped him across the forehead, certain that she'd hear a procession of hollow knocks as his brain rattled along the inside of his skull. "Duh."
Juto clutched his stomach, a queasy smile worming across his lips. "I guess I can stomach it."
A mailed hand struck her across the face, rocking her back into reality. Blood peppered her lips, fouling her mouth with a sharp, bitter sting. Melissa's first reaction was to smack the bastard back, but the cuffs locked around her wrists, slackened enough to give Melissa a taste of freedom, held her hands firmly behind her back. She could only shoot a vicious glare at Claire, who held her face a mere nose's length from Melissa's.
Melissa peered up, and saw the massive gates of Belfort staring back at her. They seemed immovable, and ageless, though Melissa knew that was their exact intent.
"I didn't want to mar that precious face of yours," Claire slid her finger across Melissa's bruised lip, trailing a line of blood down to her chin, and up the incline of Melissa's cheek. "but I just can't stand it when I'm treated so rudely. Didn't your lowly mother teach you to listen when others are speaking to you?"
Melissa would have bit the finger, but Claire kept it out of her mouth's reach. "Don't touch me!"
"Why not? I wash my hands." And then, to test her patience, Claire dotted Melissa's forehead, punctuating each word with the pad of her finger. "What do you intend to do about it, I wonder?"
Melissa bit her tongue back, knowing no immediate answer to that question.
"Nothing to say? Good. Hollow threats don't suit you."
Melissa felt her body tingle with rage. For that woman to be so presumptuous, to even imply that she would know anything about her! "How would you know what suits me?"
"Merely a guess."
"Miss Claire!" One of Claire's dogs came running up to her side, the pieces in his suit of armor rattling and rubbing against each other as he tore his way through Claire's pack. A large scrap of parchment was pressed into his palm. Melissa couldn't read it from where she was standing, but she doubted the message would bode well for her. "Miss Claire, this is from Lord Schuenzeit!"
"Read it." Claire said.
"Claire, I've been informed about you and Elgar's exploits on Highwind Island. I expected nothing less from you. Come to my antechamber once you arrive at Castle Belfort. We'll discuss our plans for the future. And bring your friend as well."
The dog rolled the parchment up from the ends, and handed it to Claire. She pushed the paper away. "Keep it." Claire trailed her eyes over to Melissa, smiling coldly. "Present a pretty face to Lord Schuenzeit, would you, Melissa?"
Melissa couldn't say how she pictured Lord Schuenzeit's appearance in her mind. Seeing how Belfort was leagues away from Highwind Island, Melissa didn't imagine that she'd be seeing him in her lifetime. Any details were vague: silks and flowing robes hiding a well-built physique, and a well-shaven, handsome face. He would carry himself as a lord should, with broad strides and quick, arrogant movements. In other words, he would be a man that the common girls prayed for at their bedsides before hiking their skirts up and stumbling into bed.
As Claire dragged Melissa into the antechamber at Castle Belfort, Melissa had expected to see Lord Schuenzeit awaiting them in a lavish throne, with jewels ringed around his fingers and wrists, and fine drapery hanging from the ceiling, stitched with the Coat of the Northern Forces. She anticipated servants attending to his every whim, and fine women gathered from across the continent lapping at his heels. Instead, Melissa saw nothing more than a scruffy dog in ragged clothing, with a cup in one hand, and a piece of parchment in the other. The fine drapery that Melissa pictured in her mind was worn and tattered, and the servants and women seemed to have long left Schuenzeit's side.
In fact, Melissa saw the room as unusually spare. She figured that Schuenzeit would have taken the portraits of the late Queen's lineage down; Melissa saw their frames huddled in the corner, adjacent a lonely window, but Schuenzeit seemed to have gone to great lengths to strip the room of everything but the angelic murals adorning the walls. For his fearsome reputation, and for all of his supposed wealth, Lord Schuenzeit was living a beggar's life, in a beggar's castle.
