Noxia 16

Aaron stood, transfixed with a mix of fear and contempt. Even as the prince ranted at him, voice booming louder with every stomp forward, he never once seemed to break his regal bearing.

“It’s your choice, heathen. Bend your knee now, or I’ll force you onto it.” Prince Maximus spat, his voice laden with a sort of disgust – like having to so much as talk down to the lowborn churned whatever delicacies were residing his stomach.

Aaron was just about to ask who he thought he was, but that much was abundantly clear. He took much pride in his position, pushing it well over the edge of healthy gratification and far into the realm of arrogance. His plated chest practically swelled like a balloon as he raved on.

“Pfft. This guy’s a commander?” Val blew out in mockery, “What a blowhard. Thinks he’s so big and tough just cuz of his daddy~”

Yeah, gotta love nepotism…’ Aaron thought grimly to himself, not sharing enough of Val’s bravado to mock the prince to his face. He found that the daughter of Starkard Valentine, seeming to not give a rat’s ass about her heritage, mocking a man who looked down on others because of his bloodline had almost a poetic humor to it. The bandit didn’t have time appreciate it before the prince was roaring with accusation once again.

“Ha! You think I received my position just because of my royal blood? No. A filthy mongrel like yourself, who lives only to gorge on earthly pleasures, would have no idea what true effort is!” Maximus spat, jade eyes flaring, “My lineage is a burden as much as it is a blessing. Every waking moment, I’ve scrapped and clawed to prove myself to the world, to live up to the impossible expectations… everything I have, I’ve earned through guile and tenacity!”

“Yeah. I’m sure it must’ve been soooo hard to have a buncha servants bringing you hot meals on silver platters whenever you snapped your fingers.” Val grumbled in retaliation, “Or giving ya weapons, or money, or-”

“Enough!” the prince snapped. Will, already seeming incredibly squirrely, jumped at the royal’s exclamation.

“P-Prince Maximus, please-”

“You shall stay your lips.” a golden knight from behind William throatily snarled, jabbing the end of his glaive into the archer’s back.

The bandit’s eyes shifted around quickly, desperateness clear, trying to pick apart the grim scene with what little time he was allocated. They were surrounded on all sides by impressive-looking knights, the prince himself growing more furious by the moment…

“W-what do you want with us anyway?” Aaron barked. Perhaps, just maybe, if he convinced the prince they were just traveling vagabonds, not worth the diseased blood on his royal blade…

The prince’s handsome face wrinkled into a sneer, “Don’t play the fool, Black Bandit. It’s an ill act for you. We both know full well what you’ve done.”

Aaron swallowed, hard. There was that dreaded nickname once again – the one he managed to earn committing highway robbery further west in Graeme.

“Don’t be surprised. My intelligence network runs deep, and it runs like a well-oiled clock…” Maximus boasted, the egoism flying clear off his tongue, “In any case, I know of you. I know how you attacked all those innocent passersby near Oakvale. I know that you hired a wanted man to help you raid the dam a few nights ago. And I know you destroyed it, killing countless numbers of my men!”

“I didn’t do that! I was only there to try and stop it! I’m being setup!”

“And by who, exactly? You, the hellhound, and the mercenary were the only intruders there. Can you even name the ‘true’ culprit?”

Aaron wanted to argue on, but he bit his tongue. Clearly, Maximus wouldn’t believe that some invisible cat woman and her boyfriend were responsible, and giving out Jack’s name and face would be absolutely worthless without any evidence he was there. He again cursed himself for getting involved with the whole debacle.

Maximus snorted quite loudly, tilting his nose heavenwards, “Can’t even fake a name? Is that all you have to say for yourself? Is that your epitaph? Mad, desperate ramblings?”

With tight lips and a thumping heart, Aaron just couldn’t think of anything else to defend himself with. They had been caught red-handed, removing what they thought were bombs from the pressure regulators. But all of that was irrelevant – Aaron could tell Maximus was out for blood. No words could free him, no pleading could stop what was coming next.

