by Joseph Bush
“Listen closely, Priest, and I will tell you why I am so reluctant in this task,” the knight said, taking his time positioning himself for the deathblow. The young girl below his glimmering mirror sword cowered and whimpered pathetically in the dirt path outside the hamlet.
“She is but a soulless monster, sir knight! Do away with this evil.”
“Firstly, my companion and I have much more pressing business to pursue. A demon runs rampant and I stand here wasting my time on your errand,” the furious knight fumed.
“My lord, please understand, she is as dangerous as any other monster. Look at the ears she has! And this tail! Surely you recognize a non-human when you see one?” the religious man said, pressing his hands against the young knight’s wrist.
“Priest, do not touch my fellow’s blade, unless you want it yourself,” growled the older knight. He had his helmet off due to the weather and placed a firm gauntlet on the priest’s shoulder to force him a step away.
“Secondly, Priest, my quest is a matter of the state, not of the Church. While you Nalmeans are great in number, I owe you no fealty.”
“Yes, my lord, but please, just a moment’s stroke will settle my every wish.” With that, the girl gasped in a terrorized sob that she barely contained.
The knight, so slow to take this task, had run out of reasons to delay. Despite his reluctance, the priest’s religion was indeed growing. Soon, the entire country of Rega would be under their spiritual purview. The last of the pagans were being extinguished from the land, just as the last of the ancient peoples as well. This peasant girl had done nothing wrong apart from being born in a land openly hostile to Kin.
The knight bitterly raised his silver sword. It tore him apart to have to perform such deeds. He silently apologized to the girl and her family and swung his sword down.
A moment before it struck, he and his companion snapped to a sound in the distant forest. The knight’s blade had neatly severed the pretty ribbon bow tying the girl’s hair back and it fell in her face at the same time her jaw fell open. From the treeline, a massive, hulking monstrosity bowled into the clearing near the hamlet, threshing the trees like wheat.
The knight turned to the priest with a wild grin. “Sir, that is a monster.”
The serfs of the hamlet, many of them non-humans, screamed in abject horror and fled their duties and chores and ran for the highway to Rega Central. The priest nearly wrested a dagger for his grisly task from the elder knight but was shoved roughly to the ground as the knight strode to his charger. His companion, the would-be executioner was already astride his, and already clear halfway down the pasture towards the menace.
The elder knight charged out across the field, drawing his heavy sword and trying to catch up to his distant companion who was circling the monster for a decent position to attack from. He held up a bit, waiting for the elder knight to reach the combat area. The two of them thrust their slaying swords high and raced in towards the monster.
“Kraton! His rear flank!” shouted the older knight. He had barely the time to give the order before Sir Kraton bent his path to streak behind the monster’s back.
“Distract it!” Kraton shouted. The other knight hewed mightily at the monster’s scaly, reptilian face as he bolted past. He kept his speed up so that its massive, thickly muscled claws groped dimly behind him as he passed. The demon shrieked in frustration just before Kraton’s heavy blade slammed home with a messy sound. It screamed again, swinging its fist back out at its unseen assailant and missing by the space of a finger.
“Again, Ur!” shouted Kraton at the other knight. He reigned in, turning tightly and angling for another rear strike. Ur wheeled around and sped towards the monster but it was prepared this time and lunged at him. He raised his sword high but the beast dove forward, sweeping the legs out from under the horse and sending it and its rider hurtling across the field.
Kraton circled back around to Ur, leaping from his horse in the process.
“What are you doing, you fool?” cried the fallen knight.
Kraton helped his mentor up and pushed him onto the horse. “You’re the better rider. I’m faster on foot than you and I can get a decent killing blow in from behind. Go!”
“You’re insane,” Ur said before riding out with a roar. He shook his fist and beat his breast with his sword, acting as menacing as a man in a suit of glossy armor can to a twelve foot tall ogre. “Come on, you great sack of entrails! Here! To me!”
Kraton sprinted across the field, casting his heavy slaying sword aside and opting instead for his sturdy fencing sword. Ur circled around, drawing the attention of the hulking demon away from Kraton as he sped towards his target.
Ur drove in, still furiously roaring at the beast, and bent under a wild swing to strike at the monster’s legs. His sword connected with a shock that nearly tore him from the saddle, but his blade cut true and severed a large tendon, tripping the beast forward.
The sudden, rapid thud of footfalls announced the imminent attack of Kraton. He leapt high, stepping off the creature’s back and slamming his narrow, precise blade into the back of the skull of the monster. He wrenched sideways, sundering the monster’s brain. It fell forward with a great thud and Kraton rolled off of it, ending in a sitting position and laughing.
“You’ve gone mad again, haven’t you?” Ur asked, riding back around to help his friend up.
“That was terrific. Too bad about your horse. You can give mine back now.”
“If you can catch me,” Ur said before taking off at a gallop and cackling in the field. The peasants returned slowly upon seeing the knights jesting.
“Lend a fellow your slaying sword, Sir Krichs, so that we can collect our trophy,” Kraton said. He took Ur’s sword to the monster’s neck, hacking away at the joints in the neck until the whole thing came free with a disgusting burst of blood.
“Augh,” complained Ur as Kraton handed his sword back. “At least clean it for me, you bastard.”
