Kenneth C. Eng, Spell Knights
Publisher: Lulu (March 5, 2017)
Reseller: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Print Length: 400 pp.
Part 1: Dreamspell
It was a quiet night in Village 208. The houses creaked, settling after a long day of activity. The wind blew softly, sweeping small dust clouds over the cobblestone roads. The only light came from the stars, and the occasional candlewick flames swaying with the air as nocturnal villagers tried to get some reading in before slumbering. Not much happened here; not this night or most other nights.
However, a dark silhouette walked onto the roads. With a blue cape fluttering behind it, it knew exactly where it was going and who it was there to handle...
At the same time, Nephro, a red anthropomorphic lobster, sat in his home, hunched over before a parchment. He wasn’t dressed particularly well, wearing merely a robe that could have used a wash. Nonetheless, contrary to his physical appearance, he was actually quite well-off, and could afford things most other people could not. After all, his latest book sold over ten thousand copies.
He had been up all night adding the finishing touches to his latest manuscript. The archives would be clamoring over it as soon as he sent it out in the morning.
“Thus concludes this book,” he muttered to himself.
Before he could do any more writing, someone kicked open his door.
A female anthropomorphic ibex goat barged in, hooves stomping on the wooden floors with footprints of dirt. Wearing a suit of elaborate metal armor, she was clearly not a civilian. With her elegant blue cape, she was too well-kept to be a criminal. Androgynous, she did not have the semblance of a sheep, but rather, sported a billy beard as well as curled horns on the top of her head. Her white fur seemed abnormally clean for someone who was encased in combat gear, but then, there was something to be said for etiquette in fighting.
Eve Knight Ibexior pointed a finger. “You are the one called Nephro,” she said accusingly.
Nephro put his pen back in its ink jar and got up.
“What of it, intruder?” he said boldly, yet calmly.
“Your manuscripts do not speak well of the Democracy. You are forthwith under arrest.”
Nephro looked at the wall. There was a sword hanging there, not three feet from his reach. He could easily have grabbed it before she could, but he did not lift a claw. She did not appear to have any weapons.
“You are unarmed, so it would be bad sportsmanship to fight with my sword. Let us settle this like warriors.”
He took combative posture. Ibexior was not impressed.
“Actually,” she said, “I am armed, but I agree with your code of honor.”
She too took combative posture. They stared at each other for a few seconds.
Nephro bolted at her with a roundhouse punch to her face. She blocked with her forearm.
He threw another punch with his other arm. She blocked.
He threw two uppercuts to her stomach and a straight punch to her chest. She thrust her arms down, blocking the uppercuts with the undersides of her wrists, and caught his punch by the fist.
Wrenching his arm back, he threw a straight punch to her face and an upside-down arced punch to her ribcage. She blocked the punch to her ribcage and caught his fist again.
Jabbing him in the face, she made him recoil. Angered, he went at her again. Throwing a roundhouse kick to her head, he expected to knock the lights out of her. She ducked, letting him smash a vase on the table. He threw two side kicks, one to her stomach and one to her face. She blocked the kick to her stomach down, making it go between her legs, and blocked the kick to her face up, making it go over her head. Nephro continued with a front kick and a spinning back roundhouse kick. She blocked the front kick to the side and grabbed his back roundhouse kick, stopping him cold. A knee to the stomach made him disgorge his dinner.
Now it was her turn. She started off with a roundhouse punch. It cracked him in the face, chipping his shell.
Immediately, she thrust two straight punches at him, striking him in the front of the face and chest.
He stumbled back, but she lunged at him with a front jump kick, whacking the underside of his mandibles, and before even touching the ground, she blended into a flying back roundhouse kick, smacking him in the eye with the back of her hoof.
He collapsed, and struggled instantly to his feet, but accidentally turned his back to her. She simply bashed him with two straight punches and a hammer kick to the top of his head. He fell flat on the ground, at which point she trampled him.
He snapped at her with his lobster claws. One of his claws caught her leg. Normally, it would have injured her, but since she was wearing armor, it did no damage whatsoever.
Reeling her other leg back, she kicked him in the face, sending him into the air with a spurt of blood. Nephro landed on his feet, but before he could regain his focus, she smashed him with five punches to the face. Blood splattered left and right, and in all other directions, and his shell was fractured beyond repair. She topped it off by headbutting him in the chest with her rock-hard horns. Grabbing him by the leg, she bodyslammed him Jujitsu-style.
Nephro was down. Ibexior merely looked out the window as if to enjoy the evening breeze. Infuriated yet beaten, he tried to get up, but his limbs shook like leaves, and pain was all over his body.
“I’ll never give up...” he uttered.
“You don’t have to. As long as you’re defeated, the Democracy is satisfied.”
It hurt all over like raging heck, but he summoned all his will and rose to his feet. However, he did not have enough willpower left to attack her again. Not that it would help.
“I’ll kill you...” he threatened. “I’ll bring you down!”
She spun around and charged at him. Throwing a drop kick, she smashed up the rest of his face. His night went downhill from there.
The Sphere is forever, for nothing can bring it to an end. Life abounds upon it, shadowed by both good and evil, light and darkness. Where heroes fall, villains rise, and where the vile perish, the noble are born, an eternal cycle that has been and always will be. Through the many ages past, warriors have battled for every purpose, their shadows indelibly embedded upon the fabric of chronology remembered and forgotten. Civilizations come and go, and kingdoms grow and die. But even after all empires are extinguished, even after all warriors have been slain, one thing will live on - the realm known as the Sphere.
