I think “ambitious” sums up how I felt about writing this chapter. I wanted to get a lot done with it, and I didn’t quite get all of what I intended in there. But hey, that’s what the next two chapters are for. The very next one more so.
We’re just at the first big turning point of the series, and I’m sure it’s like some cruel joke that my semester will most certainly start before I can get halfway through the next chapter. Not exactly a cliffhanger, but just as agonizing, no?
I promise though, if I ever receive the certain something I’ve been expecting since the end of August, I’ll drop all of my current plans at that time and pump out the next chapter. And by that I mean place a greater priority on Bardass! Because I’m a lot of things, but academically suicidal I’m not.
Quest 21 – A Knight’s Strength
Wynn is an independent settlement located at the southern shore of a great lake. It acts as an important traveler’s hub due to its location, being just a short distance from Harl, Croadin, Helia, Fugue, and the Sakarlands. Officially, Helia is at the western edge of Sakarlands territory and is under its protection, so it is not as truly independent as Etrium.
Whereas Etrium is more of an adventurers’ outpost, Wynn is more merchant focused. Its proximity to many different regions results in a richer variety of goods being traded there. Lake Wynn is also particularly beautiful and vast, making it a popular tourist spot.
Even with Lunette’s bard magic, it took Kent and Lunette ten days to travel from Etrium to Wynn, including a brief stopover at the Sakarlands to change horses.
As soon as they arrived, Lunette checked into the Adventurers’ Guild and asked for the location of the Dragon’s Tail, a popular bar.
Kent: A drink right away? What about this item you were looking for? Shouldn’t we get it first?
Lunette: We can do both.
Kent: How’s that?
As soon as the door opened, a bespectacled young woman with red hair cheered from behind the counter.
Karen: HEEEEEY, new faces! Welcome to Dragon’s Tail! The name’s Karen. What’s your poison?
Lunette: I’m Lunette, and this is Kendrick. We’ll each have a mug of that special Dragon’s Tail ale we’ve heard so much about.
Karen: We’ve got plenty of that, don’t we, boys?
A raucous cheer rang up from the bar patrons.
Lunette: .. and I’ll also take some of that strong red stuff I’ve heard you’ve got stashed away.
The cheer was sapped from Karen’s face, and she leaned closer to Lunette.
Karen: Who told you about that?
Lunette: Does it matter? Do you have it or not?
Karen: One vial, 76,000 gold.
Lunette: A vial? I want all you’ve got.
Karen: One is all you’ll need, and it’s all you’ll get.
Lunette: Let me see the vial.
The bartender produced a shot glass and poured it half full with ale.
Karen: That much.
Lunette: You’re joking.
Karen: We’re talking about something that should no longer exist in this world. How much of it do you think there is?
Kent: Hold up, I think I’m lost. Did we just come here from Etrium so you can buy yourself some ancient liquor? I don’t care how it tastes, nothing’s worth that much.
Lunette: We came here for a cocktail, alright. But it’s not for me to drink. Now, Karen… I need it, and I need much more than this shot. I can pay a lot more than what you’re asking, just give me a price.
Lunette: Pour Kendrick a drink.
Karen took two mugs from the shelf and placed them in front of her two customers. She half filled Kent’s mug with ale, then poured into Lunette’s mug only enough to fill one third of it.
Karen: He’s got all I have. You’ve got all I’m willing to give.
She then filled both mugs to the top.
Lunette: There has to be more than that.
Karen: That’s all there is. 500,000 gold. Take it or leave it.
Lunette: I’ve got 350,000 and something that you might be interested in.
Karen: I just gave you my price. If you can’t pay it…
Lunette: C’mon, give me a chance to strike a deal. Let’s discuss this in the back.
Karen: Okay, you’ve got me interested. But if I don’t like what you’re selling…
Lunette: I’ve got a feeling you will. Kendrick, how about you have a chat with the boys? This could take a while.
The two went through a door behind the counter, leaving the other patrons to entertain themselves.
Fighter: So, who’s up for a game of Volc-Ale-No?
Rogue: If you wanna play, take it to some other bar where the liquor ain’t as good!
