Short Story: Black Feathers, White Heart

Black Feathers, White Heart 

A short story by Sam Oliver [Eris]

The grass is as cloud underfoot, parting like soft silk. The woman in the trees knows that it’s wrong, though, as she takes steady aim. She knows even as her finger clutches the trigger of her crossbow, knows as the bolt flies.

It’s a trap.

There’s a thrum, and a shout, a boy’s cry of pain. A cry for aid.

The trees around the woman shake with a soft breeze as men step from behind them. The sentry, fist clenched around the bolt in his shoulder– and still a hundred yards distant– is probably doing his best not to scream. The markswoman, for her part, takes one step away and feels the point of a spear against her back. How had she missed so many of them? What black fortune led her here?

Her hands shake as she puts down the crossbow, her lips pursed, locked tight, the bolt she’d had ready dropping from nerveless fingers to join the wooden stock on the ground. Still, no one will approach her. They eye her warily from a distance, not a man among them prepared to take that first step towards her, for all their threatening posturing. If anything, they seem solemn as she raises her arms above her head, so slowly.

Karen of the Black Feathers doesn’t hiss, snarl or shout as, finally, one of the men steps forward and, slowly, as if barely daring to believe it, reaches out to touch her hair.

Her red, silken hair, which is dirty now after but two weeks on her own with no hold to rest in. Karen’s stone gaze falls on the man’s own as his plated fingers brush a few strands from her face. She can see him behind his visored helmet. His piercing blue eyes seem sad.

A number of the men surrounding her seem impatient. Truth be told, Karen herself is impatient. If this is to be her grand defeat and her ultimate humiliation, why in the gods’ good graces would any of them hesitate?

She looks the man over, taking special note of the centurion’s insignia on his breastplate– carved into a falcon’s head. His plate armor is expertly crafted– and to Karen, seems like it might even be dwarven work. There’s no way to know without asking, though, and she’s reluctant to so much as open her mouth with these men around. He has a sword at his hip, and it too is a masterpiece of steel, with a talon-style pommel and a silver-gilt hilt. The pommel itself has a single talon extending down and out, with a sharp tip. It glows faintly, and seems much too thin for a broad blade. Perhaps a longsword- albeit a thin one.

The man runs gentle fingers through Karen’s hair one last time and then simply stares at her for a while with that intent, unwavering gaze. It goes on far too long before one of his subordinates coughs and breaks the spell.

“Centurion Alpha?” The man– no, boy, freckle-faced and younger than anyone in the army has a right to be–, asks quietly. There’s a bolt in his shoulder, with her black fletching. How is he still standing?

The captain gives a start, and turns to face him. “Yes. Ah, thank you, Mark. I’d rather lost myself for a moment there. Bind her and take her along with us.”

“Centurion,” The boy replies, and he seems strangely grateful for the order. Karen had assumed they would get the barbaric ceremony over and done with, but evidently they would be saving her for later. She grits her teeth, but allows the men to step forward and bind her. With a half-dozen spearpoints on her at once, she hardly feels confident enough to do anything about it.

The ropes chafe as they are drawn tight around her wrists. Her thumbs, should she be a witch, are covered, and in keeping with tradition, a hood is drawn over her face.

No sooner has the world gone dark then light floods her senses again. She catches sight of the Centurion tossing the hood away, his gauntlet catching the sun.

“I want her to be able to see. Take her weapon, and those blasted bolts, though. Can’t have her somehow shooting us in our backs, now can we?”

Karen is mildly surprised at that, but the Centurion calls for a march a moment later, and, with a spearpoint lightly jabbing her in the back, she hardly feels like she can afford to stand around and daydream. She stumbles a little, then manages to find her feet, trudging forward with the rest of the column. It’s a tightly packed one. The forest widens out further in, of course, but for now it’s far too close for the column to march in much order.

Her feet lift themselves and set themselves down again, sure now, even if the rest of her body is not. Her feet always seem to know where they want to go.

She wonders why the Centurion would let her keep her sight. As a crossbowwoman her eyes would be her best asset, and as a prisoner, even if she were to be executed it would be folly not to have her eyes put out, for a rescue could come at any moment– and if they lost her, she would again be another enemy for them to worry about. With her reputation, it’s amazing to Karen that she hasn’t been mutilated already. Unless, of course, the Centurion was just saving that for when he had a chance to get her alone.

