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Tale of the Koinon

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4/17/2010 23:35:03   
Argeus the Paladin


Pella, 272 BC.

The city lay in ruins as an obvious consequence of recent occupation by foreign forces. The streets were filled with refuse, trash and the occasional dead bodies strewn along the sewers. Here and there tuffs of black smoke were billowing from the direction of the governor house, the barracks and the ramparts. In the distance faint wails and wallows could be heard – no doubt the aftermath of the unprecedented horror had befallen the inhabitants of the city had yet to fade.

There were nobody outside, apart for the infrequent military patrols. Like all other Greek warrior those men were armed with long spears, linen armor and large round shield, albeit caked in layers of dirt, blood and mud they had yet to clean up. Unlike the Makedon soldiers the city was acquainted with, they flew a banner emblazoned with the silhouette of a dog-like being. It was the Hound of Moloss – the national symbol of the kingdom of Epeiros.

It was only two days ago that the city of Pella, capital of the kingdom of Makedon fell to the army of King Pyrrhos Aiakides of Epeiros. Pyrrhos Aiakides, the distant cousin of the greatest conqueror to have ever existed. Pyrrhos Aiakides, the general who had led his armies against the mighty Roman barbaroi and won, albeit at great costs. Pyrrhos Aiakides, an ambitious man as just and noble as he was mighty nevertheless.

The garrison fought bravely, from the general right down to the lowly helot levy akin to the mythical heroes of the ages past. But when the Epeirote elephants joined the battle, their bravery made little difference. The renowned Indian elephants rammed through the gates, crushing arms and men and horses alike, smashing whatever in their path. The brave Makedon general was gored by one such beast and then trampled underfoot, such that his remain was juiced like an overly ripe orange.

There was virtually no survivor. The only thing they gained in that hopeless endeavor was their enemies’ compassion and respect. Now the brave sons of the city lay around their homeland, well-buried in graves dug by the very hands that took their lives.

Pyrrhos wanted the city intact. For one, it was once the capital of his distant cousin Megas Alexandros. Alexandros’ footprint were still there in and around the city as were the tales of his conquest, neither of which Pyrrhos wanted to defile. And for other, it was against his principles to kill needlessly. Both because of his firm personal morality and a strategical mindset. It was no time for the Hellenas to be killing one another despite their long history of doing exactly that, he thought.

They had many other enemies to deal with. The other Diadochi who sought Alexandros’ empire for themselves. The Thracians and Dacians from up north, mighty warriors hailing from a lesser civilization more eager to make war than discuss philosophy. And finally, the Romans, arrogant upstarts having accumulated too much power for their own good and coveting the lands of Greece to add to their empire.

Not once since the Achaemenid wars did the Hellenas as a whole stood at such a crossroad in history. United they would stand to the test of time. Divided and they would crumble into the sands of time like many others before them. Pyrrhos would see to the reunion of the Greek homeland, by force if need be. Pella was but the beginning for Greece to be great again under the rule of the Epirote.

His plans with Pella, however, did not work out quite as well as he had wished. Quite frankly, he had so far failed to control the situation in town after occupation.

While decades of warfare, emigration and depopulation had devastated what used to be the finest city in the whole of Northern Greece, Pella still retained much of its wealth from the past. Wealth that his hired mercenaries could not help but give a shot at claiming some for themselves.

And so a good deal of homes were robbed, their owners thrown out and valuables seized. The temple and agora were similarly looted, stripped of much of their precious decorations and wares. Even the administrative center of the city was victimized. There was barely anything valuable left in the manor house after the looting ended. And that was after martial law was declared and several of the worst looters publicly flogged for this lack of discipline. It took an extraordinary effort from Pyrrhos himself to save the royal tombs of the late Makedon kings – his own ancestors broadly speaking – from a similar fate.

Pyrrhos could only blame himself for this turn of event. After all his was virtually a mercenary army, with only a core of Epirote elites and many thousands of Galatian sell-swords and Ptolemaic lent troops. Obviously those were not quite as noble or loyal as his core troops, much less disciplined and infinitely more prone to looting the populace for profit. Had it not been for his disastrous campaigns against Rome he wouldn’t have had to rely so much on those.

Only now did the situation calmed down somewhat. However, Pyrrhos had lost much of the popular support he thought he could win over at first. Sitting alone in the now stripped governor’s court chamber, the king of Epeiros clutched his forehead, contemplating a better solution to the situation at hand.

Pyrrhos sat there, in full combat regalia. His was a fine bronze muscled cuirass gifted to him by the ruler of Sparta, Pergamonios Lakedaimonios, upon his conquest of Taranto. On his table was an open helmet with Corinthian horse-hair decoration, one that had followed him for many years now. Both had been duly scratched in the last battle, but the king had no time to send them fir repairs just yet. Alongside with his helm, a few scrolls of status reports from different parts of the city were strewn on the table

The king’s eyes were darkened with sleeplessness. In the past two days he had hardly found time to take off his armor, let alone rest, knowing full well that such diligence wouldn’t be enough if he was to secure the town and its people’s obedience. Even his kopis had not yet been removed, still hanging by his side and weighting his belt down. The wrinkles on his forehead appeared to be etched even deeper, while his hair and thin beard looked greyer than before.

With due frustration, he picked up a random scroll, one he had read over and over and over for the past hour and reran the routine again. It said that minor skirmishes had broken out in the southern quarters between citizens and patrol groups. The situation was rapidly degrading to the point there would be no need for foreign spies. This growing dissent alone would destroy the peace he was trying – and failing – to rebuild.

“Basileus, Demetrias Thermopylaios has regained consciousness.”

The voice that broke the stressful silence came from one of Pyrrhos’ loyal Agema on guard duty at the gateway. He was a member of the royal guard, a close circle of the King’s most elite soldiers, and his equipment showed. The silver-gilded thorax, the sharp kopis in a highly decorative sheath, the fine open helm with dyed horse hair decoration and the similarly dyed cloak over his shoulder were the dream of every male Epirote. They were all there to show that this man, his son, his son’s son and his son’s son’s son would be well compensated for his work many years after that day.

In return for such honor this man had well paid with his blood. His face was lined up with scars of all shapes and sizes like a checkerboard, and that was not accounting for the barely healed slash on the side of his head hastily bandaged up after the last battle. He was still limping, an arrow wound in his calf preventing him from moving as agilely as he would like.

Much as Pyrrhos usually prided in knowing all his royal guards by name, this soldier’s had eluded the Basileus’ mind for the moment being, an unfortunate consequence of his occupied mind. But the name he mentioned Pyrrhos could never forget. A flare sparked in the king’s eyes as soon as he processed it.

“Demetrias?” he said, not at all hiding his relief. “Take this man to me at once!”

“He has already asked to be brought to you, your highness,” replied the soldier as he leaned against his dory, trying to stand up straight. “He is waiting for you outside the courthouse.”

“Then bring him in!” hastily said the king.

The soldier turned to the gateway and nodded to his compatriots outside. Two other Agema were quick to enter the room, hauling another figure with them as they entered. Once standing before the king, they released their load to bow to the king, leaving the figure to slump down upon the floor with a minor thud.

Indeed the figure they brought with him looked no more alive than a crippled man on his deathbed, literally. The bloody, dirty short tunic he wore did little to hide his physical sufferings. His legs had both been violently squashed into two blood-caked messes, and the quick first-aid didn’t help much. His left arm, while not nearly as mangled, could not move at all. The only thing keeping his face from the ground was his still somewhat functional arms. As he showed his face, there were perhaps even more fresh wounds than the proud Agema gatekeeper just now had scars. The amount of pain he had survived thus far was more than enough to fall several.

He was neither a young man nor a free man – not any longer. His grey hair was in dishevel, grimed with mud and dust, wrinkles forming deep ravines on his forehead. His bony visage had especially dark texture, a direct consequence of prolonged starvation, anxiety, illness and what have you. His wrists were shackled despite his terrible injuries and one broken arm. Perhaps the only half-decent treatment he got from the Epirotes was not having been beaten up more than he had already been.

It was doubtful whether he would survive for much longer, and yet in his eyes one could still see strong conviction, that of a man who never lost, or at least believed he never would. Those haughty, prideful eyes now stared at the king of Epeiros, stalwartly and without any semblance of fear whatsoever. Indeed having lost nearly everything, now this man’s all was reserved to holding to the last scrap of his possessions – dignity.

“Unhand him,” ordered Pyrrhos as he looked at his Agema. “A Spartan is nobody’s prisoner.”

The Epirote royal guards did as they were told. Soon metal clattered loudly on the marble ground as the large chains and cuffs were lifted from the prisoner’s arms and discarded.

“Diomenes, bring a chair,” the king then addressed the first Agema, having now remembered his name. “Help my old friend the noble Demetrias Thermopylaios on it.”

His order was duly carried out, and barely a minute had passed when the wounded prisoner was seated directly in front of the king, raised there by the other two royal guards. As he now sat atop the chair, his derelict legs and arm hung down helplessly, in direct contrast to the way he eyed the king, with all the defiance and arrogance his kind should have.

“Now leave,” the king then ordered all his men. “I want to have a private conversation with this man.”

After the last of his men had left the room, Pyrrhos opened his mouth to begin speaking, but the prisoner was faster with his lips.

“Basileus ton Epeiron, it’s been a long time.” he said, his voice completely devoid of emotion – no anger, no hatred, no agony, not even sarcasm could be heard or perceived from the way he addressed, “I fancy you are still in good health.”

“Indeed I am,” Pyrrhos replied, pausing a little to weight his words, and then returned the comment in kind. “On the other hand, you aren’t quite as fortunate, I suppose.”

The tone of the latter half of his answer was noticeably more arrogant than the first, much against his way. But he could have as well had no other choice. One could not be too arrogant before a mainland Greek, including a Spartan. Especially a Spartan.

“That much would be true if I were an ordinary man like any other,” sharply answered the prisoner. “I am proud to say I am above that.”

The king lifted his lips.

“I hope you realize I never wish to confront you again in this situation,” said Pyrrhos. “Not after all you have done for me in the past, no.”

Pyrrhos Aiakides was only beholden to few throughout his forty-odd years of life, and Demetrias Thermopylaios certainly ranked first among those few.

Things hadn’t always been rough between Epeiros and Makedonia. Many years ago, when Alexandros’ empire was still there, when the Hellenoi were united as one, when Babylon was Greek, the Antigonos and the Aiakides were allies. That was when they met, befriended and when Demetrias saved Pyrrhos’ life in a skirmish against the Thracians shortly later.

“It was a long time ago, so long that it no longer mattered,” Demetrias shook his head, cutting off eye contact for a moment. “Right now, you are the mortal enemy of all Makedonia as well as mine.”

“You weren’t a Makedon to begin with, my friend,” said the king, shaking his head in tandem. “And if my memory hasn’t failed me, deep below never once you accepted yourself as one. You always see yourself as a Spartan – a son of Lakedaimon who just happened to be serving another master.”

Demetrias bent his head at the mere mention of the word Sparta.

“And for what can I be so proud?” he finally asked back. “I am but an exile, son of a family whose existence is no longer recognized by my compatriots.”

“But you have no tie with the Makedon,” remarked the king. “You are not a Makedon, by blood or otherwise.”

“No ties? I think otherwise,” Demetrias protested. “Megas Alexandros had offered my grandfather and my father shelter, so did the Antigonos after him. They have treated us well, granting us wealth, glory and much honor. Fighting to the death for them is the least I can do to repay this kindness.”

The king stood up and glanced at his acquaintance from top to toes as he heard those words. The more he looked, the more appalled his expression became. If he himself were to bear half of the prisoner’s wounds and ailment, he would have either died or been reduced to an ignoble wretch of a person, not sitting firm and speaking like a man as Demetrias had been.

“You have already did all what you could, Demetrias,” the king said, full of compassion as he faced his old friend. “Fighting half to death to save the life of a foolish Antigonos who should know better than charging elephants head-on is all what they can expect from a soldier. All what you have done throughout your life in the name of loyalty to friends and masters alike deserve appreciation. Appreciation and honor, not oblivion!”

Seeing Demetrias remaining silent after he had made his statement, the king went on.

“You should know better than anyone else who I am, my friend,” he said. “All my life I have been struggling for the day when all Hellenoi can stand at the top of the world again, so that the heritage of Alexandros would be more than just merely a passing legend.”

Taking another emphatic pause, Pyrrhos stared at his acquaintance and continued.

“It’s going to be a long journey, Demetrias. Longer than the path to Tartarus, more perilous than crossing the deserts, and more exerting than Herakles’ twelve legendary deeds. And so I go to war, knowing that this is not a war for my own sake, it is for the glory of Greece and all of the children of Zeus!” at this point he fixed his gaze at the prisoner without blinking. “For such an endeavor I have need for such heroes as you.”

Then he left his table, walking down in front of the prisoner, and stretched his open palm out at him.

“Join me, Demetrias. Join me and my glorious army. Together we will achieve great things, remaking the world of men for the better!”

“I think not, Basileus,” Demetrias answered dryly.

“I have said this, and I will repeat it until you understand,” said the king, undaunted. “You have done many times more than your share of duty to Makedonia and the Antigonos. It’s time you do something for yourself. Build up the heroic name you deserve, for one. I just happen to have the means to that goal that I wish to share with you.”

“You still remember that I am a Spartan by blood and at heart,” answered Demetrias. “You should know a Spartan never surrenders. He either crushes the enemy and return with his shield, or valiantly dies in battle and return on it. I see no reason to disgrace my Lakedaimonian blood further than our family already had.”

Pyrrhos tried to say more, but the assertive look on Demetrias’ face stunted his will to keep arguing with him.

“Alright then” Pyrrhos changed the topic. “If you wished not to join me, why did you ask to speak to me in the first place?”

“For a favor,” answered Demetrias.

“Favor?” Pyrrhos lifted his eyebrows.

“Do you remember what I told you at that battle thirty years ago?”

Demetrias’ sudden question threw Pyrrhos off focus for a moment. What he had just mentioned was perhaps the most important battle in his life to date, the humble first step of his journey of a thousand miles. And the battle that sealed the friendship between the two men. Even today the memories of that first battle still firmly etched on Pyrrhos’ mind. Indeed never since then had the king snatched a victory from the jaws of such apparent defeat.

His army was a patrolling party with merely a detachment of light cavalry and a taxeis of newly levied infantry with no phalanges – the staple of Hellenic warfare of the day and age – whatsoever. Theirs was a rather well-prepared Thracian professional army with two light phalanges to support their bread-and-butter falx infantry and with far more adequate cavalry support. That was the time when open hostility between Greeks and Thracians was quite commonplace, but the young Pyrrhos could never have seen that dramatic turn of event come in. He was close to despair…

“Diadohos, take heart. I believe in you, and so does your kingdom, no, Greater Greece as a whole. The man whose shoulder Greece’s destiny rests on cannot lose, must not lose!”

Thirty years after that day Pyrrhos was still wondering why he had won, whether owing to his own ingenuity or that heartfelt encouragement from Demetrias’ lips. He knew he carried out his cousin Alexandros’ favorite maneuver of a direct shock cavalry charge at the enemy’s weakest link. The timely charge could be said to have won the battle itself, routing the enemy’s center and breaking the rest of the army. In return, less than a third of his cavalry wing survived. It was there that Pyrrhos himself received his first three battle scars and was quite close to losing his arm to a vicious falx.

The reminiscence of that battle was quite vivid. Pyrrhos could almost taste the blood on his lips, the battle cries from both sides of the battle, the painful shrieks of soldiers cut down and the panicked screams of those having lost the stomach to fight. Such memory drowned out his ability to speak for some time, before the sight of today’s crippled Demetrias returned him to reality.

“I haven’t forgotten, my friend, and never will I,” solemnly answered the king. “Always I will treasure my memory of that battle, as well as that of the man who had helped me carry the day.”

“I have said that day that I believed in you,” Demetrias continued. “I still do.”

“… What?”

Pyrrhos uttered, apparently astonished.

“Pyrrhos Aiakides, cousin of the magnificent Megas Alexandros, ruler of the kingdom of Epeiros,” declared Demetrias in response. “I have always believed in what I said then. I believe Greece’s future is in your hand. That our glory of the ages past will once again revive in your reign. That you will one day build for yourself and all Hellenoi an empire rivaling Alexandros himself. That you will remake this world to a new order for the sake of us all. Not the Antigonos, not the Spartans, not the Athenians or Cretans or Rhodians. You.”

Pyrrhos stood there stunned for a good while, his eyes wide open as he stared at his old friend.

“Why do you still serve the Antigonos if it is me who you believe in?” he finally questioned.

“Because believing in you is the most the honor of a Spartan would allow me to do for you,” answered Demetrias. “And this leads to the favor I ask of you.”

“Which is?” asked Pyrrhos eagerly. “I would not hesitate anything I can do for you, my friend.”

“There are two, in fact,” replied Demetrias. “First, fate had not been so kind as to grant this Spartan death by the sword in battle. If you can give me that which fate has refused me, I would be forever grateful.”

The calmness reigning over Demetrias’ visage as he uttered his morbid request was so out-of-this world that Pyrrhos was rightfully frightened. The king’s voice was reduced to a stutter for the next words he uttered.

“You… you wish for me… to kill you?” Pyrrhos stammered, but quickly regaining his composure. “I’m afraid I cannot…”

“I haven’t yet finished, Basileus,” Demetrias interrupted. “I have always wanted to follow you in battle, to observe your exploit and see the new Greece unveiling in your hand with my own eyes, but honor would disallow that. Fortunately, Spartan honor does not extend beyond death.”

Taking a dramatic pause, Demetrias looked at the king with an unshakable drive in his eyes.

“I would request that my ashes be mixed with metal and forged into one of your weapons which you bring into battle. This way I can always see how your glorious quests unfold even in death.”

Once more Pyrrhos was stunned. Demetrias had well requested him something he could technically do, but didn’t have the heart for. And yet something in Demetrias’ eyes told him there was no refusing.