Hex Wizard: And so they all went chasing after the rabbit! True story!
Thief: We hauled a load of loot that day.
Kent: Sounds to me like you’re not much of a fighter.
Thief: How long have you been a Thief? We avoid battle when we can. That’s what we do.
Kent: That’s no way to live. Without strength, you can’t…
Thief: Who said anything about no strength? Just because I avoid fights doesn’t mean I can’t hold my own when the chips are down! You know how Knights have a code, right? Whacha call it…
Kent: Chivalry. It’s a code to protect the innocent and stand fearless before your enemies.
Thief: Yeah. Well, Thieves got their own code too. Finders keepers, losers weepers.
Kent: That’s not much of a code.
Thief: And that’s why you’re a terrible Thief. You gotta dig deeper, Kendrick. If you have the skill to take it, take it. It’s yours. And if not, well, it’s theirs. But the worst thing to happen to a Thief is to have what’s theirs stolen from them. So a Thief’s got to have the power to protect what’s theirs. Usually that means protecting what you just stole.
Kent: Riiiight. Hey, what’re you doing over there?
Fighter: Those two have been in there an awful long time.
Rogue: I hear giggling. You don’t think they’re…?
Kent: What? No, that can’t be…
Hex Wizard: I’ve been trying to get with Karen since forever. Suddenly it makes perfect sense! She’s of a different persuasion!
Thief: Also, I think she’s into chicks!
The door suddenly burst open, and through it came Lunette and Karen, arm in arm and a bottle in hand.
Lunette: Heeeey! I won!
Karen: Yeaaaaah, she totally won! But s’okay! HEY! How ’bout a drink!
Lunette: I got what I came fer but we dun hafta go back right away, right? We can go t’morrow.
Lunette: Hey, hey… that drink… the one with the thing.
Karen: Yeah, yeah.
Karen shoved a bottle in front of Kent’s face. Inside was a murky brown liquid and what appeared to be a large fang.
Kent: What is this?
Karen: Basilisk Beer.
Kent: Basilisk? You mean the black lizard that…
Karen: Yup! That one! There’s a basilisk fang in this bottle!
Kent: Isn’t that… dangerous?
Karen: Oh, naw naw, it’s fine! The alcohol takes care of the venom. You’ll just feel a strong kick is all. It’s great, I promise. Won’t turn you to stone or nothing. But I have heard it’ll get ya stiff.
Kent: Well that’s no good.
Karen: Heeeeeeeh, no good! Kyahahaha!
Lunette: What’d I tell ya, huh? He’s cute. You’re cute. Right in the nose. Boop.
Lunette: How ’bout a song?
Lunette and Kent woke up midday in an inn.
Kent: What happened?
Kent: Is this… Basilisk Beer?
Lunette: Yeah… Right. Karen gave it to us, remember?
Kent: It’s coming to me… Yeah. She said we might have a use for it. I can’t imagine what for.
Lunette: Oh, good.
Kent: What’s good?
Kent: Okay… Do you have those vials of… whatever you wanted to get from Karen?
Lunette: Huh? Oh! Right! Yes! Well, not really. I have it in a strong flask. It’s safer in there. Even so, I’m counting on you to protect me and this flask.
Kent: I can’t believe that cost you 350,000 gold. Where did you even get that much?
Lunette: It only cost me 275,000. And I saved up.
The two set off immediately toward the Sakarlands and arrived there without incident after four days. They noticed something was off once they arrived within city borders.
Lunette: Is it just me, or is there a larger military presence here than when we came here last time?
Kent: You’re right. That’s the standard of the Astorian royal family. Kruseid is here.
Lunette: Makes sense. I’ve heard King Kruseid visits Queen Meuri four times a year. But the timing seems off. He’s early.
Kent: I don’t like it. We shouldn’t stay here too long. No time to stay at an inn. We should leave tonight.
Lunette: What’s the hurry?
Kent: This just isn’t right.
Lunette: I didn’t peg you for skittish. But if you feel so strongly about it…
After swapping their horses once more, they headed out the eastern gates.