Karen hadn’t pegged the leader for the ‘I-want-her-for-myself’ type before. She does so now. She isn’t sure whether she should sigh in relief or not, but after a moment decides against it. After all, the man could be a monster, for all she knows.

It wouldn’t do to tempt Fate. The bastards at the tower in Hellhaven had warned her before. This is where listening to them had gotten her so far.

“You cannot escape your Fate,” The Archmage had said. “There is nothing in the world that will allow you to avoid what is to come.”

She’d not believed him at first. Slowly then, as things had started falling into place– from the wolves howling at dawn to the lone sentry surviving her first shot and shouting out an alarm– she’d come to realize that the fat, smug cretin had been right. She’d played right into Fate’s hands without even trying.

Her feet snap twigs, iron soled boots digging into the dirt. No real point in stealth now, of course.

Funnily enough, Karen had found over the years that sentries paid less attention to snapping twigs and the like if they were near constant. To move in a way that suggested a small, meatless animal was difficult, but she had prided herself in her ability to make her footsteps fall in such a way, and in her ability to move like one.

She wonders idly about fate, as she’s marched forward, staring straight ahead but not really seeing it.

Would she be in this predicament still if not for her bloodlust? She’d been prepared to kill the sentry– was this some form of divine retribution for her life of killing?

Perhaps. Karen had wanted to believe that Fate did not apply to her. Now…

She stares at the back of the soldier in front of her. Without her crossbow or bolts, what can she do? She is entirely at the mercy of the men around her.

Will any of her contacts miss her?

Probably they’ll miss her skill. No one cares about another broken little woman pretending to be a soldier.

Hours of trudging through the forest pass. The sun starts to fall in the shaded sky. Karen is more than a little perturbed. They should have reached the camp by now. She isn’t exactly impatient to be tortured, raped, and killed, of course, but she feels as though something at least is wrong. The Centurion’s face, however, is metal, and tells her nothing. Even though he rides beside her, everything in his manner is composed. She’d killed so many of his men before. Surely he felt something.

There’s a collective sigh of relief that even sweeps up through Karen when they finally reach a clearing. Not just any clearing, however, but a plains clearing- near devoid of trees- and one that the Centurion seems to decide would be a good place to stop in.

He calls for a halt, raising a hand. “Everyone, rejoice! Not only did we defeat the Eight’s own mercenary dogs, we’ve captured the queen bitch of the lot!”

The soldiers around her cheer and laugh, and someone’s mailed palm slaps against her leather clad rear with enough force to make her eyes water. She doesn’t say a damn thing though, just stares ahead.

“Set up camp, boys, that’s far enough for the day,” the Centurion says quietly- but everyone seems to hear him. “Leave the bitch where she is. I’ll deal with her later.”

Karen doesn’t give him the satisfaction watching her squirm. She stays perfectly still, her face a stone mask.

The tents are up, it’s dark out now- but for the moons, hanging in the sky, both full and bright like lanterns- and though no one is watching her anymore, she can’t sit and can’t move. She’d been tied to a stake for the night, ludicrously, they had chained her to it even though her hands and feet had already been bound. Even if she could get her hands free she would have a chain tying her to the damn stake.

Her legs ache with the effort of keeping her upright.

She grits her teeth. No one had so much as looked at her funny for the entire day. What had the Archmage said? Something about despairing in the dark?

When would he come for her, then? Would the Centurion cut her free first? Would she have a chance to run?

Karen of the Black Feathers twists her slim hands in the ropes. She isn’t sure how much more of this waiting she can take. If the Centurion was saving her for himself, he was taking too damn long about it. The mere anticipation of that man trying for her seems so much worse a prospect to deal with. Her hands and feet are numb and her eyes ache from the effort of keeping awake for so long.

A voice chills her blood.

“What have we here?”

She can’t turn, but she can feel an immense presence behind her, and she could recognize that voice anywhere. The Azrae Legate’s tone is making her legs shake, and only one voice in the world could possibly do that to her.

An immense scaled hand reaches around and draws a clawed finger up along her armored belly. She can feel the heat of the creature’s scales behind her, can hear its demonic heart beating.

“If it isn’t the third incarnation of Angus Traveler,” The monster’s voice whispers in her ear, and it echoes around the camp. No soldier seems to pay it any mind. No one even looks up. She struggles against the ropes and the chains, shivering uncontrollably. If the demon had a name other than Legate, she never learned it.

As to what it might be going on about, she hasn’t the faintest.

