Chapter II Centipede
There was about a day's hike left before we'd arrived back to Madalva where Liana and I resided. The next morning, we awoke at sunrise as we had done for the past few days during our journey. Our rations were all but depleted, and after a quick breakfast, I decided to get us moving, retracing our steps back toward town. It was about midday now as we'd been walking for hours and in need of a well-deserved rest. The sun rested high in the mid-day sky, the weather was calming, no winds or rain to speak of. The air was dry, and we had little water to spare. Still, I decided to continue, for we couldn't afford to spend one more night outside the town and risk the possibility that someone would take notice to our absence.
We pressed on, the tall grass gave way to vast plains that stretched on for miles. The plant life consisted of small patches of grass and a few varieties of bush and tiny shrubs. Several species of birds flew overhead, landing in giant flocks, pecking and squawking at each other before taking off again via massive unified swarms.
"Let's keep it up, Liana," I called back to her. "We should reach town by nightfall."
"Okay," she said. "Elliot, can I come with you next time you venture out?"
". . . Maybe, we'll need more of your herbs eventually. The area we frequent is growing scarce; I'm not sure how far we'd have to travel to find more. I also heard some of the same variety grow up north, but that would bring us closer to the impact zone, possibly within their radius . . . it'd be dangerous, and I can't keep risking taking you with me outside the parish. Our luck may be at its limit and getting caught could mean being arrested or worse. They might even try to separate us."
"You'd protect me like you always have, Elliot," she said.
"I can't protect you from your illness, Liana, you need your medicine for that, which means us not being discovered and me being able to retrieve more for you. Until we can find a permanent solution, we must continue to rely on the herbal formula. When we get back, we'll go see Elis and have him conjure up more of the potion. How do you feel?"
"I feel well," she said pausing. "Remember when you said you'd never leave me alone? You said, “We’ll travel together, remember?”
“I remember…but things are different now. Your condition makes the journey far more jeopardous for you. I can’t risk something happening to you. Next time out you’ll have to stay with Elis, I’m sorry.”
“I understand, Elliot, it’s okay.”
“I’m glad to hear that Liana…let’s keep going.”
Several more hours passed as we marched onward getting closer to our destination only stopping to rest at intervals of ten- to fifteen- minute breaks. It was approaching evening, and a big bright red sun hung low in the sky. The heat and humidity were almost unbearable. We found ourselves at its mercy, frequently taking small sips of water from the pouch we both shared.
The sack I wore upon my back now carried only the herbs I obtained and a few utensils used for hunting, gutting and skinning game.
“We’re nearly there,” I said. “We should arrive just before the dusk; we can use the darkness to sneak back into the parish. Everything will be all right, Liana, we’re going to make it.”
“Elliot?” her voice called softly.
“Elliot,” she spoke again.
I turned to face her and was taken aback by what I saw. Her face looked flushed, her skin pale; she appeared weary and was sweating profusely.
“Liana, are you all right?” I said.
“Elliot…I need…” she said, then suddenly she collapsed.
"Liana!" I cried, rushing to her aid, dropping my sack in the process. I took a knee and lifted her gently, cradling her in my arms.
"Liana, are you all right?" I pushed her too hard, I thought to myself; her eyes where hazy, unresponsive. I grabbed the pouch tied around my waist and removed the cap.
"Here, Liana, drink some water." I said, holding the bottle to her lips.
"Little sips that's it."
She's getting worse; I thought but tried not to show my worry. She began to cough, signaling she'd had enough, pushing the bottle away from her mouth. I placed the bottle beside me, looking at her, brushing the hair from her face.
"Feeling better?" She nodded gently.
"I-I'm tired, Elliot . . . can we rest here a while?"
"Of course . . . whatever you need. Take it easy; take your time. When you're ready, I'll carry you the rest of the way back."