Knight: Hey! You there!
A Knight in Astorian armor approached them. A handful of others from his group followed.
Knight: Where are you off to at this hour?
Lunette: If you don’t mind, we have important business in Etrium.
Knight: Etrium, huh? Don’t waste your time. Etrium can wait. I can’t.
Kent: Out of our way. We’re in a hurry.
Knight: You should know your place and get lost. My business is with the girl, not some punk like you.
Kent: Nothing’s going to stop us, especially not a thug like you.
Knight: What was that? Do you see this emblem, boy?
Kent: It’s a fine emblem. But you’re no Knight.
Knight: Care to test that assumption? Squad! To arms!
Kent: You sicken me.
Kent unsheathed his sword to defend against the three Astorian Knights that surrounded him.
Knight: I’m not just a Knight, I’m a Captain! You aren’t even fit to take on one of the twelve men under my command.
Kent: If trash like you is a Knight Captain… Well, no matter.
Knight: Your voice is grating. Like you’re talking down to me. It’s time you were taught a lesson in humility! Get him, men!
The two Knights commenced a two-pronged attack against Kent, who suddenly charged forward from his defensive stance and parried one of the Knights’ attacks. This allowed him to engage in battle with one Knight while creating a greater distance from the other. After Kent and his first target clashed blades twice more, Kent gave his foe a powerful headbutt. Kent disarmed him and parried the second Knight’s blade with the stolen sword, swinging his own sword at the defenseless Knight’s shoulder.
Knight: Worthless weaklings! Must I do everything myself?
The battle had garnered attention from passersby, but they all stepped away to give the duelists room. The Knight Captain gripped his greatsword overhand with one hand and swung it with mystifying swiftness, but Kent avoided the attack. This continued for a full minute with Kent not delivering an attack.
Knight: You think I’m a fool? I know you’re trying to tire me out, but I’ll have you know I can keep this up for hours. Quit trying to show off and attack, you wuss!
Kent leapt over the Knight’s downward slash and kicked him in the face, but it had little effect.
Knight: Heh. I meant with your sword. Attack with your sword or it’s meaningless!
Kent: If it’ll shut you up!
After another avoided attack, Kent finally delivered a swift attack with his sword. However, the Knight Captain again proved his swiftness and pulled his sword back in time to defend against the attack.
Knight: I told you, I could keep this up all day… because I haven’t been even close to using my full power. HRRRRRAGH!
With the blades still crossed, the Knight Captain charged forward with all his strength, forcing Kent backwards.
Knight: That sword of yours is the only thing keeping you alive right now! But my sword is made of Astorian Iron! It won’t take long before yours snaps like a twig!
Kent: Well you’re in for a surprise… because… Wha?!
Kent braced himself to counterattack, but at the last moment he rolled to the side. The Knight Captain made good on his threat – Kent’s sword had broken in half. In Kent’s hand was just a hilt with a broken blade.
Knight: That’ll teach you. Too bad you won’t live long enough to learn your lesson!
A commanding female voice stopped the Knight cold. The crowd surrounding the duel parted to allow its owner’s approach. It was an auburn-haired Monk with the crest of the Sakarlands emblazoned on her chest.
Nutmeg: You forget yourselves. This is the Sakarlands! I don’t care who your lord is. You are guests in this land, and you abide by our law.
Knight: Hmph. Fine. My business with the brat is done anyway.
Nutmeg: You start up trouble again, and I won’t hesitate to put you down.
Knight: Oh? My place or yours?
Nutmeg used a smiting spell on the Knight Captain, sending him flying five yards back.
Knight: Yes, ma’am.
Nutmeg: Sir, are you okay? Do you need me to call a Cleric?
Kent: I’ll be fine. It’s just my sword… I’ll have to get it reforged in Etrium.
Nutmeg: Sorry to hear that. But do you need to leave now?
Lunette: The sooner we reach Etrium, the better.
Nutmeg: I see. Try not to push yourselves too hard, then.
Once Kent and Lunette had ridden out of earshot, Lunette consulted with Kent about the Astorian military’s presence.
Lunette: Did you find something odd about them?