In the middle of a grassy field, a castle was under construction. The peasant workers, which were anthropomorphic primates, labored under the summer sun, sweating in their mud-stained clothes. Contrary to their appearance, they were actually not working very hard. Rather, they were just doing the minimum amount of labor so they could appease the construction manager, who at the present time was busy making sure the wooden scaffolding was holding up. He wasn’t working very hard either.
Other anthropomorphic primates in metal armor stood guard. They were marines, and their job was to protect the Democracy, the kingdom to which they gave their allegiance. Carrying battleaxes that were a bit too big for them, they looked more silly than menacing, and the fact that their one-size-fits-all armor typically did not actually fit as advertised made them look even sillier. Then again, they were not all that different from the primate peasants. Like most primates, they were lazy, stupid and incompetent, completely devoid of passion for their jobs or anything else in life. Nonetheless, guarding the construction site was tasked to them.
“When is the castle scheduled to be completed?” asked one marine.
“In about a month,” said another.
The two of them tried to think of something to talk about lest they actually exert effort in their jobs.
“Have you heard any interesting stories lately?” said the first marine.
“Not really,” the second one responded. “Oh wait, actually I did.”
“Speak of it.”
“We’re actually not supposed to talk about it.”
“Who’s going to eavesdrop on two marines standing around chatting?”
“All right, but don’t tell anyone about what I’m about to tell you.”
The second marine shifted his eyes.
“I heard that they’ve got a treasure of great value near,” he whispered into the first marine’s ear.
“Really? Where?” the first marine started looking around.
“It’s not here, stupid. Or at least, not anymore.”
“How do you know?”
“I was in the magistrate’s tent yesterday to report a change in the design of the castle’s inner courtyard. He became frustrated and began to search for the original blueprints so that he could argue with the manager about them. As he tossed the parchments on the table, I looked at one of them, and it mentioned that there was a treasure chest that was to be delivered to Castle 52.”
“What was in it?”
“The parchment didn’t say, but it said that it contained the single most important object ever to be transported by the Democracy.”
“Who were they sending it to?”
“Some highly-ranked warrior. A mammal. I think he was a champion fighter or something.”
“Why would the Democracy give such a large treasure to a mere fighter?”
“I don’t know. But whatever was in that chest was worth the guard of at least a dozen commandos.”
The first marine was dumbstruck by the story. He lit a pipe.
“I sure hope I get such a financial reward one day,” he said.
He put the pipe in his chimp jowls. Before he could even puff out the fumes, an arrow was lodged into his head.
“Holy crud!” shouted his friend.
More arrows whizzed in from behind a hill. More marines were struck down before they decided it was a good idea to take cover.
Suddenly, two dozen anthropomorphic warriors in ragged armor charged in. Most of them were reptiles and insects, along with a few mammals. Armed with tarnished swords, daggers and other hand-to-hand weapons, they appeared ragtag and uncivilized compared to the marines. However, they commanded a fearful respect with their rage and zealousness, a respect that was certainly earned by the dried blood that covered their armaments.
They were renegades. They were here to destroy the Democracy’s work.
“Kill them!” shouted a marine.
While charging, the renegades fired a third volley of arrows. Most of the marines had already taken cover, but a few of them were nicked. As soon as the projectiles stopped firing, many of them immediately bolted out from their cover, and clashed with the invaders. An all-out brawl ensued.
The renegades attacked quicker, and gained the first strike advantage. Six enemies were killed. Some of the marines managed to get in a few swings, but they were all dodged. The renegades lopped off a few more heads, their makeshift weapons slicing easily through the fancy yet weak Democracy armor. More marines then entered the battle, having summoned the courage to actually face the attackers.
One marine was about to stab a renegade in the back, which would have been the primates’ first kill of the day. However, a red metal katana chopped off his head before he could come down with a blow.
Wielding the katana was Viperess, a female anthropomorphic snake. Her red scales were embellished by black-colored fractal patterns that looked like onyx lightning coursing through a crimson dusk sky. She wore a white blouse that was slightly browned by age, a brown dress that was slightly torn, shiny white tights that were oddly clean, and brown boots perfectly suited for hiking or fighting. Like many of the renegades, she was young, and had just had her fifteenth birthday several days ago. However, it might as well have been her birthday at the present time, because she celebrated it by doing exactly what she was doing at the moment.
Viperess nudged the renegade whose life she just saved.
“Are you all right?” she asked, her r’s sounding a bit like l’s.
“Then let’s finish slaughtering these weaklings!”
Although outnumbered, the renegades’ brutality forced the enemies back. The marines began to take cover within the half-constructed castle, and some of them just flat-out retreated. Viperess and her comrades let out a war cry, brandishing their swords before chasing after the cowardly opponents. All hell broke loose again.
One of the marines was just about to enter the castle when Viperess hacked him down from behind. Another marine attacked her from the side, but she turned around and clashed against his axe. Crouching, she ducked a swing to her chest, and chopped off his legs. As he fell to the ground, she stabbed him in the face.
