That Horrible Moment Chapter 2
The Murdering Scum of the Earth
As night fell on the fringes of Sweegy Woods, the merchant caravan slowly ground to a stop. With the practiced skill of men who had made this trip many, many times, the wagoners began to remove the chocobos' harnesses, pitch their tents, and prepare their evening meal. As they began to settle uneasily around the moving campfire, one man filled two bowls of stew and turned to the others. His short, raggedly cut red hair gleaming in the fire light, he dipped his scrawny body into a flamboyant bow.
"I believe I will deliver some sustenance to our noble sentries before I enjoy my own fine repast. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me.?" With that, he walked off towards the edge of the camp closest to the forbidding forest.
The merchants grinned as they watched the little man go. He had paid quite a bit for passage from Dorter to Igros, claiming that he needed to deliver an urgent message to the leaders of his company there. Although the hard-bitten traders would normally have viewed a noble's aide with barely concealed contempt, this man, Lanal, had rapidly gained their affection with his cheerful smile and friendly manner. Somehow, it was impossible not to like him.
As Lanal approached the two sentries, one of them jerked his crossbow towards him. As he managed to make out Lanal's features in the dim light, he sheepishly lowered it. His companion slapped him across the back of the head and gave Lanal an apologetic look.
"Sorry bout Wedge, eh's a moron."
A wide smile lighting up his freckled face and green eyes, Lanal placed the clay bowls between the two. As the famished hired guards began to shovel the scalding hot stew down their throats, he replied cheerfully. "Why, no need to thank me, most noble of guardians. In such a dangerous locale, one can hardly be faulted for being quick to ready one's weapon. It is entirely my fault for not calling out."
As the pair continued wolfing down their meals, Lanal suddenly pointed into the dark forest. "Something is approaching."
At Lanal's warning, the two rapidly grabbed their crossbows and peered into the gloom. One of them whispered back. "Where, I don't."
As he spoke, Lanal moved with a speed and agility neither of them would have expected from him. Seizing the one who had spoken from behind, he whipped out a concealed dagger.
Calmly, his smile not fading in the slightest, Lanal slashed the sentry's throat.
Wedge, hearing his companion's muffled gasp, spun around, his crossbow out to the side. "Biggs, wha." As he turned, Lanal darted forward, stabbing his dagger precisely through Wedge's eye and cutting off his words. Retracting the blade, Lanal tumbled to the ground, circling around him. As quick and deadly as a snake, he sprang up and drove the blade through Wedge's back and into his heart.
He had moved so rapidly that their blood did not even touch him.
After Wedge's corpse fell to the ground, Lanal crouched and calmly wiped his dagger clean on Wedge's cloak. Straightening, he replaced the dagger in its hidden sheath and produced a small whistle. Bringing it to his lips, he blew into it. The call of a bird that never ventured within a hundred miles of this place cut through the night.
That done, Lanal took a seat on the log where Wedge had been sitting and waited. As he did, he noticed one of the bowls of stew was only half- finished. Hearing a slight rumble from his taut belly, he picked it up and tasted it. After a moment's thought, he nodded his approval of the dish.
He hoped that the poison would not ruin the flavor for the rest of the merchants.
Lanal's attention snapped back to business as he heard the sound of someone approaching from the forest. He relaxed slightly as he recognized the maker of the sound, a dark-haired man wearing tanned robes and carrying a long, dark staff. He did not relax completely though.
He knew this man.
"Good evening, Chell," he said, abandoning his usual florid manner of speaking and friendly demeanor. Experience had taught his that it would not help with this one. "The others are in place?"
Chell, his coal black eyes as emotionless as a piece of stone, nodded once. "The first group will attack from the forest near here. The second group will sweep in from the west to cut off their escape. Drake is waiting in reserve to breakup any resistance." He paused, having spoken with no more feeling than if he had been ordering dinner in a tavern. "You remember our role?"
:Of course," Lanal replied, keeping the nervousness this man inspired in him from showing in his voice. He bent down, happy for an excuse not to look into Chell's cold, lifeless eyes, and sketched a crude map in the dirt. "Sentries are posted here, here, and here. The groups are small, only two each. We should split up to deal with them quickly. Most of the guards are stationed near the wagons; they did not want to be out too far at night in goblin country. There are more than I expected; the merchants must be spooked over something."