Kent: That man was no Knight. He acts and fights just like a brigand. Astorian soldiers are strictly trained to fight in the proper formations and style. No one could become a Knight Captain fighting like that, even if he’s got that kind of strength.
Lunette: You think they’re imposters then?
Kent: No. They held the standard of the Astorian royal family. It’s hard to believe it could have been stolen. They were probably mercenaries.
Lunette: But why would King Kruseid hire mercenaries to escort him? Doesn’t he have his own personal guard?
Kent: He does. Which is why I’ve got a really bad feeling about what’s going on in Sakar.
Kent and Lunette arrived in Etrium easily enough. The two parted ways as soon as their horses were checked in, and Kent went immediately to see Svennia at her shop.
Kent: You look… different.
Svennia: Yeah. I cut my hair. You like?
Kent: I’m not sure.
Kent: In any case, my sword…
Kent unfurled the cloth he used to bundle the shattered remains of his sword.
Kent: I thought maybe you could reforge it?
Svennia: You’re joking, right?
Kent: You’ve done it before.
Svennia: That’s why your sword got so weak. Every time a weapon is reforged, it loses a lot of the original material in the process. The sword I forge from this is going to be even smaller and weaker. And it’ll shatter even easier.
Svennia: Of course I’m serious. And if that’s what’s going to happen, I’d rather not put in the effort.
Kent: Svennia, this sword is important to me. I’m not going to throw it away.
Svennia: Stubborn, aren’t you? But I’m not forging you a Knight’s sword. However…
Svennia: I can still put this material to use. If you promise not to complain, I can forge you a suitable weapon out of this.
Kent: That’s… Okay, fine.
Svennia: Perfect! I’ll be done in two days. Until then, just relax. Oh, and check in with Doop.
Kent: Doop? What for?
Kent navigated the underground maze and made his way to the hidden cave. He was surprised at the number of people occupying it.
Doop: Kendrick! You’ve returned.
Kent: Yes, Doo… er, Lord Balken. Who are all these people?
Doop: More leaders of my army. We’re making preparations to move out.
Kent: Move out? You mean, you’re going to attack?
Doop: Rym will soon learn of my existence in the most significant way possible. With the death of King Kruseid. I understand you want in on the action.
Kent: I do. But how do you plan on doing it?
Doop: My spies have reported that Kruseid suddenly left Astoria to visit Queen Meuri in the Sakarlands. And his escort is smaller and weaker than usual.
Kent: That’s true. I saw them in Sakar a few days ago.
Doop: That means we don’t have much time to strike. We plan to attack him while he’s returning to his kingdom. Somewhere in the midpoint between Sakar and Astoria.
Kent: How much is this “we” included in the attack?
Doop: A little over half the forces I’ve collected since establishing my base here in Etrium. So, about 350.
Kent: 350? You’re saying you already have an army of 700?
Doop: 673 to be exact. It’s not a good enough number to take on armies head to head, but it’s strong enough for precision attacks like this. Once we achieve our goal, the army will disperse as random adventurers since that is what they are, after all. They will spread the word of Kruseid’s death at the hands of the revived Dark Lord and his army, but they will be nowhere to be seen… until we strike again.
Kent: Sounds like you’ve thought this through. But what if the wrong person finds out about the base in Etrium?
Doop: That won’t be a problem if we succeed. Once Kruseid is dead, I will take Astoria. It will become the focus of my enemy’s attacks. Kendrick, be prepared for the attack. I already have advance forces waiting in Rhea Forest. The main force will leave in two days. The advance forces will move out of hiding at the same time, and we’ll have the escort surrounded.
Kent: I see. However, Kruseid wields the Sword of Justice. His power is not to be underestimated.
Doop: Neither is mine. Now, go ahead and get some rest. I want you to be at your best at the time of the attack. I don’t trust you enough to command a squad, but you’ll be serving as lieutenant to a squad captain.
Kent: I understand. By your leave, then.
Kent returned to his room and laid on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
Kent: (At my best, huh? I couldn’t even defeat that mercenary. If Svennia can reforge my sword, it should be a different outcome, but… I’ve become too complacent.)
