Deikon and Elbrem walked side by side down the large trade route. It had been rather uneventful for the past few hours. No bandits, no caravans, and certainly no Hegford.
There was a certain degree of entertainment available from Elbrem's out of tune musical anguish. Deikon certainly would have preferred the simple songs of the breeze through the trees or the chirps of the birds in the afternoon, but Elbrem had gone through enough of Deikon's verbal abuse that day. It was best to leave him be, he figured.
"Ah hah!" The little halfling snapped, "That's what I've been meaning to ask you!"
Deikon felt his heart sink, a drop a sweat began to form above his brow. He certainly hated questions. Especially questions about his past. Nothing about his past, he pleaded. He dared not to tread in those waters, and hopefully his many lectures to Elbrem would keep the little one from trying to pry him open.
"That emblem," He went on, and Deikon breathed a sigh of relief, "That emblem on your patch. What's it mean?"
"The one your father gave me?"
"Well, he told me that it is the sign of balance, something that has gone awry as of late. Each side of it looks the same. It is a symmetrical design," Deikon ran his fingers over the golden etched design. There were two semi-circles, each facing away from each other, yet connected at their most centred point, "It is here that there is the opposites of this world; light and dark, good and evil, up and down." He pointed to two dots, one in the centre of each semi-circle, aligned with the two tips of both. "And in the centre of it all, where they connect, is where the balance lies. Each side pulls outward, but the centre is what keeps them united. It is these two parts here," Deikon indicated two small curves facing inward toward the centre, with one above and one below where the semi-circles connected, "These two parts are what allow the world to remain where it is. Without them, there would be only chaos. Existence as we know it would be nothing."
"Wow," Elbrem's eyes glowed with awe, "Looks like a tipped over hourglass to me!"
"You can't even take a thing so important seriously, can you?" Deikon smiled, playfully pushing the little one away, "I like that."
"So why balance?" The halfling motioned, still apparently confused.
"Your father believes I have something. Some ability I have that is the key to returning the balance to this world. I cannot deny that I don't have a unique ability," The leather on Deikon's gloves crackled as he tightened his fist, "A rather fascinating ability, I must admit. But I am as clueless as you, my friend, when it comes to knowing what I have to do. Until I realize what it is that my destiny holds, then I shall simply lay low and enjoy each day that passes my way."
"Sounds good to me!" A cherubic smile, filled with bread, muffled back.
The companions walked for many more minutes down the shaded path, Elbrem's lute overshadowing the natural ambiance of the forest. For several moments he played – or tried to – until he hung it on his pack to put out a set of chimes. After jingling and clanging them for several moments, he put them away and returned to the lute, feeling the latter to be more pleasing to the ear.
"Do you hear that?" Deikon abruptly uttered, his hand coming up to the halfling's chest to stop him and his playing.
"What?" The child was confused, "You mean my lute?"
"No, it's something else." Deikon's eye raced back and forth along the trees running the sides of the path.
"Is it birds? Or the trees, perhaps? Those are all I can hear. Mind you, they are rath—" Elbrem was hushed with a gloved hand.
"Quiet," The honed fighter went into a low crouch, still scanning the area, "There's something in the trees, all about us."
Deikon's intuition rang true as Elbrem caught eye with a ragged looking man, a crossbow in hand pointing directly at the two. Horror filled the cherubic one's face; a tear began to fill his eye. It was over, he was convinced. They were surrounded by many of the same, all crossbows aimed right for them. Elbrem felt a bit of confidence as he looked up to Deikon who was unaffected by the surrounding hostilities, he face locked in a scowl. He had seen him as well.
The tension that was in the air made time seem like it was going at a turtle's pace. Then it happened. Several crossbows clicked at once, from all directions, right toward the two who seemed so very vulnerable in the centre of the path.
The halfling, unable to take it, passed out from fear, his mind still conscious of what was going on. Bolts whizzed by, thudding into the ground, thudding into rocks, some even sounding as though they were hitting leather. Oh no! It was over, it had to be.