“Thy blood has yet to pay its due, Traveler. Shall I take it now?”

That scaled finger’s claw slowly starts cutting through the leather armoring her body, and Karen, helpless to stop it, still makes no sound. She isn’t sure she could if she tried. Her stake lies outside of the Centurion’s tent. She’d been watching it for as long as she’d been here, and there hadn’t been a movement, not a stir from within.

The beast’s claw draws an x on the leather, cutting it apart, and, still leaning over the stake from behind, takes a flap of leather- the tip of the claw cutting through the tunic underneath and grazing her skin, drawing blood- between two claws and slowly peels it away.

Karen stays silent, not daring to try to move.  Cool night air touches her partly exposed belly.

This isn’t happening.

Karen of the Black Feathers curls her toes as the monster Legate grips another flap of her armor, this time the tip of its claw tearing little more of her skin away with the leather, and whether it’s on purpose or not doesn’t matter- she can’t help but yelp.

A soldier- who had been standing guard by the Centurion’s tent- seems to notice her for the first time, blinks, then shouts suddenly, standing upright. She recognizes him. He’s the sentry she shot!

He runs over to her, to the stake, and in one smooth movement, cuts through her wrist and ankle bonds. All the while, the fool shouts the same thing.

“Centurion! Centurion! He’s here! He’s here!

Karen feels the demon draw back a moment, hears its intake of foul air, hears it let it out in a soft, menacing hiss. “What-”

Karen pulls away from the stake, numb feet and wrists stinging as they are released, not supporting her weight, dumping her on the ground. The sentry runs to the stake and fumbles with the padlock. Karen, watches, dumbstruck, as the boy reaches into his pack with his good arm and pulls loose a key, then, shaking, glancing back at Karen, he fits the key to the lock- just as the demon Legate rears up and back, one clawed hand drawn up and away, a hideous snarl on its lips.

“Look out!”

Karen can’t believe the words come from her mouth. She can’t believe she gets up- with the chain around her neck still attached- and dives, catching the sentry about the waist and bearing him down. He stares up at her as she shields him, and feels the demon’s hand come to a halt in midswipe. She can hear the Legate chuckle, then, and turn towards the Centurion’s tent.

“Centurion? A mortal leader for mortal men.”

It takes a step towards the canvas, one earthshattering step, leaving Karen on top of the sentry, who stares up at her in terror.

“Miss! I’m not trying to hurt you!” the boy shouts. “Get off, Miss! I’m letting you go! I need to warn the Centurion!”

“You idiot!” Karen snarls, surprised at herself. “The Centurion is-”

The tent explodes outward in an immense fireball, lifted a good twenty feet into the air on currents of heat and raining down in a cloud of embers.

“Dead,” She finishes, rolling off of the sentry, scrambling to her feet as the demon turns to her. The ground sways in her vision, and around the demon the air shimmers with heat.

“Now… Where were we?” The Azrae Legate asks, in a voice like thunder.

The sentry is standing next to her, wincing, rubbing his shoulder, staring in disbelief at the Centurion’s tent- or rather, where it had once stood.

“Where did he go?” The boy whispers to himself. “He said he was preparing…”

The monster stares the pair of them down, and then grins a slow, horrible grin, jagged teeth all flames. An insidiously sweet scent reaches Karen’s nostrils- like cinnamon and spice, carried to her on the breeze. That something so monstrous could smell so- good- is a disconnect, and to her, makes it all the more terrifying. There’s something alien about the way the beast stands.

Its form is like that of an immense scaled bull on two enormous legs, with taloned feet and hands- but the talons extend from the ankle, then, and it also has a hoof to go with it. Its hands are huge, four fingered things, shaped like a dragon’s with claws at least as large. Two curved horns curl down from its temples, a third spiraling outward from the center of its forehead, and it has two deep, predatory eyes that burn red. The black scales covering its body are grotesquely misshapen, twisting this way and that with no discernible pattern. No wings, like legends of old portray. At its side- for the creature somehow has armor that is fitted to it- it bears a deadly blade blacker than utterdark, of an unearthly steel. The armor itself is of an unnatural shape, black and pounded from darkness itself.

“Miss? You can see it!” The sentry hisses.

“What?” Karen asks, shaking on her feet, unable to pull her eyes away from the creature before her.

“The demon!” The boy replies sharply. “You can see it! You’re shaking all over- you must be able to see it!”