She entered the castle. A marine jumped out from behind a wall and tried to scare her. Unflinching, she cut him across the chest, and spun around, slashing down another marine that tried to surprise her from the side. Two marines crossed swords with one of her comrades, and she ran across them, slitting both of their throats. Another marine charged at her from a hallway, holding his axe over his head. She silenced his scream by slashing him across the mouth, and finished him off with a thrust to his stomach.
Three marines assaulted her. She twirled around like a dancer, deflecting their blades from all directions. Parrying one of their axes down, she kicked its user in the solar plexus. As he lurched, she dodged another axe, and sliced at the foe, cutting out one of his eyes. The third marine tried to take her down from behind, but she turned around, throwing a back side kick to his chest. All three of them swung at once, and she jumped, catching onto the ceiling with her claws. She jumped down behind one of the marines and cut his spinal cord in half. Punching another enemy in the face, she made him fall into the blade of his comrade. Without even caring, the third marine threw the corpse out of the way and lunged at her. She lunged right back at him, tackling him into a wall. Biting him, she sunk her large fangs into his neck, and injected poison into his flesh. She could feel the glands in her upper jaw pumping the venom into his body. It felt good.
Dropping him, she ran up a partly-finished staircase that had only segments of railing. A marine got in her way, so she slashed him across the chest. He fell off the stairs. Continuing to bolt up, she ran into two more opponents, and jumped up at them with a sideways slash. She beheaded them both. Before she could reach the next floor, two more marines attacked her from behind. Viperess spun around with all speed, slashing at one of them. He backstepped, avoiding the blade, but accidentally fell to the first floor and broke his leg. The other one swung at her legs, so she jumped, cracking him in the face with a roundhouse kick. He faltered into a railing segment, and went at her again, throwing his axe. She bended to the side, but accidentally lost her footing and slipped. Before she could fall off, she grabbed onto another railing segment and pulled herself up with enough strength to launch herself into the air. Grabbing onto the other railing segment on the other side of the stairs, she positioned herself behind the marine and kicked him in the back of the leg. He collapsed to a knee. She vaulted herself back onto the steps, grabbed him from behind and broke his neck.
She reached the second floor, which was a series of stone walkways that had neither railings nor walls. Four marines dashed at her. She ran right back at them, whirling her sword. She slashed down the first two, making the other two stop in their tracks. Whipping her sword around in a figure-eight pattern, she attacked them, making them arc their axes in weird angles to deflect her attacks. One of the marines lost a hold of his weapon and was cut across the face. She kicked him in the head, making him fall. The other marine tried to overhand chop her, but she threw a sweep kick, making him fall off the walkway to the first floor.
Seven more marines charged at her from behind. She grabbed a helmet off one of their dead comrades and threw it. It conked one of them in the head, making him stumble back into one of his friends, who in turn stumbled back into another of his friends, making all three of them fall to the first floor. Mercilessly, she lunged at them with a jump kick, landing a blow on one of their faces. Landing on the floor, she took a roll while slashing her sword to the side, cutting off a leg. Two marines wailed at her, but she crossed blades with them, deflecting their every blow. Easily, she knocked the axe out of one of their hands. It flew into the neck of another marine, shocking the others. While they were distracted, she disemboweled two stomachs, making intestines splatter onto the ground at her feet. Ignoring the warm liquid seeping into her boots, she punched the one-legged marine in the face, chopped off his arm, and threw him off the walkway.
An axe was thrown at her. She jumped off the second floor and grabbed onto a rope that hung down from some scaffolding above. Quickly, she climbed, passing by the third floor and up to the fourth. Another axe was thrown, chopping the rope right above her hands, but she jumped again, landing on the fourth floor. It was also a series of walkways without walls or railings, but there were half-constructed archers’ windows.
A third axe was thrown at her. She ducked it, snapped her claws up, and caught it. Whirling around like a ballerina, she threw it back, beheading its owner from a distance.
Immediately, a raging marine charged at her with his axe held above his head. She slipped to the side, letting him slam his blade into the floor. Stepping onto the handle of his weapon, she kicked herself into the air, and cracked him upside the chin with her boot before performing a backwards somersault. He collapsed, his neck broken.
Landing on a wooden platform that hung from above, she found unsure footing. The platform swung from the ropes that were supporting it, making her teeter from side to side. She grabbed a hold of the ropes, stabilizing herself, but before it could stop swinging, three marines jumped onto it as well.
She slashed one of them in the face with her hand, leaving claw marks on his helmet. Another marine took a roundhouse swing to her head, but she stepped into the attack, chopping his arm and throwing him off the platform. As he plunged, Viperess threw a side kick at another guy, breaking his nose. Both marines swung at her, and she had no choice but to dodge instead of parry, since the footing was so unstable. Unfortunately, she backed herself up too much, and slipped off the platform entirely.
Fortunately, she caught onto the edge with her tail, wrapping it around a wooden segment. Swinging herself like a pendulum, she stuck her katana right up the underside of the platform, stabbing one of the marines above in the groin. As he let out an agonized scream, she pushed with her arms and swung herself in the other direction, landing back on the wood. The third marine tried to tackle her, but she bent herself forward, letting him run into her so that she could throw him off her back using his own momentum.
Four more opponents jumped onto the wooden platform. This time, she just leapt onto one of the ropes, climbed up a little, and then cut the other ropes that were supporting the platform. The entire thing collapsed, sending the marines plunging down to their death or paralysis.