“Basileus, I have never asked for any favor from you or anyone else,” Demetrias pleaded. “But this is my final wish. With these wounds I would not expect to survive for much longer in any case. If my wish could be granted, death is but a small and inevitable price.”

Pyrrhos felt his head wet as his sweat drops rolled down his forehead, down his cheek and into his mouth, leaving a salty and bitter aftertaste. Perhaps in the past few minutes he had sweat enough for a week. All this while Demetrias’ piercing gazes was still upon him, driving him mad. There was no avoiding it, as if all of his remaining energy was devoted to not let Pyrrhos’ eyes escape his sight.

Finally the king gave in.

“Very well then, brave son of Sparta,” Pyrrhos said, exasperated. “I’ll grant your last wish, but on one condition.”

“Whatever you say, Basileus,” replied Demetrias with due eagerness.

“It was my mistake conquering Pella with a mercenary army,” admitted Pyrrhos, “and now they are driving the city crazy with their lack of discipline and endless greed. As far as I know you’ve been the one genuinely in charge of Pella since that… moron Artemios Antigonos took over as governor. You might as well lend this old friend your wisdom for this last time…”

“I have only one word, Basileus,” Demetrias replied on the spot. “Faith. Please, make good use of it.”

DF  Post #: 1
4/17/2010 23:37:17   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 1
A Rusty Blade… Or Not?

Rie Ichimonji was not happy.

Granted, recently she had been constantly unhappy, more so than justifiable.

Other students of Class 2-3 saw her as a classical example of a spoiled brat who refused to see further than her childish self-interests. She had little to defend herself, however, not when she threw a fit over such things as the cancellation of her idol singer’s live concert. Or whining about having to clean up the mess she caused herself. Ad nauseum.

Perhaps that was why she was quite unsuccessful in finding a date even though she had little wanting in looks.

Rie was quite pretty and she knew it. Her long, back-length hair dyed radiant red to imitate her idol was as silky-smooth as her natural hair. Her eyes, already large by normal standard, looked even larger with the pair of thick glasses she donned. Her face was just slightly thinner than optimal, revealing her high and rather sharp cheekbones. Or at least that was what she got after a prolonged diet to cut down on weight which she barely had any surplus at all. Her lips were a little thin to European eyes but perfect for the boys around town.

Her awareness of her own beauty was duly invested in fashion. Her wardrobes in their entirety could well fund a small business’ operating expenses for a year. Even her school uniform was fully customized so as to best fit her form. Not that it was a huge investment, since Rie was more or less the same size as her classmates, if only slightly thinner thanks to said dieting campaign. Nobody beat her when it boiled down to accessories – the girl literally had a room full of those little trinkets every girl would love.

For all her worth in look and material Rie lacked charm to the point of hideousness. Maybe it was her tendency to laugh at the wrong person at the wrong place. Maybe it was the way she looked at everyone with half an eye, not excepting her own parents. Maybe it was just how she kept going on and on and on about her own little drama with life that wasn’t even that big a deal to begin with. She was just that infamous among boys of the neighborhood.

People would reckon her reason was similarly petty when she stormed out of the classroom after the bell rang that day without even looking back once. No one could blame them, though.

And so Rie was traveling along the street of that outskirt suburb of Tokyo leading back home alone, her school bag in one hand and her umbrella in the other, her eyes fixed on the asphalt. She would have gone straight home without delay had it not been for a gentle but sudden pat on her backside.

“Ow!” she exclaimed as if in pain, swinging her entire body back in high alert.

She was greeted by a naïve and innocent smile flashed at her at close quarter. Its owner was a plainer and far more traditional schoolgirl, with a similarly uninteresting uniform and schoolbag she held in both hands. No make-up masked her face. No fancy accessory adorned her bag. No fancy footwear apart from a pair of shoes half as old as herself covered her feet. Rie did not have to look twice to recognize her.

“You startled me, Aya-chan,” she snorted, feigning displeasure.

The name was Aya Hanamichi. If there was one thing that made her stand out from the crowd, it would be her especially tiny size. She stood two inches shorter than Rie and weighted less than her even when her dieting regime was at its peak. Her traditional mass of jet black hair flowed to her waist, without any semblance of hairbands or ribbons for decoration, dwarfing her even more than she already was. All in all she resembled a middle-schooler more than a second year high school student.

For all the work she was supposed to do to ace her studies as such, her spectacles were quite lacking. She only discovered her near-sightedness a year ago, and it wasn’t all that bad. She wouldn’t have looked any better in a huge pair anyway, since her face was proportionately small and her forehead was dominated with her thick, black hair. Her nose was long and thin, her lips insignificant, her jawline blurry and unpronounced, giving out a childlike vibe, both cute and endearing in equal measures.

To Rie, she was three things. The poorest student in the class with the least desirable family ever, the class representative who doubles as the ace in every subject she laid her hands on, and the only person Rie could call a friend with any degree of trustworthiness. How the last dot point came to be she had no idea whatsoever, seeing how opposite their personalities and backgrounds were.

“Well, if I just called you, would you have heard?”

Aya said, her voice chiming like a clear bell, further cementing the image of an underage girl stuffed in high school uniform and demeanor. That, plus her impeccable ability to crack some very good jokes once every so often meant that Rie never could get mad when she was along.

“I am sure I would have,” Rie answered, shrugging and smiling in tandem. “After all I wasn’t all that mad, you know? If not for…”

“Shh, lemme guess,” Aya quickly placed a finger over Rie’s lips, winking. “Is it that British gentleman we are talking about here?”

Rie nodded, looking pissed.

“What. An. Idiotic. Foreigner,” Rie stressed each and ever word as soon as Aya’s finger left her mouth.

“Oh? I thought William Fastolf is quite the prince,” Aya smiled, her loosely clenched right hand propping her chin. “He did half the clean-up after class by his lonesome all in all, and that’s his first day.”

“He’s still an idiot,” Rie repeated, crossing her arms and turning her face away with closed eyes in an I-don’t-care charade. “Honestly, he came from that Corn-whatsoever province that doesn’t even appear on the world map to Tokyo, and he has the audacity to look down on Japanese women like that?”

“Eh, that was stretching it,” Aya shook her head. “He just said he was in love with and engaged to history and advised you quite politely to give it a try. No offense meant.”

“Yeah, he totally meant no offense at all when he said that in the class with the highest female-to-male ratio at school,” scoffed Rie, her pitch raised into the sarcastic territory. “and the class that has me. Totally not mean anything.”

Rie let her agitation spew out with every of her frothing words. Aya responded with naught but a smile. Her comment reeked of arrogance to the normal ear, but Aya knew better that anyone else the root of the problem.

“Come on now, it couldn’t be that serious, could it?” she said, her voice lowered to an understanding tone. “Don’t stress yourself, Rie-chan.”

Rie inhaled deeply, and then breathed out aloud. It was her standard procedure for lifting her anxiety off her chest. This time it did the exact opposite. There was clearly something tugging at her heartstring, weighing it down hard. Her lips shivered, unable to exhaust any word. Lost in her own train of thought she stood frozen on the spot, seemingly unaware of the passing traffic for a moment.

“I… I see,” she finally said with another sigh. “Well, perhaps I’m going to die a hopeless spinster then. Best start to get use to it from now.”

Anxiety sparked in Aya’s eyes as she took a thorough look at her friend. Rie wasn’t the most mentally stable person out there, but such overreaction was not healthy in any sense. She stopped right in front of Rie, locked her eyes at the depressed girl’s, and said in her most sympathetic voice.

“Rie-chan, you’ve got to look at the bright side of things,” she spoke with a mixture of dead-on seriousness and lighthearted commentary. “Why care about what a newcomer said on impulse when you have been yourself and happy for all those while?”

“But… I am still single,” Rie uttered weakly. “That doesn’t seem right at all!”

“You aren’t the only single girl in the school,” Aya said, pointing at herself. “If bad comes to worse we’d still have each other. There’s no need to get all worked up, see?”

Aya patted at her friend’s back, feeling the soft layer of thin velvet sewn into Rie’s uniform within her palm. Her move was strangely effective - Rie’s expression calmed down on the spot, her mouth curving in a return smile.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said.

Rie would never smile to anyone the way she would to Aya. The smirk on her face in public places would commonly be formed by lifting the right side of her lips to form a convex half-curve. In that form she looked downright nasty, in the traditional classic meaning of an evil hag out for trouble. Any attempt to not take offense at that gesture would be doused upon hearing the defining sniffing noise she would make in the process. It was said she alienated half her class by that gesture alone.

But to her best friend she would flash that one huggably cute smile. Her eyes closed, her face relaxed, her lips forming a perfect curve, and any trace of animosity on her feature would fade as if it had never existed. Then she looked like the pink-haired angelic idol singer she yearned for. Unfortunately, Aya was the only one to know that side of her, or else the limited reserve of boys in school would have flocked to her side despite her nasty streaks.

“Sorry, A-chan,” Rie said, bowing exceedingly politely. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I am just…”

“I know,” interrupted Aya, beaming as she suggested. “How about we go somewhere to have some fun to get your mind off thing?”

“Somewhere?” Rie’s vice briefly returned to its usual sarcastic tone, albeit for a thoroughly friendly purpose. “Doesn’t Dekisugi-sama have to study for the upcoming exam?”

“It’s Friday,” Aya replied with no less mischievousness. “And with boring lessons. Had it not been for my being the class rep I’d have skipped class today and grab a few volumes at Akihabara.”

The exchange was followed by a string of giggles from both sides. It was like a secret agreement, some sort of secret pact between the two girls. For when the word ‘fun’ escaped Aya’s lips in such context, there was a mutual understanding and agreement as to where they would spend their time for the next few hours.


At first sight Rie’s home was nothing to be scoffed at, even to the wealthiest of her countrymen. To be able to afford a Western-style mansion on the outskirt of the city with the most outlandish real estate prices in the world was no mean feat, especially when that mansion occupied a space as large as a medium-large urban office block. On that massive plot of land stood a huge structure, four stories at its highest, with large gardens on all four sides and at the center.

As one approached the building, it seemed as delicate and ornate as it was majestic. Gilded patterns lined up the fences. The gardens were decorated with either intricate hedge mazes or pool and grill. There were more windows facing the front than there were students in Rie’s grade. To complete its analogy to a European castle, there were a clock tower of remarkable height and a mini-chapel in the courtyard, even though none of Rie’s family members were Christians.

It was quite the palace fit for a king, which seemed fit, since Rie’s father was a king in a particular sense of the word. Kanno Ichimonji’s life story was a long one, worthy of the one man who controlled most of the paper industry in Northern Japan. Suffice to say it took a man great ability, guts and perseverance to found a trade empire, yet even greater firmness of personality to keep that had been left to him and made it prosper.

Rie could care less about it all, naturally. As long as her father kept supplying her with cash for her shopping needs, where it came from wouldn’t make a difference.

Rie and Aya had walked over the main walkway into the central foyer together many times, hand in hand, led there by the old faithful gardener and their stuffs carried by obedient servants. Which was useful, for Rie had a habit of hauling home everything she saw at the mall that either had lovely design, or could move, or glittered. In other words, ninety percent of the stuffs at the merchandise stores.

Today, however, no such escort came for them, and the two girls had to carry the stuffs by themselves. It wasn’t exactly the lightest of loads, however.

“That was a hundred grands in total,” Aya said after a closer look at Rie’s receipts and then her inflated shopping bags. Her voice could not conceal its obvious anxiety however she tried. “Don’t you think it’s a little…”

“You know me,” Rie replied nonchalantly. “When I’m not happy I’d have to spend an equivalent sum to feel better.”

“Normally you never spend even half as much as this in one go,” Aya shook her head.

“I don’t?” Rie asked back as if entranced.

“You don’t,” Aya stressed each word emphatically. “Rie-chan, sorry for asking, but…”

“I look like a depressed lovesick little girl who should have known better, right?”

For a second it seemed that Aya’s efforts at cheering up her friend had been well reversed by her own tactless attitude. Rie’s face tensed as she spoke, especially her jaws and forehead, if not by annotance then by some sort of newfound anxiety.

And then she stopped dead in her track, pulling her attendance team to a halt in response. Her neck bent, fixed on the paved pathway, her mouth zipped, as if shutting herself in for a rare moment of self reflection.

“Rie-chan?” Aya uttered, her eyes fixed at Rie with increasing worry. “Are you sure you are alright?”

More silence. If Rie was mulling over her response, she was certainly taking her time.

“I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I just feel kind of… odd.”

“Ah, I’m very sorry!” Aya said frantically. “I... shouldn’t have said that.”

Aya’s apologetic expression when she realized her wrongs was a novelty Rie could never get enough of. Whether it was her fault or not didn’t seem to matter when her look at that time was made of moe. That panicked look, that muffled gesture, that sincere yet overly cute voice… it was actually hard to understand just why she hadn’t found a date yet with all those.

For some reason Rie took Aya’s misfortune in her love life as her own fortune. For all she cared, she’d do anything to keep that rare cuteness for herself. Just thinking along that line was enough to whip her mood back to hyperactivity.

“That’s alright,” smiled Rie,

She sealed her newfound positive attitude with a mighty whack on her friend’s shoulder, causing Aya to wince.

“Ow!” uttered the smaller girl.

“You said we’d better spend some time to have fun right?” Rie spoke quickly and enthusiastically. “Let’s get in! I’d certainly want to try on my new stuffs!”


Perhaps Rie’s compulsive shopping behavior wasn’t entirely her fault. Shop-aholism seemed to run rampant in the family, or so any visitor to the Ichimonji mansion’s front foyer would be led to believe.

Kanno Ichimonji was both an entrepreneur and a connoisseur, a lover of beauty whose many purchases cost him much wealth. The entire foyer and the galleries leading to the left and right wings were filled to the brim with artworks, rare antiques and other collectors’ goods one could not possibly possess without forking out a fortune for. If Rie was to believe her father, there were at least half a dozen objects that were worth several tens of million yens.

But what neither she nor anyone else could understand was why alongside with those treasures there were an equivalent number of junks. Mass-produced low quality replicas of famous paintings. Obscene sculptures by nameless artists. Drawings that made no sense whatsoever even to art majors. The worst of them all was probably a broken, rotting urn displayed at the very front, one that he claimed to have been a Cretan amphora dug up in Knossos and sold for a bargain.

As Rie and Aya walked in that day, it seemed that her father had just made quite a few of those exotic purchases again. Roughly half of the household’s servants filled the foyer, busily scurrying articles to whatever place in the gallery that hadn’t yet been occupied. Of course, knowing just how much the master had stacked his galleries with, such unoccupied spaces were few and far between.

Wherever Rie’s father had been to recently, he was literally harvesting souvenirs. The result was a large pile of unsorted and unarranged goods strewn on the floor in the very middle of the chamber. There were probably upwards of a hundred individual items, of all shapes, sorts and sizes. As they toiled away among the pile, most were profusely sweating, anxiety spewing out with their every breath.

Everyone were being guided by one elderly gentleman in black uniform in the middle of it all. Grizzle-haired, thick-bearded and with a slightly crooked back, the man was obviously fighting a losing war of attrition against his old age. Still, he was by no means beaten, and as the one who knew the mansion even more than its own master, he was proving his worth with his orders to the lesser servants, loud, clear and powerful in equal measures.

“Hurry up! This one to the left corner! That goes to the far side over there! We must get this sorted out before… Ojou-sama!”

His orders were interrupted when he caught view of Rie and Aya, at which point he hurriedly left his post and bow politely to the two young mistresses. A mild horror laced his face for a moment when he realized the two girls were sweating profusely while panting under the weight of their shopping bags.

“Ojou-sama, Hanamichi-sama, I beg your pardon for not being able to do any more for you as of yet,” the old butler apologized. “As you see, we’re a little caught up here, but I’ll have Jun carry your things to your room once we are done with this.”

“That’s alright, Takeyama-san,” Rie answered in an exceedingly polite voice, before her eyes caught view of the pile. “That’s an awful lot of stuffs isn’t it?”

“As you can see, Ojou-sama, the master happened to have purchased an entire antique shop in Greece,” he said. “There are roughly a hundred and sixty-three items of particular note altogether, out of which I believe we’ll have display space for about twenty. The rest has to go to the storeroom, as per normal.”

Then he pointed to the left side of the pile, where items of lesser quality was piled up, waiting to be tossed into the storeroom with a myriad of toys the master had gotten bored of. Among which there was a broken vase, a rusty full helmet, a termite-eaten javelin, and other junks.

“I see,” Rie replied.

And then her eyes caught view of something that clearly stood out from its decaying, rundown peers.

At the first sight she did not know what it was. It was clearly a weapon, but its design was too exotic for her understanding. It had a far smaller crosspiece compared to the other swords she had known. It was too short to be a sword and too long to be a knife or dagger. Its blade was curved outward like a kukri she learnt of in a roleplaying game, but was much less so than the weapon she knew.

Whatever it was, it sure was shiny. Too shiny, actually. Under the lamplight it glittered like a bar of precious metal, so well that Rie almost had to shy her eyes in its presence. It stood out so much from the other artifacts there that Rie felt like questioning the loyal butler’s sanity for setting aside such an item.

“What about this blade, Takeyama-san?” she said, picking up the weapon.

To her astonishment, her seemingly immaterial move was responded with utter horror on the butler’s half. For a second it looked as if all his hair and beard were standing on ends as he promptly proceeded to rip the weapon from her hand with due haste.

“Ojou-sama, it’s dangerous!” he exclaimed, pointing to the edge of the weapon. “This one is rusty! One cut from it and you could get some serious infection!”

As far as Rie could remember the entire team of Ichimonji household servants, represented by the butler, Mr. Gosho Takeyama, were extremely protective of her, what with her being the master’s only daughter and all. But this time, the butler’s reaction was ridiculous on so many levels.