Snapping and snarling, eyes spitting orange hellfire, Val defensively slid in front of Aaron “Hey, jerkface! It was some dumb cat and the pasty dude that wrecked the dam! Like babe said, we were trying to help! So why don’t you go and-”

It all happened to fast for Aaron to stop. In a blur of bright yellow, with his ruby cape flapping with each rapid step, one of the warriors shot forward, glaive behind his back. He struck out at Val’s hindpaws with his weapon’s hilt, sweeping her off her feet. As she was still yipping and falling, the golden warrior grabbing her by the face, slamming her into the ground with enough force to leave an hellhound-shaped imprint in the earth.

Val struggled for all she worth, flailing out both her arms and legs, staining the knight’s pristine armor with clumps of dirt and grass. She hollered from underneath his armored palm, her hellfire spewing out uncontrollably – whatever the knight’s armor was made of, it withstood the flames with ease.

Holy Thunder.” the gold knight rumbled, the very words echoing through his t-visor with some sort of arcane power. His palm lit up with an intense amber light. Only Val’s muffled screams could be heard over the intense buzzing that followed.

Aaron watched in aghast horror as Val’s entire body coursed with electricity. Ears buzzing, heart-racing, Aaron did the only thing his instincts allowed. He drew his claymore, and with a battle-frenzied roar, sprung at the golden bastard electrocuting his woman.

Will’s desperate cries to relent came in muted and ignored. He brought his blade down, expecting to see a fountain of blood stain the sun-glistening armor below. Just before impact, his sword met with a platinum glaive, and with a gasp of horror, Aaron looked to the side just to see another knight had rushed in to guard his comrade.

And before he could even think of pulling back, a shimmering gauntlet busted his lip and sent sprawling onto his back. Two more of the prince’s cohorts were to quick to drag him onto his knees. Still dazed and confused, Aaron’s swimming vision righted itself just in time to watch the prince’s gold-trimmed, ruby red greaves saunter over.

“You poor, ignorant fool. These men are Praetorian Guards… my country’s best and bravest. Riding, bladesmanship, combat tactics, magic… if you can name any skill a man on the battlefield could possess, any one of the Praetorian Guards has taken it and sharpened it to a razor’s edge. Who are you? Just a hick with a hunk of pointy metal and some slobbering bitch.”

Murderous intent flashed in the prince’s jade eyes. The Praetorian Guards crossed their massive platinum blades over Aaron’s throat. The fine edges bit into his skin, threatening to cut in and send a rush of blood rushing out from his jugular at a moment’s notice.

Aaron didn’t see it, but he heard William grunt in pain as he too was restrained. His bow flew forward, the simple wooden arch kicking up dirt as it skidded ahead. The lightning surrounding Val finally abated, leaving the hellhound limp and twitching. Hauling her unconscious form to her knees, the Praetorian who shocked her grabbed her by the hair and held his weapon to her throat.

“Make your peace with whatever demons you worship, heathen.” Maximus advised him, a biting and sarcastic edge now in his acidic tone, “For all the innocent souls you’ve stolen, for betraying your kind by lying with a beast, you shall-”

“Spare me the speech, asshole.” Aaron snapped, feeling his jugular force itself against the glaives at his throat, cutting into his skin, “You can make all the flowery rants about justice and judgement you like… at the end of the day, it’s just because you know you need your daddy’s goons to do your dirty work for you. Smaller the dog, louder the bark.”

“Watch your tongue, knave!” one of the Praetorians restraining Aaron demanded, forcing his blade ever further, starting to draw streams of sticky red.

“Hmph. You still believe me a spoiled brat like the nobility out here? I hate to bear the bad news, but like I’ve said – I’ve fought and clawed for everything I’ve had. As the Prince of Esperia, I’ve sworn myself to be a blade of righteous justice on behalf of mankind.” Maximus boasted, holding one palm up to his puffed chest.

“Then prove it.” Aaron growled out, “Unless you’re too scared some stupid hillbilly like me could beat you man-to-man.”

Prince Maximus hummed in thought, the piercing storm in his emerald pools calming into something akin to a whirlpool of irritation. Aaron met that gaze, blasting ice and fire at the prince with his cool blue eyes.

One of the guards stepped towards Maximus, “Don’t let this degenerate provoke you, sire. He’s not worth the-”

“No. I think I’ll rise to the fool’s challenge.”