Swinging on the rope, she landed on the fifth floor, which was little more than a square of unstable stone flooring. Five marines stood guard on the scaffolding outside the windows, all of them hesitant to step onto the stone inside. Viperess grinned cruelly yet righteously.
“What’s the matter? Afraid to get bloody?” she hissed.
She dashed at one of them. He held his axe to block, but she stabbed him in the heart. The four other marines stepped onto the square stone platform, making it tremble slightly as it shed grains of stone. Viperess darted at one of them and clashed against his axe. As they sparred, the stone underneath their feet slowly cracked. She kept moving to prevent from breaking the floor, and backed herself into another marine. He thought he could hack her down from behind, but she did a forward somersault, landing behind the one that was in front of her. The one that was formerly behind her hacked down his friend by accident, and she thrust her sword back, running both of them through.
Performing a sideways flip, she landed on another part of the floor. Two marines attacked her from either side. She dodged a swing to the head, and immediately jumped to dodge a swing to her legs. Slashing her weapon, she struck one of them in the chest, but not with lethal force. The one behind her growled as he wailed his axe at her midsection with a sideways motion. Unable to duck it or jump it, she just sidestepped, letting it hit the wall at her side. Before he could extract it, she charged, clotheslining him in the face and making him release his weapon. The other marine threw an overhand attack at her, but she spun out of the way, letting the weapon chop off the arm of the marine on the floor. Screaming, the one-armed fiend kicked his idiot friend in the stomach out of anger. As they started to brawl amongst each other, she slashed them both down.
The last marine started running to her, but she held out her hand, nonverbally saying “wait.” Sometimes, the mere act of suggestion was so powerful that even a request from an enemy could be honored. Not thinking, the marine stopped in his tracks and waited for a second. The floor underneath him was already weakened by the fight, and broke under his feet. He fell to his death, accompanied only by stone fragments and his wimpy scream.
Viperess stepped outside the window and onto the walkway. The peasants had long since retreated, and all around her, marines were being cleaved apart left and right, up and down. There were no more enemies in her immediate vicinity; she had killed them all. She looked around for something productive to do, but it seemed that the other renegades were already finishing off the enemy forces.
A blue anthropomorphic finch entered the fight. A large fellow, he wore a suit of rugged leather armor that had more sword rips than would have been endured from this battle alone. His beak was permanently fixed in a grumpy frown, which was one disadvantage of being a bird. However, his azure feathers hid his battle scars very well, and his eyes looked as sharp as they genuinely were. Relaxed yet sturdy, he spread his wings, visually letting his men and women know that it was time to stop.
“Let’s pillage!” commanded Finchenor.
Viperess and the other renegades ransacked the place. They retrieved weapons both broken and unbroken, and searched the cadavers for gems.
“Set it ablaze!” continued Finchenor.
Exiting the castle, they walked a safe distance away. Lighting up wooden torches, they threw them at the structure. Conflagration quickly consumed it like an immaterial monster of red and blue. What was once meant to be a government stronghold was now just another symbol that showed that Democracy was far from safe.
Viperess gazed at the fire. The flames reflected in her slit pupils as she enjoyed the moment.
In the middle of the forest was the Renegade Village. A cluster of cabins amidst the woodland, it seemed surprisingly peaceful with smoke brewing from the chimneys and the smell of freshly cooked vegetables in the air. Even the renegades who were practicing martial arts outside looked rather Zen, appearing to be at peace with their life of warfare. After all, they did not choose to be in war. What they did choose was to fight.
Inside one of the cabins, renegades studied books lit by the dusk sunlight. Viperess was amongst them, focused intensely on “Advanced Combat Tactics: Volume 3.” Her reptilian eyes stared at diagrams of Muay Thai techniques as she tried to catalog and organize the best situations in which to use certain moves. She was actually more of a fan of Kung Fu, in particular Hung Ga, but she knew that Muay Thai was more practical and efficient in a real-world situation. Thus, she exerted much effort and time into practicing kimuras, armbars and rear-naked chokes. In her mind, nothing but violence was real.
A shadow swept over her pages. Centilleon stood next to her, blocking her sunlight. He was a tall, lanky centipede, bearing a grin that looked all too toothy; or rather, fangy. In his eight arms, he carried ten different books, none of which he would ever read fully. Despite the fact that he was incredibly poisonous, he looked friendly, with big arthropoid eyes that were topped by two long antennae.
“Don’t you think it’s time you got a new book?” he asked.
“Why’s that?” replied Viperess without taking her eyes off the page.
“You’ve read that one about five times already.”
“That’s the benefit of having a book. It can be used more than once.”
“I hear you. My door would constantly be closed if not for these heavy things.”
Centilleon was about to go find a table to sit at, but accidentally tripped over his own feet. His books went flying. A compendium of chemical warfare potions became stuck in a deer guy’s horns. The deer, for some reason, just kept walking as if he instantly decided it would be a nice hat.
Viperess helped him up. He picked up his literature, but accidentally snatched a few books that were not his. Upon seeing the annoyed expressions on the faces of some of his comrades, he returned the proper ones to them.
“I suppose we both could use a break,” suggested Viperess.
“Fancy a duel?”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
They both put up their fists. Centilleon was the first to attack, throwing a series of punches. Viperess blocked two roundhouse punches and dodged a straight punch.
