The Story of Zed in Saint Centaur
The green-haired warrior passed his fingers through his
hair, looking around him with a pensive and slightly bewildered countenance.
He had a handsome enough face, but his expression was never very intelligent,
and the slight absurdity that marked an ever-present aura of vanity about
him made his current confusion somewhat comical.
Zed thought he had a right to feel puzzled. Something, he felt, was wrong with this town. It had the structure and appearance of any ordinary human town, but it seemed as full of death as the ordinary towns of humans were full of life. Here he had landed after the disaster at the Gate Generator, that involved the three pesky human warriors; they might have been destroyed during the accident, and Zeikfried, the leader of the Quarter Demon Knights, might have been as well; but Zed had somehow survived, and found himself in this strange place.
He stared at ruined, half-charred buildings around him, and sensed the sinister quietude in what must once have been a beautiful, prosperous town. The slanted roofs still maintained some of their brick-red slates, and the gaping walls revealed the remains of formerly habitable rooms. Human rooms, he thought, and he concluded that he must have landed somewhere in Filgaia. But where?
A small man sporting a top hat and a spotless white suit walked nearby. In one hand he carried a round shield with a golden star glowing on the front, and his other hand was grasping a short leash that apparently provided some control over a large, savage dog at its end. The dog, a monster brute with wings on its back, was considerably larger and more massive than its small owner; but the man seemed sure of his hold. He walked with a self-satisfied air, looking around him at the town as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Then his eyes spotted Zed.
"Greeting, Sir Demon!" he cried cheerfully, performing a flourishing bow as he took off his hat. "What can you mean by such honor in visiting us, Sir?"
"How did you know I'm a Demon?" Zed demanded. He was indeed a Demon, and quite proud of it, but he still liked to think that other creatures, particularly humans, could be fooled by his appearance. He made his best to look like a human warrior, in a shape that resembled his demonic appearance closely enough. Of course he could not put on that stunning form Lady Harken was capable of, but she was always an oddity, in various ways.
The large dog whimpered and cowered as Zed neared the two, and its owner chuckled. "I feel your powers, Sir Demon," he said. "To mistake it would be fatal, wouldn't it?"
"What is this place?" Zed asked, pleased with the little monster's reverence. He perceived that Demons were known in this town and wanted to know why and how.
"This town is what had once been Saint Centaur," the little man replied smugly. "It was named after the Guardian Saint, curses be on her! For years me and my kind could not approach it for the protection the humans erected around it. But once Sir Alhazad came, the situation finally amended. It's a paradise for monsters now."
"Saint Centaur," Zed repeated. "Yes, I think Alhazad had spoken of paying it a small visit. So he converted it into this little paradise, ha?"
"Exactly so, Sir Demon. All the humans had been rid of-- well... you might say, almost all."
"What do you mean, almost all?" Zed inquired, his interest kindling. "Alhazad could not have overlooked anybody. He always does his job thoroughly."
The little man looked up at the warrior with sharp little eyes, his expression becoming odd. "With all due reverence to Sir Alhazad, he had overlooked this one," he said. "We noticed it only after he left. One of the houses has a protective force around it, we can only guess what. It's inhabited by the last remaining human in town, and this human has something about it-- a charm stronger than us. We all crave the delicious flesh of the human, but the aura is too holy." The little man shuddered. "But you, Sir Demon, might be able to penetrate it."
"I'll certainly go and see what it is at once," said Zed, making a motion to go. The little man bowed, his countenance becoming cheerful again. "Promise me a part of the feast, Sir Demon, if you capture the human!"
"All right," Zed said carelessly, laying his hand on his sword. He was not really interested in eating the human, but if the monsters wanted it, he saw no reason to refuse them. The little man bowed reverently again, indicating the house that the human lived in, and then walked off with the dog at his side.
Zed walked in the direction the little man indicated, and soon spotted the house. It was relatively well-kept, probably owing to whatever protective charm the human possessed. He wasn't too worried about the charm. It could ward off monsters, but probably not demons. Only something as strong as the Guardians could do that, and sometimes even that wasn't enough.
He approached it quietly, not because he was afraid, but because some inner instinct in him responded to the silence settled in the vicinity of the house, a deathlike silence that pervaded the whole town. He looked through the window.