The guard’s eyes nearly bulged out of his t-visor. He planted one end of his glaive in the dirt, his voice going soft and pleading, “M’lord, please. Think this through. There’s no need to dignify this wretch’s provocations.”

“Yes, there is no good reason, is there? But we humans didn’t climb the food chain by simply scraping by and taking only necessary risks, did we? To better ourselves, we must push ourselves.” Maximus trailed on, tossing his ivory cape back, “I do believe I’ve gotten a bit rusty. Putting this heretic in the dirt where he belongs should get my blood pumping.”

Aaron’s heart practically sprung up out of his chest with joy. But he calmed himself – the situation was still dire, and could still turn south at a moment’s notice. He was under no illusions; he had danced on thin ice plenty of times prior, but never before had he been in such a tight pinch. He’d need to squeeze out every bit of his strength, smarts, and luck to pull off an escape with both companions in tow.

Of course, a tiny voice in the back of his mind alerted him, his chances for escape would have improved significantly if he left Val and Will in the prince’s clutches. He quickly batted the grim notion down. He owed both of them much. Leaving them with the haughty royal was an unacceptable outcome.

If worse came to worst, perhaps he could hold off the golden bastards long enough for the two of them to escape. He was sure they’d see out his quest to find Douglas a panacea in his place.

When did I become such a sentimental idiot?’ Aaron chastised himself, even as the guards flanking him parted their blades and pushed him forward. Stumbling onto his hands and knees, he hobbled back to his feet, looking around to see the circle of gold knights widening.

Val seemed to have awakened, and she thrashed against the Praetorian’s grip. He, albeit with both arms and a bit of difficulty, kept her locked in place. Will was kept on his knees, his lips quivering and covered with nervous sweat. Despite that, Aaron could still see a distant glimmer of hope in his mauve eyes. For the split second they locked gazes, the archer gave him a small nod.

That imparted all the encouragement Aaron needed. Returning the gesture, Aaron’s fingers fell to his claymore, bringing it back into his grip. He dropped into a simple and effective stance, ready for heat of battle to roll over him.

Maximus turned to face the Praetorian Guard who had swiftly retrieved his arms. Shrugging the cape from his pauldrons, the Legion’s prince accepted a helm from the guard and slipped it over his brow.

“Hey, that’s not very fair.” Aaron groaned, “How come you get armor?”

“It’s not my fault you’re too dull to properly equip yourself for combat.” Maximus shot back, just as casual as a bully on the playground.

“We can’t all have bigass wagons to haul stuff around, pretty boy.” Aaron muttered quietly enough for only himself to hear – or perhaps Val as well, if her muffled snickering was any indication.

With the polished ruby helmet and gold crest atop his brow, he eagerly claimed the garish, silvery saber the guard supplied him. Then came his round shield. It was a grayish thing on the inside, with its face enameled with the Legion’s signature red, rimmed with studded gold bracers and proudly bearing the Esperian royal crest at the center. The intricately designed, six-winged hawk seemed to beckon out in challenge to Aaron, daring him to slip an attack past the aegis it provided.

Fully armed and armored, the High Prince confidently strode towards his enemy, every inch of his body seeming to gleam brilliantly with the summer sunlight.

“Have you said your prayers, hillbilly?” Maximus taunted from behind his shield.

“Yeah. I don’t think the gods will forgive me for regicide, though.” Aaron sneered.

“KICK HIS ASS BABE!” Val barked from the sidelines, still madly trying to scramble out of the Praetorian Guard’s grasp. While he still managed to keep her trapped in his metal-clad arms, he could do nothing about the flames blasting from her eyes or the tail wildly thumping against his armored knees. He did, however, manage to clamp a gauntlet over her mouth to silence her.

Aaron stared intently towards the prince. If he could just beat him in combat, he could use him as a hostage and escape. It was risky, and he didn’t particularly enjoy high-stakes gambling, but fate had demanded he roll the dice. He only hope his lifetime of street brawls would help tip odds into his favor.

The two young warriors stood, fierce glares locking, carefully inching closer to the other. Aaron felt a bead of nervous sweat roll down his chin, stinging the cut the Praetorian’s had left scratched into his neck. The sun continued to ruthlessly beat down, not a cloud in sight to spare either of them of the heat. The knights stood in grim, patient silence. If it weren’t for the one struggling to keep Val under control, one could easily have mistook them for a circle of gaudy statues.