She returned an uppercut, cracking him in the jaw, and followed through with a straight punch to his stomach. He stumbled back, not really injured, but shaken.
He swung at her with two more roundhouses, but as he was too tall, his fists missed her completely. He compensated by throwing a front kick and a side kick, but only managed to block two of her attacks with his knee.
She too used her knee by ramming it into his groin. He lurched, and she jabbed him in the face twice, then reverse-punched him.
He threw a roundhouse kick at her, but she ducked. He spun all the way around until his back faced her.
She charged in to him, but before she could make contact, he threw a back kick, nailing her in the chest. Viperess jolted back, but kept herself on her feet.
He threw three punches at her simultaneously. As they were all roundhouse punches, she easily stepped into them and spun out of their way. As she did so, she elbowed him in the stomach.
Centilleon lurched yet again. This time, she threw a hammer kick up at him, cracking him in the chin, and then swung her leg down, bringing her heel down on his cranium. He backstepped for a second, shaking his head to ward off the dizziness.
She wasn’t done. She jumped at him with a flying front kick, hitting him in the chest. She then spun around and threw a backhand to his face.
Bruised, he swung his centipede tail at her. It hit her thigh with a blunt force, but it was kind of soft, so it did nothing more than shove her.
She was about to initiate another series of punches and kicks, but he threw himself forward and tackled her to the ground. She assumed full guard position with her legs wrapped around his torso.
He hammered her with punches from above. His many arms were excellent in that endeavor, but she simply cradled her head with her arms, blocking all of his attacks.
Her forearms rapidly became bruised, but he was throwing too many punches too quickly. Exhausted, he stopped for a moment, leaning forward slightly.
As soon as he stopped, she reached up, wrapped her arm around the back of his neck, and yanked him down. He was now in a guillotine choke, and try as he did to tuck his neck and get out of it, her grip was just too tight. She exacerbated his situation by hooking her legs around his and pinning down his feet.
He tapped out. She released.
They both sat up. Viperess put a hand on his shoulder.
“You all light?” she asked.
“I should be asking you. You’re the girl.”
“You know as well as I do that women and children should be treated as brutally as men in a fight.”
“I was being brutal.”
She helped him up.
“Your kicks are very good,” she said, “but your punches need some work.”
“Look at me.”
He did. She slowly threw a roundhouse punch at him. He blocked.
Then she threw a straight punch at him slowly. He blocked, but not with the same speed.
“Roundhouse punches take a longer time to throw,” she said. “They’re also easier to see. But if something’s coming straight at you, it takes less time to reach you, and it’s harder to perceive.”
“How about me?”
“You made a mistake when I turned by back on you. I have long legs, so I reached you pretty easily with that back kick. But your striking and blocking are obviously superior to mine, and your guillotine was noose-tight. I’d say your fighting was near perfect.” Centilleon looked at the book she was reading. “Maybe I should start reading that manuscript,” he said.
“Reading is good, but it can only take you so far. True skill comes from practice.”
Viperess looked down slightly, yet there was nothing on the floor of note.
“Do serpent eyes see what mine do not?”
“There is nothing wrong...” she said. “And that is the problem.”
“Riddles require explanations.”
“Do you ever feel like there is more than can be seen?”
“I certainly hope you are not thinking about quitting. That would be shameful pacifism.”
“Of course not. I have no interest in romance. I am speaking of the world at large. It all seems so dull and mundane.”
“None of us can commit suicide until the mission is complete.”
“I am not suicidal. Just very weary of seeing the trees, the mountains, the villages. Sometimes I wonder if the real winner would be the one who dies in this war.”
“The Democracy has a stranglehold over the non-furs. Last I checked, you and I have no fur. It is honorable to fight to the bitter end against this corrupt ‘free state’ and establish a benevolent tyranny.” Centilleon put a hand on her shoulder. “Take it from a fool. I’ve lost more fights than anyone else here, but each of those fights was a victory in my eye. Err...eyes.”
Viperess looked up and smiled at him, her poisonous fangs sticking out from her upper jaw. He thought this was an excellent time to request casual sex, but a loud renegade shouted from the center of the village.
“Briefing! Finchenor has called a briefing!”
* * *
The renegades gathered in the war room as the sun set. They surrounded a rickety wooden table upon which a map was inscribed. Goldwood chess pieces marked where castles, villages and other places of interest were located, and half-erased charcoal streaks noted past strategies and tactics that had been planned. There was a pile of scrolls in the corner, writ upon which was recon data.
Viperess stood in the middle of the ranks. She was only average height for a female, so she had to peek over the shoulders of some of her taller comrades. Not that she needed to see the map to know what was on it. She already knew the Democracy pretty well, and could navigate it while closing her eyes; despite not having traveled the Sphere at all, for one did not have to be somewhere to go there.
Finchenor entered. He just finished preparing his plans in his head, and moved to the head of the table.
“This was a good raid,” he said. “We acquired about fifty axes, thirty suits of armor and a moderate amount of gems. Once we melt and re-forge the metal, we should be able to fix our shortage of maces and morningstars.”
He touched a rook. It marked the location of Castle 8.
