The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 17 : Knight

Nikkum stepped on the dead man's body, his expression as cold as ever. "I just made sure he remained 'unconscious'. And I asked where were the others were. Don't make me repeat a third time."

"Most of them are deep asleep now thanks to this lady's fortunate work, but you are not to carry out more meaningless kills as long as I'm standing between you and them." Deep indignation was certainly in Celius’ sentence, but a righteous man knew how to hold back his anger.

"Standing between? Then it means they're behind that tree." Nikkum's reasoning was quite straightforward, "Cutting them through with or without you makes no difference to me."

"I know they're Assassins and if they were following you it probably means they wanted you dead." Celius was clearly not the type of so-called defender of justice who lived only in clouds and ideals; he knew what was going on in the real world. "However, you cannot possibly ask me to stand unconcerned and watch you butcher these men."

"You were following us too." Nikkum turned to the startled girl, "I bet you didn't notice your knight either, otherwise you'd be by his side by now."

Lily nervously shook her head, unknowing what to deny.

"Listen... Nikkum was it? I cannot stand meaningless fighting. We can talk this over and solve this situation peacefully." Celius genuinely believed in what he said.

"Oh, you know my name." Nikkum sounded amazed.

"Saar told me during our conversation back in that inn." Celius explained.

"Guess he forgot to tell you how bad I was at human relationships." The beast plunged his claw in the gold bag and held one piece of the precious metal in air, "Talk this over? If you can convince their true master with your smooth talk, I don't mind sparing their pitiful lives. Sadly, after seeing how many guards were mobilized to ensure your capture, I believe your neck is worth a handful of these as well."

Celius stood firm: "I am ... grateful ... that I had the opportunity to escape in the commotion, but I have to say that I strongly disapprove of what you did."

"It's Saar who wanted to help you out, not me." the animal grew impatient of talking. "That's enough. I care not about people standing in my way, so move unless you want to be 'butchered' along with them."

Before the last words even reached his opponent, Nikkum's axe was already released and on its way toward the neck of the obstacle standing in front of him. Celius' eyes did not widen like those of a man seeing his life flash in front of him. With a fluid movement, he nimbly dodged the oncoming instrument of death. Nikkum didn't expect this, but he had anticipated the reaction, and a spear in his other hand was already thrusting toward the place where the poor man's heart would be the next instant. The time slowed for him, his body always craved for the instant it could feel a weapon rip through one's flesh, and the faint crack of a fragile bone being crushed by a terrible force. But the sweet melody turned out to be a horrible screech of metal hitting metal as the spear was stopped by the heavy plate chest that had appeared on Celius.

At this instant, the Paladin stopped being a fly that had to be squashed on the road to other targets, but became the center of Nikkum's attention. Nothing has the right to stay alive when he decides otherwise. Nikkum became violent. He swung axes, swords and spears with rage, but each and every blow was dodged, parried or blocked by the huge armors the man kept releasing. Not once did Celius even try to counterattack, he simply stood there, releasing a large mithril armguard to deflect a body-slicing strike, or wielding a large worn-down shield to stop a beheading slice.

Nikkum was feeling sick. He was losing all the bearings he had about fights. The longer a fight lasts, the deadlier his blows usually become... but this time, everything felt different. The abominable echo of metal was tearing through his mind; the lack of blood, the lack of pain felt, was numbing his grasp on reality. But above everything else, the total absence of aggression or despair in his opponent's eyes ended up driving him mad.

After being blocked once more, the beast staggered a few steps back and uttered a terrible cry. He released two charms: a red aura materialized a huge two-handed axe, while a green light surrounded his whole body. He shot a murderous look at Celius and followed it by a high jump as he was readying his strike. Rarely was he forced to use such an attack, and not once against a human, but he knew that not even the toughest armor would be able to stand against it. By looking at the height of the jump, anyone would be able to tell how frenzied the beast was and how deadly his axe was going to land.

