Chapter 2 - The Man
“Are we going to be there soon?” I glanced past my cowl at Orlai and shrugged. What point was there in answering? She was just going to ask again later and my throat hurt. Orlai bristled, “You know,” She carefully sidestepped a dangerously large root, “I’m starting to wonder if it’d kill you to talk to me with more than a shrug, nod, or a few words!” I ignored her. Nothing had changed in the last hour or so, rain fading to a light drizzle. Despite her noisy chatter, the Princess fascinated me. How could someone talk for so long about absolutely nothing? For that matter how could she talk at all this much and with such overflowing emotion? Those that I’d met were awkward at best, mysterious and withdrawn, showing little emotion in their “conversations” with me. Orlai, however, was overflowing with such things, always changing from one to another and back in seconds. Her vitality was astounding.
I froze, Orlai thudding against my back. Something felt wrong. The air was different. Orlai took a breath but I slashed a hand at her, using the other to press a finger to my lips through the black cloth. She looked about frantically and nodded. The forest was silent aside from a soft wind that blew through the trees and rustled the leaves showering us with rainwater. I ignored the falling water but Orlia squeaked. Irritated by her inability to be silent I turned away, pulling the cloth over my nose down enough to freely sniff the damp air. Something smelled sweet, a far cry from the wet, earthy stench of the forest. Was it her? I leaned down to Orlai, grasping her shoulder to hold her still, and went to sniff her to be sure. A fist collided with the side of my head, jerking it to the side. Slowly, deliberately, I turned back and made eye-contact.
I stared flatly.
She raised the fist again.
I maintained the stare.
Her fist drew back.
I stepped away.
She raised her chin haughtily.
I glared out into the forest. Why hadn’t I killed or abandoned her if she was going to be such a nuisance? Yet again the mental dance began in my mind on leaving her, and yet again something told me I needed to keep her. Sighing I pinched the bridge of my nose, what was wrong with me? The ground shuddered.
Great sword whipping from its sheath and shield held at the ready, my head whipped back and forth scrutinizing the dim forest. Orlai screeched, falling against a tree, broadsword flying from her sheathe. She held it with shaking hands, pointing the weapon this way and that before sliding down the trunk and cowering between its roots. I ground my teeth, annoyed by her sniveling. I listened, forest ambience whispering. A deep thud resonated through the wet and muddy ground as if a tree had fallen. Straining my ears I held my breath, concentrating. The forest shuddered, mud rippling. Low beats, steady in their pattern. Footsteps? It was big. I turned to Orlai, still huddled against her tree. She looked up at my approach shrinking away fearfully,
“Get up.” I ordered, her jade eyes wide and watching me warily. What did she see when looking into my eyes? I could only see a terrified girl at the mercy of an ominous, dark figure reflected in her own. Innocent, thrown into a fate she had not asked for or expected, the girl was desperate. Orlai shook her head, eyes squeezing shut.
“No!” She cried, broadsword pointed at me, “You’ve got no manners,” Twinkling tears crawled down her cheeks, “You treat me like I’m a burden, you won’t speak to me like a human being, and now you’re just pulling your weapons out willy nilly and just telling me to follow you blindly!” Her sword shook violently in her hands. I opened my mouth, “I don’t know where I am or who you are,” She said before I could say anything, “I hate this awful and terrifying place! I just wanna go home!” She glared at me, eyes red and cheeks streaked with tears, “Not stuck here in this forest with YOU!” Her words rang hollowly in my ears. She was nothing but dead weight, keeping myself alive was already difficult enough without her. It was unacceptable to take on such a worthless companion. I had no debts to her but she owed me a great deal, not that I cared. There was nothing she had I wanted.
Without a word I marched off into the forest. I could feel her eyes on my back and hear her incessant sobbing. A needle prodded at something in my silent chest, each footstep that brought me further away driving it deeper and deeper. This was a good thing. She was slowing me down, dead weight, a useless companion. If she died under my protection the blame would be on me. If I left, having provided her with ample means to protect herself, I was not at fault. I stopped, looking straight ahead.
Was that the truth?
I didn’t answer myself, focusing on putting one foot after another. Act dammit, stop thinking. Act.
Orlai watched the man march away through the trees, good riddance. She was the most powerful magician in the country of Alvia, aside from her mother, and could handle herself. She didn’t need that no-good grump who acted like he knew everything, laughing boisterously behind that mask of his at every misfortune she suffered. She clenched the hilt of the broadsword he’d provided, drawing it out from its sheath and pointing it to the sky. She had been given private training from the Knight-Captain Dio himself, a sword master who’d slain dragons and defeated hundreds of thousands of men in combat. She his finest student he said, almost a master herself. Orlai paused, looking around at the forest.