“Cut myself? Rusty weapon?” grimaced Rie at a complete loss for understanding. “Takeyama-san, did you happen to have a drink too many during lunch?”

“What do you mean, Ojou-sama?” the butler asked back, suitably astonished.

“Look, I know that Dad likes to buy lots of junks and you’ve always helped him sort out the garbage. But can’t you see this blade isn’t junk at all?” Rie said, pointing at the weapon. “Can’t you see how it shines and glitters? There isn’t even a spot of rust, mind you! Is something wrong with your eyes, or with what you drank?”

And then Rie’s voice took a turn for the shrewd.

“Or are you trying to tug this treasure away so you can pawn it somewhere else for some quick cash?” she said vindictively with that condemning, acerbic tone of hers. “Do you think because my father trusts you all that much you can get away with everything?”

Her expression at that point was frighteningly severe. Rolled eyes, knitted eyebrows and widely opened mouth as she sounded her accusation, there was no hiding Rie was angry. Whether or not this anger was righteous, however, was a completely different story.

What was clear was that the butler did not take such insults lightly. His face was red with anger as his hairs stood on end again. His voice was quivering from fury and the attempt to try to control it.

“I swear to God that I have never stolen anything from the Ichimonji household for the past thirty years, and for as long as I draw breath I never will,” he shouted. “As my eyes are open, I see this blade a rusty one and should be disposed of accordingly. Say whatever you will, Ojou-sama, but my eyes have never failed me before and I doubt it has.”

“Oh really?” Rie’s sour voice turned to sarcasm. “You know, you could have always asked Dad for an eye check.”

By then the other servants had gathered around the commotion in a circle, muttering and whispering to one another as they looked on. It was not a situation Aya would like to see.

“Alright, can it, Rie-chan,” she jumped into the argument. “That’s enough for now. Why don’t you…”

“But this is a fine item of antique!” blurted Rie, interrupting Aya’s words. “My father just have to have it, and here the butler is trying to pass it off as junk and stow it away? Not going to happen under my watch!”

She said, pointing at the offending item, awaiting a sympathetic word or two from her best friend. What she got was a very confused Aya looking at her worriedly.

“Umm… Rie-chan, it is a rusty weapon the way I see it. It doesn’t even look clean enough to hold properly,” she said, looking at the weapon and then back at her friend. “I can’t see the shining and glittery part at all.”

By now Rie was the one confused.

“Umm…what?” she said, for want of a better sentence.

“Please pardon me, Rie-chan, but…” Aya delved into Rie’s eyes without blinking. “You are probably just hallucinating after a hard day. You should take a rest and calm down, see?”


DF  Post #: 2
7/26/2010 3:30:23   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 2
Night of Blood

It was the first time Rie’s shopping bag was stuffed away into her gigantic wardrobe without her so much as taking a second look. To be fair her other apparels had not exactly gotten better treatment, either hung in the wardrobe for all eternity to gather dust, or strewn around the room waiting for the maids to take care of. Yet her not at all paying attention to the items she was marveling at and cashing out for barely several hours ago was way abnormal, even for a chronic shopaholic.

The only explanation was something had seized her attention so thoroughly she had none left for her purchases. Now she sat at her table, her eyes glued upon the object lying across its face – the curved short sword with an inward sharp edge. The same one the family butler was about to throw away, claiming it was rusted halfway to the core. That its blade resembled a boomerang rather than a slashing edge proper didn’t help its cause.

It wasn’t, or at least Rie could so testify. However she looked at it, there was no trace of the slightest wear and tear to mar the smooth, silvery blade, let alone rust. Apart for the eccentric shape and design, Rie really could not find any flaw in it at all. The girl felt strangely compelled to take up the weapon and cleave at the nearest applicable object at the sight of such deadly perfection.

She couldn’t be blamed. The sword, while not the most extravagant, was clearly the most impressively ornamented Rie had ever seen. The crosspiece and hilt were gilded in a thin layer of gold. The blade was likely wrought from very good steel or some other alloy of equivalent quality, its edge possibly gilded in silver to add to the sharpness. Said edge was sparkling for all it’s worth, seemingly sharp enough to slice light itself. Suddenly the pair of mastercraft katana her father kept on the rack in the grand dining hall to show off to honored guests seemed like crude kitchen implements in comparison to this saint of a weapon.

Such gleams were both elegant and deathly cold. Just the implication of said weapon coming from an antique shop was already spine-chilling. Apparently it had undergone a war, if not several wars, having soaked itself in proportionate amount of blood as a consequence. And yet the blade was still clean and spotless, as if having drunken up all the blood it had spilt like a starving vampire.

The mere thought of it brought the smell of blood to Rie’s sense, leaving her somewhat nauseated. After all, she was but a pampered and sheltered urban girl totally foreign to the concepts of war and death. The thought of such a masterfully crafted work of art could take life more easily than shredding a sheet of paper was extremely unsettling and unfathomable to her.

The problem, she was likely the only one to see it that way. The other members of the household, from the said butler to the maids and washer-women and everyone in between saw it as a decaying, rusty blade that wasn’t healthy enough to even keep in one’s company. Some would probably even questioned Rie’s eyesight when she hauled it back to her room despite all protests. Or her sanity. Or both.

But Rie had every reason to trust her perception. Last medical checkup at school, her eyesight was perfect. There was nothing wrong with her ‘cognitive ability’ or whatever it was called in a related test. The only explanation for this discrepancy, and one she would staunchly hold to for obvious reason, was that each and everyone was pulling a prank on her, up to and including her best friend. Which, she’d like to reassert, was not funny, given what had happened to her that day.

So the foreign exchange student the whole class had been waiting for the better part of the term had finally arrived. Big deal. Said student came into the class and in his introduction remarked how he was in love with history. No objection. But turning to Rie and asking a question on said subject, which she knew not a thing about, and, though unintentionally, leaving her to be embarrassed before the class? It’s war.

“What a pity he’s quite a looker too,” she mumbled out loud as the image of William James Fastolf overrode her attention on the blade.

William James Fastolf, resident of the English county of Cornwill, Cornwoll, Cornwull, or whatever he called it. Half English, half Danish, all nerdy. He was no supermodel, but cute enough in a scholarly, endearing way. Messy, yet slick brown hair. Similarly colored eyes always wide open as if eager to devour even more knowledge. Long, slender nose bridge and a face thin yet round enough to create a childlike impression, yet with cheekbones pronounced enough to show off confidence and decisiveness to instill trust in those who listened to him. Those thick, rectangular glasses did not help Rie a bit in her assessment of this new, ‘hostile’ guy.

Said image lingered in her mind until the implication it drove home turned her cheeks red while threatening to shut down her brain with its sheer absurdity.

“Am I… in love?” she mumbled quietly, only to nearly drive her forehead at the nearest hard object which happened to be her table. Had she not noticed the unsheathed blade still occupying it, the reaction could have won her a dozen or so stitches, or worse. Perhaps if anyone genuinely doubted her sanity, they might not have been entirely unfounded after all.

”Argh! What’s wrong with me?” she exclaimed, trying to vocally repulse the off-beat thought in her mind. It was louder than she thought, causing her to cover her mouth as soon as the last word escaped her lips.

Instinctively she glanced at the clock. The old butler incidentally lived not a long way from her own room, and she had more than once waken him in the middle of the night with her uncontrollable outburst. He wasn’t exactly amused.

It was a little past midnight, Rie realized with more than a little astonishment. Roughly, that meant she had been sitting there staring at a bar of old steel for the past three hours, since Aya went home. Not a good thing for sanity.

Fortunately she would have no school the next day. Or perhaps that would make no difference, since she hadn’t had quite enough in the way of beauty sleep since the beginning of the year. ‘Sleepless Beauty’ as she’d like to call herself. Disagree with the last part at one’s own peril

Rie walked to the window, drew open the curtain and gazed outside. It was a starless, moonless night. The only light she could see was the dim garden bulbs to keep the Ichimonji mansion properly illuminated in its entirety, switched to power-saving mode by around 11 pm every day. It might look fascinating to visitors, but to its residents, those lights had the tendency to induce sleep. Rie had grown largely immune by now, however.

When those light dimmed, it would be time for the residents to go to bed, and Rie to take a stroll around the gardens. Today Rie was one hour behind schedule in regard to that thanks to the blade.


It was a night like any other, right down to Uncle Okita the elderly security guard to fall asleep on his post, leaving the mansion’s safeguarding to the automated security system entirely. If Rie was to tell someone with authority, he would have been given the sack with no chance to find another job whatsoever. She just wasn’t that sadistic. Partly because once every so often she would slip out of the mansion in the middle of the night to stroll the streets just for kick, and with a more diligent guard there was no way she could do that.

Today felt like one such day. Given the copious amount of junks in her head just now, an ordinary walk in the garden would not do it justice.

After a quick tiptoe through the front gate’s unlocked side entrance, Rie was already outside the protection and control of the mansion walls. Sneaking was not exactly necessary, since Rie knew better than anyone that nothing short of a thermonuclear blast could wake Uncle Okita from his nap once his eyes closed. Carefully yet briskly she closed the door behind her. It was as easily done as a regular routine – she had done that literally dozens of time with no consequences.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward on the pavement, looking around as she exhaled.

The sight in front of her stood silently, testifying that Tokyo wasn’t all about Shibuya, Akihabara and Otome Road. There was nothing to keep her company but darkness and silence, painting the streets and buildings in a shady color contrary to the vibrant tone in daylight. Here and there on the side of the narrow pavement stood a few lonely neon lights. The shops along the way were all closed, lights off, curtains drawn, doors locked. There was not a soul at large, not even a cat or dog.

Her neighborhood was plain in a peaceful yet boring way. After dusk there would be no activity, little traffic and consequently street light except for the bare minimum. Rie could walk in the middle of the road for all she care, and not a single car would come along. It was the ideal time to take a walk, take a load off one’s mind and relax. A little boring notwithstanding, of course.

Rie’s usual walk would take her several blocks north from her homestead, towards the construction site near her school. They said a new shopping center or something would be erected there. Good news indeed, judging from its size. When it was done, perhaps she wouldn’t have to take the metro into the inner city during rush hour just to pick up a pair of shoes or a couple of bracelets.

With relaxed pace Rie worked her way along the street, taking her time to breathe deeply and savoring the scenery. The path up to the construction site happened to be the best road in the vicinity, with housing sparse enough to offer a direct view of the midnight sky. Had it not been particularly cloudy that night, she could have found enough inspiration to recite a poem or two.

As she approached the construction site, Rie yawned rather loudly, covering her mouth only when the deed had been done apologetically. Perhaps she could call off the walk earlier than expected. It had been quite a tiring day for the little princess, no less. Thinking so, she was about to turn her heel when a smell, or rather, a strong, repugnant stench forced its way up her nostril following a gust of wind across her face.

At once Rie’s eyes stretched open, her eyeballs threatening to pop out of the sockets as she cringed, holstering her hands to cover her mouth and nose. Yet the stench still lingered around her for a moment, leaving her weak on the knees as she became as nauseated as a teen in a regular soap opera showing her pregnancy. Tears filled her eyes as her throat threatened to vomit while her hands squeezing her mouth with an extraordinary effort to stop it from happening.

It was only after the smell had passed that she managed to regain her composition, her eyebrows still knitted in discomfort. She had only encountered this smell once or twice so far, when she waltzed into a rural slaughterhouse several years ago on a field trip. It was then that she learnt the hard way that gallons of fish blood spilling on the ground and trickling down a central drainage would not produce the most pleasant of odor.

Blood, that must have been it, she thought.

Taking another second to calm herself down and wash away her nausea, Rie looked around with wary eyes while her feet were cemented on the ground with hesitation. Such a powerful stench in the street at that hour wouldn’t mean anything good. Someone must have been wounded, or worse, very close to where she was standing. There was no sound of cars or motor engines, meaning that couldn’t have been a traffic accident. Something sinister was definitely at work there.

The mere thought of what terrible thing could have happened under the blanket of night drove a chill up Rie’s spines. Images of a dagger in the dark plunging into the throat of a hapless victim weaved in her mind, on the verge of taking her over with fright. Should that be the case, she would be in no position to stay any longer. She knew pretty well what murderers would do to any looker-on who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. A quick death. Or, given her beauty, something worse.

But if she wasn’t caught, all would be fine. Right? Right?

Fear was a nimble thing. It could be dominating one’s mind one moment and then let its lesser sibling, curiosity, take over the next. Exactly what was going on in Rie’s mind. Maybe if she could sneak close, steal a peek and run away really quickly, no one would see her. Maybe.

Fear and hesitation kept her frozen for some time, only to be replaced by her growing curiosity in short order. Thinking so, she straightened herself, took a deep breath to hold her psyche in place, and then looked around.

Judging from the wind direction, it appeared that the smell of blood must have come from a particular alleyway close to the left wing of the construction site. As she peered at the offending lane, Rie frowned, for good reasons. If the street was already dim enough, there was no semblance of functional lighting in that dark corner. All sort of terrible things could be hiding within. For a second she backed off, about to make a run for dear life in a heartbeat.

Her curiosity persuaded her otherwise.

Slowly, quietly and shivering, both from fear and cold, Rie approached the lane entrance. Her sense of smell was right. The closer she got to the gaping mouth of the alleyway, the stronger and more disgusting the stench became. She had to cover her nose and mouth for the last few feet of the journey to even make it to the destination.

Holding her breath, Rie reached both hands for the corner of the street, shaking as she pulled herself to peer into the shadows.

She almost fainted as she realized who, or what, she was looking at. Her face turned as white as a sheet, as if having just seen an unspeakable, insanity-inducing cosmic horror.

It might as well be.

To a girl who had not seen blood in any quantity for the better of the last few years, the amount of blood splattered around the laneway was clearly horrifying. Everywhere was painted red – the brick walls, the ground, the rubbish bins in the far corner. And most importantly, the dead body. The headless dead body.

The victim’s head had been severed from the body forcefully and perhaps in one stroke. It was now lying on the roadside, what little lighting shining on it showed an expression of pure terror. Eyeballs bulging outwards. Mouth wide open. Hairs stood on end. A supposedly respectable middle-aged man who apparently never saw his end coming.

There was no need to play detective in this case, for the other half of the picture had spelled out the murderer in the most grotesque way possible. Standing over the dead body was another figure, his black robe as soaked in the victim’s blood as the rest of the surrounding. Rie couldn’t keep her eyes off the object in his hand, a sanguinary two-handed long scythe with fresh blood dripping along its edge and trickling on the ground.

But the worst part of it all had to be the knowledge of what he was doing. He was hunching over the dead body, his mouth glued firmly to the stalk of the victim’s headless neck. Blood was trickling from what appeared to be the murderer’s mouth together with large, audible slurps of satiation. It was no rocket science to realize just what was going on there.

At this point Rie’s sanity lost control of her self. Her eyelids stretched upwards, as if threatening to tear themselves asunder. The crystal-clear globes that were her eyes expanded, unspeakable dread filling it thoroughly. Finally, when her sanity couldn’t keep it in check any more, a loud, high-pitched, terrified scream escaped her throat before her better judgement could stop it. It was a good five seconds before she realized her mistake and clutched her mouth.

Too little, too late. Five seconds was enough for the murderer to turn back, search the place and set his eyes on Rie. The next thing she realized, a blood-red pair of eyes were locked upon her. Its owner swung his bloodstained weapon on his shoulder while staring at the girl, shattering what little was left of her sanity.

“Ah, a little girl. How nice,” he opened his mouth, revealing a similar blood-red tongue, licking the blood off his lips. His voice was deep and eerie, as if from another entirely different plane of existence. “Just about time too. This meal was not enough anyways.”

Rie lost her touch – and perhaps her only chance for escape – for a few seconds, frozen in fear and confusion as the murderer shuffled towards her. As he slowly approached her, his black robe, black hood and bloody cape painted in her mind the picture of Death, a very real one, out for her blood. Only when the killer was mere meters from her did her sense of survival took over and ordered her legs to take off as fast as humanly possible.

Unfortunately for Rie, she was not exactly the best runner at school. The pursuer didn’t even need to run to catch her. Just briskly pacing along was enough to maintain a close pursuit on the poor girl with no chance for her to break free. Whomever the sick, blood-drinking murderer was, he was probably amused at her futile attempt to escape. Things were unfolding exactly like a slasher movie, with Rie more and more likely to come out as the first victim of the merciless serial killer.

In her panic Rie failed to take note of the direction she was running. A few twists, turns and haphazard road crossings later, Rie found herself at a dead-end. A suburban cul-de-sac, with brick walls on all three sides, to be precise. The only way out was to go through the killer’s scythe, who was steadily closing on her.

“Ah, walking food,” he said, licking his lips as he walked into range.

The edge of the scythe gleamed under the dim light. The mere sight of the sharp edge drenched in blood was enough to make her heart skip a beat. Maybe the brush with death had oversensitized her, but Rie thought it looked sharper than the blade still lying on her table. Thinking so, she felt like kicking herself. Had she brought it along with her, all might not have been lost.

“I… I am too young to die,” tears rolled down her cheeks as she contemplated her foolishness. She felt the rest of her body going nub as death approached. Her body pressed against the wall in the final desperate act to save herself, which was as futile as it sounded. Totally hopeless, she closed her eyes, as if accepting cruel fate. All the while, the amused killer was raising his bloody scythe.

“Worry not, this won’t hurt a bit,” he said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, as if lulling the girl into the sleep of eternity.

For a split second, part of Rie suddenly felt strangely happy for no reason. Maybe the terrifying thing she had witnessed had driven her mad. Maybe it was the best way to die – happily. Or maybe, just maybe, there was something hidden about her that she herself hadn’t known until this moment of life and death. There might as well have been no time to think any more as the scythe closed on her neck…

Her demise never came.

