The Story Of Magus Chapter 19
A Brief Respite From Battle
"Okay, men. Attention!" Slash clanged a little gong to get everyone in the room to look up at him then set it aside. "This will only take a moment. I know how anxious you are to get out there and see battle, but first things first."
The ranks of Gnawers and Grimalkins fell into lines. There were not very many of them, only about eighteen all together. From the way they held themselves, it was plain to see that these were some of the top fighters amongst their clans. Having a natural distrust for anyone outside their own kind, the two races of Mystics eyed each other with suspicion and open contempt.
They stood opposite each other in the large, ornate war council room since neither side really wanted to mingle with the other if they could help it. The room itself was taken up mostly by a large table with chairs all around it. At one point in time, back before Ozzie had taken control of the Mystics, each chair would have been occupied by the head of the various tribes and clans that made up the Mystic society. Though they were collectively referred to as the Mystics, there were so many different ethnicity's present, (they hated being referred to as a "species,") that they all demanded to have some voice in whatever war councils were held.
There was a brief period during the reign of the Imp ruler, Pentab, and his "loyal" magician, Caratak the White, when this method of government was actually used. However, when Caratak eventually took over, he did away with the collective Council. In his opinion, being Leader of the Mystic Hoards meant for there to be only one supreme ruler who took charge over everyone in his kingdom. He went so far as to forbid the elders of the different Mystic tribes to elect spokespeople at all.
This style of ruling was changed yet another time when Ozzie usurped leadership from Caratak. He believed in a happy medium between dictatorship and democracy. He allowed each tribe to have a spokesperson who would deal with most of the matters of that faction but Ozzie still had ultimate control over the lives of his people. His word was law and with Magus at his side, no one dared to dispute that claim.
"Squad leaders, come forward."
A Gnawer that was a little bit bulkier then the rest slithered away from his companions. His name was Siphus. He had been elected to be leader of his group in trial by combat against his peers for the position. His purple scales were interrupted in places by dark pink gashes and bite marks, a tribute to how well he fought off his attackers. His flat, reptilian eyes held no emotion as he approached Slash and curled his head down to his chest in an approximation of a bow.
"My peersss have chosssen me asss their represssentitive," Siphus whispered, his voice raspy and dry.
On the other side, a Grimalkin with a green bandana tied around his head stepped up. He gave a salute, something he had obviously picked up from the Knights, yet he twisted it into a mocking parody. His body was also testimony to the matches he had won to ensure his place as a leader of his people. Areas of his feather and fur covered torso and face had swollen up from the repeated blows of his opponents. Yet despite the fact that he was obviously sore, he held his head up proudly, displaying the green bandana, the symbol of leadership of from the elders of his tribe.
"Neechar is the name, destruction's my game! No matter what the Human's say, Mystic might will win the day!" he stated in a singsong voice.
Slash cringed inwardly. He personally hated Grimalkins because of their annoying way of speech. It was the same with the Gnawers. Their constant hissing could grate on one's nerves. Thank the Darkness that he didn't have to listen to them very long.
"Um, I'm sure it will, Char," Slash agreed with a nervous sweat breaking out on his forehead. "Anyway, here is the deal."
The swordsman pulled a large red velvet curtain aside, revealing a perfectly detailed map of the entire world. It had been painstakingly hand-crafted by a captured Human artist who was later killed. The colors were perfect, as were the locations of villages in Guardia Kingdom.
The two Captains gathered close, giving each other distrustful looks, so that they could see better.
There were sections of the map shaded in with either small silver shields or minuscule jade carvings of Ozzie's head, all held in place by pins through small holes in the surface of the icons that represented the two armies. Each icon represented a certain number of soldiers. There were gold shields meaning thirty men and platinum ones for one hundred and silver for ten. On the Mystic side, jade for ten, sapphire carvings of Slash were twenty, ruby carvings of Flea, despite the fact that she was out of action, for fifty, and one special carving that represented the Magus. It was an amethyst scythe and stood for one hundred. There was more amethyst present then any other gem or precious metal.
Slash pointed to a road that stretched from the bottom of the continent to the head of Zenan Bridge. "Here is where the Human food supply wagons come up from Choras and are met by this small band of Knights who are positioned directly in front of the supply train," he explained, pointing to a silver shield at the spot he was talking about. "The supply wagons themselves are guarded by yet another ten Knights. What Ozzie wants you to do is to hit them with all you have as hard as you can, steal as much of their goods as you can carry and teleport back here, and then burn whatever is left. We don't want the Humans to get so much as a crumb from that food caravan, understand?"
"Not a crumb will make it through. We'll do the job we're sent to do," Char answered promptly, wanting to make a good impression on Slash with his enthusiasm for the job.
Siphus thrashed his tail, the only sign of his loathing for Neechar since his dead eyes reflected what they saw without revealing anything he was feeling within. "It isss asss he saysss," the Gnawer agreed in an undertone that was directed at the Grimalkin. "Have no fear. The Humansss will fall. The Myssstics will be the victorsss in thisss ssskirmish."
Slash crossed his arms over his chest. "So be it then. On your way. I'll expect a report at the end of the mission."
The two Captains bowed and then, with eyes narrowed at each other in distaste, they signaled their groups to fall into lines behind them.
Slash watched them go, wondering not for the first time whether it was because of the unity in their society that made the Humans such powerful opponents on the battlefield. Maybe Janus was right when he told me that being out for personal gain is where we are going wrong. Maybe working together is the key to this whole thing...
He shook off the feeling. Magus' weak influence was starting to affect his thinking.
Turning back to the map, he studied the position of the Mystic and Human armies. The map had been magically enhanced to replace the icons when units had been destroyed in combat as well as allowing the small pieces to be manually rearranged. He frowned as he saw one of Ozzie's pieces glow and then vanish as a unit of ten Mystics went under the flashing blades of the Knights.
Mentally, he sighed. It wasn't his place to think this way, he thought to himself, returning to the earlier topic. Ozzie was supposedly the brains behind this war. Slash was only there to do the dirty work for his fat green lord. Not that he really respected Ozzie as a leader. Far from it. But unlike Flea, his ambitions were quieter. He didn't make such a big show of wanting to take over like she did.