The man that Melissa could only assume was Lord Schuenzeit smiled when he looked up from his parchment, the tips of his fingers gesturing the girls to a pair of red, leathered chairs. Melissa took a long stare at the man's face, engraving it into her memory. It was the face of her ultimate enemy, the face that was responsible for so many atrocities, and for the massacre she had witnessed on Highwind Island. For a split second, Melissa fantasied using this chance to snap the man's neck, but Claire was patting her hand against the pistol on the side of her dress, as if to say 'Go ahead and do it. I dare you.'
Claire raked her hands from Melissa's arm, pushing her down into the right-most seat. Melissa sneered at Claire, but she could do nothing more than that. Claire knew it, Lord Schuenzeit knew it, and Melissa was slowly accepting the inevitability of it. For all of her scheming, there had been no situation where Melissa could have made a difference in the operations of the Northern Forces. There had been no scenario where Melissa had the slightest chance of escape. None. And Melissa hated Schuenzeit and Claire for it.
"Welcome back, Claire." Lord Schuenzeit did not take his eyes off of his parchment as he chatted with Claire. It must have been one important document, Melissa figured, for it to take more of his attention than his top subordinate. "I trust you've prepared a report of your operations on Highwind Island?"
"Yes, my lord. Our forces had little trouble squashing their little resistance. In fact, I can count the number of casualties that we incurred on one hand. It was quite pathetic, really. Our forces had little trouble taking control of the island."
"What about Elgar?"
"I left him in charge of the island."
"And the Guardian?"
"It is being shipped to Laboratory 4 as we speak."
"Good." Though his appearance wasn't much, Schuenzeit's voice carried better than any commander that Melissa had heard. His words filled the room's every cavity, and pressed against every window with such force that Melissa swore she heard glass cracking. "And the landers worked out as well?"
"Perfectly, my lord."
"Excellent," Schuenzeit said. "I apologize for using your home as a testing ground, Miss Melissa, but war does have its costs. Securing the Guardian was of great importance to us, and the landers needed to tried in the field. Two birds, one stone."
Melissa felt a sudden urge to enact her neck-snapping plan. "I'm glad the slaughter of my people fit so perfectly into your design."
"You'd do well to watch that tongue, Melissa," Claire said.
"And you as well, Claire." Schuenzeit let his parchment float to the ground, revealing a slithering snake of a smile. "Why don't we continue this discussion down in the laboratories? There's something I'd like Melissa to see."
My Lord Schuenzeit,
I'll be docking in Ruhalt Port within the day, along with the captains of The Strauss and Rzephilda's Swan. As per your orders, The Guardian is being prepared for transport on Highwind Island, and should be shipped to Belfort within the day if those buffoons stick to schedule. Parts of it ― the Kamond in particular ― appear to have been damaged in a previous battle, though I can't imagine any of those villagers standing a chance against that monstrosity. I suppose that only serves to strengthen your theory about the First's whereabouts.
As you ordered, I've taken Highwind Island's General ― if she can be called that ― under my jurisdiction. She's quite a pretty girl, to be honest. Melissa's her name. I left her down in the hold and told the men to control themselves, but who can say how long they'll last? She keeps asking about someone named 'Juto'. Apparently, he's some boy that washed up on the island one day. Can't get any further information from her.
Anyway, I apologize for bothering His Highness with such trivial matters. You should expect to see me at the Belfort Gates within two days. Three at the most. I anxiously await seeing my lord again.
For the longest time, Melissa wondered where the souls of the deceased went after death. Most folks believed that all souls floated up to La Strada, where they were greeted by the Hero Strauss before spending an eternity in paradise. But what about those miscreants who brought nothing but pain and suffering during the course of their lives? Some people believed that Strauss levied every action with a consequence, and that Strauss damned those whose scales tipped too far down the wrong side. Many believed this, a few figured that it was merely a way to keep people in line, and the majority didn't like thinking about the repercussions of their actions. With all the strife and worry in this world, they didn't want another trouble piled on top. And besides, why would Strauss fight so hard, only to condemn the world that he had saved?