In the blink before the scythe struck home, a series of footsteps in the distance sounded, startling both executioner and victim alike. As Rie opener her eyes and looked, her executioner had turned away from her completely to face the direction of the footsteps. She could use that chance to get away, but a second thought suggested that it wasn’t the best course of action. Running away would mean running across the killer and his weapon. Given her poor reaction, that would likely result in a headless Rie pretty easily.

Thinking so, she tried to take the chance to at least calm herself down. It was difficult, given what kind of horror had happened thus far. Luckily, the incoming noise was enough for her to anchor her attention to. With another deep breath as she concentrated on the footsteps, her composure returned somewhat.

For all Rie knew those were apparently not the steps of ordinary people. Heavy, ungraceful footsteps they were, unnecessarily loud even when they were relatively slow and rhythmic. The stomping was accompanied by metallic clattering, likely that of steel or iron armor. The noise grew exponentially louder to the point of thunderous as they drew in on their position, suggesting that there were more than a few newcomers.

“O worthy successors of Neoptolemos and Molossus! O valiant children of Megas Alexandros! Once again we take up the sword and the spear and the shield, for the gods, for honor and the glory of the proud Hellenoi we are! Let our foes taste the might of Hellenic courage! Attack!”

That voice was so out-of-this world, Rie lost track of reality as she listened to it. It was the staunch voice of an old, grizzled man nearing retirement, and yet had as much spirit with it as a man in his prime. The accent was way off, and sounded like a foreigner speaking Japanese rather than any available dialect in the J-shaped archipelago. That voice preceded any visible development, so Rie was unsure what to make of the situation.

And when she could, the girl could not believe her eyes for a very good reason.

The first thing she saw emerging from the dead of night was the light of rows after rows of torches at the entrance to the alleyway. Then came rows after rows of long, sharp sticks pointed at her, or rather the serial killer’s general direction. Finally, when the torches and spearheads drew in closer, the people holding them became visible.

It was an army, closely packed in an interlocking formation. An anachronic one, even, from the way the soldiers were clad. The men were dressed in what appeared to be thigh-length skirts to the modern eyes, but their thick greaves, round shields and hardened armors more than made up for their manliness.

As they stood in line before her, Rie could see that they were of two distinct ranks. The left side of the formation wore silver armors with reddish linings, with only their greaves being bronze. On the contrary, the only things silver in those on the right side were their shields, engraved with a sun symbol and gilded to perfection. Their counterpart, on the other hand, had the symbol of a strange breed of dog emblazoned on their bronze-hide shields. All of them wore open helmets decorated with dyed horse hair running vertically from the top of the helmet to just above the neck, their colors even more vibrant under the light of myriad torches.

The spears they wield were another marvel altogether. It was only when she could see the back row very clearly did she have an accurate estimation of their size. Those at the back row of the formation were holding their weapons vertically, at which point their spears reached the same height as a two-storey building. The others from the next row on were wielding their weapons at lower and lower angles, right down to the front row, whose spears were horizontal. From a distance, their equipment and formation resembled either a huge hedgehog or a wall of spears, whichever more applicable.

They marched in from the mouth of the alleyway, effectively giving the killer a taste of his own medicine. If he wanted to escape alive, the only way out was into the soldiers’ spiny spearheads.

“You are surrounded, vile monster,” the same voice as before sounded, this time from the one man in the left side of the entire formation.

He was the odd one out in more ways than one. Each and every of them screamed out loud about his position as leader of this army. His armor looked far more sturdy and ornate than both versions of his comrades’. The horse hair decoration on the top of his helmet was horizontal instead of vertical. His shield bore neither the dog nor the sun symbol, but rather a very large, red upside down V on black background. And most of all, unlike all of his fellows his weapon was a sword. In fact, one with the same strange inward-curving design as the one Rie had just confiscated!

“There is no way out for you, save for surrendering your arms to the glorious army of the Hellenoi,” he continued vehemently. “If you do, we shall honor Zeus Olympus’ creed of forgiveness and hospitality and let you leave this place unharmed.”

His presence alone was daunting enough, not even accounting for the army behind him probably numbering to no less than several hundred. The killer was no Rie, however, and had quite a good way to fight back. Raising his bloody scythe, he taunted at the newcomers.

“Ha, more food for me,” he declared. “Think you some simple humans can defeat an Imperial Night Brother?”

“That we will see,” he answered.

Rie’s eyes then followed this leader as he stepped forward of the line and slashed his weapon in the air.

“Phalangitai, KATATACHOS MACHESTE!” he exclaimed, pointing at the foe with his weapon.


DF  Post #: 3
7/26/2010 3:32:08   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 3
The Maiden of War

“O-jou-sa-ma, o-jou-sa-ma, o-jou-s… KYAAAH!”

If whoever was speaking that line intended to wake Rie up, her conscious attempt had failed badly. Not even a sudden thunderclap could hope to snap her from her nap, let alone some soft-spoken, teasing, funny voice she had heard a thousand times. Violently shaking the bed didn’t help the owner of that voice much.

Said voice suddenly trailing off and promptly taken over by an unrestraint high-pitched scream as if coming out from a horror movie, however, was a different story entirely.

As if her life depended on it Rie sprang up, her eyes open at maximum angle, exposing their blood-red interior. Her eyebrows were raised high enough to completely disappear underneath her hair. Her mouth was gaping open, from which she breathed rapidly. Her concaving cheeks exposing her high cheekbones even further probably didn’t do her expression much justice. In brief, terror was written in block letter across her face.

The first thing she did upon breaking free from her nap was to turn her head all around the place, frantically checking her whereabouts. Within a few seconds, with feverish haste her eyes had performed a diligent scan of her immediate surrounding as if on Defcon One. Only when they stopped at the face of the person having just waked her up that her expression calmed down somewhat.

Exhaling quickly while blinking as fast as humanly possible, she stared at the newcomer. Maid outfit, an apron tied at her waist with a rather large frilly ribbon as was the one atop her head, and completed with a tray she had fortunately stacked aside at the table beforehand. Rie was no foreign to that setup. The fact that all female housemaids in the Ichimonji household were late teen to late twenties dressed in the French maid outfit probably spoke volumes about its master’s antics.

This one girl in front of her was perhaps one she was closest to among that army of fetish-y young ladies. She was the youngest of them all, a year younger than Rie herself and stood a couple of inches shorter than her mistress. She had neck-length hazelnut-colored hair, a pronouncedly heart-shaped face, slim nose, thin lips and a pair of lovely puppy eyes to go with. In a case of real life stranger than fiction, she bore the generically cute expression of moe characters whom basement dwelling otaku would love to collect. A mixed blessing at the very least.

Rie’s fear subsided as she stared at her faithful servant. The poor girl wasn’t quite as fortunate, her face displaying an odd sort of discomfort to top her fright just now, as if Rie’s fear was transmitted to her in her gaze.

The maid’s puzzled expression amused Rie enough to partially calm herself. Indeed Rie knew a couple of losers in school who would literally pay to see the scene before her. Overwhelmed by whatever terror in her mind, the servant girl looked even cuter than normally. Both her hands were withdrawn to cover her mouth, her eyes teary, her entire body shaking erratically.

“What’s the problem, Micchan?” Rie asked, feeling quite amused.

There was no answer, her jaws having been frozen solid. It was not until a minute had passed when she could snap herself from the trance to reply.

“O-ojou-sama,” she stammered, pointing at Rie’s right hand. “P-please, please put… put that… that thing down! It’s dangerous!”

Rie maintained her stare, lifting her eyebrows slightly higher. She didn’t remember having held anything before bed. Even if she had but forgotten, it probably wouldn’t have been more dangerous than a stuffed bunny, the likes of which lining up and around her queen-size bed. Until she realized that her right hand was much heavier and colder than it should have been. Slowly she reached her look for said hand.

Her reaction was pronouncedly more frightened than her handmaiden once she realized what she was unconsciously holding. It was not a scream that escaped her throat, but a high-pitched shriek way too popular with minor characters in slasher films before being gruesomely disposed. So dramatic was her cry that her maid was pushed back several steps.

It was that odd curved sword that started all this, in her hand, albeit sheathed. Just now, as she held it downward, the scabbard had fallen off, revealing its cold steel gleam. It was the sort of dreadful shine she would not want to remember at the moment.

“Ojou-sama, please be careful!” exclaimed the maid girl, dashing towards her mistress. “It’s sharp!”

She then proceeded to pull the blade from Rie’s grip, pick up the scabbard and reunite the two with a loud ching. Relieving her mistress of the weapon was not a difficult task, for at the moment Rie had lost but all of her touch. Only when the air-cutting sharp edge had been fully covered did she sigh of relief, lay it on the nearest table and bowed to her mistress.

“Ojou-sama,” she said, a lighthearted smile finally coming back to her lips as if to relax all the tension just now, “Next time, please refrain from bringing sharp object to bed! It is too dangerous!”

If it had been a normal day Rie would have denied on the spot. It was just not like her to admit having done anything wrong. But that day was different. The girl felt wrong and odd, both physically and mentally, as though half her brain had stopped working for no reason. She slumped down back on her bed, breathing out heavily.

“Are you alright, Ojou-sama?” the maid asked as she leaned towards Rie, reaching her hand for the upper portion of young mistress’ face.

“I… I am fine, Micchan,” she replied weakly. And that was about all the resistance she put up, before resting her head on the pillow for her servant to do what she pleased. The maid sat down next to her, hand planted on her forehead.


Misao Takanori was her name. Rie never knew how she came into the household, but she was clearly one of her first childhood friend, having played tag with her since preschool. That would mean Misao had been around for at least ten years now as a lowly servant, no more, no less. Nothing was known about her parents, her relative or anything connecting her with life outside the walls of the Ichimonji manor. It was generally accepted that she was an orphan that Rie’s father adopted some time in the past, but she wouldn’t buy that – it was too cliché a backstory to be real.

But there was no other better answer. In due time, Rie learnt to just take her presence for granted. Beside, having an additional person to hug whenever she had a bad dream was always welcome for Rie. Plus point for her having grown up to become quite the doll and all the more huggable.

“Ojou-sama, do you feel cold?”

A chill ran along Rie’s entire body as she nodded for an answer. It was official – she was not feeling well.

“Your temperature is a little too high,” Misao answered, pulling the blanket forth to cover Rie’s body. “Did you take a walk again last night?”

Rie’s memories about last night weren’t exactly clear. One thing she remembered, she did leave the mansion. How she came back, or what happened before that, or even how the blade ended up in her hand, she had no idea. It might have something to do with sharp steel, now that she thought of it, jut that she couldn’t recollect the detail at all.

“Sorry, Micchan,” she said, her left hand rested on her forehead. “I don’t think my head is too clear…”

Her voice turned for the soft, sweet and almost apologetic tone. Rie was rarely polite, but to the two people she was, little bad could be said about her demeanor. More than anyone else, Misao appreciated the honor. She responded by flashing a kind smile while gently patting her young mistress on the cheek.

“It’s alright, ojou-sama,” Misao reassured. “It looks like you’ve got a mild cold, nothing too serious.”

Then she stood up from the bed and returned to the task she originally came into the room for. She shuffled towards the table, picked up the food tray, and then scurrying it to the bedside, bowing to her mistress as she presented the food.

“Ojou-sama,” she said respectfully as would be expected from one of her status, “here is your breakfast as you ordered yesterday,” her tone shifted to one of genuine concern as she lowered her voice. “But since you are not well… would you like me to ask the chef to prepare something else?”

Rie half-heartedly glanced at the tray. To many eyes it was not just a breakfast, but a feast fit for a princess and a quality work of culinary art. A thin and delicate slab of grilled ribs cooked to golden brown perfection and served with seven kinds of herbs. A slice of bread so evenly toasted with sugar and honey the texture was smooth and flawless. Two omelets and bacon, arranged on the dish with plenty of vegetables to formed the cheery visage of a smiling clown. Even to the princess she was, Saturday breakfast had never failed to excite her.

Today was a different story. The only thing the normally delicious bright red dressing on top of the lamb rib succeeded in rousing was queasiness. She didn’t need to say a word to voice her objection, since the expression on her face had made it all too clear.

“So… maybe I’d try to find you something else, ojou-sama?” she said, retracting her arms, drawing the tray back.

Rie did not answer, a sign Misao translated as approval. She briskly backed out towards the door with the tray balancing between her hands, presumably to go on with her other duties.

“Umm… Micchan?”

Rie’s voice interrupted her pace the moment she was about to open the door and step outside. As if understanding what her lady’s concern was about, Misao turned back briefly, flashed a plucky smile at Rie, and spoke ever caringly.

“Don’t worry, ojou-sama,” she said. “Everything shall be okay, right?”

And then, swiftly and skillfully handling the tray as she glided through the doorway, Misao made herself scarce, leaving Rie alone in the room.

Everything shall be okay, so she spoke. Somehow Rie felt strangely objected to that innocent dismissal. It wasn’t because of her illness or dramatization thereof – she had never been the fittest lass in the suburb. Something was wrong, Rie had a feeling that way, leaving her anxious and uneasy for no discernible reason.

But a gut feeling might as well be just a gut feeling.
Lifting her sore body of the bed for a change, Rie shuffled towards the nearest window and drew the curtain. Having a room in the east wing meant that the morning’s golden sunshine was just a tug at the string away. Pulling the curtain was part of her routine that she never failed to observe. A little sunlight would lift the gloomy mood, she thought.

Except that there was no sunlight shining into the room that day. The weather was exceedingly poor, with storm clouds gathering all over the sky, blocking out any semblance of light. It hadn’t started raining yet, but from the looks of it, the sun wouldn’t come back any time soon. Disheartened, Rie slumped back to bed.

Maybe it was just her discomfort, but Rie thought Misao was taking way too long. For no reason her heart was beating faster with each passing minute, and the weather clearly didn’t help. She had her way of dealing with nervousness, though - TV.

Hers was a next-gen flat-screen plasma TV mounted on a rack dispensing from the ceiling, both purchased at a premium. The entire system was so suspended that she could comfortably watch her favorite pop idol singing and dancing while completely stretched on the bed. She didn’t know the detail, but as the old butler hinted, the screen alone was worth more than half a year’s worth of his salary. It was quite befitting a present for the Ichimonji daughter on her 16th birthday.

”When in doubt, watch TV,” she thought, reaching for the remote control at the table next to her bed and lazily pressed a random button. If her memory served her right, a mildly entertaining comedy was on the air at that time.

It wasn’t.

The first thing Rie saw as her screen flashed to life was an ominous black background, followed by the all-too-common announcer. It was a special report, having apparently overruled the ordinary program. Before Rie could ask herself what was happening, the subtitle on the lower portion of the screen had spilled the beans.

“Breaking News: Gruesome Killing in Tokyo – Homicide, or Cult Ritual?” it read.

Something clicked in Rie’s brain as she scanned the caption. But it was not until she was a minute into the report that such notice turned into a full-blown terror.

“… the first body, identified as Mr. Shinda Hikaru, a 45-year-old salaryman working at Edogawa Prefecture, was discovered at 8 am today with his head clean-cut off with sharp edge and all his blood drained. The murder weapon, a large, two-handed scythe modeled after Death’s scythe was found next to the second, yet unidentified body. This second body suffered from several dozen stabbing wounds over his torso, arms and legs. Police report suggested the most probable weapon for the second murder is a sharp spear, or several.”

Only now did her memory get refreshed, and the realization wasn’t pretty.

“Scythe? Spear? Scythe? Spear? Scythe? Spear? Scythe? Spear?”

Rie felt her entire body going numb as she uttered those words again and again as if had gone mad. She might as well have, judging from her expression alone. Her face lost all color, turning to a shade as pale as a ghost. Her mouth was wide open, her eyebrows raised beyond normalcy, her eyelids frozen in place as were her pupils. Her hands were shaking as they tried to cover her lips, her teeth uncontrollably nibbling on the nail inside her mouth. If previously her heart was beating a bit too fast, now it was galloping out of her control.

“According to Prefectorial Police Chief Fukuo Sanada, this double murder ‘reeks of cult involvement’. While Tokyo has yet to see any widespread cultic activities or religious sect, this is the most probable explanation as of now. ‘There are many unanswered questions,’ he said, ‘but we shall get to the bottom of this’.

Investigation is still under way and an official answer may take a week. In the meantime, we strongly advise against leaving your home after dark. If you do have to, plan your journey so as to avoid roads that may leave you vulnerable to attacks such as dark lanes, alleyways and streets with sparse traffic. If you have any information concerning the murders, please contact the authorities at…”

At that point Rie couldn’t afford to watch any more, her quivering hands hastily switched off the television. Such a simple task now required both hands to be done, one hand just to hold on to the unit. The terrible memory and the notion of how lucky she was didn’t really comfort Rie. On the contrary, it reduced her mentality to the sensitiveness and delicateness of a rose petal.

Now she remembered exactly how close she was to her demise. She was there, and she was within a hair of showing up on the screen that morning as casualties. That bloody scythe shown on-screen just now could have well drunken her blood, its cold gleam still dreaded her even now when she was at the safety of home. But exactly what saved her from certain death, she couldn’t remember. Neither could she explain how she managed to get back home after all that. Without whatever intervened, she could only fancy what sort of cruel demise would have befallen her.

She could not bear to think any further at this point, a surge of terror having overcome her. Throwing herself back on her bed, Rie buried her in the pillow while her entire body shivered violently, crumpling both the blanket and the bedsheet underneath her. The inside of her lovely pink pajama was thoroughly soaked in cold sweat.

”I… I don’t want to die yet,” her incoherent thoughts went, “Please… just… just go away!”

A thunderbolt across the clouded sky scattered what little remained of her mental integrity. Rie let out a scream – or what she supposed it was. Indeed, so shattered was her mentality at that moment that her throat had frozen solid, and what might have been a glass-breaking screech turned out to be a choked-out squeal no one could hear…


For a few seconds Rie did not know anything, see anything or feel anything. It was as if her entire body had shut down temporarily in response to her shocks. When she did finally regain the most rudimentary consciousness, though, all was not pretty. As her sight opened to the surrounding about her, the first thing she noted was a lack of anything. Complete darkness.