The room was well-lit by the rich aura of the afternoon sun . Zed could see that it was tidy and unscorched, except for the door, which sat at a rather skewed angle on its hinges, and had ugly marks across it. Obviously the monsters had tried to bash their way through several times without much success. There was no living creature visible and the air was silent.
Zed was wondering to himself whether he had approached the wrong house, when a side door opened and a girl entered the room. An ordinary-looking girl, plainly dressed, and certainly not the image of the powerful warrior or perhaps skilled sorcerer that Zed had expected to encounter. He perceived immediately that his task would be much easier that he had thought; and yet, he decided to be cautious for the moment. He therefore watched the girl silently from the shadows behind the window, and took no immediate action.
Slowly and quietly, the girl walked to the table and sat in the sun. In her hand she held a sheet of paper, a brush and a plate of paint. She spread the paper across the table and laid the plate before her carefully. As Zed watched her, she bent over the paper and began to paint with slow, careful strokes.
Zed looked at the girl's work, immediately interested. Something about it struck him slightly odd, and he realized what it was after a moment. The paint the girl used was entirely black, with no other color, and she painted with gentle, curving movements; the picture that emerged seemed formless. He looked at it for a moment, trying to understand it; then, he observed the girl with more attention.
She sat with her profile to him; a slim girl, moderately dressed in a white chemise and a skirt, with an oval face of delicate but undistinguished features. Her hair was light brown and perfectly smooth, and fell loosely to her shoulders and across her face as she bent forward over her work. She was very thin, and looked fragile. Zed was reminded that she, alone of the humans, had stayed in the ruined town; perhaps, he suddenly thought, she did not have enough to eat. He had almost forgotten his original mission in his observation of the girl, and he was now recalled to it.
Dropping caution now that there was no need for it, he rounded the house and without much ado pushed the door open. The girl raised her head as he entered. He expected her to scream, to try to escape, or perhaps faint at the sight of him, but she did none of these things. Instead, she sat very still and looked at him, the hand holding the brush dropping to rest on the table. Something in her eyes was very strange, but Zed did not pause to think of it. He strode forward, unsheathed his sword and directed it at her.
"Stay quiet, and I will not kill you," he said, speaking in a loud, commanding voice that he hoped will impress her into fear. "I have just one question for you."
"I will stay quiet," the girl said, in a surprisingly calm voice. She still did not seem afraid, and this somehow puzzled Zed. Humans generally did not accept the prospect of death quietly. Perhaps it was the charm that protected her that gave her this confidence. He paused for a moment, and the girl lowered her head. "Please tell me something first," she said, in a low voice. "You are-- human?"
Her question caught Zed off guard. For a moment he thought his disguise-- his human form-- had been faulty again. "Can't you SEE I am human?" he asked, somewhat irritably. He didn't actually mean to impose on her, but he told himself that this was a good test for his appearance. If the girl guessed he was not human, he will have to correct it. It will not matter if she knew he was a demon or not, because she will die anyway.
"I am asking if you are human because everyone except me died since the town was destroyed, and no one else ever managed to come here, " the girl said, keeping her head bent and her voice low; not from fear, Zed sensed, but as if she was deliberating over her thoughts. "When you entered I... did not know what to expect. But," she continued, raising her head, "I should have known you can't be a monster, because you managed to pass my protective halo. If you knew of Saint Centaur's destruction, you must have been as startled by my presence here as I was surprised by yours. You must be an extremely strong warrior, to have conquered all these monsters that roam the town."
Now, flattery in any form always appealed to Zed's vanity. He was not loath to take the credit, however partial it might be, since his safety was ensured as much be his demonic heritage as by his sword skills. "I am a GREAT warrior," he said, smiling arrogantly. "But," he continued, again recalling himself to his mission, "my purpose in coming was a question. What is that protection you spoke of, that prevented the monsters from entering?"
The girl fixed her gaze on his face. Her eyes were so dark that the pupils were almost lost in a uniform blackness, a strong contrast to a very white face. Again, Zed had an uneasy feeling that the focus of her attention was somehow not right; as if she was seeing with something else than her eyes. "Was it truly your purpose in coming, warrior?" she asked. "You perceived that I have a charm, to protect me from the monsters, and you wish to know what it is?"
