Chapter 7 – The Best Defense
Sixth of Learning 1142
Princess Chari stood with her hands on her hips, frowning at Prince Eric, who stood before her looking abashed. He had gone to the Temple of Sheba to complete his transition, but apparently had taken a wrong turn somewhere , because he had found his way into Chari’s transition dream. Another impossibility in a month of impossibilities. He knew he had no control over where he ended up once he drank the potion the high priest had given him, but that wasn’t going to stop him from suffering the consequences if Chari had something to say about it.
“Eric, what are you doing here?” she demanded when he said nothing.
He winced. “Completing my transition?”
“This is my transition. I’ve waited my whole life for this. How are you here?”
“I don’t know. I mean this is only my second time.”
At which point he looked around and realized he’d never actually been in this place before. Where his transition took place on a flat endless plain, Chari’s was in a forest of some sort. There were trees all around them. Forest giants of various types, some he recognized, some he didn’t. They seemed to be scattered randomly around the area with no discernible pattern. There was no path to follow, but the trees weren’t close enough together that you couldn’t move through them. Eric and Chari stood in a clearing edged by shrubs. The only thing familiar was the wooden chest that sat beside her, unopened.
“You’d better not screw this up for me. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
“What! I mean, it’s not like I chose to be here. I did choose to transition today but didn’t know you’d be here at the same time. I wonder if this is what the high priest meant when he said we had to hurry or we’d be late. Do you think this is Sheba’s will?”
“Why don’t you ask her the next time she drops by?”
He started to reply, saw the look on Chari’s face and thought better of it.
Eric watched Chari examine their surroundings, making no attempt to hide her scowl. He wasn’t sure how she thought any of this was his fault, but the more he considered the situation, the more he was certain it was Sheba’s will. And then he heard the goddess’s voice in his mind.
Everything I do has purpose, but remember, I am not the only being who has power in the Other Realm. Cause and effect here is more complex than just my will.
He immediately looked to see if Chari had heard this, but she hadn’t. He opened his mouth to share what he had learned and immediately closed it. If Sheba had wanted both of them to know, she’d have let Chari hear. He didn’t feel comfortable keeping a secret from the woman he would one day marry, but he felt even less comfortable going against the wishes of his goddess. If Sheba didn’t want her to know, there was a reason. He had to trust that.
He was relieved when Chari turned her attention from him to the chest beside her. She bent over and opened it. He moved closer to see, unsurprised to find a sword very similar to the one that had been in the chest he had opened in his first attempt at transitioning.
She reached toward it, but the sword remained unchanged. Not a flicker. She wrapped her hand around the hilt and pulled it from the chest. Though it had been loose, it was now in a scabbard hanging from a sword belt. She drew it and studied the double-edged blade. While it was a superior quality weapon, it lacked the symbol that would have identified it as a holy weapon of Sheba. If this disappointed Chari, she didn’t show it. She took a few practice cuts with it while holding the belt and scabbard in her left hand, nodded in satisfaction, sheathed it, then buckled it around her waist.
“You can come along if you want,” she said, finally returning her attention to Eric. “Just don’t get in my way.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
She set off in a confident stride, and he hurried to follow. There was no wolf in this dream leading her on. No indication of where she was to go, but that didn’t seem to deter her. She walked from the clearing into the woods, eyes everywhere as she made her way between the forest giants.
He wondered how she knew where to go, or maybe she didn’t, but he was loathe to ask her about it. After all, he was pretty sure he was in her dream, rather than her being in his. For one thing, she had a chest, just as he had had one in the dream he had shared with Dahr. How was he here? What did it mean? He had no answers, so he followed closely, hoping something resembling an answer would present itself.
Such were his thoughts when he heard something from up ahead, a sort of low-pitched chitter he didn’t recognize, and the scramble of feet– many feet.
He called his shield, and it appeared on his arm. At first he didn’t see what made the noise and then it was there, approaching quickly– the largest scorpion he had ever seen. It was bigger than a man lying down. Its stinger came all the way to the middle of his chest, and it was hanging from a tail that was even higher. Its tail was long enough and the stinger high enough to hit him on any part of his body. Its carapace was shiny and black, with fine hairs emerging from between its body’s segments. Its two claws were raised menacingly as it approached.
Chari didn’t look intimidated. She didn’t back down. She advanced to meet the creature, and it raised its tail as if to strike. Eric realized what was happening just in time to jump beside her and raise his shield to block the stinger. It had been fast, but he had been faster, at least this time. As soon as the tail drew back, Chari knocked his shield aside, leapt forward and slashed at its forward leg, apparently trying to sever one of the claws. The sword, however, didn’t penetrate the smooth carapace. It slid along the length before she pulled it back and tried again. The creature raised its tail for another strike.