“Of course I can see it!” Karen snaps. “Are you blind, man, it’s right in front of us!”

The boy stares at her a moment, and then bolts, dashing away so quickly she barely has time to react. “H-hey!”

The demon is taking its time. It stalks towards her slowly, almost… cautiously.

“Thy line ends here, Angus Traveler. With this incarnation,” The Legate hisses softly. “No trick can save you. This camp of humans was a valiant attempt, but one that will prove worthless in the end.”

It takes another earthshaking step towards Karen.

She backs to the end of her chain, nearly stumbles and chokes herself. She can feel blood dripping down her belly, soaking the cloth of her tunic. The wounds ache and burn dully in the night air.

The Archmage had told her that she would kill a demon before the year was out, and that it would take something precious from her. Something far more precious than gold. That she would find herself. Fat old bastard. Perhaps he had been right about the demon, but Karen can see no way out of this.

What makes this different from your Fate before? A voice whispers in her mind. Just accept it. Get it over with. Obviously he was wrong- how can you survive this?

Karen narrows her eyes and shoves the thought aside. With her hands free, at the very least now that she isn’t being watched she can defend herself.

Still shaking, she reaches down into her boot and tugs the knife free from its sheath. The soldiers hadn’t taken it from her- had they even found it?

The demon laughs at her tiny weapon, advancing on her slowly- and still, strangely, with caution. It could incinerate her just like it did the tent. It could have clawed her to pieces any number of times. What is it doing?

She slips her hand down to the pommel of the knife. It’s a long, plain thing, an inch or so short of a dagger, meant more for throwing than for fighting. It doesn’t have the balance of a fighting weapon. Its steel is sharp, though. She contemplates flipping it up into her fingers for one shot as the demon approaches. She’s sure it wouldn’t do more than make the creature furious.

Then, without warning, there’s a flash of light strong enough to draw a yelp from her lips. She backs away, eyes stinging, screwed shut against what feels like a sunflare directly in front of her eyes. After the dark of night it hurts, like needles jabbing at her pupils, even behind closed lids. When she dares open them again, the Centurion stands before her- in his steel and leather armor, with his helmeted face covered and his sword unsheathed. Once free from his scabbard it appears to shimmer with golden light, like a piece of legend, like a piece of the heavens themselves made into the shape of a blade.

Runes flare on its lightwrought edge. They seem to sing at her, in a tune only she can hear.

As the Azrae’s bare hand clenches into a fist and thunders down, the sword seems impossibly small and fragile, thin light gossamer. It’ll shatter, or be torn away in an instant. Karen is sure of that. What could stand against the power of the Legate?

The Centurion, however, doesn’t parry as Karen had expected. Instead, moving faster than she can credit, he dashes forward, ducking under the earthshattering blow and flicking the tip up. The demon jerks to the side at the last moment, but the tip still taps and then slides through the monster’s side. The Centurion withdraws, fast as lightning, ducking away as the Legate roars and swipes for him.  A gout of steaming blood follows the blade away, drips down over foul scales, soaks the grass at its hooves. The Centurion’s sword, however, is free of the creature’s fluid. Even so, the Centurion flicks it, as though out of habit- and water flies from the tip.

But it isn’t water. It’s something else, something silvery and at once not, a corroded liquid metal that dissolves in midair. Suddenly the camp is alive again.

Soldiers rise to their feet in shock, spears raised, spell broken. A few draw swords, one or two ready javelins. No one is running. Karen just stands. Stands, chained as she is, and stares.

“Threadcutter blade,” She whispers in sudden realization. Whatever dark magic had kept the demon from the legion’s sight is now gone. The sword had sliced through magic as easily as a knife through parchment.

The stream of blood hisses and stops, the wound- a dark, but clean cut- sealing itself. The Azrae Legate snarls at the Centurion, raises one scaled hand, fire gathering in its palm. Karen shouts a warning at the Centurion, but she needn’t have bothered. The demon’s target is the poor javelin thrower, not his leader.

The demon sweeps its hand forth, fire flickering black and red. The Centurion steps between it and its intended target, and, with a deft flick of that gossamer light-blade, cuts the ball of flame in half. It dissipates almost immediately, but not before embers of the foul fire touch the man’s steel-clad arms and legs.

She hadn’t heard the Centurion make a sound before this, and even now, she can only hear him groan, watch him sink to his knees, blade sliding into the dirt. The Azrae Legate roars in triumph, starting for him with arm outstretched and sickle claws reaching, taking two steps, bearing down over the fallen man.

