Chapter 4: A daring escape?
I glanced back at her angry but confused expression, satisfaction filling me as I closed the door. This is so much fun! I’m happy she came along, I was getting bored and impatient. I put my hands in my pockets and walked down the corridor passing a few other cells, most empty other than a few inanimate skeletons. The Fortress we’d made camp in was mainly underground other than the small structure above ground that was the only exit. The fortress was massive, with a labyrinth of disused dungeon cells and ancient libraries that were nothing more than moldy pages. The majority of the legion were all kept close to the spiraling central staircase leading to the structure above ground, four layers above me.
I began to start climbing the stairs, the noise of the others, monster and human alike, echoing through the stones. Rattles, hisses, groans, and grunts of hundreds of humanoids and creatures, ready to fight anything or anyone.
Good thing I’m not just anyone I thought to myself with a smirk. Good thing she isn’t either. From what I’ve seen, if she were anyone but herself this plan wouldn’t have a chance of working.
I stepped into the third floor, dank and dark as the last one. I was about to continue my ascent to the top floor when I heard a faint sound coming from the left side of the seemingly empty corridor. Taking a silent step towards the noise, I became aware of a conversation coming from further down the hall.
“...He’s come a day early,” The voice came into focus. “Good thing we captured her when we did! Delay a day longer and we’d really be in for it.”
I recognized the high pitched voice of Commander Clief and crept closer, just on the edge of the torchlight.
“He’s bringing someone with him. A guest of some sort.” A gruffer voice I didn’t recognize. “Sent me ahead to tell you of his early arrival.”
“Happy he did. Oddly considerate of Helkins, if I might say.”
“That’s General Helkins to you. Don’t forget your rank Clief.” I heard the swish of cloth as the gruff voiced man continued. “I’m returning to the surface to welcome the General.”
Two sets of foot steps neared me and I bolted, trying to sprint on the moss patches to muffle the sound. My thoughts raced a thousand miles an hour. Today?! I thought he wasn’t suppose to come until next week! I skidded to a halt at the stairs, catching my breath. I’ll have to act fast. Taking another breath of the dank air I raced downstairs, still thinking of alternate plans now that my original was ruined.
I tripped over the last two steps and fell face first on the mossy stone. “Ow…” I groaned and got back to my feet.
“Hey, son,” An amused voice came from a few feet in front of me. “You okay?”
Looking up I saw two armored men, leaning against the wall beneath each torch.
“Yeah,” I said. Quick as lightning I pulled my dual swords and rushed the guards. They barely shouted before they slumped against the wall, my sword hilts hitting their heads. “Sorry!”
Muttering echoed softly from her cell and I grabbed the key ring from the nearest guard. I unlocked the door with a click and it swung open. Nekona sat there against the far wall, the bread I’d given her before in crumbs in her lap.
“Change of plans, Princess! Now get up and come on!”
She stared at me, first confused then suspicious. “What’s going on? Is there a fire or are you just trying to trick me again?”
I groaned and strode forward. “We don’t have time to argue!” I grabbed Nekona’s hand and pulled her to her feet, running out with her stumbling behind me.
“Hey! What are you do-”
“They came a day early!” I said, leading her away from the main stairs to another that went directly up to the makeshift supply room. Her hand suddenly tensed and I realized I was still holding it. She pulled away quickly and I was happy she couldn’t see my face.
We reached the stairs and sprinted up, finally stopping in the room and catching our breath.
“Who came a day early?” She panted and straightened, taking quick survey of the room. The walls of the small room were lined with shelves, each one holding weapons, food, books, potions, and other oddities our Legion had saved.
“The ones who want you, I guess,” I said, scanning the shelves. “Ah, here it is!” I grabbed a sword with only a simple but elaborate hilt showing from out of its sheath. I tossed the blade to Nekona who expertly slung it over her shoulder. Turning to the shelves again I started gathering supplies, putting them into my bag which seemed far too small for the amount in it. I glanced back at Nekona when a force hit me in the face. Her fist slammed into my cheek and I staggered. She slammed me against one of the shelves, a few potions crashing on the ground from the impact. Her knife was under my chin and her bi-colored eyes bored into me.
“Alright,” She growled. “I have questions and you have answers.”
“Watch where you’re hitting, princess. These potions don’t grow on trees you know.”
“Why are you helping me, where are we, and who is this person who needs me?”