“Tomorrow, we will set out to attack Castle 8,” briefed Finchenor. “Reconnaissance indicates that it is undergoing restructuring and repairs. This means they will need to make room for peasant workers and the number of marines will be reduced. Furthermore, this was already a weakened castle, so it should not be hard to bring it down. All we will have to do is start a fire somewhere.”
“Are we going to be destroying it completely, or will we just hit and run?” asked a renegade.
“One or the other. We’ll have to see how well we’re doing during the fight, but considering that our last attack put the Democracy on alert, we’ll probably just hit and run.”
Finchenor moved a bug-shaped chessman to the castle from the west of the map.
“Half of our attacking forces will come from the west. This is because the west side of the castle faces rocky terrain, which is more difficult for the marines to patrol.”
“Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean they won’t patrol it.”
“Yeah, but how many marines actually have the determination to do something difficult?”
He put a reptile-shaped chessman a slight distance from the east of the castle.
“Before our west-side forces invade, we will initiate a distance offensive from the east. This will be done through archery to lure their forces to the east side of the castle. Afterwards, our west forces will have an easier time infiltrating.”
“Nice,” said Centilleon.
“Rest assured,” Finchenor said with his fist raised to eye-level, “as I promise you every night, we will bring this corrupt liberal government down.”
The renegades imitated his gesture.
“For a benevolent dictatorship!” they all shouted in unison.
They started to disband. Finchenor was about to leave as well, but as he turned about, Viperess noticed that he had three scrolls attached to his belt while most of the other scrolls were still in the corner. It was customary not to take writing to one’s quarters because other people might want to read it as well.
“What’s that you have there?” she asked.
Finchenor turned about.
“What’s what, young Viperess?”
“Oh these? We claimed them from the last battle.”
“What’s writ upon them?”
“One of them is a blueprint, and the second is an order to report back to the other local magistrates.”
“Why are you taking them with you?”
Finchenor was confused for a second, but then chuckled and shook his head.
“Where are my manners?” he said. “My manners that I myself established? I’m not supposed to take them with me.”
He put two of the scrolls back in the pile. He was about to leave again, but Viperess pointed at the scroll he still had in his talon.
“What about that one?”
“This? This one’s just garbage. There’s no need for anyone to read it.”
“What does it say?”
He tossed it to her. She caught it and unraveled it. Written in red ink upon the parchment was an order - “President Primoss is temporarily leaving this treasure chest in your custody, magistrate Ratterd. It contains the single most important object in the Democracy. It is to be transported to Castle 52 and opened only by Jaguon, one of our finest combat specialists. I warn you yet again, DO NOT OPEN THE CHEST UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”
“Garbage?” questioned Viperess. “This sounds pretty serious to me.”
“It’s a trick,” answered Finchenor. “Primoss would not directly deal with a magistrate as lowly as Ratterd, who has such a strange and ungainly name. They probably made this as a dummy parchment just in case we invaded the castle and stole their manuscripts. They want to confuse us and lead us to Castle 52 where they would ambush us.”
He held out his hand. Viperess gave the scroll back to him.
“I’m going to burn this,” he explained, “because I do not want the others to get alarmed or greedy. I’m certain it’s a trick. Rest well tonight, young Viperess.”
With that, he left. Viperess furrowed her scaly brow.
* * *
In the sleeping quarters, dozens of renegades lay in slumber. It was a large cabin filled with makeshift beds that were all too close to each other, but efficient in making use of limited space, and for keeping them warm with shared body heat in the winter. A soft breeze blew in through the windows, caressing the resting warriors like a blanket of humid air. Reptiles and insects, which comprised the majority of the renegades, did not like the sweltering heat of summer, but at night, the weather was much more comfortable. Thus did they lay without snoring, and without the malign dreams that lesser creatures were usually plagued with. They all slept comfortably.
That is, except for Viperess. She lay in bed with her eyes closed, but her mind too far open. The brief discussion she had with Finchenor still resonated in her mind, repeating over and over again like an echo in a vast labyrinth. In her mind, she felt not the tranquility of the night, but rather, was haunted by a foggy image of an unseen monster.
Primoss. He loomed in her thoughts. As the President of the Democracy, he was the one primarily responsible for the horrors that the corrupt liberal regime afflicted upon untold numbers of innocents. He stayed in control because of majority opinion and the votes of the primates, who always elected him back into power every five years. She had never actually seen him. Few people had. There were no portraits, no paintings nor any other depictions of him save for descriptions that were probably exaggerated for purposes of propaganda. Yet even though she could not picture his face, his visage still terrified her. What was unseen was often more frightening than that which stood in plain visibility.
She came close to him, though - except back then, she was barely strong enough to hold a katana. As a whelp of 7 summers, her parents’ home was under attack from Democracy generals, who were always the entourage and bodyguards of Primoss. The blonde-haired horses were doing random searches to find those who had anti-faggot literature in their houses, for someone had recently been caught going against feminism. Knowing the penalty for criticizing gay fags, her parents took up the renegade arms they had hidden for years and tried to defend their land.
It was valiant, but the blue-eyed generals had superior numbers and weapons. Her parents would have died honorably that day if not for a mysterious warrior that happened upon them. Through the green flames, his silhouette was blurry, but she could see his skill with a sword when the sword was the only thing she could see. And what a dance that green metal blade delivered, casting black spurts and white horse heads everywhere. She never got to see the end of it, but when it was over, her parents had already taken her far away.