Watchful since the beginning, the observing forest held its breath in order to not miss any of this clash of giants, the strongest claw against the toughest shell. The young lady did not fare any better, witnessing this intense moment from afar with her hands joined close to her chest was the best she could do. Strangely, Lily prayed that neither man would be hurt, however impossible it could be in this situation. The beast's leap seemed to last forever; the confident apprentice of protection rolled up his sleeve and revealed a huge charm tied to his forearm. A dense brown mist came out of it and materialized into a man-sized stone shaped like a monolith, and filled with protective energies. Not only did the stone shield Celius against the beast's most ferocious bite, but it also pushed the animal a few steps back. Nikkum landed on his feet but both his hands felt numb after the blunt collision of his axe with Celius' stone. He clumsily shook them in order to regain their control, then he fixed his eyes on the stone of rejection.

The stone was none other than a huge granite tombstone with countless names carved on it. The dancing campfire made each letter look like an unappeased soul, agonizing in pain.

"What the... This is interesting!" Nikkum barked a laugh strained with madness, "I don't care about what they are to you, but I'll make sure that your name will be on it too tonight!"

"Stop! Both of you!" Lily could no longer hold back, despair was obvious in her voice.

However, the frenzied beast needed some blood, be it his opponent's or his own, to regain some control over his mind. The young lady's plea was completely ignored, and she helplessly watched Nikkum rush for another round of strikes.

"Please... stop... I started all this..." Lily fell on her knees, remorseful about her impotence, "If only I hadn't used the sleeping spores..."

Her eyes were diverted from the endless battle, looking down on her hands scrubbing hard against each other. Her silky skin was turning red but the anxiety beneath was burning way more than the surface displayed. The clangs of Nikkum's axes crushing on the indestructible defense bypassed her eardrums and stimulated her brain with unbearable pain. She felt through the shaking ground the heaviness of both men's hearts, and yet she had no means to offer them salvation and peace. Understanding others’ minds was not an easy matter, but what Lily was truly scared of was to learn about hers. Her life was filled with moments of blank; her memory was pieced together with bricks of incompleteness. She certainly shouldn't care at all about someone she hardly knew, but for the first time in her life she was afraid of witnessing someone's death. Only divine intervention could stop the conflict between Celius and Nikkum, at least that was what Lily genuinely believed. She was past the age of crying since she knew crying wouldn't solve anything, as it had never solved anything. She hadn't shed a tear for so long and the reason was dead simple. To put into her own words, "Tears would only ruin my beautiful face and yet repair nothing of my severed heart." So she listened to the death match as if her mind was frozen in time, and she believed that by the first ray of dawn, one of the men would collapse, never to rise to his feet again.

The night was short and Lily was right. When the first light reached the thick gravestone of undying ghosts that had just been released again, Nikkum was on a single knee, breathing heavily like a trapped bear that just spent a whole night struggling in a pitfall. His stare was blank and his mouth dry. Every screech of metal was trapped in a perpetual echo within this skull, refusing to leave. Depriving Nikkum of his ability to land a blow was like tearing the wings off a bird. The loss of freedom left him overwhelmed by a feeling of claustrophobia.
On the other hand, while not as glorious as he appeared to be, Celius was definitely as focused as ever. The long battle had definitely taken a toll on his body and spirit, but his faith never faltered. He accepted the savageness, the craze, the madness all alike into himself without complaint and he was still standing at the end with the most dignified pride under the speechless sky.

"Lily, could you do me a favor by waking up the young man over there?" Celius finally had a spare moment to talk.

The simple and soft request struck the girl like thunder, waking her from the early drowsiness. She quickly crawled next to Saar and put a little lustrous stone on the chest of the young man who was still in his deepest slumber. As her palm pressed on it, green light escaped from the openings in her hand then passed through Saar's body. Perhaps it was because the whole night's fatigue had taken a toll on her, but Saar didn't show any signs of awakening. Lily swiftly carried out the action a second time, Saar still showed no reactions.