Aaron stepped forward, his boot crunching small bits of gravel into dirt. He heard armor rattle and shift, a falcon cry in the distance, begging for bloodshed, and the soft whinny of the nearby horses. He tightened his grip on his sword, the soft squeal of tightening cloth and leather punching through the lull in his ears.

Then, with a shuddering roar, he charged.

Maximus raised his shield, deflecting the powerful blade without anything as meager as a scratch left behind. Aaron refused to back off from his offensive, bringing the blade down with in a relentless flurry. The metallic clangs sounded out like a gong, dull and heavy ringing echoing across the plains around them. The prince’s shield held true, and he waited patiently for the chance for a counterattack.

Aaron didn’t let that time come. Not waiting until he tired himself out, he pulled back, anticipating the reactive strike from Maximus. The flash of the silvery blade crashed into his own sword, reared back into a defensive position. Sparks flew as the two men parted, beads of sweat dripping down Aaron’s neck.

While Maximus looked no better for wear in his sun-baked armor, he still found the energy to lash out another strike, aimed at Aaron’s shoulder. The bandit retreated back, taking full advantage of his advanced mobility to make up for his lack of armor. The royal’s saber swished past harmlessly, the prince himself returning to a proper position before Aaron could strike through a gap in his defense.

The two were quickly locked into a stalemate. More and more knots tied up in Aaron’s gut. He couldn’t afford to push himself too far and leave himself vulnerable, as Maximus’ overwhelming defensive advantage would leave him unharmed and primed for a counterattack. The two continued to trade vicious blows that were all either dodged or deflected.

Aaron blocked an overhead strike from the prince, keeping his ground. He gritted his teeth through a thin, sadistic smile. If there were two things he was certain he outmatched the prince in, it was grit and chicanery.

The bandit stomped one boot firmly into the soil, spinning around and slamming his blade into the rim of the prince’s shield. Maximus was thrown off balance for a moment, and the bandit pushed his minuscule advantage to its fullest. Still in motion from the swing, he threw his blade higher, aiming for his foe’s head.

Of course, the prince raised his shield higher to block – and of course, Aaron predicted the move. Dancing back, still slinging around his blade in full force, he went from a feint to a powerful slice. And with his shield still held overhead on the other side of his body, Maximus was helpless to stop the blade from crashing into his ribs. A loud, satisfying clang broke out as the prince stumbled away. Breaking out into a grin, Aaron pulled back his blade and looked up to watch the prince’s shocked, pained expression under the shadow of his t-visor.

What he found instead was a self-satisfied smirk.

A cocktail of confusion and fear burst in Aaron’s stomach. Gawking, he looked down to his claymore as if to check it hadn’t been swapped out for a wooden replacement. Then he shifted his gaze to the prince’s side. It was in the same immaculate condition it was when Maximus strode out from his warcoach. There wasn’t a dent, abrasion, or even the smallest of scratches. His shocked eyes flitted back over to his sword. He was no master-of-arms or blacksmith, but he was familiar with his weapon enough. It came from a foreign land to the far northeast, and he knew it was designed with the express purpose of combating cavalry and heavily armored infantry.

He expected the prince’s mail would be a few grades above the pieces the Legion supplied their foot soldiers. But even if his blade couldn’t make any sizable damage to it, it shouldn’t have had so little of an effect the prince would be able to laugh off the blow.

“Ooh. I felt that… a little.” the prince mocked in the midst of boisterous chuckles, “Sorry to bear the bad news, but this armor is made of an mithril and orichalcum composite alloy, and has been reinforced by the Legion’s top mages. Even the highest grades of weapons and magic would have trouble destroying it – your dinky toy won’t even faze it.”

Aaron’s teeth ground together so hard he began to taste blood. He saw the slightest smiles spread under the circle of Praetorian Guards, still surrounding them and holding Will and Val captive. Seeing his lapse in confidence, the prince leaped forward, bringing down his saber. The bandit just barely snapped out of the funk in time to deflect the blow.