I looked toward the sun which now barely crept over the western mountains in thin tangerine outline. The orb was blood red emitting a bright beam from behind the dark mountains, and the sky a deep purple surrounding it. Underneath, four tiny silhouettes could be seen out in the distance. They appeared to be riding on horseback and seemed to be heading in their general direction.
I looked at the girl then back to the riders. They must have seen us, as their direction shifted, now headed straight in our direction. As they drew closer, I could now make out their dressing.
"Scouters . . . War Class," I mumbled under my breath, readying my sword.
The group was being led by a large man obviously higher in rank. He wore large silver gauntlets and specially designed chainmail armor unique to his great size. Two soldiers followed, common to the Council guard. They usually patrolled city streets and kept order. A fourth man trailed behind them as well. He wore a long purple hooded robe with gold trimmings that cloaked his appearance, no doubt a part of the Noble Class.
The Nobles are part of the high-society clergy. They consisted of scholars, physicists, high council members of the church, government officials, and the Twelve themselves. They were individuals with great prestige and held a lot of power over the Common Class.
As they drew closer, I could now see the face of the large man. He wore a beard, dark hair, dark eyes, and a prominent scar across his lips, moving diagonally downward to his jawline, leaving a trail in his otherwise teeming beard. I sat there still cradling Liana, watching the men approach.
"Who are those men, Elliot?" she said faintly.
"Liana, don't worry, let me speak, let them only address me."
As they drew closer, they seemed to slow in cautious manner; the lead man raised his fist signaling the others to stop.
"What's going on here?" His voice broke out in rich baritone. I looked up and locked eyes with the ample man. His poise was that of a ravenous beast as he gave a cold thousand-yard stare.
"I asked you a question," the giant said calmly.
I sat nervously, returning the man's gaze, trying to match his intensity.
"It would seem we have a pair of Commoners outside the parish," he said.
"It is prohibited for Commoners to travel without proper merit, unless assigned mandatory relocation by a superior. Surely, I mustn't have to remind of our laws?" he continued, his tone condescending with each spoken word. His eyes shifted to Liana.
"The child, what is wrong with her?"
"She is ill . . . I must return her to the parish. She has to be placed in the medical ward."
"So you say . . . No matter your reasoning, you are in clear violation of the Magistrate. We'll have you in chains, and the girl placed in our immediate custody."
He looked at the rider beside him, giving the man a nod. The recipient dismounted his steed joined by the additional soliders. The officers approached me, placing their hands on their holsters' blades at the ready.
"Move away from the child!" one of them demanded. Still I sat, cradling her in my arms.
"Please you're frightening her," I said.
"Step away from the child!" the man ordered again.
I refused; the man reached down to pry her from my arms. Liana let out a shrill scream, leaning forward I pushed the man away. The two drew their weapons, and I stood up drawing mine as well.
"You dare defy the Magistrate?" the large man belted out.
"Your actions forfeit your freedom as well as your life! Yours and the child's! Drop your weapon or you will be slain!"
"We just want to go home!" I shouted. "Please, this once, show some leniency."
"Leniency?" To a Commoner who would draw his weapon to an officer of the Council? You'll fall here. Arrest him! If he resists, kill him!"
"Last chance, discard your weapon or we will attack!" one of the men bellowed. Still I refused, readying myself. One of the men charged, swinging his saber in a downward motion. I raised my sword horizontally overhead to ward off the assault. Our blades collided then scraped against one another until caught by the shoulder of my saber.
Pushing forward with all my might, I dislodged the blades, simultaneously tossing the warrior aside. Temporarily stunned, the officer hesitated to prompt a second attack while the other substituted, attempting to blindside me from behind with a preemptive strike.
Turning to face him in time, I parried his advance, and with an attack of my own struck the man on his nose with the pommel of my blade. The warrior staggered back to join the others, blood poured from his nose down to his chin. They looked at the large man for instruction. The brute was astonished. He'd never seen skill like this in a Commoner nor should he have, as it were outlawed for Common Class to be skilled in weaponry or combat of any kind.