Still expressionless, Chell nodded again, the shoulder length braid he kept his hair in swinging lightly with the movement. He tapped the butt of his staff on one of the sentry post Lanal had indicated. "You deal with this one, the others are mine." With that, he turned and walked back into the night.
His love of talking overwhelming his resolution to remain silent, Lanal spoke. "Do you not even wish to ask how they are armed, how skilled they are?" he asked dryly.
Chell stopped and turned back towards him. "It would not make a difference," he said flatly.
Chell, his face an expressionless mask, rapidly analyzed the new situation. He had easily wiped out the first two sentries, but at the second post a new problem presented itself. Five soldiers, not two, clustered together there. They were talking loudly among themselves, and from what Chell could gather from their conversation the three additional men had come to warn of a growing problem in the main camp. Several of the merchants and guards there had suddenly fallen ill, and the sentries were being called back to help.
It would seem that Lanal's poison had done its work a bit too quickly. The sentries began to head off, back to their comrades. Chell could not allow that to happen.
He began a low, droning chant. As he spoke, his hands formed into an arcane pattern, moving in two opposing, but perfectly matched, rhythms. A relaxing, soothing energy began to gather around his outstretched hand. As the magical energy peaked, he pointed his hand towards the caravan guards and brought the chant to its climax. The spell flowed out, engulfing the soldiers' minds, lulling away at their alertness. The first one to succumb stood in the middle of the group. Without warning, he gave a great yawn and collapsed to the ground, fast asleep.
Patrick's first though was that Holen was playing some sort of prank. He started to tell him to knock it off, but as soon as he opened his mouth he found himself yawning as well. Suddenly, the thought of lying down and taking a nap seemed very appealing...
Just as he was about to fall to the ground, he caught a glimpse of a robed man amid the trees. The instincts born of years of traveling kicking in, he realized in a small corner of his mind that he was being attacked by magic. Alerted, he struggled to remain awake, trying to shout a warning to his comrades, who were also beginning to sway on their feet. Chell's magic, gripping his mind with chains that seemed stronger than mythril, drowned out his words with another yawn. Slowly, he began to slip to the ground...
Chell, not even feeling a flicker of excitement at the success of his spell, walked towards the sleeping men. Calmly, he raised his staff. One blow to the head each, he decided, that was all it would take.
Suddenly, one of the men leapt to his feet, drawing his sword as he rose. Charging forward, Patrick managed to catch Chell off-guard, his sword cutting into the oracle's side. Chell reacted faster than Patrick would have thought possible, spinning to the side and twirling his bo in a defensive pattern. Without taking his eyes from the man, Chell felt the wound. It bled, but he had managed to avoid any serious injury.
They circled, both combatants taking the other's measure. Patrick, no novice to battle, fought down a sense of unease. Finally, he spoke. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Calmly, Chell answered. "I am a member of a group of bandits. I intend to kill you, and every person in you group, and loot the goods you are transporting."
Honesty was a virtue Chell valued highly.
Chell's answer shocked Patrick, not so much the words as the calm, matter-of-fact way he said it. He broke the impasse, charging forward. He shouted, trying to trick Chell into believing he was off-balance. As Chell lifted his staff to block, Patrick switched gears, falling into a crouch and stabbing at his legs.
Chell, recognizing the feint and predicting the true attack, leapt up, the sword missing his feet by inches. As he rose, he spun, using the momentum to slam the end of his staff into the side of Patrick's head.
Reflex saved him. As Chell dodged his first attack, Patrick instinctively hurled himself to the side. The staff clipped him hard enough to make the world spin around him, but the roll deflected enough of the force to keep it from cracking his skull.
He continued to roll, the world spinning before him as he came to a stop. Chell started to advance and finish off his dazed opponent, but a noise from the side caught his attention. One of the other soldiers was coming to. Abandoning Patrick for the moment, he leapt at the awakening soldier, his feet landing directly on the man's throat. With a sickening crack, the man's eyes were shut once more, this time permanently.
Horrified, Patrick forced himself to his feet. "Y-You bastard!"
For the first time, a slight smile crossed Chell's face. "Now or later, it makes no difference. Don't worry, you will be next."