The gray-haired man was sent retreating back by the prince. The prince’s silvery sword danced through the air with a practiced combo of grace and ferocity, keeping him on a constant defense. Not that it mattered. Aaron’s blade couldn’t even hope to pierce through the shining armor Maximus had clad himself in.

A slice came uncomfortably close to his neck, cutting deep into his shoulder on the way back. Blood shot from his fresh wound, and Aaron was again reminded of his slim chances of escaping this ordeal with his life. That chance seemed to be slipping ever further from his fingers.

Another rain of blows came flying at Aaron, and he hustled to deflect them all. Soon, he began slipping into the numbing rain of clangs and sparks, and more and more biting swings slipped past him. The very tip of the saber pierced his left thigh. A wayward thrust cut to the side of his shoulder. An overhead swing left a deep gash in his cheek.

The claymore’s blade fell to the wayside from a downward strike. Maximus reared back his shield, throwing it through the empty air between he and Aaron, slamming it right in his temple.

Aaron flew back, the blue of the sky and blinding light of the sun flying by his eyes. He landed roughly, his eyes seeing nothing but a pair of gold-plated greaves and pair of black, fuzzy paws, suspended in the air as they desperately kicked for freedom.

He heard Val’s muffled screams for his name. He felt the blood gush from his scalp, staining his neck. As hard as he strained, he couldn’t find a way back to his feet.

“Do you understand your place now, you dog-fucking trash?” the prince practically spat down on him, “I have the blood of kings and heroes running through my veins. And you… you’re nothing.”

In the face of the searing insults, the threat to his, Val’s, Will’s, and Douglas’ lives, Aaron but one thought racing through his mind, repeating over and over without rest, desperately combing for a solution.

How can I kick this smug cunt’s ass?’

Something came rushing back. The face of a bearded man – his face, with the same unfriendly sharpness to his features. But it was even more scarred, more deeply lined and wrinkled, and a nasty sneer spread under his iron-gray whiskers.

It was the face of his father.

“Get up. You wanna live, kid? You wanna survive in this shithole of a world? Then get you need to get up and fight.”

For a moment, Aaron found himself as a child again. He struggled back to his little feet, clutching his punched gut, trying his damnedest not to vomit up his meager lunch.

“I… I’m not giving up…” he sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks. The pain was unbearable. But the last thing he wanted to show his old man was weakness.

“Good. There are meaner bastards than me out there, son.” the father cooed approvingly, the faintest traces of a smile forming under his beard, “I’m sorry kid, but the only thing you got from your ma was yer eyes. You’re just a dumb lug like your old man.”

Aaron said nothing, his hands still clutching his injured stomach. His father puffed up, pointing a gnarled finger into his son’s chest.

“Maybe you’ll try to go straight and be a soldier. Or be a carpenter or somethin’. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how to defend yourself. Trouble has a way of findin’ rough-looking fellas like us.”

Aaron nodded slowly, cautiously, in complete understanding.

The training session was long and brutal. His father held back none of his strength, but Aaron kept to his feet, knowing the pain would only serve to make him stronger. With his head still swimming and one eyes swollen shut, they two sat down for a light lunch.

“…you know how to fight with your fists and a sword well enough, kid. But none of that will work on a blueblood. They’re softer than pillows, more often than not… but that’s irrelevant, because they’re also usually covered head-to-toe in armor.”

Aaron slowly nibbled on his stale loaf of bread, “Well… how do you fight them?”

The grin was perfectly clear under his father’s crumb-speckled beard, “Easy. Ya fight ‘em dirty.”

Aaron blinked, realizing he was still very much a grown man and still very much bleeding in the dirt. His grip tightened back around his claymore, and he used it to help haul himself back upright, a fresh determination awakened in his fatigued, pained body.

His father was good for four things – womanizing, slugging down booze, taking things that didn’t belong to him, and brawling to the bitter end. He had followed the old man’s lead so far, and he was still alive with all of his facilities. That moment would’ve been a poor time to change directions.

There was something about Maximus’ fighting style. His moves were sharp, fierce – but they were as flashy as his blade, and choreographed as a stage play. His experience laid mostly with practice matches and sparring. Nothing to sneeze at, but a nothing but a pale mockery when it came to the rigors of real combat. It was something Aaron had in spades.