She never did figure out who he was. A wandering hunter? Likely. The Bounty Hunters’ Guild was older than the Democracy itself. Whoever he was, he allowed her parents to live long enough to blow up two castles in a suicide attack. Thus was their honorable death delayed, but she got her chance to say a mighty farewell before they kamikazed the hell out of the Democracy - a fine day for the renegade army.
Nuances. Reflecting on old memories did nothing. The only way to eliminate any pain or terror was to do something about it. She still wasn’t entirely convinced that the “treasure” that was mentioned in the stolen parchment was a lie. Renegades did not become renegades to acquire wealth. Appealing to their greed would not be the best way to lure them into a trap. Therefore, there really must have been a treasure chest, and within it, a great financial asset. Stealing it would deal a great blow to the Democracy’s economy. Damaging one’s gems was almost as bad as damaging his body. Sometimes worse.
Someone touched her shoulder. She opened her eyes and turned to see her friend Guppin lying next to her. An anthropomorphic guppy, his scales were flushed with a rainbow of colors, and he had fins on his head and out from his spinal cord where a tail would otherwise be. He was rather muscular even if he was average height.
“Can’t sleep?” he whispered, having detected her breathing patterns. “Might you tell me what is wrong, Viperess?”
“By definition,” said Beetelgaze, an anthropomorphic beetle who just woke up in a bed to her other side, “nothing is nothing, so it can neither be right nor wrong.”
“Nothing is technically something, though intangible a thing it may be.”
“Interesting,” replied Guppin. “But I doubt that metaphysics is what troubles you this night, Viperess.”
Viperess rubbed the top of her cranium.
“Earlier today, Finchenor showed me a parchment that described an important treasure that had been transported to Castle 52. He destroyed the parchment, thinking it was a clever ruse, but I still think that it should be heeded.”
“Castle 52 is a heavily guarded fortification,” said Guppin. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the treasure was real too. But even if it was, what are we going to do? Invade the castle and sacrifice half of our warriors just to steal some of the Democracy’s gems?”
“I’d have to agree with Guppin,” joined Beetelgaze. “There are other more strategic ways of harming our enemies.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I’m going to try this way.”
She got up, brushing the blanket off herself. Picking up her katana from the floor, she slipped it into her scabbard. She also took a rope and attached it to her belt.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to Castle 52 alone,” said Guppin.
“I’m never alone as long as I have my katana with me.”
“Nor am I solitary if I have my trusty spear,” said Beetelgaze.
Beetelgaze picked up his spear and stood behind Viperess. Guppin, astounded by their audacity, rolled his eyes and grabbed his cutlass and some daggers.
“Now I have no choice,” he groaned. “If you two are risking your lives for something folly, then I must follow you to death, lest I be deemed a coward.”
“Care not what others think of you, but of what your mind holds to be valid.”
The three of them slipped out into the night.
Viperess, Guppin and Beetelgaze ran across a grassy field. They had been traveling for two hours, and the sky was starting to turn dark blue in the starry horizon. Castle 52 was near, and their blood began to race. Renegades tended to be unemotional, but their physiology had a mind of its own, whether they had fur or fins.
Viperess was starting to realize that her red metal sword was getting rusty. Of course, a thin layer did not affect its primary quality, which was the bounciness of red metal. This type of ore could have been used as a child’s ball if not for the fact that it was so hard and dangerous. She probably would have cleaned it off earlier, but red on red was hard to spot.
“Blue metal,” said Guppin. “I wish I hadn’t lost that blue mace.”
“That was a flanged mace,” said Beetelgaze. “Flanged maces are queer.”
“Yeah, blue metal is the strongest metal out there. Thrice the strength of steel, and more flexible.”
“Since when are flanged maces supposed to bend?”
“If I were making a mace, I would first of all have a bola design, and it would be made of green metal.”
“Always with the green metal, Beetelgaze. Assuming you could afford that, how the hell are you going to forge it? It requires years of training on blacksmithing to learn the art of green metal.”
“I suppose it would be wasted on my hands. Beetle fingers and eyes are not so delicate. It would be wrong.”
“Two wrongs always make a right,” Viperess tapped him on the shoulder.
They smiled at each other. Pacifism had no place in their militant hearts. There was no forgiveness for any enemy or wrongdoer. The evildoers all had to suffer immensely for their crimes, or there would be no peace.
Viperess soon saw the castle in the distance rising like a giant chess rook. They carefully skulked up to it, hiding behind bushes to assess the environment. To their surprise, the place was not swarming with marines like they expected, but rather, only had a few patrolling around the perimeter. She thought that maybe there were archers posted on the ramparts and windows, but dilating her slit pupils, she could see none.
“Why are there so few marines?” wondered Guppin. “I thought this place was supposed to be heavily guarded.”
“I do not know, but if an advantage comes, I will take it regardless of its reason,” replied Viperess.
There were two marines guarding the entrance of Castle 52. One of them walked away to use the outhouse, and the other one yawned, getting tired of having to pace back and forth for hours on end.
He faced away from the entrance and walked a bit too far away from it. The three renegades sneaked towards it and tried to force it open. It was locked, and made of steel.
“Let’s find another way in,” she whispered.
The marine turned around and spotted them. Before he could make a sound, Guppin threw a dagger at his neck, killing him instantly.