His blood boiling at the sight of the brutal murder of his comrade, Patrick charged Chell recklessly. With a quick spin, Chell sent him back to ground.
"Did you really think you had a chance? I was once a Knight of the Touten, the greatest warriors Ivalice has ever known!"
Rising to his feet once more, Patrick spat at him. "I will kill you!" he screamed.
"Unlikely." With that, Chell began to chant once more. A cold, empty void formed within him, a spot utterly devoid of energy. Smirking, he looked at Patrick and sent it out. The emptiness enveloped Patrick, draining his life-force away. As the void filled itself, Patrick fell to the ground, totally still. The stolen energy flowed into Chell, warming his body. The cut in his side glowed for a moment, then closed of its own accord, leaving only a bloody tear in his robes. Grinning in perverse pleasure at the sensation, Chell stretched like a cat.
The distraction dealt with, he turned his attention to the other sleeping soldiers. A sadistic grin on his face, he hefted his staff once more.
As men fell to the ground around him, vomiting and retching, Rulan knew that an attack was coming. The experienced leader of the caravan's guards turned to the portly merchant beside him, a silent question written on his face. The man, Tyler, shook his head. "Not enough. I had enough anti-toxin for us and a few other guards, but not for all of them. I doubt it would do much good at this point anyway, they couldn't hold it down."
The swordsman nodded reluctantly. "How bad is it going to be?"
Tyler shook his head once more. "I can't be sure without knowing exactly what they took, but from what I've seen, it shouldn't kill them. They'll be trying to spit their organs out of their mouths for the rest of the night, but it doesn't seem strong enough to kill them."
"Meaning that whoever is behind it will be attacking soon. I need them ready to fight old friend!"
Tyler winced at his old comrade's words. He started to reply, but was interrupted by the thunder of a charge. From out of the forest, riders on chocobo back were hurtling into the camp, swords drawn and spears set. At the sight of the riders, a force that appeared as disciplined as any regiment he had seen during the War, the chemist-turned-merchant's heart fell into his feet. He met Rulan's eyes for a moment, saw his own fear's mirrored there, and then the Guard Captain was drawing his sword and rushing out, shouting at his ill men to form ranks and to fight these bandits (and what else could they be?) off.
Tyler, with a courage that belied his lack of fighting skills, started to follow, but then remembered something. Turning, he dashed in the opposite direction, towards the wagons.
Rulan, already in the middle of his men, caught Tyler's flight out of the corner of his eye. He surprised by his old friend's uncharacteristic abandonment, but he could not blame him. "Run fast, old friend", he thought, "I don't know how long I can hold them off." Returning his attention to the fight at hand, he continued to shout orders, going so far as to pull his drug-slowed men to their feet. They ran, heading towards the wagons, praying that the structures would give them a place to fend off the raiders, praying that they could make it at all.
Against the incredible speed of a chocobo, this was a desperate prayer indeed.
Tyler tore through his cabin, finally finding the chest he was looking for. He hurled the contents out without a second thought, sending articles of clothing flying across the room. Finally, at the very bottom, he found what he was looking for. Smiling, his hands closed on the long, hard metal object.
They almost made it, were barely fifty feet away from the wagons. But the raiders, seeing their plan, cut them off, their swift steeds bringing them between the guards and their destination. Rulan's spirit sank, knowing that they were doomed, knowing that there was no way they could stand against a full out mounted charge on open ground. Grinning, the leader of the riders raised his free hand, preparing to give the order.
A loud cracking noise shot through the night before he could speak. The bandit fell forward in his saddle, a gaping hole in his skull. His comrades (and the merchant guards!) twisted their heads to see the source of the noise, and the lethal shot. Tyler stood their, atop the roof of one of the wagons, rifle in hand.
"And you laughed at me when I bought this from the machinist!" the brave merchant roared at Rulan. The rare Romandan weapon had cost him a small fortune, but in that moment the normal stingy Tyler did not begrudge a single coin of it. Moving quickly, he reloaded, this time aiming for the mounts, trying to panic them.
Rulan, having to fight back tears at the sight of his old comrade, raised his sword. "Charge!" The guards, adrenaline outweighing sickness for the moment, obeyed, catching raiders with their backs turned. For the first time, it seemed they might win.