A thin smile snaked its way around the bandit’s face. He’d have to teach the rich boy that not everything was as safe, controlled and glamorous as his fencing lessons. And it’d be a lesson he’d be more than happy to impart.

“Still haven’t given up? If nothing else, I’ll commend you on your determination.” the prince mewled, sunlight racing along his silver sword as he twirled it in place, “Well, if you’re so eager to face judgment, who am I to stop you? In fact, I’ll deliver it to you!”

The two rushed into another round, Aaron’s massive blade colliding with the shield. It bounced off, but it was right back to delivering pressure, locked in a clash with the saber. As their swords crossed and the two warriors snarled and snapped at each other as if they were nothing more than beasts, Aaron did something that shocked their entire audience.

Gathering up everything he had in his mouth, he hawked a glob of spit through the prince’s t-visor and right into the blueblood’s jade eye.

“ARGH! HOW DARE YOU, YOU FILTHY FUCKING BASTARD?!” Maximus roared, breaking away.

The shouts of protest from the Praetorian Guards didn’t concern Aaron. He pressed forward, slamming his blade into the back of prince’s knee. Maximus was totally unharmed, but the suddenly blow had him crumble over under the weight of his own armor. Caught on his knees, Aaron dropped his blade and wretched the shield from Maximus’ grasp.

“Who do you think you are, you son of a-?!”

The royal was cut off mid-sentence as he was slammed in the temple by his own shield. It, evidently, was made up of an even denser amount of the alloy his armor was. Grinning at his plan rolling smoothly in motion, Aaron restlessly slammed the shield back and forth, leaving small dents in the prince’s helm, knocking his head around like a suspended sandbag.

With enough prompting, Maximus’ helm flew away, rolling between the feet of a furious Praetorian Guard. Not giving he or his fellows enough time to retaliate, Aaron bashed the shield one last time in the royal youth’s storybook-handsome face, crushing his nose and sending him sprawling onto his back. Aaron was hovering above him not a moment latter, his claymore back in hand and it’s edge to the Esperian prince’s jugular.

“Don’t move, or this pretty little shit will be choking on his own blood!” Aaron screamed to the knights, already halfway to rescuing their prince.

Even in the tense lapse in the chaos, still surrounded by a twelve-man team of knights that could crush him in an instant, Aaron felt his heart soar with relief and happiness. He had done it. Once again, by luck or otherwise, he had brushed by death with his life still in hand. He stared down the length of his sword, down to the face of Maximus.

The unbound rage was certainly there, but the confusion was the winner of the day. The prince’s eyes were glassy and distant, shocked and dazed more than glinting with murderous fury. His lips quivered into a small frown, and he stared blankly up at Aaron, seeming to not believe what had just happened.

Aaron smiled viciously, wondering briefly if this strange reaction was due to the prince’s first time tasting defeat. If that were the case, then Aaron was proud to have served his highness.

“Alright,” he declared, not letting the high of victory distract him from the more pressing issue all around him, “Let go of my friends, and we can-”

Holy Thunder!

The incantations chant hit Aaron’s ears just before the spell itself burrowed into his spine. Aaron cried out in white-hot agony, a bolt of amber electricity launching him forward. He landed roughly, having lost his weapon, wisps of smoke rising off his twitching body.

“Serves you right, you cowardly scum.” the Praetorian Guard rumbled in revulsion. Seeing Aaron was down for the count, he turned his attention to his prince and offered a hand back to his feet.

The world seemed to go eerily silent for a moment. Will, still forced down on his knees nearby, watched with an agape mouth in utter disbelief. His entire face was shining with a coat of nervous sweat. Taking a few desperate gulps for air, he tilted his head forward and shut his eyes, accepting whatever grim fate would come next without a complaint.

The hellhound, slowly trembling at the sight of her chosen mate, had an entirely more eruptive reaction.

Something snapped inside Val. She let out a roar; a beastly, low rumble that wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from between the fangs of a primordial monster. Summoning up more strength than she believed she ever had, she threw herself forward and nearly ripped out of the Praetorian’s grasp. He held on tight, but not enough that Val was able to turn her head to lock a single eye with him. She did far more than glare, however.