Despite what people thought, there was a subtle side to Slash, one that was as cunning and sharp as the blade he carried with him as a constant companion. He had patience, something Flea lacked. She had paid for it with her sanity and very nearly her life as well. As much as Slash would like to drag Ozzie over hot coals, he wasn't ready to face Magus. Not yet. But one day, he vowed, he would be. This scheme Ozzie had cooked up to eliminate both Magus and the Hero was a good one, surprisingly, and it worked to his advantage as well as Ozzie's. Slash was almost positive that the Hero would be defeated by Magus, but he knew that the battle would weaken the young magician sufficiently enough so that when Janus felt Slasher sliding deep into his chest, cleaving his heart in two, there would be nothing he could do to stop the blue swordsman. It was for that moment Slash was living for.
Giving one last cursory glance over the map, he pulled the curtains back across it, hiding it from view. He should go and check on Flea now, he decided. Concentrating, he teleported to his room.
It was a spacious and luxurious type of place with his idea of a rustic sort of feeling. Animal skins were stretched out on the stone floor with various heads from said animals mounted on the walls. He had a few leather chairs and one divan near the fireplace which was large enough to roast a boar in. There was a sword rack with rapiers, long swords, broad swords...even a cutlass! He prided himself on being a master of all swords. But the weaponry didn't stop there. He had maces, flails, war hammers, axes, whips...The list went on and on!
There was a wine cabinet with his selection of hard drinks and then, for a softer occasion, wines that had been aged by the greatest Mystic wine presses. Last, but not least, was his bed. It was a great four posted deal with a canopy. The covers were made up of more animal skins.
Snuggled up in them was Flea. Her face was relaxed for a change. Usually her sleep was troubled by nightmares of Magus and her defeat at his hands. But not today, surprisingly.
Though he had been keeping it a secret from everyone, Slash knew that Flea had been gradually pulling herself back together. She would have moments of perfect clarity. It was in those times that she would want to know what was going on with the war and would be coherent. She would swear that this was the day she would be well again but in the end, she always lapsed back into her own inner torment, shutting out the rest of the world. So, it was with caution that Slash approached the side of his bed and reached out a hand to touch her face.
Something stirred within him as he looked at her. She had the softest skin and her lips looked so kissable. Oh, how he missed making love to her! It was impossible to even sleep in the same bed with her when she was trapped in her own mind.
Flea's eyes fluttered open and she squinted up at him as the light hurt her eyes at first. "Slash," she mumbled. "I'm sorry. I must have fallen asleep. I didn't mean to. I was trying to stay up to wait for you so we could talk."
He held his breath. "Are you with me right now, Flea? I mean, you know what's going on?"
She looked puzzled for a few moments and nodded slowly. "I...think so."
"Good." Slash sat down next to her on the edge of his bed. "Don't worry about falling asleep. You need your rest. The sooner you get back on your feet, the better. We have things brewing, big things, things that you need to be a part of."
"Today will be the day, Slash," Flea said firmly, repeating the lines he had heard many times before. "Today, I'll be well again and we'll get to work on our plans."
"Sure, hon," Slash answered her gently, the same response he always gave her. He didn't have the heart to tell her that she was probably wrong again, like the past dozen times she had said that.
But Flea noticed the difference in his voice. "You don't believe I can do it, do you?" she accused with a pout. "You don't think I'll ever get better."
"I didn't say that, baby," Slash sighed, laying down on one elbow. "But we have to look at this a little...realistically. You're not fully healed yet. These things take time-"
"Time? Time?!" Flea's voice rose with every word. "I've had enough of waiting, Slash! I want my revenge! I want myself to be whole again! Don't you understand?" Her eyes were wide and burned with the glowing hints of her madness returning.
Not wanting her to get too worked up, Slash scooted close to her and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "I know, Flea," he said softly, pulling her head against his shoulder.
She allowed herself to sink into his embrace, one arm going around his waist, her left hand clinging to his shirt as she buried her face into the warm hardness of his body. Slash kissed the top of her head, smelling the perfume of her hair, remembering it's silken touch as he had ran his fingers through it once in the midst of passion. "One day you will be well, I promise you."
"When? When will I be well?" Her voice sounded so small and helpless that it tore the swordsman up inside. He didn't answer her. There was no answer he could give that would make her feel any better.
Suddenly, the woman in his arms shifted to look up at him. "Take me, Slash," she whispered pleadingly, her voice pathetic in it's misery. "Ravage me. Make me forget what awaits me whenever I close my eyes or let my mind wander. Make me forget him and all he's done to me. Please..."
Slash looked down into her face and felt a surge of some emotion that would be as close to love as the Mystic would ever know. As his lips came down on hers, and his arms around her back, he wondered if she really wanted this. Maybe she was just using him and really didn't give a rat's hiney about him. But as their clothes fell to the floor and their bodies entwined in the age-old dance, Slash realized that he didn't care. He didn't care if she really didn't mean this and it was just another of her nights of lust to satisfy some inner urge. He wanted this and he wanted her and that was all there was to it. He pushed all thoughts from his mind and concentrated on the present, letting Flea's experienced fingers take him on a journey to another world.
* * * * * * * *
His name was Grundle Hobbs and he had a vision.
Of all the men in the food transport that day, he alone stood out from the rest. Grundle was not the brightest of men, nor the best of warriors. Oh, he was smarter than people gave him credit for, but he never pretended to be anything more then what he was. He was the son of a dairy farmer, a country bumpkin with dung on his shoes. He was a little on the hefty side because he was so big boned. He wasn't handsome. In fact, he was so plain that most women wouldn't give him a second look. He had brown hair that was cut pageboy style with brown eyes that were often referred to as cow-like since they looked so soft and almost as intelligent. His armor was rusty and mismatched, making him look comical with his large helmet and crossbow but small breast plate and arm greves. His chain mail looked thread bare, if that was at all possible, and one boot had a hole in the toe and his toes could be seen peeking out.
No, Grundle was not much of a sight to behold, but that was okay by him. He had a vision!
A turnip careened into his side and bounded off of his armor. He looked down at the missile and then up at the person who had thrown it. More specifically, persons. Four soldiers of his unit lounged in the back of the cart in front of him that was filled with vegetables. The food itself was covered with a heavy cloth to prevent it from soiling. A few hay bales had been added in for the horses and it was upon these that his traveling companions were seated. Their faces wore identical expressions of cruel amusement.
"Hey, Grundle," a man called Walter spoke up. "Why don't you tell us about your little vision again! We're bored. We could use a good laugh!"