“Oh no you don’t!” shouted Eric. He grabbed a rock off the ground and flung it hard at the creature, striking it on its head. “I’m right here you ugly bastard!”
The scorpion turned toward him, momentarily ignoring Chari, who continued to swipe at its legs. The tail flashed over its body, and Eric bashed it aside with his shield. Chari continued her assault, not doing any real damage. The tail flicked again and again, but Eric dodged, sidestepped and blocked, trying to buy her as much time as he could, while wishing more than ever that he had access to an offensive weapon as well as a defensive one.
By then, Chari had decided to change her strategy. Instead of slashing at the creature, she lunged forward, striking its side with the tip of her sword. The carapace was harder than she had expected, but she managed to penetrate it just a bit. The creature, realizing it had been damaged, started to turn back to her.
With nothing else to do, Eric knelt for another rock and threw it as hard as he could at the creature’s flank. The attack did nothing, so he leapt into the creature and swung his shield with every ounce of strength he could muster.
Perhaps another shield, a shield that wasn’t empowered by a goddess, would have done little, but Eric wasn’t wielding a normal shield, nor even a magical one. The shield smashed into the side of the creature, and Eric felt the shock of the blow race up his arm. As he watched, a spiderweb of cracks formed on the scorpion’s carapace. It turned far more quickly than he expected. Eric jumped backwards, but he was unbalanced and fell, holding his shield above him as the creature closed the short distance between them and raised its tail.
Chari let out a wordless war cry, and lunged again, this time extending fully, driving the sword with all her strength into the creature’s side. Eric didn’t think scorpions could scream, but this was clearly not a typical example of the species, or perhaps normal scorpions did scream but were too small to be heard. The shriek that came from it was unearthly. It didn’t turn away from Eric however, as it raised its tail for a final strike. Eric held the shield up, waiting for the tail to come down. Instead, the creature started turning away from him, and Eric risked a glance to see what had happened.
To his amazement, Chari stood behind and beside the creature, grasping its tail so it couldn’t strike.
“No!” he shouted as the creature turned to face this new threat.
He jumped to his feet, charged the creature and used Shield Bash, swinging the shield as if Chari’s life depended on it, which he thought might be the case. The crack the shield made as it made contact with the side of the creature echoed through the woods. The creature’s entire side caved in. It panicked in the last moments of life, trying to split its attention between two targets, unable to damage either.
Finally, it tried to flee, but Chari pursued and finished it off with her sword. It continued to move its legs feebly until even that became too much effort. They stood and watched until it stopped moving altogether, then looked at each other. Chari was smiling. Eric debated how wise it was to tell her off for the ridiculous risk she took to save him. He had to admit that it was amazingly brave, and very noble, but it was also very risky.
He opened his mouth to say something and closed it. This was her trial. Her test. Perhaps her sword had remained a sword because she knew exactly who she was. There never had been a choice for Chari. Who was he to criticize her when his own trial had gone so wrong?
Chari was still smiling when a scroll case appeared floating in the air before her. She must have known from his tale what it contained. She reached for it, and wrapped her hand around it. It didn’t burst into mist as his did. It just vanished as if it had never been there. He didn’t hear anything, but she apparently did.
“My first skill,” she breathed.
“What did you get?”
“It’s called Puncture. No prizes for guessing what it does.”
In spite of his earlier thoughts, Eric found a smile for her. “Congratulations, Chari. You were amazing.”
“I was, wasn’t I?” she replied.
He waited to hear what she thought about his contribution to the fight, but she didn’t mention it. Of course she didn’t. She’d just gotten her first skill. This was her transition. He smiled again, remembering his own incomplete transition and knew exactly what she was feeling. He absolutely wasn’t going to make this about him. He’d be here for her, and do what he had to do to protect her.
The symbol on his shield grew brighter, and he bowed his head. Sheba had chosen to show her approval, a thing he vowed he would never take for granted.
King Terrence sat on a garden bench, enjoying a rare moment of peace. With Eric away at his transition, and negotiations not due to resume till later in the afternoon, it was a welcome respite. He breathed deeply, enjoying the fall air. If his kingdom had been further north, it might have been chilly, but the day, which had started off dreary, had turned itself around. The sun had come out to warm him, and he basked in it. He really didn’t get enough time outside.
He heard someone approaching and turned his attention to the sound. Queen Rhea walked slowly up the path, taking in the gardens. It was too bad she couldn’t have seen them in the spring, when they were at their most impressive. It seemed like they had both had the same idea. She hadn’t noticed him yet, and he wondered if he should sneak away and leave her to her outing.
But then she looked in his direction and smiled. “Good morrow, King Terrence. I had not realized you’d be out here.”