Mustering all of her rage, her hellfire blasted up, searing the Praetorian’s eyes. While it was totally harmless to the one’s she held dear, it left nasty burns on the face of the man holding her captive. Screaming out in burning agony, he ripped off his shining helm and fell to the earth, grasping at his melted flesh.

If the sudden and dishonorable defeat of their young leader hadn’t already shocked them, the chocked cries of one of their brothers-in-arms finally had the knights screaming out for blood. Teased out into a fury, their glaives were put to bear. They swiftly surrounded Val. She dodged the initial stab from the leading man, only to fall right into the line of fire of the next Knight. She was promptly blasted out of the air by a Mana Shot. A simple spell, but it did its job effectively enough.

Having consigned himself to his fate, a sudden spark flared in Will’s eyes. A new hunger for life echoed for a reason he couldn’t quite comprehend. A desire to repay the man who saved him from death, perhaps. Refusal to sit and watch as a girl was eviscerated for trying to defend the one she loved.

Either way, all his brutal training rushed through his mind. His rough fingers ached with a phantom name, his nerves remembering the endless hours notching back arrows – but something more important he picked up during those endless hours rushed back to him.

Making a decisive, life-changing shot in but a moment’s notice.

The archer glanced down to his humble bow, still waiting patiently in the dirt path for him. He didn’t waste any time – noting his captor’s lapse in focus, Will threw himself down, slipping out from his grasp and rolling forward. He grabbed his bow on his way forward, landing on a single knee.

The guard was still rushing to tackle William in the time it took to cock back an arrow. He squeezed one eye shut, taking aim at whatever it was he wanted to fire at. It took him only a split second to decide.

His intense leer rushed past Val’s slumped body, past the glimmering guards, past the enraged Maximus, all the way back to the massive warcoach. More specifically, the gang of horses still waiting at it’s head.

They were but a few meters away; nearly fully armored, but a glaring weak point clear in his practiced sight. It was small, but only three of four yards away. He had but a single shot, but he swore on the few things he had left to hold dear he’d make it count to its fullest extent.

He released his fingers and let it fly.

The arrow zipped forward. Past the shoulders of the unwitting friends and allies. Even as Will felt the armored man slam his full weight to his back, sending him crashing into the ground, he kept his chin up in eager anticipation if his arrow found it’s mark.

And, with a bit of help from the wind and a dash of luck, it had.

The arrow sunk halfway into the leading horses’ great black eye. For all it’s glittering armor and impressive bulk, it was still just a horse, and it still whinnied at the top of it’s massive lungs and panicked at the worst pain it had ever felt.

The other horses followed suit as it charged recklessly forward, in complete disregard for it’s coachman. The horses stampeded into and trampled over one and other, smashing through reign and vehicle shaft alike. Everyone’s horrified attention was immediately drawn to the rushing stampede, the out-of-control coach rolling along right behind it.

The guards dashed away from Val, struggling to get the horses back under control. Maximus, still trying to nurse his bloodied nose, was bowled over by one of the rampaging steeds.

Aaron had managed to struggle to his knees, but with every nerve still fried from the electric spell, he could go no further. His nostrils flared, his eyes widening in terror as he watched a horse charge right for him. No hoof found him – Val bounced back from the sneak attack, tackling Aaron off the path and out of the way of danger.

The guard atop of Will leapt off, deciding either it was more important to help restrain the horses or that keeping him down wasn’t worth being trampled. Heart racing, the archer slung his bow back over his shoulder, grabbing Aaron’s claymore on the way. He slid down the hill, dashing into the thick of the woods after his two new companions.

The chaos atop the path still unfurled in full. There were more horses and guards, and even with all their near superhuman strength they couldn’t be in two places at once to corral their steeds. Maximus was forced to double back and helplessly watch. And he could do nothing as he saw the warcoach tip over, sliding down the hill and smashing into the treeline.

He slowly removed his hand from his bleeding nose. He tried his damnedest to keep his unflappable regal bearing in tact. He failed soundly. His armor shook in tune with his enraged tremors. His lips twisted into a deep grimace. And his green eyes, so piercing and clouded with indignity and fury, cut all the way through the treeline, slicing into the back of the man who shamed him and escaped with his life.

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