Zed sensed he was missing something, and tried to think what humans would do. Did she expect him to rescue her from the monsters, or was she suspicious of his motives? He couldn't decide, then got irritated at himself for caring about what she might think. It really didn't matter; he just wanted her story, and whatever charm that made her withstand the monsters. "Tell me what you have, to protect you from the monsters," he said, shortly.
The girl did not question him further, perhaps warned by his tone of voice. "I have a protection, as you guessed," she said. "A talisman, you may say. A holy relic." She touched her hand to her neck, and a small, rueful smile rose to her lips. "I have no objection of showing it to you, warrior." With gentle fingers, she pulled it out. It was a shining disc, suspended on a plain silver chain, and the moment Zed saw it he knew it harbored great power. He was not knowledgeable in such things, but this was too strong for even him to overlook. The disc's glow was mute, yet strangely potent, full of presence. The girl looked up again, fixing her disconcerting gaze upon him. "If you wish to hear how I acquired it, I will tell you," she said quietly.
Zed felt suddenly uncomfortable. Lowering his sword, he sat in the chair opposite to the girl. "Yes, tell me," he said, and added suddenly: "If you want to know my name, it's Zed." He felt an impulse to add the last bit, which was strange, because he knew he had to kill her and give her to the monsters eventually. So what did it matter if he told her his name?
The girl looked at him with a shadow of a smile. "I will tell you my story then," she said. Lowering her head and pushing the plate of paint away, she began.
"I am blind, Sir Warrior," she said. "As you can see." Zed frowned as he looked at her, suddenly understanding what had bothered him about her eyes. They were not really seeing. Had he been a true human, he would have guessed it earlier. The girl continued to speak. "I am blind from birth. With this brush," she indicated the brush lying by the platter of black paint, grasping it lightly between her fingers, "I attempt to paint images from my mind. I always did it. The people that adopted me knew of this, and they gave me the paint, so I can pass my time as I wished."
"This is why the paint is black," said Zed. The girl nodded. "Colors have very little meaning to me," she said. "I have no conception of them. I can't see, and I have never seen them. So it made no difference whether I painted with a hundred colors or with one. I simply paint images from my imagination."
Zed leaned closer to the picture. It was simply done, in shapes and waves that had very little meaning to him. Perhaps she saw the meaning in her mind. The girl continued to speak. "Saint Centaur had been protected by the Guardian Iona Pua for many years," she said. "For hundreds of years, in fact. Her statue had been intact until the Demons came. You must have heard of the Demons."
"I did," Zed replied, feeling uneasy again. He now understood she had been uncertain of his identity when he came because she couldn't actually see him, not because his human form had been faulty. But he pushed this fact away, deciding to tell her of his true heritage later. It wouldn't matter to her anyway when she's dead, and it would only scare her if he told her now; and he wanted to hear her story without interruption.
"The Demons destroyed my town," the girl's quiet voice continued. "But I had this protective amulet. I had it from Iona Pua herself."
She fixed her dark, unseeing eyes on Zed's face again. He had the unsettling feeling that, rather than not seeing, they saw too much. "Sometimes, I was lonely," she said. "I grew up in various places, and had no family of my own. When I was lonely I would paint, or walk out alone. I knew the streets of the town by heart." She smiled again, as she milled over a pleasant memory, a smile that made her seem almost pretty. "One day, not long before the town was destroyed, I went out alone, and chanced to come to the Statue of the Saint as twilight descended. I knelt at the feet of the statue and passed my hands over it, trying to understand how it looked. This is what I do to understand the way things are formed; I touch them."
Zed listened with attention. The girl continued, her quiet voice almost lulling him to see what she herself had seen, or felt, on that day. "As I touched the statue, I felt something unusual. It was an odd feeling, like being washed with light rather than water. A purifying, almost holy feeling. Then, my fingers found this disc." Her hand went to the chain again, where the disc glowed with a mute light that almost seemed to illuminate her in response to her touch. "And-- the Saint spoke to me."