Grundle set his lips firmly together, determined not to be upset by the man's hurtful teasing. Another object hit him. This time, it was a potato and it struck him on the side of his helmet. The blow was enough to give Grundle a slight headache and he glared at Walter's second youngest brother, Leonard, who had thrown it. While Walter had blue-green hair that was spiky and long, his brother had lavender hair that was short and laid flat on his head.
"Hey, jackass! We're talking to you!" Leonard shouted.
When Grundle replied with stony silence, the other soldier jeered, "What's the matter? Why don't you say anything, Grundle? Are you too stupid to talk?"
"Leave...me..alone," Grundle managed to squeeze out between clenched teeth.
"Listen to him!" Kyle, a mercenary from Dorino, sneered. "C'mon stupid! Tell us about your vision! We wanna hear all about your dreams of being a hero!"
Grundle sighed forlornly. He knew that if he didn't say anything, they would keep picking on him till he did. "I don't care what you say," he stated, bitterly. "I will see my dream come true. One day, I will lead men into battle and only I will be able to stop the fight. Through my heroism, I will risk my life to save my battalion from the vile Mystics. People will cheer and call me a hero. Just you wait! It will happen, mark my words."
Before he was even finished speaking, the four soldiers in the cart had begun to howl with mirth.
"Oh, stop!" Roland, the fourth man cried, holding his sides. "I can't take any more! Oh, how pathetic can you get?!"
It was as they all were laughing that their commanding officer, Sir Mitre, rode up. He was a middle-aged man with mutton-chop sideburns and piercing green eyes. His silver armor showed a few nicks and scratches from every day wear, but otherwise looked as if it had not seen battle. The cape he wore was deep blue and his crest was emblazoned on the back. The steed he was astride was a tall, dappled gray gelding. The horse wore battle armor, but it too seemed as if it had never been used for anything besides show.
"And what is all this noise back here? I assume that you all are still on duty, are you not?" The reproach in his voice was obvious.
The four soldiers straightened up and saluted.
"Yes, sir," Walter answered. "Sorry sir. We were telling jokes and we got carried away. It won't happen again, sir."
Sir Mitre sniffed and nodded. "See that it doesn't." He looked at Grundle who was plodding behind the cart in his slow, steady way. "Why aren't you riding on the cart, soldier?"
Grundle looked at the men seated in the cart who did their best to appear nonchalant as they gave subtle warnings with their eyes. Grundle looked down, frustrated. "I need the exercise," he offered as his lame excuse.
The four soldiers choked and snickered up their sleeves. They quickly silenced themselves when their commander gave them a sharp look. But they were not able to hid their amused smiles.
Sir Mitre wheeled his horse around. "Then come up front with me. I could use a little company while I keep watch."
The four soldier's smiles dropped off their faces. Being asked to accompany the commander was an honor for any low ranking soldier. And this idiot Grundle had been awarded that privilege?
The man in question blinked a few times, trying to digest this request. "Uh...certainly, sir. If that is your wish," Grundle said at length. He moved up beside Mitre and together they started up to the front of the line.
The soldier could feel Walter, Kyle, Leonard, and Roland gazing after him with undisguised fury. But he didn't allow himself to revel in his good fortunes. He was much too shocked to do anything of the kind. He realized that it wasn't every day that a simple peasant like him could be favored so highly as to be a companion to the commander, if only for a little while.
Since the food transport was long, and Sir Mitre silent, Grundle took the opportunity to look around. The scenery was lovely for that this time of year. The grass was green at the side of the road. The trees in the distance swayed in the wind, their branches making the forest itself look dark and foreboding. Wild flowers dotted the hillsides here and there and farm houses could be seen all around. The usual ground mist was little more then pale wisps today, and they dances playfully through the swaying blades of grass. The war hadn't reached this far south yet, which was a blessing. King Guardia hoped to keep the fighting contained within Truce Canyon and around the castle for as long as possible. He wanted the civilians to move to the lower cities that not been ransacked and ravaged. If the war stayed in one place, less people would be hurt. Less families would be broken up and less farm land would be destroyed.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Grundle was jolted from his sight-seeing by Mitre's voice. "Y-yes, sir. It is. I can't understand why the Mystics want to destroy it."
Sir Mitre's horse tossed it's head, pulling on the reins. The Knight made soothing sounds and stroked the horse's neck until it settled down again. "Who understands the mysterious nature of evil?" the commander asked. "I'm sure they have some twisted, nefarious reason for doing what they are doing." Sir Mitre fell silent for a moment and then spoke again. "How long have you been in the army...um...uh..."
"Grundle," Grundle supplied helpfully.
"Ah, yes, Grundle. How long have you served in the Guardian army?"
"A few years before the war began, sir. I spent some time as a palace guard, then I worked under the Chancellor as his sentry outside the royal treasury. Then I worked a little as a village patrol person and finally I ended up here."
"My, you certainly got around. And yet, by the look of your armor, you're not a high ranking soldier, are you?"
Grundle shook his head, a little downcast. "No, sir. I'm not exactly what one would call leadership material. I don't have the build and...I'm not terribly bright. Oh, I get by, but most of the officers that we have are mercenaries with the money to buy themselves a position. That, or they have taken over the position from another officer who died." He paused, thinking over what he'd just said and the commander kept respectfully quiet. Greatly daring, he added, "If I was in a leadership position, I know I could do better then some."
"It's a shame and a disgrace," the commander agreed. "When the Hero was just a lowly soldier, he too, fought under men who were ill qualified to lead. But that young man had gumption! He took hold of this army by the nose and turned her around so that every man was given equal chance at the Mystics, regardless of rank or social standing. He made sure everyone who was in command knew what they were doing so that less men would die on the battlefield. But since he attained his grand status, the lessons he taught us are wearing off and most units are returning to their old way of doing things." The Knight looked down at Grundle and smiled, his weathered face looking like crinkled leather. "It's a comfort to see that one person remembers the Hero's teachings."
"He's a great asset to our side, sir. I only hope that one day I too may enjoy a small moment in command." Grundle instantly wished the words had not flown so easily from his lips. Sir Mitre looked down at him, eyebrows raised in shock.