From the fringes of the wagons, two cold eyes regarded the fight. With the unanticipated actions of the merchant, the caravan guards had gained a fighting chance. Time to take that away. Flexing powerful leg muscles, the Dragoon leapt into the air. With a strength that was more than physical, the heavily armored Dragoon hurtled through the night air. As his leap began to arc to the ground, he aimed his long, deadly spear.
He landed with massive force, the lance blasting effortlessly through Tyler's unarmored chest, snapping his spine and ripping his heart apart. As he came to a standing position, the Dragoon tore the spear back out viciously, ripping half of the valiant merchant's torso out. Tyler never even saw the man who killed him.
Rulan, seeing his friend's sudden, horrible death, felt as though part of his own heart had been torn away. His reason blasted away by rage at the murderous sight, he screamed in outrage. Abandoning the melee with the riders, in which they had actually been beginning to gain the upper hand, he charged the Dragoon, his vision red. Seeing the charge, the Dragoon smiled slightly beneath his helmet. He leapt into the air once more. Rulan, canny even through his outrage, waited until the last second, then hurled himself to the side. The Dragoon's attack just barely missed him, the spear slamming half its length into the dirt. With no apparent effort or strain, The Dragoon pulled it out and brought it into a fighting stance. Rapidly regaining his feet, Rulan took a similar stance, and began to examine his foe.
The Dragoon wore heavy armor, covering every inch of his body, from his booted feet, to his the raised blades on the forearms of his gauntlets, to the draconic mask that concealed his facial features. Both hands gripped a razor-sharp spear nearly as tall as his six foot frame in a easy, experienced manner, and despite all the armor he wore and the wild fury of the raging battle the man seemed completely relaxed, the mark of a true fighting master. The warrior stood silently, waiting for Rulan to make the first move. Rulan knew he was in trouble, knew by the sheer calm of the Dragoon's manner that this would likely be the most difficult fight of his life. He spoke, trying to gain some information of his adversary.
"Who are you?" The man stood there, silent, for several moments. Rulan, realizing that the man would not reply, darted forward, screaming a battle cry. "You won't catch me from behind!" he bellowed. He was over-balanced, in his rage he left himself almost completely open to attack.
Exactly as he intended to. As the Dragoon's thrust his spear forward, the cunning swordsman reversed himself, falling into a backwards roll. The spear passed harmlessly over his head as he stopped in a crouch. He wasted no time in stabbing at the dragoons exposed side. Blindingly fast, the Dragoon reversed his spear, slamming the butt into Rulan's head. The blow sent the swordsman sprawling. Shaking his head, he leapt back to his feet to fend off the pending charge. But the Dragoon was nowhere to be seen. For one moment Rulan stood in confusion, before he realized the only possible answer to the puzzle. He spun, sword flashing before him in a desperate attempt to parry.
One second too late. The Dragoon's spear slammed through his chest, tearing the leather armor he wore as though it were dry parchment. His masked face inches away from his victim's wide-eyed face, he spoke, his voice as cold as the spear through Rulan's heart. "I am Drake. And you were incorrect."
With that, he let Rulan fall to the ground. Planting a foot on his stomach, Drake tore his lance out triumphantly. He lifted his head to see that the second battle group had arrived, and that the remaining guards and merchants were being slaughtered. Smiling beneath his all-concealing helmet, he walked away. His men could handle the rest.
As the last of the caravan's owners died beneath the bandit's blades, Lanal and Chell made their way back. Drake stood before them, eyes turned to the wagons, where the rest of his men were carrying out the looting. Not bothering to look towards them, he spoke. "There were no escapees?"
"None." Lanal replied casually, "Although a few did try."
Drake finally did turn towards his two lieutenants, his stare fixing on Lanal. "You did not discover the merchant's rifle. That could have proved disastrous."
Lanal, adrenaline beginning to pump through him, began to stammer a response. "He never took it out, I could not search every merchant's private quarters, I…"
Finally, Drake cut him off with a laugh. "But then, is exactly why I was there!"
Lanal, realizing that his old comrade from the Touten was not angry at him, joined in Drake's laughter, even going so far as to place a hand on his leader's armored shoulder. As he did, he carefully hid a sigh of relief. Of all the people in the world, his old commander was the last person he wanted angry at him! He looked to the corpses of the men Drake had slain that night.
And now he had two more examples of why not.