* * *
Kent had always dreamed of becoming a Knight. Not just because of their strength and the promise of adventure, but for their code. A Knight was brave, strong, and a proper gentleman. They would rather die in battle than suffer the shame of retreat. They were courteous, especially to women. Above all else, they were disciplined.
His image of the Knight was shattered when he started working as a Squire. Some of the Knights he worked for presented themselves as admirably as he imagined, but once they were out of the public eye they were sloppy, uncouth, and lazy. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough of them. To tend to the needs of these sort of men disgusted him. But what he hated the most was when he had to polish their armor, because it was then that he was reminded that people like that passed themselves off as Knights.
It was that disgust that gave him the power to fight back when some of the Knights wanted an extra service from him. Of course, he was never disciplined for fighting back because none of them dared admit they were beaten by a Squire.
Just when he was about to give up on his dream, he was unexpectedly promoted into Knighthood and awarded his own set of Astorian armor and a Knight Sword that proved his achievement. He felt the Knighthood redeemed that day. He even befriended some of the more noble Knights and Captains of Astoria and had a new dream of rebuilding the Knighthood into what he felt it was meant to be. His dreams were, of course, dashed once more after King Kruseid labeled him a deserter.
Even though he objects to his classification as a Thief and stubbornly fights with his weathered sword, Kent had long forgotten his spirit as a Knight. His speech became more casual, and although he uses a sword in battle, his has nearly abandoned the proper forms. The single lingering connection to his dream was his sword.
* * *
Kent: What’s this?
Svennia: Your sword. Well, it’s not a sword anymore… I turned it into two daggers. It’s more fitting for a Thief, don’t you think?
Kent: Why would you do such a thing?
Svennia: It’s not like I’ve completely changed the form. Look, I even kept the hilt for this one. Thieves normally have twin daggers, but these two are completely different. One is designed for stabbing, and the other is thicker so it’s better used for parrying. Think of them as a sword and shield, only smaller.
Kent: . . . I’m not going to forgive you for this.
Svennia: Wha? I’m doing you a special favor! Besides, that sword didn’t suit you anyway!
Kent: Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to complain further. I’ll just have to take these into battle. Lunette! Why aren’t you ready?
Lunette: Oh, shush. I’m not going.
Kent: You’re not?
Lunette: I’m a Bard. Not really that useful in combat.
Svennia: But the more allies we have, the more useful Bard songs are. You’d be immensely helpful.
Lunette: Sorry, you’ll just have to do without me. Not much of an army if you have to count on me to be there. Besides, “Lord Balken” wants to make sure Etrium has a standing force ready to move just in case.
Kent was assigned under the command of Braddock, an Assassin.
Braddock: You don’t know Shadow Meld? It’s a basic stealthing technique. Even the Thief class should be able to learn it.
Kent: I’m just not the stealthy type.
Braddock: Well, that’s fine, I suppose. You’ll be a fine decoy. When we get half way to the ambush site, I want you holding a banner.
Kent: Shouldn’t I be fighting alongside you?
Braddock: Yes, but not until the battle actually starts. Shadow Meld allows everyone in my unit to turn invisible as long as there’s a large enough shadow to conceal them. Using this tactic, the enemy will let their guard down, thinking they’re fighting against a force half its actual size.
Kent: Completely invisible? Just by using the shadow of a banner? Ridiculous.
Braddock: Haven’t you noticed the four Assassins walking next to you?
Kent: . . .
Scout: Sir! There’s an enemy force up ahead.
Scout: They’re carrying the standard of the black dragon.
Kruseid: Another Balken impersonator. It’s been a few years since the last one. It’s best we crush them now. Everyone! Stand your ground! Cavalry Stormers, take aim! If they want a fight, let them cross a hail of arrows to reach it.
The Stormers in the rear of Kruseid’s formation took aim and waited for the approach of the army from Etrium. It was the perfect time for the squads of Rangers and Snipers to take the first strike. A flurry of arrows rained down on the Cavalry Stormers, who rode away to avoid the ambush. In no time at all, Kruseid’s escort had scattered in chaos, and the full force of “Balken’s” army approached relatively unhindered.