"Wake up, pig face!" Lily slapped the young man with all her might, "I indeed used a lot of sleep spores, eh... maybe a little too many... but don't die on me now! Get up on your feet and deal with your brute friend!"

The pain from Lily's slap did help a little, Saar could be heard murmuring: "Nikkum... don't put Charms in your mouth again... You sound like a girl now."

The young man's reply apparently ignited Lily's fury, as she chained three more slaps while uttering loudly: "I'm Lily, you stupid! Your friend is dying there."

"What!" Upon hearing the name of a woman he feared, Saar sat up suddenly. Perhaps too quickly, as his head hit Lily's.

"Ouch!" While holding her forehead to ease the pain, Lily kicked the young man's right flank to fully wake him with one more wound.

"What was that for?!" Saar was really having difficulty grasping the situation. Instead of having Nikkum waking him up for duty shift, here stood the furious Lily barking some nonsense at him. His headache was much worse than before; the reason was obvious to everyone except himself. Realizing Nikkum was not there, his eyes went nervously searching for any Assassin who might be hiding nearby.

"For being stupid, stupid!" Lily didn't stop massaging her forehead.

"Where is Nikkum?" Saar felt unsafe.

"Dying over there." Lily freed up a hand to point to the exhausted beast.

As Saar's eyes swept over the field, he covered his nose as the reek of the dead man reached him. It was hard to identify a butchered corpse but since it was lying next to Nikkum, the young man promptly assumed that it was one of their common enemies. He dismissed the corpse to look at his companion. The beast was exhaling more air out than he inhaled, but the inextinguishable aggression in his eyes let Saar know that he was not going to die any time soon. Then Saar was immediately mesmerized by the unfatigued, armored knight, standing behind a gravestone shining with blinding color and energy after absorbing once again the beast's fury.

"Pleased to see you again, Saar." the knight made a sign of greeting.

"Don't you dare... look away... while fighting me!" Nikkum's physical body received a new surge of rage, throwing itself toward the impermeable defense.

Saar sat upright to better understand this battle of giants, even if it felt pretty close to its end. The beast's attacks had lost much of their vigor; the waves of axes were bold and aimless. Even when they clashed with the gravestone which had yet to suffer a crack, the sound was no longer as alive as before. Nikkum was clearly reaching his human limit.

Lily picked up a little rock nearby and aimed for Saar's back: "Are you just going to sit here and do nothing? They have been fighting since dusk!"

Then Saar seemed to realize something: "Ah it's morning already... Did I sleep that long?"

Lily hurled the rock at the unfortunate man: "Do something!"

"Ouch!" Saar turned to the demanding girl, "Can't you just behave more lady-like? You keep injuring me since you woke me up..."

He kept the last of the sentence to himself: "I wonder what you did during my sleep."

No act of defiance would be tolerated by the princess, as she picked up several more rocks and flung them all at the lazy servant: "End this meaningless fight! Now!"

The young man had to use both arms to protect his head. "But it's already over. It's clear as day who's winning."

"Do I look like I care about the winner? Just make them stop!"

Saar yelled with a hardly hidden smirk: "Celius, by her Highness's request, you shall cease your barbaric and foolish act immediately!"

The dutiful defender replied: "Tell this to the one who's attacking."

Saar turned to Lily and pointed to the beast still in frenzy: "You want me to talk to that?"

The whimsical princess needed no explanation: "As long as you can stop them, I don't care what you do."

The young man stood up, but quickly fell on his behind again, "Ho, I can't seem to feel my legs! Lily, what did you feed me again during my sleep?"

The prideful face of the lady suddenly showed a little shyness, and her voice turned low. "Some sleeping spores... Don't mind the details, can you do anything or not!"

"Certainly not anything extravagant, milady." Saar was telling the truth, "Let's hope that beast will listen to human words."