“Well first off,” I said trying to move away from the blade. “We’re in the ruins of an old fortress, half a days journey from Riversrun. We have been told to stay here until they come to pick you up.”
“Until who come to pick me up?” She dug the knife edge deeper under my chin.
“I don’t know. All I know is that you’re wanted by most of the army for arson and sabotage. Though why they’d go to this much trouble to get you I have no idea. They’re sending some pretty high-up guys to come get you, that’s all I know.”
Muffled groans echoed through the hall below. We were running out of time. She must have heard the noises too because she lowered her dagger and started grabbing supplies. She grabbed one more bundle of arrows and nodded.
“On three.” I pulled one of my short swords out and started creeping down the stairs.
“One,” We made the last step and looked around. Suddenly, a figure came out of the darkness, shakily waving a torch and shouting for us to stop.
“Two three!” Nekona sprinted down the hall and I stumbled after her. When she got to the guard she jumped and kicked him in the face, sending him sprawling. She kept running.
“There were two guards!” I said, panting.
“The other probably went to get reinforcements,” No sooner than I’d said it, two skeletons appeared from the central staircase, twenty feet ahead of us. They shot arrows but we dodged them and kept running. We reached the staircase and slashed the skeletons in half. They crumbled to piles of bones on the floor and Nekona and I paused to catch our breath.
“Someone else must have heard that.” She looked above and I heard slow footsteps, like someone was patrolling. I saw her tense, like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.
“Don’t,” I whispered.
“Don’t go charging up there guns blazing. You don’t know who or what could be up there. Let’s trying sneaking up first, not wake up the entire encampment.”
She gave me a dirty like then nodded grudgingly. Jeez this girl was a pain! Just be patient, Koji. She’s your way out of here.
I stepped in front of her and looked around the next floor. A guard was walking the other direction, a torch in his hand and a sword at his side. I gestured for her to come forward and we snuck quietly up the stairs. All around the corridor, monsters and humans alike still slept against the wall or in bedrolls on the hard ground, even though it was already midday. We got to the next floor and breathed a sigh of relief. There didn’t seem to be anyone here. That’s right I thought the second floor is used for planning and mapping. The hall was littered with shaky tables with maps spread on them. The walls had even more charts on them, marks in red ink covering them. They made almost no sense to me but Nekona was apparently interested. She crept up to one of the tables and studied the map on it. It looked old and weathered but the inscriptions were clear enough.
“It’s a map of Minecraftia,” I said.
“No duh, gravel-brain,” She grumbled without looking up. Her expression got confused “Wait a second,” She pointed to a dot on the map next to a lake which read ‘Enston’ “That town isn’t supposed to be there. It’s on the wrong side of the lake.”
“Maybe the cartographer just got it wrong. Now come on, that guard won’t be out for long and I still don’t know where the other one went.” I looked around nervously and kept alert for any noise.
“Enston couldn't be misplaced,” She said. “It’s a huge coal producing town known for being on the peninsula of Lake Endon. A place of a well known landmark like that wouldn’t be misplaced. And here too,” Nekona pointed to another town which sat on the east side of a mountain range. “Dwarle is on the west side. Everyone knows the east side of the mountains is more of a cliff face than anything. No one could live there.”
“Yeah, well maybe they just had a crappy map-maker. It doesn’t matter-”
“Yes, it does,” She grabbed a piece of parchment and a quill and started jotting down numbers -coordinates I later realized- and names, glancing quickly from her paper to the map.
I balled my fists. “Hurry up! We can get a better map later, now is not the time.”
“You’re friend is right.”
We jerked around and saw a man clad in armor standing at the base of the staircase.
“Commander Clief!” I straightened out of habit and almost solutted but caught myself.
“Mr. Alington, what are you doing here?” He asked and stepped closer. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword. “Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be outside? You’re in the welcome party for our guests.”
“I-I decided to come back downstairs. I forgot something,”
“And the prisoner? Why is she with you then?”
I opened my mouth to say something but Nekona beat me to it. She lunged forward, stabbing towards Clief’s gut with her knife. He jumped out of the way and drew his sword as she stepped back. She ran forward again and their blades clashed.
“Potion, Gravel-brain!” Nekona shouted, trying to sweep his legs out from under him. I immediately understood and started rummaging through my bag. Got it!
I grabbed a vial full of a dirty green liquid just as Nekona slammed against the floor, the Commanders sword tip dangerously close to her chest.