“Look at me. If I clean your sword, it’ll be on your tunic. Go fetch me some water, will you? I’m covered in this nightmare.”
Kraton couldn’t stop himself from comparing the monster, the priest, and the girl he had almost killed. The priest didn’t seem to appreciate the similarities.
The two knights rode set out from the hamlet of Altstone with a single horse. Neither rode since the saddle was completely occupied by the massive skull wrapped in tar-paper and burlap. They walked together, idly chatting and taking in the scenery. As usual, Kraton had still not removed his helm, though he did deign to open his visor for a better view.
It had been a long time since either the elder or younger knight had seen such an idyllic setting. The flowering trees were all blooming, lending a lovely fragrance to the moist air.
“Strange how many soulless servants have been cropping up lately at the castle, isn’t it, Kraton,” said the elder of the two knights.
“I wouldn’t exactly say so. Servitude seems to be the only line of work the Church allows non-humans to occupy recently. I distinctly remember a time when they were allowed to at least work in shops and serve at establishments,” said the younger knight.
“I remember those days as well. Does it feel like things have become nicer in Central since the Church started ‘cleaning up’? I’m not sure it does to me. I’d almost rather be served my dinner by a half-person than have to listen to the endless preaching,” the elder knight said. He rode forward and plucked a blossom from a tree and placed it in a nook on his saddle.
“A favor for a pretty, young lover with fluffy ears and a furry tail, perhaps, Ur?”
“Hah, surely you jest,” Knight Ur Krichs said to his junior. He ran his hand through his long hair wistfully before continuing. “There are many ladies in the court this time of year, so I plan to be prepared to woo someone at our victory feast.”
“No one in particular?” Knight Kraton Gaia asked with a twinkle in his eye. He and Ur were used to joking with each other whenever they were off on a quest together. Compared to many of the other knights, the pair made good company for each other.
“No, nobody in specific. But if you know of one, be sure to point her out.”
“I would, but I’ll be keeping any I find all to myself, thank you very much sir.”
“Womanizer,” the elder said, chuckling. He knew his friend would do nothing of the sort. “You wouldn’t so much as kiss a hand without written permission from the lady’s mother, father, pastor and the crown.”
“I would so. Watch me. I’ll kiss a hand without so much as the slightest hint of consent tonight. Wait and see.”
The two of them laughed heartily before continuing.
“Back to the matter at hand, though,” Ur said. “What do you think of this anti-non-human reform?”
“Well, it is strange that so many would end up in the palace, but I’d expect that the same thing is happening in many of the manors around the capital as well. I’d wager the Kin living in Central are being shipped out to all manner of castle and palace as special servants. You know as well as I do the human penchant for a quick dalliance with a pretty young slave-pet,” Kraton said.
“At least those things are kept firmly under wraps in the capital, if they happen at all. It’s not polite in public conversation. I’d be horribly embarrassed if someone caught me out with a soulless, regardless of her social standing,” Ur said.
“You mean his social standing, don’t you?” Kraton asked, blocking a joking punch.
“You still haven’t answered to my satisfaction, Kraton. What do you think of all this?”
Kraton thought about it for a while. “It’s been building to this for a while now. Kin are even being persecuted in Ethlan these days. I saw some of the first actions against them before I left.
“I notice you always refer to them with their own term,” Ur pointed out.
“Well, they refer to us as humans, do they not? I’m a fair and impartial person. I’m reserving judgment on them until it’s clear to me.”
“How noble. You’ll earn your self so much favor in the court with that attitude.”
“No need to be sarcastic. And besides, I earn favor in the court by bringing back a seven-stone monster heads in burlap bags.”
“How romantic. I can hear the delighted cries of the ladies now,” Ur chuckled.
“They’ll be romanced by my power and charm, rather than my political and religious leanings. You seem to forget that I’m still a foreigner here. I could care less about Nalmean churches and the Regent of Rega. I came because you poor sods couldn’t kill demons fast enough.”
“Be that as it may, you’ll still have to play the game. If you don’t you’ll end up Falling like Navarius. That won’t be an easy thing for a foreigner to deal with. Your Regal has gotten fantastic, by the way.”
“Odd, considering you’re my only conversation partner.”
“What about all those lovely young women you bed? Don’t you woo them with your lyrical, foreign accent?” Ur asked, a wry grin on his lips.
“They’re not much for conversation,” Kraton laughed.
“Oh, speaking of which, have you heard about the new lady in waiting?”
“I hear that there are many. What or who do you mean?”
“I’ve heard that the heir to Castle Telune has come to Central. She’s under the Regent’s rule. She’s expected to get married off to someone of moderate importance in the court.”
“And so? She sounds rather like most of the others,” Kraton said dismissively.
“It’s said she cries out in her sleep. Has night-terrors and the like. She’s been keeping the ladies of the west tower up at all hours of the night.”
“Night-terrors? How unfortunate. Someone’s going to get a bruised apple.”
“I do hear she’s a rather pretty apple though.”
“What’s that matter when the apple you’re bedding wakes up screaming in your face night after night? Oh yes, that sounds like a recipe for true love.”
“We’ll have to see her at the banquet.”
“If that’s how she is, I’d rather not.”