Rie was no stranger to a lack of light. No less could be expected from the girl who would sneak out of her homestead to take a stroll in the dead of night on a daily basis.

But the darkness before her was none of the sort she enjoyed and would lavish in. In this shadow she saw nothing at all. It was a completely blank space, populated perhaps only by herself. There was neither man nor animal nor discernible structure, just a neverending black tint stretching as far as she could see.

It was as if Rie had been thrown into the vacuum of space like she had seen in several sci-fi movies. Needless to say it was infinitely more frightening to witness it firsthand than to watch from behind the TV screen. No sooner had the analogy been completed than Rie began to panic, twisting and turning around, trying to catch anything remarkable, any pattern, any landmark. There was none within conceivable range.

Frantically Rie turned back and forth, right and left, up and down, her eyes opened as wide as she could. As she did so, her sanity was slipping away with every passing second. Her stretched pupils, her mouth rapidly breathing in and out, her bewildered expression… her consciousness looked as if it could come crashing down any moment now if she was to stay in that endless darkness.

Fortunately, her torment did not last long enough to completely destroy her sanity. There was a spark in the distance, a dot of light emerging from the heart of the darkness. Naturally it drew her attention instantaneously as a literal hope spot in the shadow. With nervous heart, Rie’s sight glued on the dot, as though grabbing it with her very eyes, fearing it would get away if she would just take her eyes off it for a blink.

Her hope was well placed. In a few moments, the dot grew into a patch, then a sphere of light. It expanded outwards with every passing second, dispersing the black shade as it went. Rie held her breath as she beheld the unfolding light. In no time, the shadow dispersed and Rie’s surrounding sprang to life like a roll of film beginning to play. Yet, hardly had Rie the time to rejoice, for the sort of things that were unveiling before her eyes after the darkness had subsided was nothing short of breathtaking.

There she stood in mid-air, many dozens feet above the ground. Frightened and disoriented, Rie swung her entire body backward on reflex, only to realize she was safely suspended in the air by some unseen force. She felt unnaturally light as she drifted back to upright position, having apparently lost all her weight for some reason. It was a notion as intriguing as it was awkward and frightening. At that point, Rie’s mind was seized by a balanced mixture of all three factors.

She did not have to waste much time to contemplate, however. A cloud of dust kicked up on the visible ground below her heralded maybe the most majestic sight she had beheld in her entire life, save for maybe the Hirano Live Concert she went to the previous month.

From the horizon, a row of soldiers, armed with spears three times as long as they were tall marched forward, kicking up copious amounts of dust as they marched. Then came another row, and another, and another, flooding across the land beneath her. Even from far above Rie could recognize the shining bronze and silver tints on their armor, greaves and helmets. It was these men who saved her life, however they did it.

When all of them had come into her sight, the entire group began to assemble into a formation of sort, several dozens men long and nearly a dozen deep. They seemed to be well prepared for war, their spears pointed upwards as though wanting to pierce the very sky. From above, the formation looked like a formidable bed of spike. Rie gulped at the newly formed analogy. She would not like to think what would happen if she were to accidentally fall down on that spiny bed. Any of their adversaries would be wise to think twice before confronting such a body of fine soldiers, even Rie knew that much.

The parade was yet to end. As the bronze-armored long pikemen were in their formation, from beyond another three columns of men and horses began to move into the scene. On the left of the pikemen, a horde of cavalrymen armed and armored to the teeth with shining plate armor, great helmets, fine swords and lances trotted forth. The horses they rode bore about as much armor as the men, making the whole combination looking like an impregnable tower of steel.

It did not take more than a second for Rie to realize who they were – Knights in shining armor, the kind often romanticized in certain manga and dating sims set in the medieval era. The thought of what sort of charming facades the thick helms concealed gave Rie the thrills, temporarily diverting her thoughts from the problem at hand for a second. What puzzled her the most was perhaps why they had to keep their ugly, unstylish helmet on all the time. Without those, she presumed, their heroic visages, their knightly smiles and their trimmed hair would have the lady-killing equivalence of a shirtless pop idol on parade.

Compared to the two first groups, the third column to enter view was significantly less glamorous. The first thing Rie saw as they marched into line with the first two was their oversize rectangular shields covering their entire torso, arms and the upper of their legs. The shields themselves were uniformly decorated with what appeared to be two pairs of eagle wings arranged so as to form an x-shape. As those shields lined up with one another, they formed a sort of curtain protecting their owners from everything from a hail of arrows to Rie’s curious look.

Rie could not see what kind of weapons they wielded, but they probably should be light and short enough. There was nothing really attractive in that column beyond all that, except for that as Rie saw it, the guy on the left side of the group with a wolf-fur headdress and holding a stick with an eagle statue on top looked rather cute.

The last column to come into position was perhaps the least glamorous of them all. Those were several rows of loosely packed men armed with but longbows and quivers, with no fancy armor or large shield except for the threadbare clothes on their backs. From a distance, they looked more like a rabble than an army, even more so when they lined up just next to those columns of their exceedingly well dressed and armored peers. The man leading them was perhaps the best dressed, and his silk tunic and fine leather boots were had nothing on the shining arms and armors of his allies.

But something about them told Rie they were nothing to be trifled with, a notion they were quick to demonstrate. At a wave of their leader’s arm, the entire contingent raised their bows, notched their arrows, pulled the bowstrings and released them in unison. The resulting hail of arrow turned the ground directly under her into a pincushion as hundreds of arrows pierced the ground. At this sight Rie could barely let out a gulp, thankful that she was not caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the last column had finished mobilizing, a variety of questions began to pop up in the unexpected spectator’s mind. Anyone who could amass such a formidable fighting force, she reckoned, must be a mighty person with more than his fair share of political power and influence. Who might that person be? For what purpose was such a force gathered? And more importantly and relevant, what was she doing there? And exactly what period in history was he in now? The questions remained unanswered when Rie found herself caught in the next abrupt scene change.

Suddenly the entire view before her eyes started to blur, rippled outwards, and then faded out to white. Now surrounding Rie was an endless stretch of white with no beginning and no end, no North or South, East or West, top or bottom. She was caught in the middle of that nothingness, seemingly floating.

It was slightly better than the initial darkness, but not by much. The disorientation in Rie didn’t take long to manifest into fright once more, and in time, panic. She looked around frantically searching for a way out, which there were none. She felt like screaming, but her throat had again been frozen in terror. Her tensed face displayed immense fear as she panted, futilely turning around. If she was to stay there any longer, she would likely turn mad…

“Milady, my apologies for the improper introduction.”

All of a sudden, a voice sounded from behind her, echoing all over the empty white sphere she was trapped in. The words were polite and harmless enough, but the resounding tone it was spoken in as well as that it came from seemingly nowhere and caught Rie when she was already quite unstable frightened her to no end. For a second Rie thought she was going to die of a heart attack as her chest failed to respond. It took her a couple of seconds to barely keep her heart under control, nervously turning to face the voice only to have it skip a beat again when she did face it.

There, occupying a portion of the white space about twice her size was a large, black silhouette, looming ominously over her. She was only able to make out it was human-shaped. Other vital details seemed to have eluded her; the unstable state of her mind did not help it at all. At the very least, she could suppose whatever it was, the shadowy figure meant no harm. She supposed.

“May I ask you what your name is, o maiden of war?” the silhouette continued in its thunderous voice.

“What… what are you?”

Those were the only words that could escape her lips at the moment’s panic, to which the shadow answered, slowly yet concisely.

“Demetrias Thermopylaios, at your service.”


DF  Post #: 4
7/26/2010 3:33:26   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 4
William and Demetrias

Monday had always been Rie’s unfavorite for as long as she had school to attend, which was to say, a little less than two third of her life. She had always taken every care to show her malcontent off for everyone to see. Neck bent, eyes glued on the ground, she would lug her school bag along as if it were a military-grade sandbag, never mind she never brought more than a couple of notebooks and maybe a single textbook.

To her school was no more than a menial chore she wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to do for her. Given her father’s vast wealth of both money and influence, her future was all but assured regardless of whether she was educated or not. If it wasn’t for her father’s demands she would never come within a hundred yard of books, notebooks and pens. She once told Aya with all those in tow she could buy off everything money could afford and even stuffs money wasn’t supposed to buy. She was not joking.

But that Monday was no run-of-the-mill. Rie came to school with the same Monday sleepy, tired and bored face she would ordinarily display, but for an entirely different reason.

She arrived about two hours before the first bell, too anxious to sleep as much as she would normally like. As she approached the school gate, her eyes lit up upon catching the first glimpse of the solitary, petite figure standing in wait. The mass of black hair fluttering in the light morning breeze was all what it take for her to recognize its owner. Aya was ever the early bird, such that the ridiculous request Rie just asked of her was met impeccably.

Rie took a deep breath to drown out her surge of nervousness. All at once she felt like springing forth, grabbing and embracing that figure if only to find solace for the terror that had befallen her in the mere past two days. Somehow she managed to hold herself back, instead returning to the normal pace as she approached the silhouette.

“A… A-chan,” she called out, her voice shivering.

The waiting figure did not wait for any other signal of distress from Rie. Immediately she walked forth towards Rie at a brisk pace, and when she was within an arm’s reach from her, reached out for her hands. Her eyes fixed on Rie’s, her face displaying an utmost degree of anxiety as she stared at her friend’s face.

“What’s wrong, Rie-chan?” she said as their hands and eyes connected.

Her gesture of utmost care and comfort didn’t really help Rie’s mental state much, however. The troubled girl’s eyes were watery and bloodshot. She apparently had cried more than she should have the previous night for whatever reason. And lost slept over it, if the black marks under her lower eyelashes were any indication.

“You really had me worried half to death!” Aya said, trying to break from the current tight spot. “Calling me in the middle of the night, you made me think something really bad had happened to you!”

“A-chan, you may not believe me,” Rie tried to speak clearly, miserably failing has her tone was bogged down in tears and fright, “but that something did happen.”

“Really?” Aya’s eyes stretched open as she looked at Rie in disbelief.

“I’m serious!” Rie yelled as she broke her hands free from Aya’s grasp, only to swing them behind her back and clenched her smaller friend in a tight embrace. Her quick move was so sudden and violent Aya could not react to it at all. And then she began to cry out loud as if she had never been allowed to before.

Aya was no foreigner to Rie crying. Over the past few years, ever since she knew Rie, the smaller yet more mature girl’s shoulder had known many a tear from her friend. Most usually it would be for some petty or insignificant, as when her father gave her a birthday present she did not like. Or when that cute boy in the next class turned her down for no apparent reason. Or when the History teacher gave her a disciplinary note for not doing the homework, which she apparently had flunked in the first place. For all those cases Aya’s common solution was just to let Rie cry herself to sleep, so she would infallibly wake up an hour or two later happier.

But something told her whatever was distressing Rie this time was no trifling matters. For all she knew she was woken up at two in the morning by Rie’s phone call, telling Aya to meet her at the school gate by six the next day. So far as she knew, Rie was known for many odd or bad habits, but abusing her trust was not one of them.

“Alright, alright, I hear you, Rie-chan,” gently she said, patting her friend on the back as they embraced. “What’s the deal this time?”

“It’s… it’s horrible!” Rie sobbed. “You probably wouldn’t… but I’ll tell you everything… just please tell me what I should do!”


The next thing Rie knew was the chiming bell signifying the end of school. And she was not in her classroom when that happened as per normal. Instead, she was comfortably wrapped in a snug blanket on a warm bed. A thin curtain surrounded it and the little table on its left, separating her from the rest of the world. On her left the curtain was not completely closed, leaving a small gap enough for her to look outside her little enclosed cubicle.

Rie blinked rapidly as she regained her touch, and then turned around the place trying to find out her own whereabouts. She didn’t even have to try - The smell of cheap household antiseptic filled the air, giving away her location on the spot. Everyone knew only the school’s medical clinic could have such a stereotypical scent about it. Personally the strong, piercing smell typical of cleanliness and germlessness was none of Rie’s favorite, but she had had to endure worse.

There were nobody around her, though she could expect that much. The school nurse rarely stayed in the clinic unless there was an absolute emergency. Not that there had ever been any emergency save for a cut or bruise since Rie’s first day. It was a high school, not a boxing ring or a barrack.

Understandably to Rie the clinic would have remained the one room in the entire school complex she would never set a foot into throughout her life as a student. She couldn’t help but look around as attentively as she could, thoroughly intrigued. There might as well be no need to, however. So far as she saw it through the gap, the room was nothing too special except for the distinct smell and the various health poster hung all over the walls.

If there was anything remarkable about the place, that would be its five-star grade hygienic quality. The floor was squeaky clean despite the wet weather. Not one bit of dust could be seen at any given spot in the entire room. The other bed at the opposite corner of the room was unoccupied, yet the bedsheet and blanket was already neatly made, ready upon demand. Indeed the resident nurse could not be criticized when it came to cleanliness. For once Rie was thankful, for the last thing her dull headache would need was a messy room.

The question was how she ended up in the clinic in the first place. All she could make out from what fragmented memory of the early morning she could remember was running to school before daybreak and meeting Aya a little earlier than six. And then they talked for a while about some extremely important issued – she could hardly remember what exactly they discussed, unfortunately.

What happened after that was more or less obscured by her physical pain. The ceiling swirled in her barely open eyes. The pain would worsen as she tried to think any further along those lines. Tightly Rie clutched the sides of her forehead with both palms, pressing as hard as she could, as if trying to squash her physical pain and whatever caose underlying it. Such crude implement worked as well as it could, which was to say, not at all.

Maybe all such pain was just the physical manifestation of her unstable mental state. So far as she could recollect, she had spent the better of the last two days in bed. And yet she never really rested, her unconsciousness plagued by nightmares she didn’t even remember. Darkness and the fetid stench of blood made up most of them, at a time when she needed no reminder of what had happened that late night.

Rie closed her eyes again, trying to brave through the dull ache. If the pain came alone she could have managed, but the haunting aftershock of what terror she had undergone cut her no slack. It so appeared that the moment she regained consciousness, her nightmares, or what she could remember of it, would invariably return to terrorize her again.

There was, however, one fragment of her memory that was neither fearsome nor frightening. It was more like a bright spot of sort, a ray of hope amidst the seemingly endless nightmares of the past two days.

“Demetrias… Thermopylaios?” Rie repeated that which she was told in her dreams, uncertain what to make of such a foreign name.

Fortunately for Rie, she did not have to stay tormented and alone for long. At least, not alone. Barely had she managed to sit up when a light knock at the ward’s door alerted her to the presence of a visitor. On reflex she grabbed the edge of her blanket and cowered in a fetal position as she called out in response.

“Who’s there?” she asked, not at all able to hide the confusion and fright in her shivering voice.

“May I enter, Ichimonji-san?”

The voice that answered was both polite and foreign to Rie’s ears. The speaker certainly had an excellent grasp of the Japanese language, but his Anglo-Saxon tone of accent gave him away on the spot. There was only one guy in the entire school who possessed that unique mix, Rie thought.

“I guess so, professor,” she answered, conjuring the most mischievous and teasing voice she could summon, given all her current issues.

“The name is William Fastolf, Ichimonji-san,” the newcomer politely corrected as he pushed the door open and stepped in, not at all getting her hint.

There he stood, the closest in real life Rie could get to seeing a stereotypical gentleman. An English boy he was, characterized by a pair of cute glasses, carefree expressions and exceeding courtesy and good manners. His brown hair was never styled properly, forming a crow’s nest of sort on the top of his head. Everything about him screamed a professional thinker and researcher who would probably read more difficult books in a day than Rie would in a year.

The boy’s uniform suited him rather well, judging from his constitution. Anyone would say William was a little smaller than other Englishmen, and would not be more than a couple inches taller than Rie when both stood upright. If not from his fair complexion few could think him an Englishman, much less a Dane famous for berserk axe-wielding men of muscles.

What drew Rie’s attention more than his very presence already did was what he was holding. He approached her with a couple of flowers, to which she opened her eyes wide in bewilderment. He flashed a smile as he produced them towards her.

“This is for you, Ichimonji-san,” he said.

Rie’s heart jumped when she recognized the kind of flowers they were. They were two red roses, fresh and aromatic, nicely wrapped in a little bouquet, and every girl would jump at the most probable conclusion at the sight of such a gift. So shocked she was that temporarily the previous terror in her mind just ebbed away as she stared at her visitor and his bouquet.

“W… What are you getting at?” she stammered, her cheeks flashing red quickly as she spoke. “You… We… I never said we’ve gone that far!”

“Huh?” William scratched his head innocently. “I just wanted to apologise to you for offending you the other day and wish you would get well soon.”

“… Eh?”

The tone of Rie’s reply was ambiguous at best. It sounded like a cry of astonishment and relief as well as mild disappointment. From her expression, however, she seemed more disappointed than she was relieved.

“Well, let me say that I’m sorry for what I told you earlier,” William went back on his agenda, oblivious to Rie’s attitude. “If I displeased you in any way, I’d like to beg your forgiveness.”

As he spoke, he laid the little bouquet on the table at her side. In response, Rie let out a nod of appreciation, feeling well flattered.

If there was a mirror right then and there, she would have realized that she looked nothing like the grumpy, dramatic girl who liked to find faults with everything she often ended up as in the eyes of everybody. The tensed expressions on her face seconds before had softened considerably, leaving behind her originally childlike, heart-shaped features. Her eyes were closed, such that the intimidating sharpness of their shape and the shrewd gaze of her pupils disappeared as though they were never there in the first place. Her mouth was curved in a full smile, as genuinely gentle and grateful as was expected from a traditional Yamato Nadeshiko.

“Thank you very much, Fastolf-san,” she said, her tone abnormally sweet and feminine.