“Roll!” I threw the bottle, hoping she would have the sense to move out of the way. She kicked the soldiers sword hand and rolled out of the way just as the foul smelling potion splashed to the ground where she was moments before. The Commander fell to the ground, gagging. Nekona got up and started walking towards me.
“Nice job, Candy-eyes--”
“Shut up, idiot.” She walked past me and tore the map from the table, stuffing it quickly into her bag before glaring back at me. “We have to go before the potion wears off.”
“Well excuse me,” I made a face as she turned towards the staircase. We walked towards the opening. Nekona halted besides the Commander and looked down at the man who was still coughing from the fumes of the poison. She scowled and kicked him in the stomach, causing him to collapse with a small groan.
I whistled. “Jeez, Princess, you don’t mess around.”
She brushed her hair back and started climbing up the stairs. “Don’t call me that; ‘Princess’ is the last word I would use to describe me.”
We climbed to the last floor. The hallway closest to the surface was usually reserved for preparing for expeditions or patrols. As expected, it was expertly set up for quick-grab supplies like weapons and food. It was the first thing to be put up when we had arrived. The Army legions usually took refuge in abandoned fortresses like this; everyone already knew the drill and the entire camp could be set up in a matter of hours. The group here had only been in the fortress a day or two.
The corridor was surprisingly empty. I had expected there to be at least one or two monsters or soldiers loitering around but not a single thing was there.
“They must be welcoming the General,” I muttered.
Nekona looked around warily, the weapon racks seeming to entice her as she reached out to look at a spear.
I snorted. “What’re you gonna do with that? Cook Marshmallows?”
She glared at me and put the spear back down. Her gold and silver eyes looked towards the faint glow coming from the hole above.
“What’s that sound?” She asked. At first I didn’t know what she meant, but as I listened, I heard faint footsteps and stomping of horses.
“They’re here to welcome the ‘guests,’”
Her expression hardened. “Then I’ll go and show them some ‘hospitality.’” She started walking up the stairs, unsheathing her sword, but I grabbed her arm and she stopped. She narrowed her eyes and jerked her arm out of my grip.
“You’re too quick to barge into stuff, Princess,” She started to protest but I went on. “If you just go up there, guns blazing, you’re going to get killed. I don’t know what we’re going to face when we go up there, but I’d bet a thousand Emeralds it’s not just a single skeleton. We need to go carefully, try to sneak away and draw as little attention as possible.”
She sighed and looked up, the distant sound of horse feet getting closer.
“Fine.” She put her sword back in its scabbard and pulled the small knife from her knee-high leather boots. For a second, I wondered if there was a small pocket inside the boots just for the knife and, if there wasn’t, how she didn’t accidentally stab herself. Wrong topic, moron! I mentally slapped myself and followed Nekona up the stairs to the cover room. The stone room was small, just big enough to give a yards space around the staircase. Viewing openings were on each side, letting in bright sunlight and making me narrow my eyes.
Nekona crouched and crept up to one of the openings, peering out over the clearing. The fortress ruins were underneath a grassy plain with a vast forest beside it. The room rested just twenty feet from the edge of the forest. From the plains came a squad of horses, a carriage being carried behind them. Around the room was a mix of at least three dozen humans, skeletons, spiders, and creepers. Two men in black stood at the head of them, Clief’s first and second lieutenants, looking confused. They seem to be missing their commander, I silently laughed at the thought.
“If I edge around the building and sprint to the forest, I could make it.” Nekona muttered, still looking through the hole. “Stealing one of the horses might give a faster escape as well.” She gestured to the five horses hitched to a pole near the forest.
“I wouldn’t go for the horses. They’re loyal to their owner. Anyone else who tries to ride them will get bucked off.” I looked out the door window at the approaching group. They were close. We would have to make a decision now. I started to open the door but Nekona caught my hand.
I was confused but I withdrew my hand as the horses came to a stop in front of the monsters. The lead horseman took off his dark metal helmet and got off his horse. General Helkins I shrank farther back from the door. Lightning images of blood spattered boots and a ravaged village flashed in my mind and I took a sharp breath to calm myself.
“There’s something wrong about him,” Nekona whispered, shifting uneasily.
I nodded. Ever since that night, General Helkins scared the crap out of me, even more so than before. I had seen him step over the bodies of his soldiers, one of them being my own father, and not blink an eye. Anger and fear and bitterness bubbled up inside me and it took all I had not to run out and strike him down.