Again, she smiled that rueful smile. "I knew it was the Saint the moment I heard her. She did not say much. She told me to take the amulet, and that it will protect me in a time of great trouble. I obeyed. When the monsters came, I hid in my house, but-- it was not all. I soon discovered that, however long they tried, they couldn't get in. Something held them back; and I knew it was the Saint's blessing that did it." The blind girl shook her head. "What I could not understand is why, of all the people in Saint Centaur, the Guardian chose to save me. I still don't know."
"So it was the Amulet," said Zed, looking at it. He was uncertain whether it would protect her from him. Probably not. The girl nodded in affirmation. "Yes. The monsters cannot come as long as I have it. Now you know, Warrior. This your purpose in coming here, wasn't it?"
In a manner, Zed thought. To the girl, he said: "I came to this town, and saw it full of monsters. When I learned that you have survived, I was unsure of what to expect. I wanted to know who you were, and what magic you had, to ensure your survival." Close enough to the truth.
To his surprise the girl nodded, seeming to understand. "This is why you were so suspicious," she said. "Perhaps you thought I had a pact with the monsters, that I was evil. You see now that I don't."
"That's it," said Zed, lying outright. He looked at the Amulet curiously, thinking that perhaps he could take it from her later. The girl's hand rested on it protectively, shielding it from his view. "And.. are you going to stay here, Warrior?" she asked.
"Just call me Zed," said Zed, feeling a little uneasy again, even a trifle awkward. He decided that to be taken for a real human for once was rather intriguing. Perhaps, he thought, he could learn more of humans through this girl.
The girl smiled slightly at his reply. "Zed." She paused, then extended her hand. "If you're not leaving, please stay in this house. It's safest here, and... now you know you can trust me. Right?"
"Right," said Zed, a trifle shortly again. He certainly had no intention of letting her escape from his observation, or that rare Guardian Amulet. Not, he thought, that she had much choice. If he could give this amulet to Zeikfried to study-- if Zeikfried was still alive-- it would be a great thing for him. Perhaps he would finally be recognized to be a worthy Quarter Knight. Zed knew he was worthy to be one. The trouble was that the others failed to realize this.
"I am grateful," said the girl's quiet voice, distracting his thoughts. "I have not had real company for such a long time. Even when I know I have the Amulet, I am sometimes afraid from the monsters. They do try to get in every once in a while."
Zed looked towards the ravaged door. "Don't worry, you're perfectly safe with me," he said, his voice again wearing that quality of arrogance. The strange thing, he thought a little regretfully, was that she did not even understand the full truth of it.
"Thank you," said the blind girl again. "You'll be my personal Warrior." Somehow, she seemed to think it amusing, and she smiled a little. Zed stared at her, puzzled but oddly flattered. Among the Demons he was a nobody, try hard as he might, and to reach this level of importance suddenly felt good, even if she was only a human. "Yes," he repeated, "you'll be safe with me." He sensed the irony of this all the same. She was safe with him from the monsters, but it was he who presented the greatest danger to her. But Zed was not of a mind to think over complex things like ironies; all he knew was that he was playing a little game with this human girl, and liking his role better every minute.
The girl rose, fixing her eyes on him. "If you don't mind, can I feel your face?" she said, her voice hesitant. "This is how I tell how people look."
"All right," he replied apprehensively, unsure of what to expect. She lowered her head a little as she came towards him, and her cool, slim fingers passed over his face. "I can tell a lot about people by their faces," she said.
"Aha," said Zed, a trifle anxiously. He almost feared she could tell he was a demon from his face, and found himself wishing he hadn't consented.
"You're a very handsome man," said the blind girl, her fingers leaving his face. Zed brightened considerably at this positive conclusion of the experiment. "I am," he said, and saw that she was smiling again in that strange, half-rueful way of hers. Suddenly he found himself almost blushing and wished he had bitten his tongue on that one. He always had that trouble, of speaking things he shouldn't have. He felt the blind girl's hand on his shoulder, and found her other hand extended towards him. "Thank you again," she said. "I am sure we will be friends."
Zed shook her hand briefly. "You didn't tell me your name," he said suddenly, sensing this would be the appropriate human way to end the introduction. But the girl merely turned around. "My name... it doesn't matter, for now," she said. "Wait here please; I will bring something to eat. I haven't much, but I hope it will suffice."
She vanished through the door, leaving Zed with a vague feeling of having made some sort of a mistake.