"Well, soldier, let's not be too hasty with our hopes and ambitions," the Knight cautioned, slowly. "The Hero was a rather special case. He came from a noble house and had been trained as a Knight all his life. It's not too common that a soldier can rise into the ranks of a Knight." Sir Mitre reached up one hand and rubbed his chin, looking around while trying to think of the best way he could delicately explain the situation. "What I'm trying to say," he said at last, "is that the chances of you making it into any sort of leadership position is-"
"Impossible," Grundle interrupted, trying to keep the bitter disappointment out of his voice.
"Unlikely," the Knight finished, lamely. Seeing the carefully controlled face the soldier had put on, he tried to lighten the mood. "Well, cheer up, though, lad! It's an honor to serve your King and country in any way possible. And if you can do it by being the best soldier you know how to be, go for it. It's not very likely that any of us will be remembered after all this is over, and you and I will be no different then the hundreds, even thousands, of others who protected and died for this cause."
This knowledge didn't cheer Grundle up in the slightest. In fact, it made him that much more depressed. No one understood his dream. If Sir Cyrus could do it, why not him? Special case indeed! Cyrus' family line had been declared in dishonor, making him no better then Grundle was. But for some reason everyone could accept him as their Hero, despite what his father had done. But would they give Grundle, a poor farmer's son the chance to prove that he was as good as any aristocrat? No, they would not. No matter how much people said that they had learned from Cyrus' example, it seemed less and less that they actually had.
Maybe Sir Cyrus is a special case after all, the soldier thought glumly as he kept up with the commander's horse. He's managed to break back into the social class he was born into, even though no one thought he would. People accept him because he was only one person. Their little social order wasn't threatened. After all, he was one of them. But for me to do it...That would be a crime too big to forgive. They want to keep their society riffraff free and if I or any one else of my breeding tried to do what he did, we would be squashed so fast we wouldn't even know what hit us.
That was what Sir Mitre had been trying to tell him. Don't overstep your boundaries, stay where you belong. You're not cut from the same cloth as we are. You should make the most of what you have and accept your lot because you'll never achieve anything greater. But Grundle wasn't going to accept that. No way. Never in a million years. Whether it took him the rest of his life to do it, he would see his vision become reality. He would!
* * * * * * * *
"Sssquad Leader Sssiphusss."
The Gnawer looked up at his sub-commander. He was a younger member of their race and this was to be his first real battle. Slith was one of the hatchlings of the Big Elder of their clan and he had wheedled his way into being accepted on this mission. That was okay by Siphus, though, because Slith had a sharp mind and would make a great war captain someday.
The younger Gnawer had his head lowered respectfully, eyes downcast in the presence of his superior officer. Siphus was curled up on some soft leaves and twigs with his head resting on his coils. The long trek to their current position after the initial teleportation had worn him out. Slithering was much harder then walking, in his opinion.
"What isss it, Ssslith?"
"Sssquad Leader Neechar hasss informed usss that the Knightsss will be in posssition shortly. I have deployed five of our troopsss and Neechar'sss second-in-command hasss done the sssame. It isss my hope to dissstract the guardsss up front and lure the othersss away from the sssupliesss. By doing thisss, we can sssneak up unnoticed and teleport what we want before the Humansss ever realize we are there."
"A brilliant ssscheme, Ssslith," Siphus approved. Slith's neck scales rose a little bit away from his body and turned a pleased shade that was slightly lighter then the rest of his body coloring. "One thing. What if the Humansss don't rise to the bait?"
Slith's eyes got big and a proverbial sweat drop could bee seen on the side of his face. "Uh...I, uh...guesss we...attack head-on?"
"Where do we attack?"
Slith thrashed his tail nervously. "F-flank them, sssir?" he stammered.
"Why?" Slith looked at Siphus helplessly and now his neck scales blushed with embarrassment, not pride. "We'd do a flanking maneuver becaussse the Humansss will be watching the front becaussse of our dissstraction. If we hit them hard enough and fassst enough, there isss no way they can regroup and recover their advantage."
"Ad-advantage?" Slith hedged.
"Sssteel isss their advantage. Ssspeed isss their advantage. Ssstrength asss well. We outnumber them a little bit thisss time, but they have weaponsss that hurt usss far more then our fangsss can do to them."
"I...sssee." Slith put his head on the ground, a gesture of submission. "Pleassse forgive my ignorance, Sssquad Leader Sssiphusss."
His commanding officer smiled a snaky smile and stretched out the tip of his tail, rubbing the top of Slith's head, a reptilian version of a pat of the back. "Put it behind you, Ssslith. You are young and have much to learn about warfare. If you knew everything already, I would not be leader and you would be commanding our troopsss yourssself." As Slith digested this comment, Siphus unwound himself from his little bed and rippled his muscles to stretch them. "Come, my young friend. The battle awaitsss. Thossse sssupliesss won't teleport themssselvesss."
When the time for their attack finally came, it wasn't exactly as Siphus or Neechar had planned it.
The enemy forces were moving through the designated ambush spot, the Knights at the head, followed by the soldiers. The commander of the unit was in the very lead. The wagons and carts containing the supplies were sorely unprotected from any sort of aerial attack and the soldiers lounging around were blissfully unaware of what danger lurked just out of their vision. Had they been more attentive, they probably could have sensed that something wasn't quite right. The surrounding area was much too silent. No birds chirped in the grass, no breeze stirred the long green stalks, and the horses were starting to get jittery. Several Knights soothingly petted their horses, not thinking it could be a warning against approaching violence.
Everything seemed to be going as planned. And then...something happened.
The tall grass at the sides of the road provided perfect hiding places for the Grimalkins who, when sprawled out, looked a bit like a patch of dried weeds. The Gnawers used their natural ability as snakes to blend in with their surroundings. They stayed in the thickest patches of grass so that their deep purple color was not as easy to distinguish. As fate would have it, two members of opposite squads ended up next to each other.
The Gnawer regarded the Grimalkin with a snake version of raised eyebrows. The Grimalkin squad was on the other side of the road. What was this one doing here? The Grimalkin flopped down in a hurry, accidentally landing on the Gnawer's tail. The Gnawer's eyes got big and his tongue came out of his mouth in a silent screech. With tears in it's eyes, the snake regarded the Grimalkin angrily.
When the other Mystic realized what it had done and tried to smile apologetically, the Gnawer took this to mean that the Grimalkin had squashed his tail on purpose. He retaliated.
The Gnawer lashed out and bit the Grimalkin hard on the shoulder, tearing the flesh. The Grimalkin gave a shout and attacked the Gnawer for what it had done. This attracted the attention of the Knights and things began to unravel...