The General walked over to the two lieutenants, looking crossly down at them. “Where is Clief?” He asked, voice deep and commanded. His hair was short cropped, a mix of dark gray and white. His face was wrinkled from frowning and a jagged scar ran up his right cheek to below his eye. Black, shining armor covered him head to toe, making me curious as to how he could even move.
“H-he’s not here, sir,” The first Lieutenant Sheun, I think- replied. Her face was stern but her voice quivered uneasily. A bead of sweat traced its way down her cheek and she brushed nervously at her short dark hair. “He was just coming up, last I saw him.”
“And it never occurred to you,” He said, voice steely calm. “To, I don’t know, go get him?!”
His voice boomed throughout the group of soldiers, making several of the humans flinch slightly. Sheun whimpered and stood back up straight, trying to look brave. “I can go get him, General.”
“You do that.” Helkins mused. “And when you find him, tell him to get his lazy ass over here before I feed him to the spiders!” As his voice crescendoed, Sheun shrank away from him.
“Y-yes sir!” She saluted hastily and started scampering over to the room.
“Get ready,” Nekona said.
“For what?!” I asked.
Too late. Sheun barged through the door, skidding to a halt as she saw us.
“Who-” Nekona rushed her, slamming her fist and knife into the lieutenants stomach. She crumpled to the ground and Nekona kicked her hard in the chest.
She slung the bow from her back and tossed it to me with the quiver. “Shoot them.”
I fumbled with the bow, eventually slinging the quiver over my shoulder and nocking an arrow. Nekona and I stood with our backs against the wall on either side of the doorway. She slipped her knife back into her boot and brought out her sword.
I shot an arrow through the doorway, the point landing at Helkins feet. Nekona and I rushed out, she running towards the tethered horses while I shot two more arrows at Helkins and the other lieutenant.
The troop got over their shock quicker than I thought. They surged forwards, the General at the lead with his great axe in hand. I let out a less than dignifying sound and turned around, bounding as fast as possible towards Nekona. Instead of undoing the reigns of the uneasy horses like I thought she would, she was staring at something near the wagon. Her face was pale, and she didn’t make any move to cut the ropes.
“Hey!” I moved her out of the way of one of the horses as it reared up and stomped down where she was standing a moment before. She looked at me, confusion momentarily clouding her gaze.
“Hey, Princess, we have bigger matters than staring at some uglies!”
Her gaze came into focus and she gasped. She instantly turned and cut the ropes on the horses. The equines whinnied and charged in the direction of the approaching monsters.
“Come on!” I yelled over the noise. Nekona didn’t seem to hear me. She stared at the cage again, this time desperation and anger staining her expression.
“Not again…” She muttered. An arrow flew past her, missing her face by mere inches. She took a step forward and I noticed that her knuckles had turned white on her sword.
I groaned in exasperation and grabbed her shoulders. “This isn’t the time for zoning out!”
She turned and the look in her eyes made me wanna go give Helkins a hug. I gulped and tugged on her shoulders. “We can’t stay here!”
She darted out of my grip and disappeared into the forest undergrowth. I stared after her bewilderment. Big mistake. Hypocrite that I was, rushing her out, I had paused myself. I turned just in time to avoid being split in half. Helkins was right there, pulling his axe from the ground beside me.
“Oh shi-” I stumbled backwards from the blade as he hoisted it over his shoulder. I backed away towards the forest as he swung it back and forth, missing my arms and chest by little less than a few inches. In the back of my mind, I prayed that he wouldn’t also chop the bow in half. Suddenly, my heel caught on something -a rock maybe?- and I fell backwards, landing hard on a tree root. Pain shot from my lower back and my bow fell just out of reach.
Helkins stood over me, a smug look on his grimy face. “So, Alington, you’re going out just like your dad, are you?”
My vision was cloudy but the statement shook me out of my shock. Anger caught in my throat and I rolled out of the way just as the axe came down, cleaving the root I had landed on.
I stood with my bow and dared to face him a moment longer. “I don’t die so easily, bastard.” I nocked an arrow hastily and fired it at his chest just as he wrenched his axe from the ground. By some miracle, it found a chink in the armor. The arrow lodged itself in his left shoulder, dangerously close to the heart.
I didn’t stay to see what happened. Reeling around, I darted into the forest after Nekona. The sound of monsters raged after me and I ran faster, not daring to slow down.
“Nekona!” I shouted in hopes she was nearby. Dammit! She could have already left by now! Why stay for me?
“Over here, idiot!”