Indeed any boy who elected to stay away from her would probably bang his head against the wall upon realizing how much more beautiful, cute and charming Rie would be once she dropped her ****y facade. Which she could do with especial ease if she wanted to. Unfortunately for her, William did not seem to be interested in her that way at all.

“The class rep said you were quite unwell of late,” he continued without changing his expression. “But worry not. Take heart, take your medication and take plenty of rest, and you’d recover fine…”

“Wait,” interrupted Rie, instantly showing her displeasure. “Did you say Aya send you here?”

“Indeed she did ask me to see you,” concurred William. “She said you were… depressed, and that I might be the reason. If it was so, I’d like to offer my deepest apologies.”

And then the cute image of Rie Ichimonji shattered in short notice. Her mouth folded back into an angry curve. Her eyebrows lifted, showing as much disdain as she could muster on the spot. Her eyes flared as they gazed upon the offending Englishman, bearing with them quite a bit of hostility. And as if her sudden mood swing was not obvious enough, her voice reverted to its usual sour and acerbic tone.

“You know, perhaps you are right,” Rie answered grumpily. “Don’t just keep standing there apologizing, would you? It annoys me to hell and back!”

Unlike most other boys Rie had known, however, William did not even flinch at her display of shrewdness. On the contrary, he did not even appear to change his expression. All he did in response to her open hostility was but a smile and another couple of polite words.

“Then I suppose I should beg my leave now,” he said calmly. “I hope you’d get well soon, and if there’s anything you need me to help you with, please feel free to ask.”

Then he bowed to her, turned back and headed for the door. When she saw his unexpected solution to her tantrum, Rie’s annoyance quickly transformed into a specific form of desperation. She certainly was not part of his world, and he had made it rather clear through his action that he did not have any intention of welcoming her to it. Rie’s he-annoyed-her-because-he-liked-her perception of William’s behavior now seemed to be a wishful thinking as far from the truth as could be.

Next thing she knew, Rie blurted out the latest thing in her mind.

“Wait!” she yelled, trying to anchor him back.

She succeeded. The English boy halted and turned back to Rie, his face still showing the sort of calmness and compassion that Rie was led to feel she might not really deserve. Thinking so, her face again flared red, this time from pure embarrassment.

“Yes?” William said. “Is there anything I can help you?”

“Umm…” Rie hesitated a moment before continuing, her voice again feminine, if only a little bashful. “Can I ask you something?”

“Please, go ahead,” he answered. “If I can, I will do my best.”

“You said you’ve read a lot about history, didn’t you?” she continued.

“I can say so, yes,” William nodded, his tone showing deliberate humility. “But I am not really an educated historian, so my knowledge may be biased at best.”

“That’ll do fine,” Rie went on, increasingly excited with each word she said. “Does the name Demetrias Thermopylaios ring you any bell?”

It was a moment of quick thinking on her part. For one thing, she needed an answer. And for the other, if such question could draw her and William closer, it might well be worth it.

The English boy’s response, though, was a little too abrupt and fervent for her.


All at once William dropped his polite and restraint façade. His eyes rolled in what could be most accurately described as professional interest. His mouth opened in both astonishment and joy. All his facial muscles had tensed, changing his previously dull and rather uninteresting expression into an uplifted, lively and excited one. With that sudden change in attitude he sprang back to Rie’s bed side, flashing a broad smile to accompany him.

“Did you say ‘Demetrias Thermopylaios’ by any chance?” he asked hastily.

Even while Rie was expecting something along those lines, William’s reaction was sudden and violent enough to send her a good bit of a fright.

“Uh… yes?” she answered, for want of how to better reply.

And then his hands descended upon hers while his gaze fixed upon her face. All the while his broad smile never faded, as if he had finally found something precious he had been searching for all his life. At that moment they so resembled a couple proposing their love that the girl jumped to the most obvious conclusion.

“N… No… Not here!” she said while her whole body was shivering. “People may see us!”

Whatever scenario her imaginative mind was conjuring was clearly not on his agenda. Barely had she finished her rather weak opposition when William liberated her hands, stood up straight while still maintaining eye contact.

“Ahem… Sorry for my overreaction,” William said, clearing his throat to show is innocence. “I was just too astonished and overjoyed, having found another fellow Greece enthusiast sitting right here next to me, thousands of miles from the nearest place I can expect to find one!”

“Eh, sorry?” Rie replied, more or less confused by the turn of events. “Fellow Greece enthusiast? What are you talking about?”

William seemed to have conveniently ignored Rie’s confusion and went on with his tirade.

“Now, no doubt you have heard about Pyrrhos Aiakides, the great warrior-king of Epeiros and his war with Rome and the Antigonid Makedonian,” he said quickly and with such enthusiast Rie had never seen in anyone before. “Perhaps you have known of how well his decision of going to war with two of the greatest powers in the Mediterranean at that time ended. I’d love to share a cup of tea or two with you over your opinion of Pyrrhos and how it should have been done, if you’d like.”

“Well, no,” Rie stammered, due to no small part her complete ignorance about the topic being discussed. “I mean… yes… no, I mean… perhaps?”

“But you wish to know about Demetrias Thermopylaios, don’t you?” William continued, completely disregarding her incoherent statement. “I admit it is quite difficult even for us history enthusiasts to find any reliable document on this legendary Makedonian figure. Suffice to say what we do know about him has been well shrouded in mystery and colored by legends to be of any academic value.”

“So… this Demetrias is real?” Rie asked.

“Depends on your definition of ‘real’,” William answered. “As far as I know, there did exist a 3rd century BC minor figure among the Antigonid Dynasty administration so named. Supposedly, he died in battle during the Epeirote siege of Pella in 272 BC. But…”

“But what?” Rie raised her voice in anticipation.

“He may or may not be the same person mentioned in the legends circulated in Northern Greece even until today,” William said. “The legends were rather fancy and of doubtful reliability. It is said that this Demetrias Thermopylaios was a Somatophylax of the Antigonid governor of Pella who also doubled as a friend of Pyrrhos, the leader of the invading Epeirote army. When the city fell, he gave himself up to his old friend asking for a quick death. And then some.”

Rie did not say anything, but from the look of her face, it seemed she understood too little of what William was saying to properly reply.

“Wait a second, could you slow down a little bit there?” she protested. “So you said this guy lost the battle and got killed, didn’t you?”

“Well, not so much ‘killed’ as ‘asked to be put to death to preserve his honor’,” corrected William. “Which was odd – according to legends the man was not even Makedon to begin with, ethnicity speaking. His father and grandfather were Spartans, for the record. And given his fame Pyrrhos would have been more than glad to have someone like him on his side.”

“Sounds hopelessly Lawful Stupid isn’t he?” giggled Rie.

“This coming from a fine Japanese young lady?” William asked back, a little surprised.

“Oh please,” Rie sneered amusedly. “I am no samurai. Neither is A-chan. Nor ninety-nine percent of all the boys in this whole city. Your Western media is quite misleading, don’t you see?”

“And so I stand corrected,” William laughed. “I learn something new everyday.”

“Okay, so there was this man who apparently botched the defense of his city, let the enemy break in, and decided to go out in a blaze of glory,” Rie returned to the topic and commented. “What’s so special about him?”

“To be fair, he wasn’t to be blamed for the fall of Pella,” William said. “Reliable sources suggest that a particular Alexandros Antigonos in charge of the defense ordered his Companion Cavalry to sally out and charge the Epeirote elephants head-on. It ended quite predictably, which is to say, SQUISH!”

The word ‘squish’ was uttered at the same time William rammed his left fist into his open right palm.

“Oh, wow,” Rie burst out laughing, not at the obvious stupidity, but at the way William described it, before asking. “And what of Demetrias again?”

“Oh yes,” William went on. “The way he requested his death sentence was plain odd. He supposedly asked to be cremated and his ash mixed with molten steel to be forged into a sword for Pyrrhos’ personal use. The Sword of Pyrrhos.”

“Wait, what?” Rie jerked, apparently appalled by the visual image.

“It seemed that he wished to posthumously follow Pyrrhos into battle and witness his victories firsthand. There was no better way to accomplish this, from a superstitious point of view,” explained William. “No further reason was given, or rather, jotted down in legends, unfortunately.”

“And then?” Rie asked, completely thrilled.

“Well, you know how well Pyrrhos’ adventures ended – a neck-breaking brick thrown at him by an Argus housewife,” William said. “An ignoble and petty end to a noble and great dream.”

“That’s it?” Rie rolled her eyes in disappointment at the anticlimax.

“That’s the end of Pyrrhos, not his sword,” William shook his head. “This is also where legends begin to be inconsistent with one another. One thing was in common though. The Sword of Pyrrhos had changed many hands since Pyrrhos’ demise. Its last known wielder was none other than the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar himself.”

“Wasn’t that two thousand years ago?” Rie asked with reasonable bewilderment. “Where is it now?”

“Nobody knows,” William shrugged. “It was then stolen from Augustus’ tomb by some nameless graverobbers who never comprehended its true value. And until today it remains at large, though I bet if it were found it would be worth a fortune.”

“What a pity…” Rie blurted.

She could never finish her sentence, for a sudden train of association happened to run across her mind at that very moment.

“Wait a second, Fastolf-san,” she asked quickly, her eyes opened wide in great urgency. “Do you know what the blade looked like?”

“As legends had it, it was a kopis. You know, a long blade with an outward-curving blade that… Are you alright, Ichimonji-san? Hello? Hello?”

William’s question went unanswered. Rie was completely dumb-struck and frozen in terror, her face white as a sheet.


DF  Post #: 5
7/26/2010 3:34:52   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 5
Thomas Canton and the Cornwallis

“Please take care of her. Thank you very much!”

Aya said to the Ichimonji household gatekeeper as she handed him his near-comatose young mistress, not forgetting to politely bow before parting. She couldn’t hide her intense anxiety even as she turned away, leaving the Ichimonji servants to their own devices.

Now she was convinced that Rie was extremely unwell. If any doubt about that still remained after they met that morning, it was thoroughly dispersed once she witnessed her friend’s condition in the infirmary with her own eyes. Pale, almost lifeless features, eyes tightly shut, erratic breathing… by the time the nurse alerted Aya, Rie was barely conscious. Either she was sick enough to be hospitalized, or had been given the fright of her life multiple times. Or both.

It might have something to do with the story she told her earlier, Aya thought.

“Are you alright, Hanamichi-san?”

The strong Anglo-Japanese accent sounding beside her threw her off her train of thought. William Fastolf’s voice was rather hard for a native speaker not to laugh at, for despite his near-perfect grammar and syntax his accent could not sound any less Japanese than it already was.

Still, his flawed voice managed to convey his emotion well. From the way he sounded, he probably was as worried as she was.

“Ah, Fastolf-san,” Aya replied, trying to stretch a smile. “I think so.”

Then she turned to look at the English boy in the face. They were still striding together, side-by-side, along one of those less traveled and populated streets of suburban Tokyo. Two thoroughly unrelated souls on two sides of the globe, now in each other’s company, associated by a scholarship, a close friend and everything in between. It was a weird situation both of them had gotten into, Aya thought.

“Again, thank you for your help,” she said. “Not many people would care enough about Rie to even bother what is wrong with her, much less lending me a helping hand to bring her home.”

“Including her own servants?” William asked back, puzzled. “She is even wealthier than she appears at first, isn’t she? That mansion of hers is about the same size as that of some of our nation’s leading politicians and nobles!”

“Those don’t count,” Aya shook her head. “What can I say… poor Rie-chan has a very flawed opinion about her servants. Says she doesn’t want them to pity her. Long story short, she would not have them come help her, whatever the circumstance.”

“I see,” William nodded. “I learn something new everyday.”

“Please forgive her if she annoyed you in any way,” Aya went on, looking at William sincerely. “Though, to be honest, after all these years I don’t think I have known her as much as I claim to.”

“Annoyed? No, not quite. She is an interesting young lady, for one,” William agreed, a glint of perplexity flared across his features for a second. “Interesting yet disturbed – is it just me or is she beginning to act this way very recently?”

“Very recently?” Aya raised her eyebrows cautiously, as though William had struck a clue she would rather not disclose. “Just how recently are you hinting?”

“No later than last weekend,” observed William. “Last Friday she was still rather active, I presume.”

When William said ‘active’, what he meant was probably ‘making lots of noise, flunking class assignment and texting in the presence of the teacher, and throwing a hissy fit at the end for absolutely no reason at all’. Which Aya knew was all too typical of Rie. It was only from that morning that she began to act atypically.

“Seems that way,” she nodded. “Ever since she got her hand on that old piece of junk metal…”

“Junk metal?” William asked back without second thoughts.

So sudden and aggressive was William’s question that Aya was thoroughly startled, her heart almost missing a beat. And when she got back to look at him more closely, William’s eyes were fixed on her face without a blink. They flared at her with a sort of hungry interest that made Nishiyama’s charming gaze when he asked her out last year pale in comparison. For the brief second she noticed that, she was not sure whether she should be abashed, afraid or flattered in response.

“And what sort of junk metal are we talking about here? Huh?” he repeated, his voice dictating an exponentially increasing curiosity, until it climaxed in a crescendo before leveling out again. “Wait a second, let me guess… did it resemble a sword or any other form of long blade? About twenty five to thirty inches long? With a slightly outward-curving edge, even? And most of all, probably old and rusty?”

At this point Aya was more or less mortified by the strangely accurate description. She stared at William as though he was some sort of strange being, and then asked with a somewhat shivering tone, dropping her usually sweet and polite appearance.

“How did… did you know?” she asked hastily and with all due bewilderment and fright. “Did… did you stalk Rie-chan or something?”

“Stalk? No, I’m afraid not,” William answered, his voice now returning to normalcy. “I just happened to make an educated guess based on what she told me earlier.”

“And what did you get?” Aya immediately asked, her expressions had anxiety and curiosity written all over it.

“I am pretty sure she is in possession of an ancient Hellenic artifact supposedly lost over the past two thousand years, by one means or another,” he replied.

At this moment Aya’s constant footsteps on the pavement over the past minutes came to a complete halt. She stood there, hands clutching her handbag while shivering a little in a combination of excitement, fright, curiosity and anxiety. A health sprinkle of disbelief and skepticism spiced her expression as she stared at William just as rigorously as he did a few seconds prior.

“You mean like those treasures of the Greek gods mentioned in mythologies?” Aya asked. “They exist?”

“No, not at all,” William replied. “If my guess is correct, hers is a weapon left behind by Pyrrhos Aiakides the king of Epeiros, the Sword of Pyrrhos.”

“Py… what?” Aya felt her tongue twisting as she tried to repeat the name William just mentioned. “Just who are you talking about?”

“Pyrrhos, Pyu-ro-o-su,” William repeated, clearly pronouncing each syllable. “He was the king of Epeiros in the early 3rd century BC.”

“Py… pyu.. ro… ah, screw it,” Aya tried, and again failed to get it right, growing rightfully exasperated. “Seriously, what kind of name is that?”

“Well, it’s Greek, for one thing, and archaic, for the other,” William said. “That the star of the class, respected by most for her extensive knowledge and flawless academic results, does not even know about this person further cemented my assumption.”

“How can you conclude so certainly?” Aya asked back, her eyeballs now threatening to pop out of their sockets and break through her thick glasses.

“Because Ichimonji-san asked me about a certain Demetrias Thermopylaios of Pella, the mythmaker for this particular artifact, an otherwise obscure persona not even mentioned in most mainstream works of history. I don’t even know how she got that name, now that I think about it,” theorized William. “But just think about it – having known her personally, Hanamichi-san, how likely would it be that she knows something you don’t?”

One thing Aya knew, he had struck an uncomfortable note to her, which she clearly showed. Her mouth closed tight while her forehead wrinkled in a grimace. Her pupils looked like it was burning and her jaws clenched. As she racked her brain, there was only reason to justify this look of displeasure.

“Well, you do have a point there, Fastolf-san,” she finally said, relaxing her features. “The only things I’d expect her to know more than me are fashion and pop music.”

And then, completely ignoring Aya, William proceeded to snap his finger in revelation.

“On second thoughts, maybe that is why she was so… disgusted after I told her the tale behind its creation,” he said quickly. “Long story short, there were massacre, execution, cremation and arguably inappropriate disposal of funeral ash in between. I admit, even I would be queasy holding something with such a rich history.”

“That’s what you told her?” Aya resumed staring at him, a glint of displeasure sparked in her gaze. “Rie-chan isn’t the most stable-stomached girl on the block, you know.”

“I was just saying what I know,” he asserted. “But if I did anything wrong, my apologies.”

There was a brief pause as the two figures resumed their walk forward. For a moment, there was silence between them aside from the rhythmic footsteps, if only drowned out from time to time by the occasional late afternoon traffic. All the while, Aya was keeping her head down, her chin propped up by her left palm, brainstorming.

“Maybe you’re right,” she finally said. “If what you said is true, then Rie-chan has to know about it. Did you tell her what you know yet?”

“No,” William shook his head. “She looked like she was going to faint before I could formalize my theory. And you know the rest.”

“By the way,” Aya looked straight into his eyes, her own filled with intrigue as she asked, “Suppose you are right, what shall we do?”

“The most logical conclusion is to have her submit this artifact to the local authority,” William said. “This weapon is worth many millions. That aside, from a historian or archaeologist’s perspective the Sword of Pyrrhos is priceless. Just think about it, how often would we run across an artifact from that age, belonging to such a famous person?”

“That may be so, but…”

“Hello, beautiful,” a voice suddenly sounded from behind the duo, cutting Aya off in mid sentence. “Care for a round at the alehouse?”

It was a thick and abnormally loud voice by modern standard, so to speak. So abrupt was this new voice to break into the conversation that both William and Aya were stunned. Confused, their gazes slowly turned upon each other, before both about-faced in unison.

