Chapter 18 : Bodyguard
"Was that my fault?" Lily cried out, as she feared that the man who had managed to stop the fight of titans would pass out again.
"Your nose shouldn't be bleeding. I only used a lot of mild, eh, strong Dreamless Spores... mixed with a little bit of tranquilizing Afterlife Perfume... and some painkilling Icetomb Smoke too... But I assure you that nothing was poisonous!"
Hearing about all those mysterious herb names only added to the pressure on the young man.
"Okay, if I really have to blame one thing, I'll admit that the mind numbing Death's Kiss powder was slightly overdosed." A little red of shyness showed upon the princess's face, like a child asking for forgiveness for her mischievousness.
"Don't worry, I'm fine." Saar said that only to keep her from digging her own grave.
"You're fine? Great then." Lily's shyness turned out to be faked.
"Well, I'm not feeling that great..." Being a cautious man, Saar couldn't help but ask, "What did you say was overdosed again?"
"Don't mind it, Death's Kiss is a weak poison compared to its brethren. It only makes your head grow heavy." Lily explained light-heartedly.
"I can feel that." Saar stretched his hand to a nearby tree for support. He was feeling very weak, even though he knew the poison was not the main cause.
"Oh, remember to tell me if you start to hear bells ringing, that may become troublesome." Lily didn't feel embarrassed about discarding her patient as she started to rush toward her beloved knight.
"What? Am I supposed to hear bells? What kind of... whatever" Saar understood there was no way she would help him appease his headache. The lady's attention was already on the man she admired: "My poor Celius! Are you hurt? Tired? Thirsty?"
The surrendered knight gently smiled: "Thank you for your concern. I'm actually unscarred, you should go see Nikkum instead, he doesn't look like he is in good shape."
The caring nurse's expression completely changed when she gave the beast a hateful glance: "Too bad I'm not a vet. And just look at him, if he fell into Hell, he'd be thrown out because of his ugliness. He should really dig a hole to hide in and become a Shadowspawn, only they can match his unsightly form."
Nikkum had regained much of his sense by this moment: "Thank you for your concern."
Sensing the annoyed tone in the beast's reply, the young princess marred her perfect face with a grimace by slanting her eyes and baring her teeth to mimic the fearsome Shadow Beings.
After convincing himself that he should stop thinking about Lily's poisons, Saar joined the party: "Save your useless chatter for now, and with our great warrior's permission, I suggest we move on right away."
Saar emphasized the word "warrior" so much that even Nikkum could sense the sarcasm in his tone. Without further argument, the defeated warrior started to march away. The forest let out a small sigh of disappointment, regretting the hero's departure. The early morning sunlight would not make the leaves shimmer at this time, as if it also was unsatisfied with the fight's outcome.
Nature was able to stand untouched by Man's destiny as it barely noticed the Assassins who were still in deep slumbers. Yet the noble knight decided that these men would survive that night despite the evil and harm they had done. He might have done that to soothe his torn mind with some comforting ease and nurture his barren heart with new hopes, however, he perfectly knew that his day of redemption would not come before the doom of his body. Had the Old Gods witnessed his acts in the distant past, they would have passed their judgment long before giving the knight a chance to redeem his soul with his own bare hands and in his own mortal body.
"Celius? You really don't look well. Don't hesitate to ask me for anything. Let me look what I've got here..." Lily began to search her herb pouch for anything that might salve her charming knight.
"I'm fine, milady. Don't strain yourself. I don't deserve it." Celius declined politely after seeing a dry lizard, a rabbit paw and some exotic flowers falling out of the pouch.
Saar looked away, because the lady's pouch was more terrifying than a dark cavern infested with soul-devouring fiends, and he would rather not be reminded of anything related to poisons, even remotely.
"Just a moment! I think I have it here... This did wonders on that man who was coughing his lungs out..." No princess liked to be regarded as clumsy or useless, their pride simply didn't allow it.
"Milady, look, I'm not coughing or anything." Celius couldn't bring himself to ask what "it" was, and how "it" helped. Only his instinct for protection alerted him that he was in a delicate situation at this very moment.