* * * * * * * *
Sir, look!" Grundle cried, pointing in the direction of the now totally obvious combating Mystics.
"It's a trap!" Sir Mitre growled. "Arms at ready, men! It's an ambush!"
Drawing his sword, he wheeled his horse in the direction of the Mystics who had given the whole surprise assault away. He never reached his goal, however. Before his horse had even cleared the first patch of grass, a Grimalkin leapt up out of it's hiding place, delivering a mighty kick to the commander's side. He flew off his horse and landed in a bone jarring heap, one arm twisted at an odd angle. Sir Mitre cried out as his arm broke and tried to sit up.
There was a terrified whinny and a crushing weight knocked him back against the ground. Warm blood gushed over his good arm and onto the ground from the hideous wound in the neck of his horse. His armor was no defense against the weight of his dead steed and it was slowly crushing him. A shadow loomed over him and he looked up into the flat, dead eyes of a Gnawer, the same one that had killed his horse. His sword was lying just out of the reach of his broken arm and even as he made a desperate and painful attempt to grab for it, the snake sadistically flipped the weapon out of the Human's reach with the tip of it's tail.
The last thing Sir Mitre saw was gleaming, blood-soaked fangs descending towards him in a blur of purple scales.
Though they had been just as unprepared for the sudden thrust into battle, the Mystics felt the thrill of the first kill and bloodlust over came them. They charged out of their hiding spots, killing the Knights and soldiers while they were still in confusion.
"For the Mysssticsss!" Siphus hissed and the rest of his squad picked up the chant.
Neechar's brain didn't have time to formulate some equally inspiring rhyme to outdo his rival squad leader so, instead, he headed for the supplies and started grabbing things and tossing them to his men for them to teleport.
Grundle, who had seen the death of his commander, raised his crossbow, fending off Gnawers while trying to think of what to do. As he finished shooting the last one of his attackers, someone ran into him.
It was Walter.
"We're all going to die," the blue-haired man screamed. "We're going to die! We're going to die!" Walter's face was panic-stricken and he desperately clutched at Grundle's arm. "The commander is gone, the Mystics are everywhere, and there is nowhere to run. You have to save us, Grundle! You just have to!"
"What are you talking about?" Grundle snapped. "Why are you whining to me? You have a sword, use it!" He started to pull away but found himself blocked by Leonard, clutching a wound in his thigh.
Walter's second youngest brother reached out and handed a lump of dented metal to Grundle. "It's Sir Mitre's helmet," Leonard supplied when the chubby soldier gave him a curious look. The gore covered metal was dull and scratched. No longer did the virgin metal sparkle with it's disuse. Now it was near unrecognizable. "This is all that will be left of our army if you don't do something. We're nearly wiped out as it is. You said you wanted to be a leader, then lead!"
He was right, Grundle realized with a start. This was the moment he had been born for. This was his vision, the one he'd so often talked about and been laughed at for. "Do I really have it in me to be the leader I always wished to be?" Grundle asked himself quietly. He gave a look around at the men who fought bravely around him, trying to hold their own against the more powerful Mystics.
"Well? What do we do, Grundle? Make a stand or retreat?" Walter asked, his voice bordering on the edge of tears, it seemed.
A decision formed in Grundle's mind. "We stand" he said firmly. "Walter, spread the word to find the leaders of the enemy's group. If they react as badly as our group did to losing their superior, the cowards should make a run for it. Try to take the bosses out as fast as possible."
Walter nodded and hurried off, shouting above the din to their remaining men.
"Leonard, you and some others try and protect the supplies as best you can. We can't let the Mystics have them. Protect them with your life."
"Right," Leonard replied. He paused a second. "Do you think we have a chance to beat them?"
Grundle's face was grim. "In my honest opinion..." The silence spoke louder than words ever could. Surprisingly, Leonard only nodded understanding and ran off to do as he had been told. Grundle raised his weapon as a grinning Gnawer attacked. The Mystic's head was thrown back as a crossbow bolt buried in it's forehead, the corpse twisting and writhing, unable to understand that it was dead.
Deep in the heart of battle, Neechar and his troops were having increasing difficulty trying to teleport the supplies from the fight to the Fort. Every time one of his Grimalkins returned, it seemed that there was some Human there who was more than willing to end their pilfering days forever. The Gnawers had their hands full with the bulk of the soldiers but there were still a few stalwart Humans who stood their ground and fought to protect their supplies. After the second or third time that he saw one of his kin slaughtered, Neechar decided he'd had enough.
Pulling down his bandana, he removed a couple flint stones that he had secreted inside of it. "Now it's time the Human's learn," he rhymed, hopping onto one of the carts, "the Mystics don't just fight, they BURN!" Laughing, he struck the two stones together a few times until sparks sprung from them and landed on the burlap that covered the supplies from harm. Quickly, the dry material caught fire and started to ignite the supplies underneath.
Cackling in wicked glee, Neechar snagged a flask of wine that he saw and poured the contents over the fire, making it roar like a volcano. Slurping out the last of the wine from the flask, he tossed it onto the blaze and turned to attend to the other carts.
He didn't have time to react as a sword appeared out of nowhere and skewered him. Neechar found himself stabbed through the center, his body standing motionless on Leonard's sword.
"Mess with our supplies?" the man sneered. "I don't think so!"
With a bubbling sigh, the Grimalkin's body went limp, falling backwards off the blade, landing in a heap on the ground. The remaining Grimalkins gradually saw their leader's body and started screaming in fury and terror before they teleported out as fast as they could.
Siphus watched in anger as his companions at arms suddenly retreated. "That isss ssstupidity, for you!" he hissed to Slith who was casually choking the life out of a Human and trying to fit the head into his mouth at the same time. Siphus gave the snake equivalent of a raised eyebrow. "You shouldn't play with your food," he added.
Slith blushed and settled for just biting the top of the soldier's head off. Lifting the corpse with his tail, he threw it away from him. It landed with a thud that was anything but pleasant, especially when gore splattered everywhere. "Ssso, what'sss the plan, sssir?" the young snake asked, watching another of his kind cut to pieces under an ax. He felt neither outrage nor sorrow at the other Gnawer's passing. Unlike warm-blooded creatures, he had the ability to treat death with a surprising lack of emotion. He was, after all, a relative of snakes and as such, his blood rarely stirred with such emotions.