King Terrence stood and bowed respectfully. “Queen Rhea. A pleasant surprise. Come sit with me, if you wish.”
“Just Rhea, please. I don’t feel the need for formality when I’m not at court.”
“Rhea then. And you can call me Terrence.”
She sat beside him and took a deep breath. “It’s beautiful here. Autumn is colder in Melar.”
Terrence nodded. “I passed through Melar twice, on my way to and from the Undead War. I wish I’d had time to get to see the kingdom.”
“I knew you’d fought in the war. Leonid isn’t much of a warrior himself, but he sent forces.”
“I wanted to be there with my men.”
“Of course you did. Tell me, do you ever get tired of it?”
She turned her attention from the sky to his face. “Being the hero. The one people look up to. Maybe you don’t realize your reputation in other places, but Leonid didn’t choose Prince Eric randomly as a suitor for our daughter. Eric is a fine young man, but it was your reputation that drew us here. King Terrence, the warrior king. Your contribution to the Undead War, not just in forces, but your personal contribution, it’s a thing of legend.”
“Does that include the part where I almost died?”
“It does. To hear it told, anyone else would have. People say you’ve been blessed by Sheba. Some people even compare you to Arimen.”
“That’s blasphemy. Arimen is a demigod.”
“Actually he’s not. Arimen is or was an immortal. Gods and demigods rule over aspects of existence. Sylinar’s domain is healing. Se Karn’s domain is death. Arimen, never having been gifted an aspect of Sylinar is simply immortal.”
“I forgot you revere Mitra.”
“It doesn’t come up much. As an immortal, Arimen wouldn’t naturally die, but it was possible that something killed him. Some say it was the Undead King.”
Terrence’s eyes widened in surprise. “The Undead King killed Arimen?”
“It may have happened that way. We don’t know. We’re not even sure that he’s dead. Not even the gods know.”
Terrence blinked. “The gods don’t know?”
“The gods have never been able to penetrate the veil that surrounds the Plains of Xarinos. They have no idea what goes on behind its borders.”
“That’s seems unlikely.”
“There are many unlikely things that are true. I have this from a priest of Mitra. But since Arimen is neither a god nor demigod, it’s not actually blasphemy to compare you to him. Some people have suggested you might be him. By all accounts, you took a spear to the side and should have died, and yet here you are, alive and walking around as though it had never happened.”
“I got lucky.”
“All this and modesty too,” she grinned. “Treya is a lucky woman.”
Terrence laughed. “Sometimes she thinks that too, but probably not very often.”
“Oh I think you’d be surprised. Speaking of which, I was surprised you were so open about your second son.”
Terrence shrugged. “Treya had been wanting to adopt Dahr for a long time, but I resisted for obvious reasons. Then the High Priest of Sheba told us we were to adopt him, so that’s what we’ll do. We were just waiting until Eric’s transition was completed. If Sheba wants him acknowledged than I have no shame in doing so.”
“Your whole family seems blessed by the goddess. No wonder people say you’re a legend.”
“It’s my sons who are favored. And I’m proud of that. Eric and Dahr are both more than I could have hoped for.”
“And Dahr’s mother?”
“She died of an illness a couple of years back. I promised her I’d care for him.”
“You’re a good man, King Terrence of Twyl. We’d be lucky to have you as an ally. But you already know that.”
“I think we’d be lucky to have each other. I feel like you’re leading to something, but I fear I’m more direct than you. You’d have to talk to Treya if you want to spend the rest of the morning dropping hints.”
Rhea laughed. “I really wasn’t. I guess I’m just curious. The House of Rowan is such a straight forward, honest band of warriors. Melar is very different. I know why my husband wanted an alliance with you, but I can’t imagine why you’d want an alliance with us. It doesn’t seem to fit your reputation. I’d honestly expected you to go with one of the kingdoms in Karmenon.”
“Ah, I see. Rhea, your husband isn’t particularly fond of or nice to Andara. I assume you know this.”
Rhea looked a bit embarrassed but nodded anyway. “Yes, well, he is a simple man. He still sees the Andarans as little more than barbarians.”
“I know. But I’m allied with several tribes in Andara as well, and if I can get something resembling peace on your border, which it seems both they and your husband want, maybe, just maybe, I can bring stability to the whole region.”
Rhea looked astonished. “You’re doing this for Andara?”
“And Melar. I think everyone benefits from it.”
“Everyone but you.”
King Terrence smiled. “Everyone benefits from stability, Rhea, even if you can’t see that benefit immediately.”
Rhea smiled. “I can see why people might think you’re Arimen. Human kings don’t act like this.”
“In the end, kings are just men. I’m trying to make the world better, because my sons have to live in that world. I may be a king, but I’m a father as well.”