I skidded to a halt and looked around for the source of the voice. “Where?”
“Look up, gravel-brain!”
I glanced up the trunk of the tree in front of me and saw her perched in one of the branches.
“Either get your ass up in a tree or get out of here so they don’t see me!” Her face was shadowed so I couldn’t see her expression but she sounded cross.
“Uh, o-okay,” I started up the tree beside hers, stopping for breathing just as the monsters broke through the undergrowth. I pulled my legs into the shade and held my breath. At least twenty of the thirty monstrous humanoids rushed under me. They didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop. They hadn’t seen us. The horde stomped past and disappeared back into the brush. Nekona jumped down from her branch and I did the same.
“They’ll be coming back soon,” She said, looking in the direction the monsters had come from as if expecting more to follow. “Got to get moving before they retreat.”
She started walking away, left of where the monsters disappeared.
It took me moment to realize she wasn’t waiting up for me. I almost tripped over myself catching up to walk beside her.
“So, where do you plan to go next?” I asked, glancing around nervously.
“Away.” She said, looking ahead. She seemed alert but not cautious in her movements.
“You don’t have a certain town in mind?”
“So you’re just going to wander around the forest until you come across a village?”
“That’s what I was planning on.”
I sighed and we walked in silence a few yards. Behind us, the sound of the monster horde increased momentarily before they faded to nonexistence.
“They’ve headed back to the base.” I said, looking back over my shoulder as if expecting a spider to leap from the brush. Nekona said nothing.
Jeez, I thought What’s her problem anyways? Am I really going to have to put up with her until the next town? Ugh, she’s so boring!
Suddenly, a thought occurred to me and I spoke up.
“I was wondering… What happened back there? When you froze up near the horses, I mean.”
She kept walking but I saw her jaw tighten slightly, like I had hit a nerve. I smiled.
“Were you scared? Do you have horse-phobia or something? Or was it something in the wagon? Wagon-phobia? You seemed pretty clammed up, Nekky.”
Something hit my face and I lurched sideways. All of a sudden, I was pinned against a tree, my shirt collar balled up in Nekona’s fists and my feet barely touching the ground. Metallic fire blazed in her eyes.
“Don’t ever call me that again.” Her voice was cold but i sensed infernous rage behind her words. “And what happened back there.” She breathed in a shaky breath and her grip on my shirt slackened. “You didn’t see it, did you?”
“S-see what?” My own voice was shaky and I tried to stabilize it.
She jerked her hand from the vice like grip she had had. “The cage. In the carriage, there was a wooden cage. Do you want to know what was in it?”
I started to answer but she kept talking.
“A child, that’s what.” Her voice was full of regret and sadness under the anger that still choked her.
My mouth went dry. “A-A kid?”
“Yeah.” Her face hardened again. “That’s what your army does, isn’t it? Snatch up people from their families and take them away?”
“I… I don’t know.” I said, shame burning my face. I had heard accounts of people, children in particular, being taken when the army forces raided a militia village but I had always thought they were just rumors.
She sighed and looked at the sky. I hadn’t realized how late in the day it had become; the sky was already starting to fade from blue to pale orange.
“We should make camp.” She said. “Let’s find a clearing and get some rest.”
I nodded, not saying anything. We walked a little longer and found a hollow in the trees as the sun touched the horizon. Apparently, Nekona as well had had practice making camps. Had she been on her own a while? From how fast she set everything up, it seemed like she did it a lot.
Soon enough we had a camp going, a small fire lit in between our bedrolls. We sat and looked through our supplies in silence as the pork rations cooked over the fire. When we were in the inventory room back at the fortress, I hadn’t really paid my full attention to what I had picked up. Fortunately, I had packed moderately well; several assorted potions, enough rations to last us for a week or two, around two dozen arrows, and a water skin. Nekona had picked up similar items.
I sighed and laid back on the bedroll.
“Sorry about before.” I said, staring up at the stars.
She stayed silent a long time before answering. “If you’re sorry, then just don’t do it again.”
I laughed a little. “Will do, Candy-eyes.”
I couldn’t see her expression, but from the tension coming off her, I decided joking was not the best at the moment.
“I’ll take first watch, you get some sleep.” She said at last.
I sat up. “You sure?”
“I still don’t trust you, gravel-brain. If anyone’s getting stabbed in their sleep, it’s not going to be me.”
I chuckled and laid back down. “Whatever you say, Princess. Good night.”