Siphus surveyed the battle and the burning supplies. "I think we've done enough damage for one day," he sighed with satisfaction. "Let usss return to the Fort." Raising his voice past it's usual whisper took some doing, but he managed to shout the order to withdraw. The team of Gnawers gathered around Siphus, leaving their wounded behind. When they were all assembled, they teleported.
Walter placed the tip of his blade in the dirt and leaned on his weapon. "I...I don't believe it," he stammered. "They're gone."
"Hey! Has anyone seen Kyle?" Roland shouted as he finished hacking up a dying Grimalkin that had been left behind. "Is he dead?"
"You think a little scuffle like this could kill me, Roland?" the mercenary laughed weakly as he leaned on Leonard who was helping him walk. His right arm was a mangled mess and it was obvious that it was broken. He'd tied a rough tourniquet around it to help stanch the bleeding. Leonard sat him down on the back of one of the wagons.
"Guys, let's move these other carts away from the one on fire," Roland suggested, jerking his thumb at the flaming wreckage. "Don't want the rest of these supplies to go up in smoke, eh?" Together with the remaining men and horses, they managed to move the carts a short distance from the fire.
As they began tending the wounded, Leonard suddenly spoke. "Hey, has anybody seen Grundle?"
Kyle grimaced as a fellow soldier helped him put his arm into a makeshift sling. His words were tight with pain. "You mean our fearless leader?" He jerked his head in one direction. "I last saw him fighting the Mystics over that way. If it wasn't for him, I might have gotten more than my arm hurt."
"Did you see what happened to him?" Leonard asked.
Kyle shrugged and then gasped in pain as it moved his wounded arm. "How the hell should I know? You think I had nothing better to do with my time then to look out for one fat, wanna-be leader?"
Leonard nodded. "I guess you're right. Oh, well. He's probably chopped liver, anyway. I'm sure we'll find him when we gather the bodies up."
"Gather up what?" Roland asked as he came to stand beside the two.
"The bodies," Kyle answered. "We'll need to gather them up so we can bring them back for a burial."
Roland shrugged. "Why not just toss 'em on the fire? I mean, it's already there, might as well make use of it, huh? I know that most of these guys ain't got no families anyway. And if we carry 'em along with us, they'll only start to stink. Besides, all the carts are loaded with supplies. Where would we put 'em?"
"Good point," Leonard added. "I guess I'll go start doing that now before the fire burns out."
* * * * * * * *
"You did what?!"
Ozzie winced. "Lower your voice, my boy. You don't have to shout. I still can hear pretty well. I'm not that old yet! I said, I sent a squad of troops to go attack the Human's food supplies. You told me that you didn't want anything more to do with this war, right? Well, I figured you meant it this time and sent someone else to do the job. What is there to get upset about?"
"The point," Magus stressed, "was how you managed to keep me so remarkably uninformed as to what was going on. Since when do you start making plans around here without me knowing about it?"
This comment made Ozzie's spine stiffen in outrage. "Since when does the Leader of the Mystic Hoards have to answer to you for his actions?""
But you always tell me about what you're planning to do because you always want me to help in some way." Janus' voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "When have my services suddenly become a commodity that you can forgo?"
Ozzie chortled and rubbed his hands together. "Now who's worried about their position?" he gloated. "Afraid that I may have found a replacement for you and that you are suddenly someone expendable?"
"Don't threaten me, Ozzie," Magus said dangerously, straightening his gloves and drawing himself up to his imposing height. "I'm in the threat business." Whirling on his heel, cape flaring like the wings of some bat, the magician stormed out of the room.
As soon as he was gone, Ozzie relaxed and leaned back in his throne. He mopped his forehead with his sleeve. That had gone surprisingly well. It had taken everything money could buy to keep his troops silent about the mission the Gnawers and Grimalkins were undergoing. The best way to gain an advantage over your enemy is to beat them to the punch and keep them in the dark about what your next move will be.
Well, my dear Magus, Ozzie thought. Let's see how well you play at your own game...
* * * * * * * *
He couldn't believe it. Ozzie had gone over his head and made a decision without his help.
Since when did I start caring about this army?
Well, he didn't. But he did care about what it planned to do to the Humans. Cutting off their food supplies was a surprisingly smart move on Ozzie's part. Janus knew exactly what Ozzie was plotting when he'd informed the magician of his plans.
But why hadn't he done so before the troops left? Why didn't he clear it with me and see if I wanted to help?
Could it really be that Ozzie was indeed leaving him out of the war, once and for all? As unlikely as it seemed, that apparently was the case.
"But it feels so...wrong, somehow," Janus said out loud, coming to a halt outside in the dead garden area of the Fort. "This isn't like Ozzie at all...I hate mysteries."
The young man sat down on the edge of the dried up, dusty fountain with it's images of slender humanoids like Flea holding urns in their hands. Once, water would have poured from the statue's urns but not now. Cobwebs were strewn over everything along with dead vines. Cracks had appeared, marring the stone that was so old it was brown with age. Fish bones under the dust in the bowl of the fountain showed that there had once been what seemed to be rather large carp swimming around. But like everything else the Mystics owned, they let it fall into disrepair. Whoever had the fountain first installed had good taste.
The whole garden must have been beautiful when it was alive. A variety of flowering bushes and trees had filled the place with a flurry of color and a ghost of their perfume still lingered as a breeze stirred shriveled brown leaves and flower petals in dust devils. So fragile were they that the decaying plant matter often crumbled at the slightest touch. Magus could almost picture the patches of dirt to be covered with lush green grass that looked as soft as a carpet and almost as thick. The sound of water reached his ears as he imagined the fountain behind him coming to life, splashing him with little droplets of water. Brightly colored, ornamental fish swam amongst decorative lily pads. The rustle of leaves and an overpoweringly sweet fragrance assaulted his senses as the whole garden was reborn in his mind's eye.
"Schala..." His heart beat faster as he pictured his long-lost sister stepping out from behind a tree, flowers crowning her silken blue hair. They were white throated roses with the petals turning a blushing pink. They accented the sky blue of her hair and their color was reflected in the shade that rested on her lips and cheeks. This was how he remembered Schala, before Lavos had his way with her and his vile mother had turned her into a zombie. She was perfect in every way. Love bloomed in his heart again, just as the garden had in this fantasy world of his own creation.