“I’m glad we met today. Don’t let my husband get away with giving too little just because you want stability. You’re in a strong position. Get something for yourself.”
“Why are you telling me this? How does it benefit you?”
“Maybe it doesn’t, not directly. But I think maybe we need more kings that think about stability instead of thinking about wealth and power.”
“We understand each other then. I’m sure whatever deal we reach will benefit both of us. I want peace in Andara, and I’m not willing to sacrifice that point in any negotiation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more on the table to discuss. I have a lot to offer. I’ll get everything I need out of this. You can bet on that.”
She looked him in the eyes, and nodded once. “I believe it. In spite of the stories, I think I’ve underestimated you. There’s a strength and a determination there that will not be denied. I imagine you don’t have a lot of trouble getting what you want.”
“With everyone but Treya. Don’t tell her I said so though.”
“Not a word.”
The two sat for a long time, enjoying the sun, but didn’t talk much after that. It was a companionable silence that lasted until a page ran up to remind the king that there was still work to be done.
Dahr sat cross-legged on the ground in the practice yard, watching a few of the guards spar. Kalutu sat beside him, apparently riveted to the combat. At least Dahr thought he was riveted. His huge, round eyes stared at the guards, but Dahr couldn’t be sure he wasn’t reading more into that expression than was actually present, having had little experience with were-owls. So, he joined the familiar in watching, but his mind wasn’t following the action. Instead he was thinking. He knew people had classes and skills. And he knew some people were Warriors while others were Mages or Healers, or even various types of crafters, but he had never heard of a Nexus before, nor had anyone else if George was to be believed. It was a new class. His class. He was the only one.
What kind of skills would he get? He knew he had been able to summon a familiar, but it seemed unlikely he’d be able to summon another. Every story he’d ever heard about a mage with a familiar spoke of a single summons. Was he some sort of mage? He didn’t feel like one. He didn’t feel like he’d cast a spell. He didn’t feel different at all.
Another thing that seemed odd to him was getting a class before Eric. Eric was older, had been in training longer. How was this fair? He worried that Eric would be upset about it, but that hardly mattered now, since he didn’t dare tell anyone. Would people think he didn’t have a class or level? No that wasn’t right, Veloran had told everyone he had transitioned.
In the press of having royal visitors, no one had thought to question him about it yet, and he needed to be able to answer whatever questions were put to him without raising suspicions. He also didn’t want to lie, particularly to the king and queen. Yet George had warned him against telling anyone. Maybe it had just been a dream, but he didn’t think so. Anyway, what kind of name was George for a powerful being from the Other Realm?
Dahr thought long and hard but couldn’t decide what to tell people when they finally got around to asking. Perhaps they wouldn’t think to ask at all. It was possible, right? Even Eric hadn’t asked yet, but then he was busy with Princess Chari, who made Dahr nervous. Dahr was used to dealing with women, but he knew very few girls his own age, or close to it. And she seemed a bit dangerous to him, like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. The issue was, he saw himself as the mouse.
He looked up at Kalutu, whose eyes hadn’t left the action.
“You like watching them,” he said finally.
“I do. But more than that, I need to learn how to fight. Without that, I’m not much use to you, I fear.”
“Am I useless?” asked Dahr.
“Of course not!” Kalutu finally looked away from the fighting, turning his attention to Dahr.
“I don’t know how to fight,” said Dahr. “I’ve never taken a lesson. Does that somehow lower my value?”
“No, Dahr, of course not. But you’re the son of a king. You live in a palace. I live by your sufferance… well yours and Prince Eric’s.”
“And I live by the sufferance of the king. I’m a bastard, after all. Should people think less of me?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why should people think less of you? You don’t live by my sufferance, Kalutu. You’re my familiar. We’re bonded. I will always protect you. You will always have a home with me, no matter what happens.”
Kalutu looked awed. “You are magnanimous.”
“And you use big words, for a familiar anyway.”
“I have no idea,” said Dahr. “You’re the first familiar I’ve ever spoken with. But you’re my familiar and that means something. Be proud, Kalutu. We’re all low level, but we’ll learn, and so will you. You have my word.”
Kalutu bowed low, which was a decent effort, seeing as he was sitting. Then he turned back to watch the guards spar.
Dahr found himself wondering if a familiar could get a class or levels. Surely not. How could a familiar possibly level, when they would be bound to a master who was already bound to a specific god? Perhaps Kalutu would gain power when Dahr gained levels. It seemed likely he’d be linked to Dahr more directly than to Eric, since Sheba had told Dahr that he had summoned Kalutu and then shared him.
He thought about Eric then, in the Other Realm, completing his transition. He’d gain a class, know his skills and be filled with pride and joy. He’d be happy for Eric. Dahr smiled wistfully. If only he could somehow figure out what skills his strange profession offered him.