"Highly impressive," the big man said sternly.
"Enough!" he barked at the two. "I'll handle this," he said, dismounting from his horse. The soldiers backed away, as he turned to face me.
"Where did you learn to fight?" he said, walking toward me in a cool, confident, malicious manner.
"You're clearly no novice . . . well, here's a chance to prove your prowess."
He drew a large wide sword from its hilt located on his back and pointed the weapon at me.
Engravings could be seen displayed on both sides of the blade, a mural of sorts. He turned the weapon on its end to reveal an image of a woman, a goddess. Her arms opposite her chest, her eyes closed, she sat wrapped in the embrace of many hellish creatures.
Their grotesque limbs stretched out grasping at her, some making contact, yet the image held something of a maternal sentiment.
"The Goddess Abigail," he explained.
"It was said millennia ago, she would ferry the souls of the dead back from Purgatory long after they'd previously been judged by the Lord Granos himself, giving them a second chance at salvation, an existence in Paradise."
"It was said her love for us was so immense that she couldn't stand to see her people suffer even to the degree to defy her Lord. I pray with my death, she'll find forgiveness for my sins, for I am burdened by my duty to the Council in slaying vermin like yourself to protect all that is holy and veracious."
He whirled his great sword around then speared it into the earth.
"Attack me," he dared. His hand still rested upon the hilt of the blade.
I indulged him, charging in, attempting to slice his head off with one swift horizontal blow. Time itself seemed to slow as I swung my blade confidently, and just before I'd make contact, the giant ducked the assault, moving peculiarly fast relative to his stature.
He rose up, snatching me by the hair, trusting my face into the hilt of his blade still buried in the ground.
I felt my lip split open from the vicious blow. Blood flowed from the wound. I staggered backward in disarray, and before my eyes could focus completely, the large man lunged forward, gripping me by the throat, lifting me into the air.
Naturally, I dropped my saber, grasping the man by his wrists in effort to free myself. The large man chuckled with satisfaction at my plight.. The two guards laughed cheering the large man on.
I struggled on as the barbarian snickered. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to free myself, I threw my legs up and wrapped them around the man's arm placing him in an arm bar. This brought the titan to his knees with me falling flat on my back.
Hooking my ankles I began to pull.
"Argh!" the large man grunted, trying to free his arm. But I held tight, rolling my body, hoping to break or at least dislodge the elbow or shoulder. He released his grip round my neck, giving me full control of the arm, a small victory.
The giant would not to be vanquished so easily. He leaned forward, almost placing himself face to face with me. He looked into my eyes, as he said, "Some skill, but not good enough." He raised his free arm, made a fist, and began to pummel me.
Blow after blow, he struck me until my grip relaxed, releasing the arm. He then stood up, towering over me as I lay battered and beaten, but not defeated.
"Honorable, though feeble," he said, pulling his blade from the ground.
"You two men shackle him and collect his belongings then take him to Gala Meza reformatory. The girl comes with me."
"Margus?" The hooded man interrupted.
"I'd like you to search his belongings," he said, his voice confident with a hint of arrogance.
"I wish to know what he was doing out here."
"My Lord, should he not be taken before the Magistrate? He must be punished for his crimes."
"And he shall, Margus, in good time." The hooded man snapped his fingers and pointed to the sack I carried on my back.
"You men search the sack and report your findings."
"Good show, Margus, you should have killed him," he said with a grin, as he trotted toward me now bound in chains, rested on my knees. I looked up at the man examining his robe. "You're a Noble?"
"Indeed," he replied, staring back down at me, removing his hood. The iris of his eyes were strange, an eerie golden pigmentation. His skin was pale, weathered, and his cheek bones were exposed.
"I am Siesle, a Nobel to the Council," he said.
"You serve the Magistrate?"
"I serve no man," he said abruptly. "I am an adviser. I see to it that the ‘difficult’ issues are resolved, typically without highly praised end results.”