Smiling, Janus imagined rising to meet her, taking her in his arms and hugging her close to himself. She reached her arms around him and held him as she had when he was a boy.
"I miss you so much...," he whispered against her hair. "I know you are out there somewhere, waiting for me to come and save you."
"There is someone else who need saving first."
Janus drew back and regarded his sister's image curiously. "Who?"
"Why would Cyrus need my help?"
"Ozzie has planned a raid on the food supplies. If the army doesn't get them, they will slowly starve. And that means, in a roundabout way, that you were conspiring against Cyrus, thus breaking your vow."
"But it wasn't my order that sent those troops to attack those Knights. How does that break our pact?"
"You knew about it and could have stopped it or at least warned him."
Magus sighed inwardly. "This friendship seems a lot more trouble then it's worth."
"You're telling me."
The magician looked sharply at the image of Schala. It was still her, but there was something...different about her. Something didn't feel right as it had a moment ago. She wouldn't have said something like that. She smiled sweetly. "Oh, don't look so shocked. It's not like I'm actually real or anything. I'm just a figment of your warped imagination."
Janus tried to think of something to say but the image of Schala was correct.
"And you really need to stop talking to yourself," she said, starting to fade. "It makes people think you're crazy."
"I will find her one day," Janus muttered at last, starting to rouse from his stupor.
The image shrugged. "What are you telling me for? I'm just make believe..."
Magus opened his eyes with a start. He was back in the dead garden. Only the hazy afternoon sun brought any semblance of life to the otherwise lifeless surroundings. No water flowed from the fountain, no flowers bloomed, the grass was brown and dry. But he wasn't alone. Looking up, he saw Slash leaning opposite him against a withered tree.
"Do you often take naps in public places?" the swordsman asked casually but with a hint of mocking sarcasm in his tone. Janus studied him, from his rumpled pants to his open white undershirt that was hanging partly out of the top of his pants and looked like it had been thrown on in haste. Under his arm was Slasher and the rest of his apparel.
"I see Flea isn't totally inactive," Magus responded with a sneer. "You've probably been giving her quite a workout." He cocked his head. "Does she let you do it to her, Slash, or do you just tie the raving lunatic down?"
Surprisingly, Slash let that comment go without doing bodily injury to his fellow Mystic. "That is exactly the type of reaction I would expect from a boy." The blue man stressed the word. "Only someone as ignorant of the ways of the world such as yourself would be stupid enough to ask such a question."
Now it was Magus' turn not to rise to the bait. He swallowed around the lump of angry words forming in his throat, fighting down the rosy blush that threatened to stain his cheeks crimson.
Slash smirked, raising his arm and draping his outer clothing over his left shoulder, holding his sword by the scabbard in the other hand. "Well, I'm going to go get cleaned up and changed now. You can go back to your nap. Sorry to have bugged you."
"I wasn't taking a nap," Janus stated defensively as Slash hovered by. "I came out here to get away from idiots like you. I wanted to do some thinking."
"There are better ways to clear your mind, kid," Slash said over his shoulder. "But then, you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" He started laughing as he went back inside the Fort.
Janus' hands were clasped tightly together as he reigned in his temper and got to his feet. Pushing Slash and his irritating jibes from his mind, he thought over what the image of Schala had told him. I guess I have no choice but to send Cyrus word about the approaching attack. If anything, it will get me in better graces with him and prove that I'm not really such a bad guy.
Magus looked around and, after assuring himself that no one was around to see him, he teleported.
* * * * * * * * *
Slash hurriedly belted Slasher around his waist, cursing silently as his clothes tangled the hilt. He'd donned his purple gi and boots as soon as he was out of the other Mystic's sight. He tossed on his weighted white and purple jacket to finish his look.
It wasn't every day that he could catch the opportunity to spy on the young man. Here was a golden chance to study the strange behavior Magus had been exhibiting lately. He peeked around the corner and watched as Janus got to his feet and teleported from the castle.
Slash grinned to himself as he wondered where the young magician could have to go that needed teleporting. If it was anything good, he would find it out for Ozzie as he had been instructed to do.
Making sure that everything was in place, he stretched out what little magic he had to find the magical residue that all teleports leave behind in the astral fields. He may not have been a magician in the rights of Flea and Janus, but he wasn't a complete idiot where sorcery was concerned. No one lives around magic for their whole life without picking up something about it. Getting a firm mental hold on the magic trail, Slash followed after Janus, keeping at a respectful distance so that he would remain undetected.
* * * * * * * *
If you ever need to get in touch with me, come by the tree you blew up with your magic...Janus recalled those words as he poked at the charred wood of the tree with a sharp stick. Parts broke off and fell on the ground with little charcoal flakes following it. Sometimes he encountered wood that hadn't been burned completely.
Waiting around here was the hardest part. It was too close to the enemy camp for comfort and too out in the open during the day. His purple cloak would stand out against the brown and green foliage surrounding him. He had an itchy feeling between his shoulder blades that there was an arrow out there with his name on it, just waiting to sink into his spine. That was nonsense, of course. With the protective magic barrier he had cast around himself, nothing short of a magic attack could get through.
This is stupid, he thought to himself for the sixth time in the last three minutes. Why I am sticking my neck on the cutting block for a Human who won't even appreciate what I'm doing for him is beyond me. It's not as if we're even friends anymore, even if we had been once upon a time.
Ack! What was he thinking? He was a prince and Cyrus was a magicless Human nobody of low nobility, not worthy enough to polish Magus' boots let alone be called a friend. And yet, Cyrus had spared his life and then helped him escape from what would have been a very unpleasant encounter with the Knights. He owed Cyrus for doing that. That was why he was here now, risking his life for a man who would kill him without hesitation, he knew, if he even suspected that Janus was the Magus everyone talked about.
If Ozzie knew about this, it would be my head on a spike. Tossing the stick down in disgust, he placed his hands behind his back and paced nervously. Okay, it's not like Ozzie could really hurt me or anything, but there are a lot more Mystic warriors then there are of me and many of them aren't half bad with spell-slinging...Angrily, he shook his head. Bah! I have enough power in my little finger to blow this whole stinking continent to Lavos and back. Ozzie knows this. He wouldn't dare try anything. He's too cowardly and weak.
Janus stopped and adjusted his gloves, tugging them back into place. It really didn't do him any good to get all worked up, he realized. As long as Ozzie didn't meddle with his affairs then the fat green Mystic could play war all he wanted and bring the wrath of the gods down on his head for all Magus cared.