The Centurion’s blade flicks up and out, taking a pair of the demon’s scaled fingers off at the base knuckle. The demon Legate bellows, taking a cautious step back, clutching at its hand.

The Centurion’s armor is corroding away under the influence of the baleful flame flicking on his limbs, but he’s taken a defensive stance, light blade held in a loose ready position, even from his knees he seems prepared to fight to defend- her. Karen.

Why?

The stumps of the demon’s fingers are healing slowly, dripping as its severed digits twitch on the ground. The creature’s blood is turning the grass black.

Karen looks around for a weapon. If she hesitates, the demon will go for the rest of the soldiery, then come back to finish him. Or worse, hurl more flame….

She can’t find anything. There is nothing nearby, nothing on the ground. Not a rock, not a spent arrow or javelin.

The demon snorts, as if in disgust, gathers those dark flames in its uninjured hand, drawing its arm back…

A silvertipped javelin streaks through the air and drives itself into the creature’s chest, digging in, sliding through scales and sticking there.

The Azrae Legate rocks on its feet a bare moment, then howls in rage, stumbling away from both Centurion and stake.  A spearman- no, two- run up to the fallen Centurion, one patting the awful flickering flame away from his arms, the other, from his legs, both lifting him under the arms and dragging him away from the creature- she can hear him protesting.

“No- not me, you fools! Free- Karen! This creature is too- strong for any one of us. Take Karen to the castle- if anything happens to her- Light and ruin, where did that blasted sentry go? He was supposed to have done this already! Let me go you idiots-!”

A thunderous voice, the Legate’s, surely, shakes the clearing and darkens the skies. “Insolent filth! Such mortal trash! This will not go unpunished! The host of Azrae will hear of your affront, and-”

Something rather more insistent nags at her. Karen feels the steel butt of her crossbow nudging her hand. A black feathered bolt is set in her other palm. She half-turns, and her eyes meet those of the boy from earlier. By the eerily bright light from the Centurion’s unsheathed blade, his face is alive, but pale.

“Traveler be praised,” the sentry whispers. “Don’t lose the hope the Centurion had in you. Maybe he forgot, but I haven’t, Angus.”

She hasn’t the faintest what the boy might mean, but it doesn’t matter to her at all. She shoves him back, taking both bolt and crossbow as the Legate continues on.

“-tear the meat from your bones, mark my words! Now, taste the true wrath of the Azrae!”

With that, the demon Legate stretches up one hand and, with loud roar, cuts a hole in the air- a tiny slice that expands rapidly into a flaming, hellish gate.

A horde of horrible little humanoids leaps forth, brandishing small, sharp weapons like jagged daggers, clubs and small spears. They hiss, red skinned maws open to reveal sharp fangs, hands curled into claws and tails that flick with spade tips.

Shouts travel up the assembled soldiers, of fear or determination. One or two bolt outright, but as the line of spears closes and the Centurion is dragged away from the field of battle, Karen is still behind the monstrous demon. She watches it rear back and roar again as its horde of Azrae imps charge towards the assembled soldiery.

Karen pushes the crossbow against the dirt and cocks the string back one handed. Screams, human and demon, sound. The Legate seems completely distracted.

She grits her teeth, sets the bolt to the string, and suddenly, in that single moment, everything falls into place. The world seems to slow, her heart sounds a ponderous drumbeat in her chest. She can feel the air sliding past her teeth, can feel the wind around her caressing her skin, every hair as it’s brushed back by its passage. She can feel muscles tensing in her body, nerves blazing as she brings the crossbow up to a ready position, cradling it up near her eye. Her finger is on the trigger as she sights down the quarrel to her target. The Legate is roaring, his voice like slow thunder, echoing over- and over.

Wildfire runs in her veins, filling her to the brim. Karen feels a sudden fierce, overwhelming joy, at once alien and known to her, at once hers and other. Her toes curl with it, her eyes flutter shut for a moment, and the moment is hers. She can still see the Legate, can see it clear as day in her mind’s eye, in the blackness behind her lids, can see the back of its skull, its horns raised to pierce the sky.

I am the Traveler.

I am the Traveler.

This is my journey.

Victory is my destination.

Karen of the Black Feathers, her spirit ablaze, pulls the trigger, lets go of a breath held an eternity.

The crossbow jerks in her hands, light as a feather. The bolt leaves the strings, and it seems, in this moment of timelessness, that it hangs in the air. And it does, hovering there.