“You’re a hated man?”
“Among your Common Class, yes.”
“Siesle? Wait, I’ve heard of you. It was you who ordained the class system nine years ago?”
“Many people now suffer because of your decision, forcing change upon those who did not welcome it or just weren’t ready to modernize.”
“You know your histories…though biased, your assumption,” he said.
“I judge by what I see,” I told him.
“And I’m sure you’ve seen much. Necessary evils, I assure you, with the further industrialization of our society and the increasing power of the matra, it is only sensible we put forward those best equipped to lead us into the future, don’t you agree? The inadequate populace must be controlled, their numbers reduced and regulated. There are simply too many people for our nation to sustain,” he said, balling his fist.
“War, famine and disease have plagued humankind for centuries. Those unwilling to convert shall forfeit their identities and status and be relocated to communities controlled and governed by the Council.”
“Like Madalva?” I said.
“Yes, like Madalva,” he answered.
“People cannot be controlled, they’ll fight back.”
“They already have and were met with disaster. Someone with such ideals should not be roaming free. You’ve proven you perversity in more ways than one this day.”
“My Lord,” one of the men interrupted.
“Our findings, travel gear mostly, instruments used for skinning game and this.”
The man presented a single flower like herb, the stem a vibrant aqua blush, its petals almost alien in their transparency. Siesle reached out and grabbed the flower, his eyes widened.
“My, my, a rare specimen indeed,” he said. “Where did you find this?” His eyes shifted toward me.
“A loss for words, Commoner?” He said looking back to the item.
"The ghost lotus, used for its healings properties, but only known to those who study the medicinal arts, surely not this boy. Who's the apothecary? Who's told you of the ghost lotus?"
He looked at Liana who now was being held by Margus, her eyes closed, breathing heavily.
"No doubt obtained for the girl," he implied.
"What ails her?" he said, looking at me once more, his eyes gleaming.
"Why hide this from us? We can help you help her."
I shook my head in disbelief.
"Why would you help her?" I questioned.
"Of course, you don't think we'd let the child suffer? She must have a chance for survival to grow and join the ranks of her fellow Common Class," he said.
"A life of servitude to the Council?" I snapped back.
Siesle paused then snarled. "An opportunity for advancement," he criticized.
I realized I'd lost, the only chance Liana would have was if I surrendered without a fight.
"I'm not sure what she suffers from, I just know the herb provides her relief," I said. "What now? Do you intend to separate us?"
"Consequently, yes, as result of your actions. Take him away to Gala Meza for questioning. Find out how he knows of the ghost lotus and who is helping him. The child comes with me. She is to be submitted to the ward of the Magistrate for study."
"Study!" I shouted.
"Yes, we cannot presume to cure the child if we are ignorant of her condition," he said.
"I grow tired. We are to report back to Madalva and prepare for transport. Checking up on the masses always is a tedious affair. Ready, Margus?"
"Yes, my lord," the large man said, mounting his steed. Liana sat in front of him his arm wrapped around her waist keeping her steady. The other two men had returned to their horses as well. One of the guards led me by lock and chain around the neck. Jerking and yanking me about like a fish on a hook.
"Walk, damn you!" the guard ordered, getting me up to pace. I glanced over to Liana who was resting in the arms of the giant, apparently too weak to put up a struggle.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I'll find you. I swear."
"Move it!" the guard demanded again, tugging the chain, leading me astray in the opposite direction. We were accompanied by the second officer.
"We'll return you to Madalva where you'll be held until we are ready to transport you to Gala Meza. None shall come to your aid as they won't know your identity," he said, pulling me closer, placing a dark sack over my head.
We began our march back toward town, my fate and Liana's uncertain. Although rotting a few months in a magistrate jail wasn't on the agenda, I'd wait for an opportunity and take it, an opportunity to escape my capturers, get in touch with Elis, and find a way to free Liana from wherever she'd been taken.