Did the ground just shake?
She would bravely stand against any beast or monster that dared show itself to her with magic and swordplay. Everyone said Orlai could do anything if she set her mind to it. She repeated this to herself several times, as if for rehearsal for when the man in black returned. He would return after all, no man could leave a princess alone. She was strong, beautiful, well-gifted in the arcane arts, suitors appeared at the palace every day to court her. The ground shook and trees swayed, water falling from the leaves above. She quickly lifted the broadsword up from her chest, pointing it at the trees around her,
“Stay back!” She called hoarsely, “I’m armed and dangerous!” Her voice cracked, “Don’t come near me!” The shaking halted. She swallowed, forest growing darker. Shadows danced between the trunks, forest murmuring, unseen eyes followed her. Orlai’s jaw clenched. He was probably doing this to play a prank on her, to teach her he knew better, she would not be toyed with! Orlai was no cowering princess who did nothing but wait for a prince in shining armor to save her. Gritting her teeth, Orlai straightened her back and raised the sword above her head.
She was a brave warrior, and she would prove it!
With a fierce war cry Orlai charged through the trees, screaming for blood and glory, adrenaline pumping, grand cheers of a thousand knights spurred her bravery. A deadly snarl paved itself across her face, sweat of battle crawling across her cheeks, wind howling past and blowing her hair out in a storm of fiery red. She was a knight true, a heroine who could fell any beast! Her name echoed through legends and myth, a great and unstoppable warrior princess even gods worshipped! Breaking from the trees she dashed out into a grassy clearing.
Panting heavily Orlai bent over, hands resting on her knees. How could anyone run in armor? The stuff weighed a ton. She wiped sweat from her brow and sighed in satisfaction. A good exercise, she mused slinging the broadsword over her shoulder. She surprised even herself! And that man in black thought she needed him, preposterous! Orlai looked up at the cloudy sky as a small opening parted in the clouds giving way to blue sky. She was going to make her own future for once, as a real hero of legend. Raising her sword to reflect the sky Orlai, the Hero Princess and Arch Mage of Alvia, turned on her heel to take her own destiny.
Orlai froze, looking up.
A gigantic man in knightly armor several times her own height loomed overhead, his armor seeming to be, inexplicably, made of polished stone. Moss dusted his equipment, a massive great shield and sword gripped in either of his gauntlets. He raised his sword and Orlai screamed, falling back expecting it to slice her in two, but a bright light bloomed from the weapon as he held it aloft. Several tons of weight crashed down over Orlai, dragging her down to her knees. Already burdened by her bulky armor this additional weight held her still, unable to move. The massive knight’s sword rose again, this time cutting down. Orlai could not speak, voice unable to be heard over the terror that gripped her. She fumbled for the hilt of her broadsword as the greatsword dropped at a slow but deliberate speed. While this knight did not appear at all quick, she by no means doubted a single strike would kill her. Finding her sword’s hilt she yanked it from the sheath, body suddenly moving on its own. Orlai dived out of the way, stone greatsword thudding into the wet ground behind her with a ground shaking squelch. She stared dumbly at the knight as its head turned to her. Stiffly raising her sword she swung upwards at its neck, making solid contact. Sparks flew and the sword jarred out of her grip. She cried out as a sudden electric pain shot through her hands and arms, and fell to the ground. The stone knight turned, sword already swinging. So this was how it ended? Orlai curled into a ball, tears streaming down her cheeks. Why had she even tried? She wasn’t a princess, just some apprentice sent on a fool’s errand for a hero that didn’t even exist. There was no Alvia, no throne, no knights, just a girl who had been banished to die, fooling herself into thinking she mattered.