As soon as Aya caught a glimpse of her surrounding, her face went as white as a sheet. In her life, never before had she been so utterly besieged by so many foreigners. Not counting William, the crowd around her numbered to no less than a dozen, all with that distinctive Anglo-Saxon tone of hair, skin and constitution. And unlike her friend William, so muscular and large they were that Aya felt immensely threatened just by their presence.

Aya took a large gulp of air trying to calm herself down, and then attempted to probe her current situation. The crowd around her was comprised of youths no younger than twenty and no older than thirty, judging from their complexion and general features. Their clothes were nothing odd. Most wore blue or black jeans and baggy shirts, which weren’t too out of fashion in their own rights. They could have easily passed for a youth gathering out for games, shopping and maybe picking up some chicks. Aya would see the likes of them patrolling the streets of Tokyo in droves those days.

Their demeanor, however, gave that clever disguise away on the spot. There was an air of military-grade discipline and army professionalism in their feel. The group was neatly aligned in two lines behind the tallest and loudest of them all – in fact, the one who had just barged into Aya and William’s conversation. When he spoke, they stood silent yet ready for any order he would give on a whim. If they were indeed a group of youngster, they were not the usual kind. And if they were not, she couldn’t help but wonder, what on earth could they be?

That aside, the young girl couldn’t help but feel a little light on her feet as her eyes reached the face of the group leader. He was clearly gorgeous in a macho, badass kind of way. Tall, with well-tanned skin and stocky frame, he looked like he had just walked out from several years’ worth of beach gym. His hair was dark brown like well-baked bread crust, left hanging loose in the light breeze. Over his back was a presumably custom-made skateboard of abnormal length and thickness. A skating enthusiast, and a wealthy one at that, she thought.

His charm was nigh irresistible, or would have been irresistible had Aya not been a girl with a particular, grudging disdain for her hormones. If she were like any other girl she knew, Rie included, she’d be staring at this handsome, manly foreigner with starry eyes now. In the end, she was standing there, trying not to look at him, but otherwise stunned.

“And what shall it be, lady?” the group’s leader said, flashing a flirtatious smile at her, as if she wasn’t confused, dizzy and dreamy enough. “Shall I take that as a yes?”

Aya’s dignity gave her a slap across her face at this point. For one thing, she was not all that desperate for a boy – if she were, Nishiyama Ichidan-kun would have made for a more than ideal match. For the other, she was not that kind of international-minded people who would not feel uncomfortable speaking with a foreigner. She replied by trying straightening her act up. Somewhat. And looking to William for a solution.

“Eh… no, sorry,” she stammered, all eyes on her road companion. “I… I am taken, see?”

”Please, Fastolf-san, please!” she chanted in her head as she stared at him without a blink. “Can’t you act as if you’re just a little jealous?”

Her English companion, however, didn’t seem to be seeing what she was seeing. All he did was to stare at the leader, then his group, with the kind of scholarly interest he had displayed in the last history period – the one when he showered Aoyama-sensei with so many tough questions he had to call class off early to avoid.

At long last he opened his mouth, but to say a remark she never expected. In his mother tongue, no less.

“Long oaken Welsh longbows. Quivers full of well-fletched arrows. Red gambesons and leather surcoats bearing the Yorkist rose,” he recited in his original English tone of voice that Aya could barely keep up with. “Last but not least, this thick Southern accent. Do you happen to be a group of fellow historical reenactment enthusiasts from my hometown by any chance?”

Not understanding much of what he said, nevertheless Aya knew he had relieved her. The next thing she knew, it was the handsome foreigner’s turn to stand stunned. The ugly news was her relief wouldn’t last.

“Wait,” he answered in English, his voice not at all concealing either his accent or his bewilderment. “You… you can see our outfits?”

“Of course I could,” William rolled his eyes. “This isn’t historical reenactment no more, this is art!”

Had it not been for a sudden tug followed by the warm feeling of a petite body pressed behind him, William could have gone on and on about how he admired the perfection of the suits of clothing. Turning his neck backward in full swing, he realized Aya had taken shelter behind his back while he was fixed upon the newcomers’ costumes.

“Umm… what is going on here again, Fastolf-san?” she said, thoroughly confused.

“Can’t you see, Aya?” he hastily asked her, his face having enthusiasm written all over it. “The bows? The arrows? The incredibly historically accurate suits of 15th century mercenary company outfits? These people are totally deserving of every applause a history enthusiast can think of!”

“What are you talking about? They are perfectly normal gaiji… I mean, people!” Aya gasped in exasperation. “Is this a joke or something?”

A spine-chilling stare from the row of strangers came just in time to silence Aya’s sanity check. And reminded her that whatever they had gotten into was far more serious than it seemed at first sight.

“This doesn’t look too good, does it?” the tall and handsome stranger remarked, his voice still cheerful, yet with a strangely grim after-tone.

“What do you mean?” William asked back in astonishment. “I said so in pure admiration. Whoever made your costumes must be extremely well-educated in the relevant era and possessing impeccable craft!”

Contrary to his good intention, the entire row of men behind their handsome leader turned to one another in confusion, before staring back at William with a fair measure of hostility. One of them, the second tallest yet most well-built, stepped forward and faced his leader, trying to speak with him with a voice as low as he could.

Unfortunately, his lowest voice was still loud enough for everyone half a dozen yards away to hear what he said loud and clear.

“Captain, it appears our cover is blown,” he said urgently. “What shall we do?”

“Seems that way,” he said, nodding. “Or rather, blown only to this… boy. The young beauty doesn’t see through our cover, it appears.”

“Then,” his subordinate said aggressively, cracking his fist as he spoke, “should we… deal with him accordingly?”

The deathly cold glance he threw at William in mid-sentence was menacing enough without context. Just from that expression alone Aya was already shaking in fear.

“Err… Fastolf-san?” she tugged at William’s sleeve. “Who… what are they? What… are they going to do to us?”

The look on William’s face suggested that he was as oblivious as she was. Unlike her, however, he was stable enough to still glance at her and flashed that ever-confident face.

“Keep calm, Hanamichi-san,” he replied, still maintaining eye contact with the leader of the group. “Remember, we are still on the street only a short walk from the nearest junction and local traffic. Any odd move and it’s their loss.”

Fortunately, the group leader appeared to be much more peaceable than his fellow men. Even more fortunately for Aya, he was more fluent in Japanese than she was in English. He cleared his throat, then glanced once at Aya and William, and then spoke, albeit in the same thick and heavy Anglican Japanese accent as William’s.

“Friends, just relax,” he said, waving his hand to signal his overzealous companion to get back in line. “Please forgive my friend Jonathan here – he’s a very, shall I say, dedicated person for as long as I knew him.”

“We aren’t going to until you tell us who you are!” Aya shrieked, pressing her form even more closely against William’s back.

“Well, first thing first,” he said, as if not paying attention to Aya’s protest. “Do you happen to know someone by the name Rie Ichimonji?”

“Why must we tell you?” Aya stressed. “I don’t trust you, and I don’t even care to!”

“If you say no,” he said calmly, “we’ll pretend we’ve never met. You go your way and we go ours, and hopefully we won’t bump upon one another again. But if you say yes,” he heightened his tone to show his emphasis, “it so appears that we may require your help.”

“No, thank you,” Aya said hastily, only to be vetoed by her companion after her.

“Assuming we do,” William said, cutting Aya in mid-sentence. “Just what kind of business are we talking about here?”

“Fastolf-san?” Aya nearly screamed in horror. “What do you think you are saying?”

“So you do know her,” the man replied keenly, again ignoring Aya’s protest. “Care to share what you know?”

“I do know her, and so do many other people,” William answered, smiling victoriously. “Half of this city knows Rie Ichimonji – as the daughter of one of the wealthiest Japanese to have ever been alive. We may or may not have more than those popular mass to share with you.”

It took several seconds for William’s words to sink in, but when it did, Aya and the newcomer reacted wildly differently. Aya, with confusion and a furious tug at his sleeve. And the stranger, with a major string of laughter.

“Wise words, young man,” he finally said after his laughter had settled down. “So you would not want to reveal more, I suppose?”

“It isn’t my constitutional right to inform third parties about a person’s private details, especially one I hardly know,” William said coolly. “The most I can give you would be her home address, which, frankly speaking, half this city can too.”

“That we already have, unfortunately,” concurred the stranger, as he paced towards William. “As for the rest, well, if you aren’t keen on revealing to us, we won’t push you.”

Aya thought her heart had frozen solid when she saw him approaching them. Who could know what he would do to them? She wished she could just run away, but her joints were as irresponsive as a blue-screened computer. As he drew closer, she felt more and more inclined to scream. She would have, had her throats not been stuck. Or had him done anything to William more hostile than a friendly pat on the shoulder, which he didn’t.

“But you are quite an interesting young lad, so to speak,” he said, bending his neck to look at a fellow Englishman several inches shorter. “I am Thomas. Thomas Canton the archer, that’s what they call me.”

“And these are my mates,” he introduced, stretching his palm back to the row of his followers. “My friends, my comrades, my brothers-in-arm... whichever you prefer.”

“The name is William Fastolf,” William replied. “They say my family has a long history dating back to a certain English lord in the Hundred Years. So in a sense, mine is as much an impoverished noble family as the next Englishman.”

“Well met, William,” Thomas Canton said, stretching his lips in a broad smile while sticking out his open hand. “If you’d care to talk more, my previous offer still stands. We may find a pub to sit by the hearth and tell each other the tales of our adventures, if you’d like.”

Their extended hands grasped each other in a cordial handshake like any other between newly made friends. At the point of contact, though, Aya thought she saw William’s face grimace for a split second, the sort of reaction of someone having touched a surface too cold for his senses. Or maybe it was just her sense, for William, for all his articulation, uttered not a word of complaint.

“Always a pleasure,” keenly answered William, before turning to his companion, still clinging to his school uniform’s long sleeve and hiding behind him. “Hanamichi-san?”

“I… I think I’ll pass,” Aya said, her voice still shaking, not feeling sure whether she was following the conversation thus far. “I don’t think I like the look of this enough to get involved with these people…”


“How did I get involved with these people again?”

Aya literally meant what she thought. Now she was sitting comfortably in a rather small and random café in the neighborhood, a mug of steaming hot chocolate before her, the smooth sensation of the warm drink lining up her throat. That she was aware. But how exactly she got there was beyond her. Following William and his company of new friends? That might have been the case.

In all honesty, she didn’t know what to speak, in contrary to her friend, who never seemed to run out of topic.

“So you call yourselves the Cornwallis Company?”

“Just a way to honor the homeland where all of us came from,” Thomas answered. “Jonathan here is the only exception – he’s a literal Yorkist. And maybe Joseph over there who’s from Exeter. Apart from those we are all Southwesterners.”

“Let’s drink a toast to our common homeland then!” William raised his mug of tea, “For the glory of Cornwall!”

“For the glory of Cornwall!” repeated Thomas as the mugs touched each other, before returning his face to a complete straight expression. “By the way, don’t they have ale here? What’s a pub without plenty of ale and malt to lighten up the load?”

“If it had I wouldn’t even be in here with you,” William snickered. “The alcohol age limit is enforced rather rigorously in these parts.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” the man named Jonathan said, “The drink they serve isn’t half bad.”

“Japanese tea,” William answered with due enthusiasm. “Different, but still the same good old tea.”

Then he turned back to Thomas and asked with renewed keenness.

“Anyways, you said they call you an archer, didn’t you?” he said. “Are you better with a long bow or a short bow?”

“Huh? What’s that thing you call a short bow?” Thomas answered with playful disdain, and then at the highest tone of pride he could muster. “Oh, you mean the hunting bow a mewling kid could stretch! No way, young sir, here we are adults! Professionals! Ours is the long bow made of strong Welsh oak and tough sinew that can shoot an armored Frenchman full of holes from five hundred yards away like our sires did! That’s the kind of bow we are talking about!”

Aya was taken aback by the sheer amount of hot-blooded enthusiasm streaming from Thomas’ every word. It made William’s spirited debate in Friday’s history class seem like small talk in comparison. Literally – so loud did he speak that Aya was thankful the bar was nearly empty and the waitresses weren’t paying attention.

“Could you show me some time?” William asked hastily.

“Well, first you have to show us what sort of skill you have with the bow,” Thomas replied. “We don’t perform with bows to those who aren’t worthy of it…”

This time it was Thomas’ turn to be interrupted. All of a sudden the main door swung open rather forcefully, as more than a dozen figures dressed in thick, black robes and hoods that couldn’t appear more out-of-place in the modern landscape, stepped into the café. Or rather, forced their way in and headed immediately for the register. Their hasty, noisy and heavy steps managed to draw attention from all those Thomas failed to impressed, and soon all eyes were upon those strange newcomers…


DF  Post #: 6
7/26/2010 3:36:25   
Argeus the Paladin

Chapter 6
Atrocity, Bodkin Arrows and An Encounter

The presence of the newcomers quickly shattered the quaint silence of the suburban café at twilight. Their thick coats concealed their entire body aside from their eyes, which were glowing red beneath their hoods. Beneath that shadow, identity was given up, and the entire group shuffled forth in unison as if they were a single organism.

Their noisy boots and loud panting were distracting and frightening in equal measures. What was most disturbing, however, was perhaps the strange clattering from within their heavily clad bodies, like a drawer full of knives being turned upside down following their every step. Their crooked forms flailed back and forth as they approached the register, as though confused and out-of-place in the midst of the modern scenario. When they finally stood before the completely confused and frightened attendant, the first robed figure detached himself from the hive-minded collective squad.

“Ale!” he ordered with a sullen, broken voice while slamming on the table with his heavy gloved fist.

“S… sir, we… we don’t… have ale here, I… I’m afraid,” the poor waitress stammered.

“No ale?” the figure roared in response.

Even from a distance Aya could see the figure’s eyes flaring even redder, looking no less ignited than two coal nuggets in a burning stove. Once again she found herself cowering in fear, pressed firmly against William, who was beginning to pay attention to the utterly strange conversation. His attention was well-paid, for seconds after that everything went rapidly downhill.

“Y… yes, sir. We don’t… do alcohol here,” the waitress’ voice shivered even more intensely. “May… may I entertain you with… something else?”

There was some brief silence as the grim figure stood in place, supposedly to consider his alternatives. When he finally announced his decision, though, both the waitress and Aya were rightfully terrified.

“Fine,” he bellowed. “Then give us blood.”

To say that the waitress was mortified was a gross understatement. Her face likely froze solid on the spot, all its color vanished within a mere second. Her body shook madly as if she had never shivered before. Her eyes were wide open – and blank, devoid of any human expression aside from extreme fear.

In her seat a distance away and probably save from the grim figure’s menace, Aya was equally terrified. In turn, William could feel his left arm going numb from lack of circulation as Aya squeezed it tight with both her arms and her upper body.

“B… Blood?”

The waitress asked back, not because she wanted to know, but rather because her brain had been shut down and could not make any statement more sensible than a thoughtless drone.

“Yes, yes, blood. It’s the ultimate refreshment, and we sure will drink this day,” he raised his voice into a sinister crescendo. “Starting with yours!”

And then there was blood.

From nowhere the robed figure produced a short, yet huge, one-handed short scythe. All it took was a swing of the arm and a flash of metal across the unfortunate victim’s neck, and her head was cleanly severed from the stalk of her neck. It flung across the room in the direction of the swing, collided against the rack of cups, knocking the entire tower of glassware on the ground, before landing with a thud on the ground. The morbid sound of decapitation and blood gushing out was drowned out by the shattering glasses.

As the headless corpse collapsed, the floor, the bar, and everything else in sight was completely drenched in blood. From the severed stalk, a fountain of blood was still pumping out with every vanishing pulse of the recently dead. As if that was not frightening enough, what the murderer did next was clearly not something a human would do.

Completely emotionlessly, the murderer drew out a stone cup from his person, placed it in the fountain of blood and filled it up to the brim. And then, with equal emotionlessness, raised the cup full of still warm blood to his mouth and slurped down the content in one gulp. Wiping his mouth clean of the red liquid, the robed figure now had his garment dyed red in the victim’s blood. The burp of satisfaction and satiation he gave after consuming the content was the last straw that broke Aya’s self control.

“KYAAAAAAH!” she screamed, burying her head into William’s chest. She was breaking out in cold sweat, seeping through her cloth uniform and soaking William’s. For a second, the English boy did not know how much of her violent shaking was from cold or fright. Two things he was sure though. First, Aya was going to either faint or go mad if she was forced to look any more. Second, and much more worthy of concern at the moment, her scream had given away their existence to the assailants.

“Hmm? Did I hear something?” the murderer droned as he looked around the parlor, until his flaring crimson pupils sighted William’s group, at which point his voice broke out in glee.

“Fellow brothers, today we drink! Today we feast! Today we have proper blood to feed upon!” he shouted, waving at his fellows. “No more stinking Thrall blood! Who stands with me?”

A resolute battle cry from the crowd of robed creatures, savage and primal, echoed all over the room in response. And then together, in that same hive-minded collective formation the entire group began to shuffle towards the survivors. As they walked, in unison each produced their scythe from their person, raising it above their heads. In the bloodied background the water-cutting sharp blades gleamed, begging to cut down heads and splattering blood all over.

Caught in the unfortunate turn of events, even William was beginning to feel fear taking him over. Tightly he embraced Aya, arms wrapped around her back, bracing for impact. Or perhaps the thought of dying with a girl in his arms was infinitely more appealing than without. From the look on his face, as petrified as Aya was, it was a bit of both.

On the other hand, his new friend Thomas Canton was neither disgusted nor frightened. If anything, he was barely amused. Or so his face spoke when he stood up from the table, shaking his head and smiled at the approaching band of murderers.

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” he sniffed. “Some bloody little boys who barely know how to use a scythe and already swinging it around at the wrong place? Hmm?”

And then Aya and William heard the sound of approaching footsteps suddenly halting. Looking up, both of them realized yet another unthinkable turn of event. There, standing in the narrow aisle between rows of table, Thomas and Jonathan were facing off against the assailants, with the former at the back. On the other end of the alleyway, the robed murderers were standing ground, likely taken aback by the duo’s sudden emergence.