The head, Karen whispers to herself. Put this bolt between his eyes. Silence him forever.

For an aeon it stays there. And in an instant, time flows back, at once, time returns.

A thunderclap sounds, there’s a blur and a tiny explosion just in front of the crossbow. Karen staggers back, shielding her eyes from the flash and the heat.

A trail of dark smoke rises hazily between her and her target, the Legate, who sways for a moment, and then collapses, a puppet without a puppeteer, losing balance and collapsing, flailing uselessly only a moment before falling on its back.

All who had been fighting before turn to face the fallen Legate, whose titanic form had seemed unbreakable. Soldiers and demons alike stop fighting to stare as the giant falls. At the center of the Azrae leader’s forehead, a small, pointed, shiny object, shimmering wetly in the open air protrudes directly between both of the monster’s eyes.

The demonic host, with its leader dead, scatters to the four winds, some taking off, some running right onto the swords of waiting spearmen, others running past Karen. She doesn’t make a move to stop them, unable to believe it herself. What had just happened was nothing short of magecraft. She stares at her crossbow dubiously. An imp screams right next to her, moments before a javelin cast in silver erupts from its chest.

The tip of Karen’s crossbow is red hot with heat- and the wood haft of it hisses as it cools. With one shot, she had ended a demon whose flesh was more than a match for ordinary steel. Her bolt had broken the laws of nature to reach her target.

She shivers slightly, but not from cold, from tension, from fear and worry released in a breath, and from the trials she is certain will still come. The chain, after all, is still heavy around her neck.

The sentry approaches her and twists the key in the lock to her chain. It falls free, but the iron collar remains attached, and the sentry makes no move to cut that free. Karen is still too stunned to react to this newfound freedom. Surely she should be running by now.

She finds she simply doesn’t have the energy. After being tied up for so long, with the sun gone and night falling about her, she can’t find the strength to stand much longer, let alone attempt escape. She rocks on her heels, then collapses to her knees, fists clenched, eyes clamped shut. The joy won’t let go of her.

Her face is wet with tears she barely recognizes, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. All the tension burning in her nerves is released at once, and she’s left a sobbing wreck. She feels as though she hasn’t cried in an age, in an eternity, and that it must all be rushing through her at once now.

Trying to gather herself is impossible.

After a time, however, a hand on her shoulder makes her look up. A man stands there- the Centurion!-, bald without his helmet, gazing down with a mixture of sorrow and pity, blue eyed gaze piercing her through. She stares back, breathing heavy, arms weak as though she hasn’t slept in months.

With the sword sheathed and the Azrae gone, the only light is from the full, bright moons and the stars above, burning in the black sky. It’s enough.

“I’m sorry,” the Centurion says flatly. “While we needed you to kill the Legate, your crimes to my people are still unforgivable. Your execution has been mandated by the Emperor.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to change it,” Karen replies weakly. “Nor would I expect you to if I did.”

The sentry, standing nearby her, doesn’t say anything. The boy’s eyes are blank, and his expression is completely emotionless. To see it in someone so young is disheartening. Karen feels like she should apologize, but she can’t bring the words from her lips. She’s simply too tired. She bows her head and waits for the killing stroke.

The Centurion cuffs her shoulder lightly. “Not here, and not now,” He says, his voice rough with emotion. “Not this day, not the next.”

Karen raises her head and stares up at him, cradling her crossbow.

“When?” She asks. All the strength has run from her.

“When the Emperor finds us and convicts us,” the Centurion says, cracking half a smile. “For sheltering you.”

Karen sits there in stark shock, then slowly smiles back, reaching out  to take his hand. He pulls her up to her feet, demonstrating strength she doesn’t quite understand, but fully expected after watching him fight the Azrae leader. Her legs quake under her. The sentry is grinning wide as can be, and the entire camp of soldiers is gathering about, spears lowered, swords sheathed. The Legate’s corpse smolders.

Karen of the Black Feathers frowns, eyeing melted armor plates and red, swollen skin laid bare by the Legate’s dark flames. Her gaze hovers on every little detail of the Centurion’s armor, and the rough, wild features of an otherwise calm face- from the scars, small white lines on tanned skin- to the clean-shaven chin and his sad smile. But he still stands, despite the pain in his limbs. Truly the man must have inhuman endurance.

“Where to now, Traveler?” the Centurion asks quietly.