Orlai looked up as death fell, when her voice came to her,
“CHOSEN UNDEAD!” She screamed, cursing the myth of the so-called hero. She closed her eyes, surrendering herself to death, its embrace better than whatever this world had to offer her. Orlai winced at the loud crack of rock on metal. Strange, she wondered, it hadn’t hurt. Afraid to open her eyes, worried she’d see the bottom half of her body missing or some other grisly sight, she didn’t move,
“Princess.” Orlai’s eyes snapped open to the cowl of a knight in extravagant black armor, an exotic blue-steel greatsword slung over his shoulder, black shield holding a gigantic stone greatsword at bay,
“You’re late.” She hiccupped,
“Sorry.” He grunted heaving the knight back. The man advanced slowly. Orlai blinked, suddenly noticing a bright border of golden runes circling the clearing. The intense weight was still present. How in the hell was he moving? The stone knight swung, the man’s black shield taking the full brunt of the blow without breaking step. No obvious sign of fear or hesitation, he strode through the slow storm of blows the stone knight battered him with, black shield deflecting each and every blow. Suddenly attaching the shield to his back, the man rolled under one of the knight’s strikes and, with both hands, sliced at one of the knight’s legs. To Orlai’s amazement, the stone knight staggered. The man in black pressed the advantage, bringing his blue-steel sword up to slice at the knight’s crotch, then its other leg. The knight fell to its knees, producing a mini earthquake, and the man in black drove his sword into its chest. Without a single word or flourish he heaved, cutting upwards and out, carving through the knight’s chest. Groaning, the stone knight fell back, dropping its weapons, and collapsed. Shoulders slouching with a quiet sigh, the man in black turned to her.
Orlai jumped up,“That was amazing!” She shouted, pointing him, “You are amazing!” Orlai danced around the clearing, “First you were like, ’Princess, sorry I’m late!’” She mocked his monotone voice, hunching as if she held a great weight upon one arm while protecting a fallen comrade, “Then you were like,” She stepped forward dramatically, walking across the clearing as she heaved aside god-like blows, “Then,” She jumped and rolled, piercing and imaginary enemy with her unseen blade and roared, yanking it out in a long upwards arc, “Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?!” She pressed, running over to the man, “I didn’t realize you were so strong!” He watched her silently from under that black cowl as she smiled brightly bouncing on the balls of her feet, but said nothing. Her energy and excitement began to wane as he stood there without speaking a word. After a full minute of him staring at her blankly she gave up, hands flying into in the air, “What’s your problem?!” Orlai demanded, “I know you talk, or is that just for insulting me?!” His head tilted to one side, “Dammit will you say something?!” Silence. Tearing at her hair Orlai screamed in exasperation and turned her back to him.
He was insane, completely and utterly. No normal human being would act like him, and who in the hell forgot their own name?! He seemed like a child, terrifying and extremely powerful sure, but a child! She jumped, footsteps squelching through the grassy clearing. An unnervingly large shadow loomed above her. Orlai tensed, fear nipping at her mind as a black gauntlet fell upon her shoulder. She looked back at the man in black. A pair of empty black eyes stared at her. She looked deep within the abyss of those eyes and felt something, hidden from view, that unhinged her. Orlai saw a soulless husk, a man that should have died long ago, a walking corpse, and shuddered. What could do this to someone? Was he even human? What little of his skin she could see was pure white but the hood and mask hid most of his face. What was beneath that cloth and armor? Her hand rose, reaching toward his hood. His eyes suddenly widened, “NO!” He cried pushing her over. Orlai stumbled back with a surprised yelp,
“What was that for?!” She yelled, “I just wanted to see your stupid face!” She tromped over to him, “What is your-” Her anger vanished.
He covered his face with cruel black gauntlets, leaning heavily on a tree and moaning pitifully,“No…no…no….”
She bit her lip,“It’s okay,” She whispered soothingly and placed her hands on the unforgiving shell of his black armor, “It’s alright I’m sorry, it’s alri-” A gauntlet closed around one of her hands, hollow eyes looking back at her from under the hood as he turned to her. The metal was cold, so cold, as if his body was ice. She felt the urge to break away.
He gently pushed her back, releasing her hand,“Sorry,” He whispered, “You cannot see.”
A stab of emotion pierced Orlai and she smiled sadly,“It’s ok, don’t worry. It’s probably better you don’t tell me any of your secrets.” She stepped back, “I’m terrible at keeping secrets you know, back in the village it got so bad nobody spoke to me because...” Orlai trailed off, laughing humorlessly. Looking away she stopped on remains of the golem. Was this man human?
Orlai looked back at the man in surprise,“What?” She asked.
The man coughed, almost like he was clearing his throat,“I like to talk to you.”
Orlai stared at him,“You what?” The man glared flatly and crossed his arms, “Well excuse me for being shocked that you can put that many words together!” She shot back, head shaking in disbelief. She couldn’t believe this man, he was a hopeless mess of insanity, “You’re so strange you know that?” She looked up at him with an honest smile. He didn’t answer, head tilting to one side.