“Who are you to stand in the way of the Night Brothers?” exclaimed the creature standing at the forefront.

“Someone who happens to know how to use a longbow, and his friend who knows how a billhook kills,” Thomas smirked.

The next thing Aya saw could well have been an illusion from her repeated convulsion just now. Thomas and Jonathan seemed to be beginning to break down. Small cracks appeared upon their forms, beginning from the very center, then spreading all over their bodies. The lines of fissure ran not only over skin and flesh but also their clothes and their accessories, including Thomas’ huge skateboard. It was as if the fabrics of time and space itself had cracked around the duo, about to collapse any moment.

And then their fragmented skin finally broke down with a silent shatter. The splintered shards of broken reality then vanished into thin air as if they had never been there in the first place. From underneath the broken surface, a new Thomas and Jonathan emerged in the old ones’ place. When the incredible transformation had concluded, Aya could hardly believe what she was seeing.

Thomas Canton the stylish gaijin with an attitude and a custom skateboard no longer existed, at least for the moment. In his place was a soldier, an archaic one even, wearing a fine suit of brown, leathery padded mail with a white rose heraldry painted on the left chest. Slung over his back was the longbow he had been talking so much about, together with a quiver filled to the brim with heavy, finely-fletched arrows. Finally, a pointy, wide-brimmed, feathered felt hat covered his head, giving him that sort of Robin-Hood-esque appearance.

His friend Jonathan had similarly transformed. Gone was the leather-coated, body-building boy with two muscular arms exposed. In his place was another professional soldier, armored in some of the heaviest plates money could buy. So heavily clad in iron he was that just looking at his massive load of equipment made Aya’s back hurt. And on his hand, a short yet huge hammer-axe-spear sort of polearm weapon she had never seen before, with a vicious stabbing point and an even more imposing, extended slashing blade.

Aya felt her eyes watery. Was she crying in fear or awe? Either case, she could only pray that such a transformation sequence, several thousand times lamer than the worst of Magical Girl shows, could save her life.

And then before anyone else could react properly to that turn of event, Thomas kick-started the skirmish with a twang of his bow. The sinew flicked, sending the bow’s payload forward in a near-perfectly straight trajectory. The arrow flew right over Jonathan’s great helmet, so close it was almost brushing against it, and then embedded itself into the cranium of the assailant standing closest to them. The monster could not even scream. Its vicious weapon clattering on the ground as its now-lifeless body hit the floor with a blank thud.

Aya could swear the surviving creatures’ blood-red eyes just glowed even more fiery as its comrade fell. Giving out a collective, thundering scream-war cry of sort, the column of black robes descended upon the two lonely soldiers.

In return, Jonathan the armored billman showed he was no foreigner to savage battle cries.

“For His Majesty King Edward the Fourth, rightful Lord and Master of all of England!” he yelled, before charging straight into the thick column of robed scythe-wielders.

The billhook, already a much-feared weapon to cavalry and infantry alike, now proved to be a godlike tool of massacre in Jonathan’s hand. His first downward swing embedded the pointed hook-edge into the head of the assailant closest to him, cleaving his black hood and the skull beneath it almost in half. A side swipe beheaded another, and the stab that followed punctured the one next behind it through the heart, killing him on the spot. A fourth robed scythe bearer tried to catch him with his bill engaged, but a well-timed arrow from Thomas’ part pierced his head from back to front before he could so much as swing his scythe.

Then Jonathan left his bill halfway through the dead body of his just slain foe. He drew his secondary weapon, an equally large and imposing bastard sword, and continued lunging at his surviving foes with renewed momentum. Holding his edge horizontally to parry the next few scythes swung at him, Jonathan unleashed a mighty swipe of his armored leg. The two robed figures closest to him were knocked off their feet, in time for two of Thomas’ arrows, pinning through their hearts and nailed their carcasses to the floor.

To Jonathan’s astonishment, such onslaught was still not enough to stop the mob of robed scythe wielders. One of them happened to have slipped through his defense and was charging at Thomas at full speed with raised scythe. At this point Jonathan had used up most of the charge’s momentum, and was caught parrying and exchanging blows with three foes. Caught at point-blank and off-guard, Thomas himself was startled. Barely could he sidestep before the large polearm swung down at where he was standing seconds ago.

The assailant had completely squandered his chance. As he missed, the scythe’s tip was nailed to the floor, giving him time to ready his short blade for the melee. It was Thomas’ chance. When the creature could finally lift its weapon from the ground, Thomas had maneuvered into less than a foot from his opponent. At that range his enemy could not swing his scythe properly, yet it was perfect for his dagger. One stab at the heart was all it took to neutralize the threat once and for all.

Yet danger was not over for the professional longbowman.

“Watch out!” William shrieked, grabbing the nearest object he could lay his hands on,.

As he heard the English boy shouted, Thomas caught a glimpse of a thrown mug flying right past his shoulder. It wasn’t exactly a comforting sensation, for the couple of droplets that spilled out of the cup and hit his shoulder were scalding hot. The archer jerked as the hot water touched his skin, but managed to snap back to alertness.

There was a loud crash followed by the sound of ceramic splintering and a scream of excruciating pain. Whoever the target of the thrown mug was, he was not that fortunate. It was a good thing.

A robed figure was clutching its head with both hands, its scythe dropped on the ground with a loud clatter as it nursed its blunt and burn wound. Had the boy not been on his guard, that scythe could have done him considerable damage. Thomas was keen to make sure that considerable damage would never happen by calmly putting an arrow through his skull at point blank before he could recover.

“Thanks,” uttered Thomas, glancing at William gratefully.

There were barely half a dozen still standing by then. The determination in their crimson eyes was wavering, having seen firsthand how more than half of their brothers going down in mere minutes. They backed out towards the door as Thomas and Jonathan approached. The two soldiers still maintained their guard as they pressed forth – without seeing their face it was hard to determine whether they were genuinely afraid and broken, or merely backing a few steps to build up momentum for a new charge.

Thomas decided to take his chance to seize initiative, with a well-placed taunt.

“Hey, chicken-pox-eyed infants, getting tired already?” he shouted. “Then run home, morons, run home to mama! And keep those tails tucked between those legs of yours on the way out!”

“Why you…”

The first red-eyed monster to react to his taunt didn’t end well. The moment he raised his scythe over his head, two arrows consecutively hit his exposed chest and impaled him from front to back. Their drawn weight at close range pushed him face-up on the ground, dead.

The others learnt from his lesson. They stood close to one another, their scythe blades retracted to their chest to form a rudimentary shield. Their formation at that point was so pathetic, Thomas’ bow could have brought them all to their grave, had he not been amused enough to actually think about letting them go.

“By the beard of the Beggar-King, what sort of travesty is this?”

The door behind them swung open with a large slam as they hit the wall. The fling and the noise it caused forced all eyes on the opening. Whatever emerged behind that door, for all intents and purposes, was well worthy of such attention.

Anachronism was as much the newcomer’s watchword as Thomas and Jonathan’s. The helmet he wore atop his head was a sallet with movable visor made of quality, shining steel. It could not be more medieval Western European in both make and design, William thought. On the other hand, his armor was the very classical Near-East scale armor, composed of perfectly identical metal scales embedded into the flexible leather surface beneath. Yet, underneath the coat of scales extending well below his knees, he sported a pair of polished Industrial-era Eastern European greaves.

His left hand maintained a firm grasp on his heralded kite shield. It was only through this that William realized this man could be nothing less than a decorated knight. Or reenacting as one, although from what had happened in the past half an hour that possibility appeared less and less likely.

As his heavily ironclad form entered the room, William could not help but notice the imposing yet impractical pair of iron wings protruding from the back of the suit of scale mail. Only one historical unit that he could remember would sport such an outrageous decoration in open combat. It seemed that his Japanese friend had caught the hint as well, her eyes opening wide as they reached the figure’s ornamental wings.

“Isn’t that Ayu’s style?” she uttered abruptly, probably without thinking. Which she should have, William thought.

His arms were not quite as spectacular as his armors, apparently made with utility rather than decoration in mind. On his two sides he wore a long arming sword and an iron war mace. Both were sheathed, and he showed no intention to unsheathe them for the day. Which was good news for him and his friends, he reckoned. A man-at-arms and a longbowman, however skilled, could not possibly hope to prevail over a dismounted knight even back in their time.

When William’s eyes finally wandered to his countenance, he let out a small gasp of amazement. Despite his strong aristocratic and military look, the knightly figure appeared way too young. His beard and mustache was cleanly shaven, fortifying the square, broad shape of his jaws. He sported a slender, yet long nose bridge with a reasonable shape. His eyebrows were thick and fiercely upturned, as were his eyes. That his pupils were as vividly red as that of the murderers added to the savagery of his visage. All of this to be betrayed by the shape of his mouth - a mild, smooth line with relatively small lips. Did he seem like a fierce, bloodthirsty warlord or a kind-hearted, chivalric knight? Maybe a little of both.

His entrance took both friends and foes into a trance for a few moments. When the robed murderers saw his face, though, their astonishment converted into a renewed courage.

“Count Anjou!” the one closest to him exclaimed in glee. “You’ve come to save us!”

Apparently the newcomer was someone of significant position, power and prowess, probably in charge of the band of killers. If that was true, then his response was far less enthusiastic or sympathetic than they would like. In fact, he spoke with such initial coldness that for a second William wondered whose side he was actually on.

“It’s Colonel de Chevalier for you lot,” he said disparagingly. “Now, Night Brothers of the Temple, explain this disgrace at once!”

William couldn’t help but savor the sort of astonishment that showed on the robed murderer’s face.

“Sir, we… we are out to… forage,” one of them spoke, pointing towards Thomas’ party. “But those insolent…”

The murderer was cut off mid-sentence by the knight’s furious voice. It was as if he didn’t let Thomas’ party bother him at all.

“Forage?” he bellowed, raising his eyebrows even more than it already was. “So far as I know, the Kaiser does not have you starve. The Imperial Logistic Department does not have you starve. I do not have you starve.”

“Sir, but… but the rations are not enough!” protested his subordinate. “What you feed us is a soldier’s ration! We… we are not soldiers, we are priests! The soldiers may live on our ration, but we cannot!”

Protesting against one’s superior was never a good idea, especially when one’s in the wrong. From the knight’s expression, the robed killers should have heeded those words of wisdom. His eyes widened, his eyebrows knitted and his previously kind-looking mouth twisted into a furious shape while his jaws clenched. His tightly shut and protruding jaws was possibly a sign of self-control, but it made his countenance all the more fearsome.

“The moment you fight in the army, you are a soldier, no more, no less,” he said scornfully, stressing each word. “Besides, as far as memory serves your ration has been well increased since you last protested.”


“Enough of this,” the knight shouted, his patience seemingly running out. “Have you any idea any drop the Empire grant you is a privilege rather than a right? A privilege that has to be earnt with blood and sweat?”

Even William felt riled by the way he spoke. It was the sort of voice that was both intimidating and venerable, one of a wise man and a stern leader. One did not have to be the intended audience to feel his stern words sting.

“And you, good monks, are well on your way to having yours revoked,” he concluded with a low note.

Indeed, to the rabbles before him those few words were as good as many. The surviving cloaked figures all at once dropped to their knees. Their previously burning, bloodthirsty eyes now shaking, filled with the same fright they had caused. Their sullen and threatening voice mellowed out to the point of melting, quivering in fear. William could not help but feel the turned table hilariously refreshing and amusing.

“Sir... Count Anjou… General de Chevalier,” they begged as if their life depended on it. “Please… Please have mercy!”

That their voice clumped together in unison, the very component that made them so frightening seconds ago, made them even more laughable now. From the way Aya quietly giggled, hands covering her mouth, perhaps she was thinking the same.

Fortunately for them, their superior did not seem to be bothered by such lack of dignity. In fact, from his quickly relaxed expression, he was going to let them off for free anyways.

Pointing towards the multiple corpses Thomas and Jonathan had collectively slain, the knight opened his mouth to give a new order.

“Haul your fallen brothers back to camp. We’ll see what we can do for them,” he said. “And as for you, let today be a lesson for your disobedience. Any more of this, and there shall be neither leniency nor mercy – on my part. Have I made myself clear?”

“Y… Yes sir!” the survivors hastily affirmed.

Heeding his words, the guilty band set to work with feverish haste unseen before. Quickly they gathered their dead, dragging them to the doorway one by one, and arranged them in a dump next to their general. All the while, the Thomas group seemed too intrigued in their outlandish ritual to intervene.

Finally, when the final corpse had been piled at the armored knight’s feet, he proceeded to produce a scroll from his person, and began chanting in some unknown language. As he chanted, a purple circle began to form from the very sole of his boots, rapidly expanding outwards until the pile of corpses and the fortunate survivors were completely encircled. If William had any lingering thought that the knightly figure was just another historical reenactor like himself, it was utterly dispelled by this performance of magic going on right before his eyes.

When the final corpse was engulfed, the knight all of a sudden unsheathed his sword, an action that drew instant wariness from Thomas. In reflex, he nocked another arrow and stretched his bow.

It was perhaps an unnecessary precaution, for from the way he used the blade he was up to no harm. He raised his blade above his head, at which point the shimmering purple circle blazed forth. Myriads of beams then shot up from the circle’s rim, conjoining at the tip of his longsword. By now the knight and the corpses were enclosed within the newly-formed, purple conical shape.

And then the cone sizzled and fizzled. Next thing William and Aya knew, there was a blinding violet flash, followed by a multitude of small implosions around where the knight stood. It was almost as if multiple objects had been forcefully ripped from the very fabrics of existence to be deposited somewhere else.

When the high-density light had subsided, the English-Japanese duo looked at his position to realize the killers, both dead and alive, were no longer around them. Only the knight remained, calmly sheathing his blade to show good faith as he turned to Thomas’ group.

“By all that is holy, I commend you,” he said, even tilting his head a little to show his due respect. “You have fought very well indeed.”

Thomas removed the nocked arrow, then stashed bow and arrow alike behind him. A smile of defiant pride sparked on his face as he answered.

“I won’t try to flaunt it, but we are the Cornwallis Company,” he said, “the single most renowned mercenary company to have ever served the House of York.”

There was a brief pause as the knight looked thoroughly bewildered by Thomas’ introduction. It took him some time to regain his composure and suppress his disbelief, though it wasn’t quite significant.

“Mmm, interesting,” he finally said. “Then, if you will, would you please state your business here in Japan, several centuries from the demise of the last Yorkist ruler?”

“I’m afraid I cannot oblige,” answered Thomas in a tone that can be comprehended as both politeness and sarcasm. “I have no duty to disclose my duties to an unknown general whose men had committed some random murder.”

“They do not act on behalf of the Holy Komnenian Empire,” denied the knight. “Regardless, I can swear on my honor that this animalistic act shall not happen again.”

“You said you are the general – their leader, aren’t you?” Jonathan quickly jabbed with a challenge. “Ready to defend yourself?”

“You wish to fight me?” smirked the general. “As much as I’d love to fight such brave and fine men as yourselves, I’m afraid I have no time for this.”

“So? Chickening out of this already, cheese-faced Frenchman?”

“Not at all,” the general let the intended racial slur slip without so much as a rebuke. “Just that it is extremely unwise for us to fight now.”

“If you don’t give a good reason, good sir,” remarked Thomas with a much milder language, but no less taunting in nature, “I’m afraid I have to write our encounter today in our records as one worthless meeting with a nobleman who is less of a man than a mewling infant whining in a cot.”

“The problem is not with me, esquire, but rather the police, if you are aware,” again the knight showed his superior strength of character and shrugged off the intended insult. “Even as we speak, the local police are closing on this place. I know not who you are nor your purpose, but getting caught by the police who know neither must not be on your agenda.”

Thomas was opening his mouth to reply, but William interrupted him before he could speak one word.

“If I may, Mr. Canton?” he spoke hastily. “Look, while I know as much about you and your men as that man over there, he does have a point. You wouldn’t want to get into trouble with the police, ever especially when murder is involved. No ifs, buts and hows.”

As he spoke, William looked like he had just swallowed a huge bite of disbelief and was now choking with it. Nevertheless, his speech was controlled enough to avoid stuttering except for the very last few words.

The distant siren that he was beginning to hear only hastened his urgency. When he saw Thomas still standing, as though confused, he spoke out again.

“They are coming! We have to leave, now!” his voice had ascended into a fierce and urgent bellow.

Thomas expended another precious few seconds to consider the alternatives. When he, too, heard the approaching siren, it finally dawned to him that staying might not be an option after all.

“Very well then, we’ll withdraw this day,” he ordered Jonathan, “Little Johnny, gather the stuffs! Round up the prisoners and the loot… oh wait, we don’t have any… then just gather the stuffs and retreat!”

It took the two hardened soldiers less than a few seconds to tuck away their spare weapon and ready themselves to run for the hills. Aya and William weren’t so quick, for before they could make a move, they, or rather their uniforms, had caught the knight’s eyes.

“Wait. These uniforms… Ishiyama High?” he remarked to the duo. “Do you happen to know one Rie Ichimonji, daughter of Miro… I mean, Kanno Ichimonji?”

“It’s not like we’ll tell you, you know,” William quickly answered. “Not when the cops are on our heels!”

“I’ll assume it’s a yes then,” the general said. “In that case, we will meet again, I am certain.”

Then William grabbed Aya, carried her in his arms and ran for the back door, where the emergency exit sign was flashing. Jonathan and Thomas were already there, ready to take off any second. Before they made their escape, Thomas still managed to slip back a last question to the stranger.

“Your name, good sir, in case we meet again?” he said. “I am Thomas Canton, Captain of the Cornwallis Company.”

“And I am Colonel Julian de Chevalier of the Holy Komnenian Empire,” the general answered. “Next time we meet proper, Esquire Canton, we shall speak.”


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