The young man tried to rise again, but carefully this time. As he walked toward the epic battle, he felt lucky that the opponents were on a brief truce. Nikkum couldn't even look into the illuminating grace anymore; his eyes were fixed on the dust on his feet, which seemed willing to withdraw their support for the colossal body at any moment. All his senses were attuned to his primal instincts, trying to detect the next move of his adversary. To his dismay, the master of protection was yet to show any openings, Celius guarded firmly the path between the devouring beast and the collapsed humans behind the trees.

"Nikkum, being stubborn won't get you to anywhere, how about calling this a draw and resume the fight in a few days?" Saar was talking to Nikkum but his eyes were definitely giving off hints to the defender.

Celius immediately realized the clever man's intention and accepted his deception. "Yes, Nikkum, you were an admirable opponent. I haven't had such a thrilling fight for a good time; however I was disappointed that the duel was not on fair terms. You were exhausted already before the fight because of days of stress and fatigue, let's call it an end for today. I'll take up your challenge anytime if we have the chance to meet each other again."

The beast still had his head buried, breathing like a bull: "Not... before my axe... reaches these men behind..."

"I understand that your barbarian fighting spirit or whatever won't let you give up this battle, but you certainly do not wish to suffer a loss where the fight wasn't fair and square. Since Celius promised to take your challenge again, you should probably act like a man and take his offer." Saar had to admit that talking to an animal wasn't easy at all, even if this animal could understand human words.

The beast was past his reason and sanity, if he really had these once. "Kill..."

A displeased expression clouded Saar's face for a blink of eye, but long enough to give Celius a shiver. The skilled defender was able to handle the savage animal for a whole night without being tested by fear, and yet at this moment he saw a truly deranging darkness on this young man's face, as if he had touched the horror of death. Celius' sharp senses of protection alerted him that the one who used the words of men was probably way more dangerous than the beast who craved for blood. After a gesture, the impressive tombstone turned into shining dust and all his other protective tools disappeared as well.

"Okay, Nikkum, I give up. But I think their backup shall be arriving soon, and it's not in our best interest to continue this any longer. I suggest you leave here at once." Celius admitted his defeat willingly.

A true man should not be bound by the truth if it was to protect something greater.

Unfortunately the animal had no ears for wise words: "You are... not defeated yet..."

Upon these words, Saar suddenly seized his right grip as if to release a spell, but his mind gave it up before the flame burst out of his hand.

"Nikkum, we had a deal, right? Now I'm offering a deal to Celius." Saar turned to the defeated knight, "Celius, if I understand this correctly, you are acting like this only to stop this stupid animal from committing murders."

Celius nodded.

Saar resumed: "And you do realize that these men are after our lives?"

Celius nodded again, unwavering.

Saar took in a deep breath: "Then, I'm asking you to come with us, as our bodyguard for a while. This way, you take the full responsibility of whatever will happen to us. This is the price to pay for protecting these Assassins, from whom you will probably not even get thanks."

"I don't need their gratitude." Celius accepted the deal without much hesitation.

"Then these men live." Saar gave his word.

"They... don't..." Nikkum didn't appreciate the ending.

"Shut up already." The young man's patience was nowhere to see. "Celius, feel free to knock him out whenever you like, but I'm afraid that you'll have to carry this trunk dumber than wood."

"As long as I don't have to injure him." Celius replied.

Before the matter could be fully settled, an unnatural gust of wind swept across the forest, followed by a quick vibration of the earth and a strange sound that almost sounded as a distant beast howl. Flocks of birds flew away from the nearby trees, but their cry was outmatched by the silent pain of Saar falling on his knees. He remained stunned there for a few seconds, blood pouring out of his nose.

The three pairs of surprised eyes fell on him. Celius made a start toward the mage, only to be stopped in his tracks as Saar waved him off and tried to get himself up.

"Never mind that." Wiping his face, Saar walked away silently toward the campfire, a sad expression on his face.

Only the wind heard him whispering:

"I had no idea... it was still alive..."