After another five to ten minutes of waiting, it began to be apparent that Cyrus probably wasn't very likely to show up any time soon that day. It was simply too dangerous to wait around for a Human who wasn't going to show, no matter how hard Magus wished it.
"No one can say I didn't try," Janus huffed to himself under his breath, giving one last look in the direction of the enemy camp. "I'm not his keeper, despite any unfortunate debts I owe him. It's not my army and it isn't my responsibility and I'll be damned if I'm going to sit around here all day and wait to be spotted." Touching his forehead with two fingers, he teleported back to Ozzie's Fort.
* * * * * * * * *
"You say it looked as if he were waiting for something?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Hmm. Very interesting. I wonder..."
Ozzie blinked and returned to the present, shrugging aside his musings. They were in the large, vaulted library deep within the catacombs of the Fort. The Mystic leader was seated behind a giant oak desk, leaning forward towards his captain. Slash sat opposite him in a stiff-backed chair. All around them were books.
While Ozzie wasn't an avid reader, the ruler before him had been and had gathered a very impressive assortment of literature on magic and it's various uses. After Ozzie had moved into the office when the old leader had died, he had been so excited to finally be at the top that he kept putting off getting rid of the musty things until he forgot completely. Now, he accepted their presence rather like one does a fact of life. It's there, ignore it.
"It was nothing, Slash. Forget it," Ozzie said, switching his attention back onto the other Mystic. "I was trying to think who he might have been trying to contact. A Human, obviously."
Slash agreed. "Yes, but why?"
"Probably to warn that person about the imminent attack on their food supplies caravan." Ozzie toyed with a wine glass, rolling it between his fleshy palms, thinking, heedless of the fact that the wine was getting dangerously close to sloshing out of it. "You're positive he saw no one and spoke with no one?"
"Completely, sir," Slash stated firmly. "I didn't see hide nor hair of anything remotely Human come within a hundred yards of him and I didn't detect any telepathic communication occurring."
"No, there wouldn't be. I don't know of any Humans who can do that. I don't even think Magus himself can do that. He's too close to their blood line, if he isn't part of it already."
"I've wondered about that myself. We Mystics do it all the time but he seems to be oblivious to it. His brain waves could be on a different frequency from ours."
Ozzie waved the matter away. "Ah, well. There will be time to ponder that later."
"Who do you think the person could be? The one he's trying to contact, that is?"
"That is what I want you to find out, Slash. Keep your eyes open closely, more so then you had them before. I want an update on the hour. I want to know who he talks to, where he goes, what he does there, when he eat, when he sleeps, when he takes a-"
"Okay! Quit it! I get the message!" The blue swordsman sighed. "Why do I always get the hard jobs?"
Ozzie took a long drink from his glass and set it on the cracked wood of his armrest. "Because you're special," he said pleasantly. "Now get going." Slash rose and bowed, then hovered out of the room, grumbling about something that it was just as well Ozzie didn't hear.
* * * * * * * *
I did it. I actually saved the day. My vision came true! Grundle felt his lips lift in a small smile. He felt cold and he hurt all over, but he didn't care. He was a hero. He'd saved the supply wagons from being completely destroyed by the Mystics. He'd been the leader he always wanted to be. His life was complete.
His eyes opened slowly and though his eyes were blurry, the sky above him had never looked so amazing with it's gray and blue mixture. The smoky air wasn't cloying. It had never seemed more fresh to him in his whole life. The hard ground that was soaked through with his blood was as soft as any velvet cushion to him. He knew he was dying. You could only fight so many Mystics before that happened. He couldn't feel his legs anymore. The Gnawers had swarmed him, biting and wrapping around him, breaking bones under their powerful coils. He wasn't afraid of dying. Not now. He had seen his dream become reality.
"Here he is," came a voice from somewhere near him. It sounded as if he was underwater. The voice was slurred and muted. Grundle felt as if his head were wrapped in a thick quilt. It was hard to breath and to hear.
Leonard's face swam into his view along with Roland's. "Wow. They worked him over pretty badly, didn't they?" Roland whistled.
Leonard leaned in close. "Grundle, can you still hear me?" he asked.
"Yes," the man managed to croak. His voice sounded strange. "I'm not...killed...so easily." He tried to laugh but it came out as a bubbly gurgle.
Roland grimaced in disgust and looked away and Leonard lowered his eyes.
"Just hang on," Roland grated through clenched teeth. "We'll get some people over here to help you."
Grundle shook his head ever so slightly. "Don't...bother. I'm done for." It was true. He could feel his heart starting to slow down to it's last fatal beats and his vision was getting dark. "Promise me," he whispered through numb lips, "that I'll...get a...hero's burial..."
Roland leaned close to Leonard and whispered something into his ear but Leonard shook his head with a look of confusion. "Uh, we promise, Grundle. Just rest easy. You saved the day. You're a great leader..."
Grundle only barely heard what the man was saying. Dark waters seemed to close over his head, drowning out the sound of his voice and blocking the light of the sky from his eyes. I did good, were his last thoughts as the soldier surrendered to death.
Leonard stopped talking as he realized that Grundle's body had gone limp with finality.
"Jeeze, I thought he was never going to die!" Roland muttered, wiping dust off of his knees. "What was he asking us to promise him?" he asked again.
The other man shrugged. "Eh, I don't know. I just agreed with him."
"What was all that garbage about him being such a good leader and stuff?"
"I just wanted to make him feel good in his last minutes. There's no harm in telling a few white lies. I mean, c'mon. It's not like he'll ever know we weren't serious."
Roland nodded. "I guess you're right. Well, help me heft this heavyweight onto the fire. You get the head and I'll get his feet..."
And thus was the passing of a soldier. He was not the brightest, nor the best looking but he had a good heart and a dream that he wouldn't let die. As Sir Mitre had said, he was not remembered for his deeds when the war was over. He was not given the hero's funeral that he deserved. Instead, he became just another of the many casualties, faceless and unrecognized. But something happened that day, whether anyone admitted it to themselves or not. It's not the big things that win a war. It's the little things that we do that make all the difference in life, the things that often go unrewarded.
Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who has stayed with my story this far! Wow, so many reviews... Thanks for taking the time to let me know what you think. It's because of you that I have continued to put things on Fanfiction.net. =)