"I almost can't see Nikkum anymore, we need to catch up!" proclaimed Saar.
Celius sent a grateful look to the young man who seemed to understand what was going on. He stepped up his pace to walk shoulder to shoulder with Saar, leaving the busy and whining princess behind.
"Celius, you can leave anytime you like. I said what I had to say at the right moment, you are not obliged to us. You are a free man after all."
"I'll carry out my duty as your bodyguard as promised. Besides, I've followed you this far already anyway." This immovable sense of duty was one of the popular reasons that young ladies would fall for a knight.
"If you say so. But this isn't going to be easy with him and her around." Saar put as much emphasis on the one who was leading the way as the one who was absorbed in her searches.
"Can't get any worse than last night." Celius had a good grasp of the situation.
"Indeed." Saar had to agree. "Why did you follow us by the way?"
"I had to thank you for what happened at the inn."
"A 'thank you' with sincerity or with sarcasm?" Saar was a man with sharp perception despite his young age.
"With sincerity." Celius replied without pausing.
"I thought so." Saar paused to choose his next words, "You are a very intriguing man, an outlaw with the qualities of a knight greater than any nobles I've ever known."
"Feel free to ask why I am being chased by city guards; it only makes things more awkward when people have much to hide." Celius willingly took the bait.
"Then I'd be honored to hear your story."
"As you have heard back at the inn, I committed conspiracy..."
"And high treason." Saar had the great memory of a scholar. "Against Zeal's High Council? I don't remember this bunch of old wizards being much into the knighthood thing."
"Against Lumina's Holy Grounds actually. I was born and raised in that city, I am a descendant of the Silverstone family."
"Silverstone? That once noble and prosperous family?" It was an expected answer, still Saar was a little excited to actually hear it from a person face-to-face, "So I didn't hear it wrong back there then."
"It's quite amazing that someone of your age knows of my family."
"Oh... I'm a scholar after all. The name of Silverstone pops up often in old books. But they kind of..."
"Died out." The knight's voice suddenly turned cold as stone.
"The words you choose are blunt. I'd rather say that they were wiped off the records. Even the most recent book which has them mentioned must be more than ten years old."
"More than that."
"Yes, it's obvious that you know what happened and when." Saar hadn't put much thought into the fact that he was talking to a member of the Silverstones, "I believe that the castle of the Silverstones stands still today in Lumina, and, according to the records, the stones used in the construction were so polished that they would reflect sunlight like silver."
"Hence the name of Silverstone. A few men of my family still live on, but the castle has lost much of its old glory and status. And because of the accusations against me, you can expect city guards there most of the time." It was hard for a drifting man to talk about his home, especially a home that he could not return to.
"I understand. How are you sure that they're not after your family treasures?" Saar joked to lighten up a little the gloominess.
Surprisingly, he was met with an unusual reluctance. Being a straight and frank man by nature, Celius appeared perplexed about how to react to the thoughtless and awkward question.
Saar immediately noticed this unexpected hesitation. He had to think fast, and more importantly feign amazement: "Wait, your family does have hidden treasures? Oh, I suppose it is a heirloom from the founding of your family."
"Well, as the Silverstone house prospered in the military, we were bestowed with many important relics from different kings of Lumina over the years. Most of them are just symbolic like the Crimson Tear or the Scepter of..."
"The Crimson Tear is in your family's possession?" Saar's eyes suddenly lit up, "I thought it was a peace symbol offered by the Triland tribes after the Shadow Wars, and safely kept in the King's vault"
"You know about it?" The knight's voice was also filled with surprise, "Yes, the king had it. How to put it... It's a quite grotesque rod that has no apparent value at all. The king disliked it but couldn't throw it away because of its meaning. His highness blessed our family with it since our family earned most of the victories that led to Triland's surrender. Ironic that we, who spilled so much blood in the eastern sands, were awarded with their symbol of peace... but still, we treasured this item as a reminder that war can be required to attain peace."
Saar had to remain cautious. "It's weird for them to offer something that is not a weapon. I always thought the Crimson Tear was a jeweled axe. Are you sure it is not a charm?"