The renegades walked around the perimeter, looking for an infiltration point. They found another door, except this one was made of wood, and was much smaller than the main entrance.
Beetelgaze kicked it open. Inside was the other marine, sitting on a toilet and ogling at a drawing of a naked female primate. Before he could shout, Beetelgaze throttled him, crushing his windpipe and killing him.
They continued their search. A third marine got in their way, and they all jumped on him, clasped their hands over his mouth and disemboweled him. However, they could not find another way in.
“Is there another strategy?” asked Guppin.
“War is about improvisation. There are unlimited strategies,” said Viperess.
She looked up to spot an archer’s window near the back of the building. It was narrow, but she was slender. Her comrades looked up at it as well, and had the same idea.
She buried her claws into the stone. It made a dull crushing sound, kind of like the crunching of snow under boots. As it wasn’t that loud, she continued to climb up the wall with her claws, and slipped into the window with ease. She dropped her rope out to her comrades.
Guppin and Beetelgaze clutched onto the rope and climbed. Guppin was just barely able to slip into the narrow window, as he was not as slender as Viperess, but Beetelgaze had much more difficulty. He thought he could do it, so he forced himself even harder, only to get his thick tail stuck.
“Uh oh,” he aptly said.
The more he pulled, the more he crushed his own tail against the sides of the window. Viperess and Guppin grabbed him by the arms and pulled.
“Are we hurting you?” asked Guppin.
“Yes,” replied Beetelgaze, “but wounds can heal. A lost war cannot.”
Outside, another marine was just about to turn the corner to the back of the building. Beetelgaze’s non-primate tail was still sticking out for the world to see. As his comrades pulled, his exoskeleton crumpled and cracked, letting spurts of white flesh and green blood out. Viperess and Guppin were hesitant to continue, but the look on Beetelgaze’s face was one of determination. He was ready to suffer for victory.
“Pull! Pull!” he whispered urgently.
Viperess gave it one sharp yank. A burst of green blood shot out from the wounds of his tail as it was forced in through the window. Beetelgaze collapsed onto his face just as the marine outside turned the corner, barely missing the sight of him. There was still some blood dripping from the windowsill, but it went unnoticed.
The three of them stood in the second floor hallways. They were made of gray-brown stone, lit by torches that hung on the walls. Also hanging on the walls were paintings of various heroic-looking primates, who were likely famous magistrates, politicians and militants. Viperess sure didn’t know. She didn’t care. The only history books ever published were written by Democracy social engineers, usually blonde horses who did whatever they could to serve their primate masters. There were probably a few equines who took part in the military victories, but all the credit went to those who spoke the loudest and the most obnoxious.
They quietly stalked. The hallways were almost completely silent but for the rustling of the leaves of trees outside, and they had to be soft-footed in order to avoid attracting attention.
“This is too easy,” worried Guppin.
They heard the clanking of armor. Viperess snuck up behind a corner and stood there, waiting for whatever was making the sound. As the footsteps grew louder, she unsheathed her katana, and at the right moment, jumped out with a high cross-slash. She beheaded a marine almost completely soundlessly. Guppin dived and caught the head before it could hit the floor.
Two more marines were patrolling further down the corner with their backs turned to the renegades. While Viperess and Guppin thought about what to do, Beetelgaze did not hesitate. He swiftly ran up to them, at first quietly, but stamping louder the closer he got. The two marines turned around at the last second, but by then it was too late. He threw a spear, impaling them both through the throat. They let out a dying wheeze.
“Good aim,” said Guppin. “But you were blasted lucky we didn’t get caught.”
“Willpower is the greatest generator of luck,” said Viperess.
Beetelgaze extracted his spear. They searched the rest of the level, but found only bedrooms and stashes of axes, daggers and other common weapons. Guppin took some of the daggers, but aside from that, there was nothing of interest (not even a blue sword). They entered a stairwell.
Walking up the spiral steps, their movement was fleet but silent.
“From outside, I counted the windows upward,” said Beetelgaze. “There are five levels to this castle. Where do you suppose the treasure is being held?”
“The highest level is the logical choice,” said Viperess.
Beetelgaze considered if that might have been too obvious, but tripped on a step. Stumbling forward, he almost fell, but stomped his foot onto another step, stabilizing himself. He stopped for a second, thinking of how close he was to giving away their position.
“Careful,” criticized Guppin.
A marine opened the door at the top of the spiral stairwell and entered. Descending, he made himself more audible than was healthy for him. As he walked further down the steps, the renegades could see his shadow edging ever closer.
Guppin waited for the right moment, and darted up. Clapping his hand over the enemy’s monkey mouth, he buried his cutlass in his primate chest. The marine let out a muffled, agonized scream before enough blood spilled from his heart for him to lose consciousness. The corpse collapsed forward, and Guppin set it down silently. He topped it off by spitting on the body.
About the author:
Kenneth C. Eng is a science fiction author and political columnist. His novels include Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate, the 0th Dimension, Princess Jesus Christ; the card game Magical Girl World, and Were. His articles have been published in AsianWeek, and he has appeared on Destinies Sci Fi Radio, FOX News, CNN, and Science Fantastic with Michio Kaku. Spell Knights is his latest book. He resides in Philadelphia.
Copyright © 2017 by Kenneth C. Eng