“I’m not this- Traveler- that you seem to know,” Karen says haltingly, doubtfully. “But I do follow my heart. My heart says I should be gone as soon as possible…”

The Centurion shrugs and smiles, eyes hiding his pain, but not from Karen’s sharp sight. “We could help you go wherever you need.”

“If you can keep up,” Karen replies lightly. “I’m not sure how I feel about traveling with those who once did everything in their power to tie me up.”

In fairness, she had killed several of their men. She doesn’t really mean it- mostly she finds that she just wants to see how far he will go, and realizes that she actually feels guilty about it as well. Karen is about to take it back when she sees Centurion Alpha’s expression.

“Karen of the Black Feathers, we are indebted to you- no, that’s wrong. I am indebted to you,” the Centurion whispers, voice choked. “If you do not wish to take advantage of our hospitality, if truly you wish to run, then that is how you are. I swear to you now that I will not follow.”

He reaches up and, gripping the iron around Karen’s neck, snapping the metal with a groan and a crack. The jolt isn’t as shocking as the iron shattering under his grip. A strength unnatural- and she feels a kinship, at that. A hunger to learn more, tempered by natural cynicism. Even now, though, she feels the shell begin to crack.

“Go, if that’s what you wish,” the Centurion says thickly, not meeting her eyes any longer.

“You’re smitten,” Karen says, surprised at the levelness in her voice.

“The Legate slew my family- my brothers, sisters, my mother and my father,” the Centurion replies, and a whisper of rage threads through his voice now. The sword, sheathed at his belt, hisses and crackles. There’s a brief scent of ozone in the air. “You have done what years of searching could not. I knew the Azrae wanted something from you. That you could draw the Legate. The Emperor’s command- that, as I’ve told my soldiers time and time again- has been nothing but a cover.”

Karen somehow still feels the tightness in her heart. It softens at the mention of his family, and she draws in a breath. The shell cracks further. “I don’t know what the Azrae want with me, and I’m sorry for the loss of your family. But they might continue to attack me if I journey with you. I would not subject you to that danger.”

The soldiers who surround her murmur amongst one another at this. Several look around apprehensively, as if worried the demons might approach from a flank or appear from thin air. The sentry, however, gives her a grin, and the Centurion shakes his head.

“That will not be a problem. The Azrae took from me my entire family. Let them come and be defeated, it would be no worse than the Emperor’s law to die by their claws.”

Karen pauses, thinking for a while. Finally she nods as though satisfied. But another question nags at her.

“And your men?” Karen asks quietly. “What do they think of it?”

“They all left the Emperor’s service willingly. I told them my plan from the beginning. None will leave that will be missed,” The Centurion replies firmly. “I will not force men to stay and travel with us, but I will shed no tears if the few who do not have the courage to proceed leave us. Anything else, Traveler?”

“You’ve thought of everything,” Karen admits ruefully. “I can’t think up any real reason for you not to come along. But don’t call me Traveler. Just Karen will do.”

“As you wish, Karen.”

She stands there a while, glancing around, taking in the people around her, the plain and the forest she’d left behind. Off in the distance she can see the mountains, and she knows that through them, a pass leads away from the Empire. She takes a deep, deep breath, steadying herself. She knows where she needs to go.

Her eyes find the boy, the sentry. She doesn’t even know the names of the soldiers around her, or understand their hopeful, hungry expressions, as though her words, her movements and actions are those of some legend.

There’s a warmth in the boy’s brown eyes though, as he murmurs something. The wind blows through the clearing as the word echoes in her mind, echoes among the soldiery surrounding her, just once. Just once, she feels she can forgive them for it.

“Traveler.”

“Well,” Karen murmurs quietly, to no one, to everyone. The soldiers around her straighten and stand, the Centurion looks at her expectantly. She feels a brimming fire gathering in her again, and her limbs feel light as feathers. Perhaps it doesn’t matter right now. What are names, after all? They can be learned and forgotten.

She shifts in her leather armor, frowning for a moment as the torn material twists oddly around her belly, but deciding that it can wait.

“Let’s travel,” she says softly. To her, her words seem to echo around the clearing.

Her grin is as bright as the stars, a flicker of the fire from before, and as her heart leaps into the air, her feet set themselves down one after the other as she leads the soldiers away into the new night. The grass is like soft silk cloud, and the cool air feels familiar around her, with her.

Like home.

©2012 Sam Oliver [Eris]