"No, of course not. I think there was an engraved fire symbol on it, but fire and earth rune markings are very frequent on ritual items in Triland."
"Too bad. There goes another myth about this item." Saar had to look away or Celius might have noticed the expression he tried so hard to conceal.
Celius preferred another topic as well: "You wanted to know why I attracted such attention from Zeal's guards, right?"
"Sure." Deep inside he wanted to know much more, but he knew talking about it again now would raise suspicions. He had to think about this, and fast. Too much was at stake.
Celius continued: "As you know, each city governs their neighboring lands on their own. Zeal and Lumina aren't on good terms because of their theological beliefs, just like the Merchant Guild in Inachis has always hated Eclis for smuggling goods under their noses. I traveled to Zeal thinking Lumina would have less influence there than in its nearby cities. But I was wrong."
"It's easy to buy off city officials. In front of a pile of gold pieces, thieves and saints are all alike." Saar got the point.
"Yes, I guess that explains why so many guards rushed to the inn we were staying in."
"But this is not the 'why' I wanted to hear." Saar couldn't afford to let Celius know his mind was on something else.
"I was labeled a traitor because I abandoned my military post and betrayed my belief." Those words sounded false from the proud knight's mouth.
"I can see they didn't take your departure with much joy. What was your rank? Commandant?" Saar did try to overestimate.
"General, actually." Celius spoke without any facial changes.
"That's amazing." Saar let out a light compliment, certainly unimpressed unlike others would be in this situation, "You said your family died out ten years before, it wouldn't have happened if they had someone as prominent as a General from Lumina. This much means you were at that rank while you were still in your teens."
"At eighteen to be exact." Celius voice was subconsciously filled with pride.
"Thanks to your family heritage?"
"Thanks to my bare hands."
"With the magic and glittering metal?"
"With my armor."
"Everyone must be speechless when hearing this." Saar's arrogance overflowed into his words, this young man held little respect for others' achievements, even the most impressive ones.
"I wish I could have just walked away from all this, but they never left me at peace since then."
Saar muttered something to himself: "You have seen too much to still be breathing..."
"Pardon? I didn't hear what you said."
"Ah, nothing. It just sounds quite unbelievable to anyone; earning that much fame at such a young age... only to abandon it all and become an outlaw..." Saar added, "So what happened?"
"Yeah, what happened!" The capricious lady suddenly announced her arrival by jumping in between both men.
"Lily!" Saar was quite irritated to have their serious discussion interrupted by a joyful tone, trying to pull back the lady to gain more time for an answer. "Can you leave us alone for a moment? Please?"
"No way!" Lily's reply was expected.
"We were talking about something serious..." Saar's meek voice tried not to concede but was mixed with a strange fear.
"I want to hear it too."
"Then continue please, Celius." The young wizard sighed.
Before Celius had the chance to open his mouth, Lily yelled: "Where is Nikkum! I can't see him anywhere!"
Saar's patience was clearly about to break down, as he started to appear disconcerted: "Who cares about him! Nikkum! Show yourself before our princess' wrath tears the land in two!"
"What do you want!" The beast's roar resonated with the forest, at least he was still nearby.
"Her Highness requires your presence!" Saar was playing the loyal servant.
"Tell her to come to me." Nikkum was acting a discourteous rebel.
Strangely enough, the condescending princess grabbed the arms of her knight all of a sudden and ran off toward Nikkum, leaving Saar's frustration behind.
It was a surprisingly refreshing morning to Nikkum, reminiscent of a suffocating summer night followed by a violent and incessant tempest. What was even more astonishing was that he found some unusual inner peace in spite of his earlier defeat against Celius and his accumulated fatigue. Much of his irritation vanished after taking in the smell of vivid leaves and timid flowers of the forest. He was not a man who dwelled on victories and defeats. While his willpower and focus were unmatched by anyone during his fights, he cared little about fame or humiliation after battles. He insisted on his own standard and belief, and the words of others could not possibly change his way of life. Today's survivor might be lying tomorrow in a coffin waiting for burial.