Melissa didn't know which she believed. To be honest, she hadn't thought too much on it before today. If there was a Hell, Melissa figured that she would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the damned. She'd killed many in this life, mostly from trying to defend her home, but a few times out of malice. Once you held the hilt of a sword in your hands, all the little injustices of the world seemed so manageable. After Melissa spent some time of reflection on Highwind Island, she realized the truth: there was nothing more dangerous than a scrappy young kid with a sword and a warped sense of righteousness.
To this day, Melissa still didn't know whether Hell existed or not, but the Northern Forces had come awful close to creating it.
"How do you like it, Melissa?" Claire smiled wide at the spectacle, as if she was proud of the monstrosity that they had created. Actually, scratch that. She was most definitely proud of it. "It's marvelous, isn't it? Lord Schuenzeit's magnum opus."
The innards of Castle Belfort had been gutted and fashioned into a series of laboratories, cold metal walkways and rooms suspended above a vast plain of yellow, infected boils spewing up from the earth. Melissa assumed that it was a breeding ground, where Sentinels were harvested from the earth and trained for warfare. Scientists were bustled around the laboratories by guards like precious cargo, closely reviewing their tablets with no regard for the abominations they were creating.
Schuenzeit hadn't kept any guards on Melissa, so theoretically, she had a chance of escape. Then again, Schuenzeit probably realized that the chances of Melissa slipping through a veritable army of guards were slim, to say the least. The Southern Forces wouldn't get into these laboratories unless they were prepared to dig a hole and drop through the ceiling. Schuenzeit had set up at least twenty checkpoints between the labs and the castle proper, each one with automatic steel doors that had been sealed against offensive magic. Schuenzeit had explained his defenses in excruciating detail, as if he didn't think the turrets out front and the legions of Blackhorn Trewa were enough of a deterrent.
And really, who would want to come to this place? The sulfuric stench of the place burned her nostrils, and the sight would have the Southern Forces advance guard reeling at the door. The only reason that Melissa hadn't turned tail was because, surprisingly, she'd seen worse in her lifetime.
"Why are you showing me this?" Melissa asked.
Lord Schuenzeit didn't bother facing Melissa to answer her question, apparently too absorbed in the mess that he had created. "It's not so much this I wanted to show you, Melissa."
"Oh, there's more? Wonderful."
Claire tensed, her fists balling up. "Watch your tongue, peasant."
Schuenzeit chuckled under his breath. "I'm glad you still have some levity left, Melissa. Even I find myself suffocated by this atmosphere."
"You haven't strolled through the fish markets at Abazet, obviously."
"I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure. Perhaps Alex will treat me to a tour one day."
Alex...? "What connection do you have with the General of the Southern Forces?"
"Quite a strong one, as it turns out. But that's beside the point."
"Melissa, I believe that you've been fighting for the wrong side." Schienzeit stopped in front of a heavy steel door. A group of scientists talked among themselves not three feet from Schuenzeit, apparently too wrapped up in their own paperwork to notice him. "Or the wrong reasons, rather."
Melissa looked around. "You're not doing much to convince me otherwise."
"Really? This will be quite the epiphany, then."
Schienzeit's fist slammed into a control panel off to the side, and the door raised.
"See anything familiar?"
A column of glass stood in the center of the room, webs of sinewy cording sprouting from the modules on each end. Inside, a single body was suspended, his limbs draped over string. A boy's body; wind-swept hair, a decent, stringy figure, and big eyes.
Big, blue eyes.
"Claire, send a message to Alex. 'Start your invasion of Oldfox Canyon. Princess Rzephilda and her Anti-Sentinel Unit are to take the lead in the battle. I'll send Claire to monitor the battle.'"
"Is that all, my lord?"
"All that Lord Alex needs to know. I'll need you to gauge the Princess's strength, Claire."
"As you wish, my lord, but it's unlikely that she'll have enough strength to fulfill the sacrifice."
"Of course not. She'll need some proper competition before she's ripe enough."
"My lord can be so presumptuous. Do you think that she'll come around by then?"
"She'll see things our way, eventually." Schienzeit coughed. "There's always two sides to a story, Claire. After a while, Melissa will figure that out for herself.""