But as organized as the assault was, it was still merely a collection of adventurers. In Kruseid’s escort were several high-level mercenaries, and they proved their worth immediately. For every elite mercenary in the escort to fall, so too did, ten adventurers. Balken’s vanguard was soon pushed back, and Kruseid’s forces began to press their advantage into the heart of their attackers. It was then that the stealth squads revealed themselves, taking the elites by surprise and killing most of them. One elite, however, was a cut above the rest. It was as if the sheer strength of his body allowed himself to survive the attack and deliver swift retribution.
Knight: Weaklings, all of you!
Kent: We meet again.
Knight: Ha! So, I get to finish what I started after all! If the rest of this army is as pathetic as you, we’ve got this wrapped up under our little finger.
Kent: Try me.
Knight: Come at me! I’ll use my full strength, so it’ll be quick!
Kent dashed straight at the elite mercenary and slashed at his neck with a dagger. His enemy dodged the attack handily, but not without suffering a small nick.
Knight: You don’t even use a real man’s weapon. Pathetic!
With blinding speed, the fighter slammed his greatsword down at Kent, who only had time to defend himself.
Kent: That was close…
Kent was just as amazed as his opponent was when he realized he had successfully blocked that powerful attack with his two daggers.
Knight: Those tiny picks should have been crushed!
Kent continued to repel the sword with his “shield” dagger while freeing his other hand to throw his “sword” dagger into the elite’s face. It hit its mark.
Kent: If you had been trained as a real Knight… Damn it all… That sword… that armor… the standards they bear… What does that make you?! I don’t even know your name. You’re just… a soldier?
Although Balken’s army suffered more losses, their goal was in sight. The escort’s forces had thinned, and the enemy commander had been brought out into the open.
Doop: The path is clear. I’m going to charge directly at Kruseid. Kendrick, will you charge with me?
Kent: I… Do what you want.
Doop: Very well. Prepare to fall by my blade, Hero!
Kruseid: I will not fall to the likes of a fake Balken!
Kruseid urged his steed forward to meet Balken in combat. He held his shield up to deflect Balken’s blow, but the Dark Blade tore through it as if it were paper. The king fell off his horse, impaled, and crashed into the ground.
Doop: There is no one who can match Balken, after all.
Kruseid: Ggh… B-burn…
Kruseid: BURN THE STANDARDS!
Kruseid’s standard bearers nodded and set fire to their banners. Suddenly, their numbers tripled, and their complexion changed.
Doop: What’s this?! DAMN IT!
Doop looked at the fallen Kruseid’s face and saw that it had changed. His skin was much darker as well. Defiantly, he looked up at his killer and grinned.
Doop: Rieve Elan assassins?! It’s a decoy!
* * *
Lunette: LOWELL! Sorry, but I need your help.
Lunette: I know you don’t like it, but I can’t move fast enough unless you carry me. We have to get to the top of the walls!
Kruseid’s army swarmed in from the north, the king himself leading the charge. Etrium closed down its gates and gathered everyone inside the coming siege.
Kruseid: Don’t take pity on any one of them, men! Etrium has been harboring rebels against the peace of Rym, and it will suffer for its treachery! Take no prisoners! Etrium must burn to the ground this day!
Shortly after his rallying cry ended, Kruseid swiftly lifted his shield to protect his face just in time to stop an arrow from killing him instantly.
* * *
From the top of the newly-constructed Verdant Watchtower, Roegen peered across the horizon. Although Etrium was far beyond even his sight, he knew he had hit his mark. The burning Eye of Malice in his hand told no lies.
Roegen: Is that your answer, then? If the Seven Heroes cannot bring change to this world, maybe it has no need for them. It only needs one!
Next time, on Bardass! With Etrium caught up in a hopeless siege and once again embroiled in an ancient feud, do they have any chance of holding out? As if matters weren’t complicated enough as is, the Sakar army enters the fray as well. What battles will come to an end, and what battles will begin to take shape? Find out in Quest 22: Coda.