Nikkum had hardly given any thought to the concept of fate. He believed that someday everyone was to be ferried to the other side of the river separating the living and the dead, and it was only a matter of time before they would be born anew under another identity on the endless wheel of life. The decay of the human body was an unstoppable force, yet one could still make his spirit eternal through his determination. As not all that glittered was gold, the absolute rules of nature could still be defeated by miracles. To Nikkum’s mind, a miracle had a different meaning than mystic power and answered prayer. It was indeed miraculous that these Assassins had survived that night; and yet had Lily not been around, they would not have been poisoned in the first place; had Celius not defended them, their heads would have been rolling under trees by now. The chain of extremely coincidental events made that night unreal, though Nikkum thought little work of the Old Gods was involved. "So be it", was the answer he would give if asked why he accepted the deal of bodyguard. As his sandals tread upon the insignificant moss carpet of the forest, he needed no longer to think about the lowly slaves of gold such as the earlier Assassins.
People would undoubtedly cross paths again if they shared the same destination.
Dragged by the whimsical lady, Celius finally caught up the warrior. Noticing the bestial expression had largely disappeared from his earlier opponent, the bodyguard thought he should approach him to dispel their misunderstanding.
"Sir Nikkum..." Celius made the opening.
"You didn't call me Sir earlier." Nikkum brutally interrupted.
"The situation was a bit... and I thought you wouldn't like it." The explanation helped little.
"I don't like it." The clarification was rude.
"My apologies. Then Nikkum..." The well-raised man didn't want the conversation to end this quickly.
"We stopped being kids a long time ago, so you don't have to justify yourself. Just live your way, I care little." Unfortunately the antagonist was hardly talkative.
"I don't regret what I did and I'm not here to apologize for that." Despite his goodwill, the upholder of righteous belief failed at conveying his intended goal for the conversation.
"I understand perfectly well by now." Nikkum hinted about the outcome of the fight.
"I didn't mean that. After the incident at the inn, I've followed you..." Celius tried to change the negative tenor of the conversation, "Actually I've followed Lily who was following you."
The young lady intervened with much happiness: "Thank you Celius! I knew that you wouldn't have left a damsel in distress alone."
Nikkum was slightly annoyed by her sunny tone: "Which part of you was in distress? You were sneakier than those trained to be sneaky!"
Lily shrugged: "Then they've got no talent. I told you I didn't know about them. In fact I noticed them, but I just couldn't bring myself to believe that they were trying to hide from someone, so I didn't pay attention to them."
Nikkum scoffed: "They were trying to wear us down anyway, showing their presence was part of their tactic. Still I'm amazed that Celius didn't get caught in your mess."
The knight explained: "As I was following her, I saw what she was doing and I protected myself with cleanse Charms."
"Was I that bad at stealthing?" The princess refused to be put at the same rank as the petty Assassins whom she was mocking.
"Well, you stopped at three candy sellers, quarreled with a peddler about gems, often wandered off to pick up herbs..." Celius was already a diligent bodyguard even before making his agreement with Saar, and he remembered most of his client's activities.
"Stop it! I just had spare time because they were doing their stupid shifts; it was effortless to follow them." Lily protested.
Nikkum seemed to realize something: "That's why the Assassins didn't pay attention to you either; they just thought you were crazy."
The outrageous comment made the young rogue abruptly pick out a small container filled with a red viscous liquid, combined with an emerald gem, ready to release them together. However, she quickly gave up the idea and put them back in her pouch again reluctantly.
"That's right, poisons don't work against me." Nikkum brushed off.
"But this works!" The damsel might be weak but not without help, as she pushed Celius forward using him as her sword and shield.
"You little..." The warrior suddenly felt blood rush toward his head.
"Nikkum wait! Lily didn't mean that!" The bodyguard certainly did not want to engage in a fight with the one he was supposed to protect.
Thankfully the warrior made no moves: "No worries. I see no reasons to fight you now."
While Celius was relieved, the mischievous lady poked her tongue in a mocking gesture.
In the mean time, the young magus finally caught up with the group, and yelled: "Wait up! You're a little off target. We're skipping Inachis."