Elbrem regained control of his consciousness, and slowly, daringly, opened his eyes hoping that he would not see what he thought he would see. To his amazement, things had come to a halt with a good outcome.
Deikon still wore the scowl, staring at the exact same bandit as before, but was contorted in an odd positioning. A leg was raised, his posture a bit more straightened than before, his left arm stretched out wide, and his right…
Elbrem could not believe it. He had seen Deikon in combat before, but not in such instances. Three bolts rested in the palm of his left hand, five more were scattered about the grounds – some dangerously close – and one had been caught in his right hand, pointed directly for Elbrem's neck.
The boy almost fainted again at the sight. He had nearly perished, and at that moment, like many moments felt in prior skirmishes, he was glad to be a friend of Deikon's.
Deikon dropped the bolts and went low again as he heard the crossbows lock again, their bows stretched back and a new bolt placed aiming for another shot at the two.
"Hold your fire!" A deep voice roared. The vulnerable companions watched as the bandit they had their eyes set on turned away his gaze, nodding to something far off to the right.
Deikon figured they were now using hand gestures. Organized, Deikon thought, but futile since he now knew their exact positions. It didn't do any more good than what called orders could have done.
Slowly, nine bandits stepped away from their positions and into the path, surrounding Deikon and Elbrem in a well formulated circle. There would be no escape from this situation. These were not merely bandits, but perhaps even former soldiers. They seemed to be well trained.
The circle slowly turned counter-clockwise, well rehearsed, until a large man with bulky muscles stood directly in front of Deikon. His face was strewn with filth and a grim, toothless smile was directed Deikon's way.
His skills were still up to date, but he seemed as though he had been on the road long. A bit too long.
"What be ye?" The man rumbled.
"What do you mean?" Deikon said calmly, maintaining his composure in such a dangerous situation. Elbrem could not understand how he could do it. He was nearly wetting himself already.
"Ye caught them bolts. What be ye?"
"A simple warrior," Deikon proclaimed, "And I suggest that you and your men leave before I have to use some of my other tricks."
Like a pack of hyenas, the ratty group burst into a howl of laughter. They had already marked the odds of nine to one for them. They knew the little one was of no concern as they dismissed the recent spectacle as luck; for the lone man to make such proclamations was most entertaining.
"I say ye give us your loots," The bandit leader went on, patting the hilt of a large sword on his hip, "Or we be teachin' you a lesson."
Deikon straightened his posture, stuck out his chest, squinted his eyes and curled his lip. He would see combat this day.
It brought a hefty curse from the monstrous soldier as he drew his blade, along with the eight others. They began to circle then again, throwing scowls, barks, and curses their way.
Deikon's taut muscles flashed out as he took a few swings at the air before going down in a low crouch.
"Elbrem," He whispered, to which the halfling peered out of his cloak with blurred eyes, "The moment you see an opening, I want you to dash for the bushes. Got that?"
The boy nodded.
Round and round the circle went, the leader had backed off at that moment, leaving the entertainment to his soldiers. They observed their enemy, an unarmed fighter in the centre of a well spaced circle, impenetrable by their thoughts.
He only had one good eye, as well. Most advantageous on their part, they were certain. The circle had stopped, and the man on Deikon's right began to shift.
He was convinced he was invisible to the warrior. He was in the line of sight of the man's right eye. It was a pity it was missing, the man cackled to himself.
Unbeknownst to him, though Deikon's eye was missing, the patch, enchanted by the great Fumpus himself, allowed Deikon to have perfect peripheral vision in both eyes. It was as though he wasn't missing an eye at all.
The bandit had erred.
The man came on in a barrage of fury, his comrades looking on with confidence – confidence that was heightened as Deikon continued to stand still, seemingly unaware of the approaching man, his blade drawn high.
But the bandit had erred.
Only a moment before the scoundrel would take a swing, Deikon went low, his legs spread wide to the sides, as he launched a hardened fist into the man's abdomen. That stopped him in his tracks. He followed through with a low sweeping kick, lifting the stunned man off his feet and sending him crashing into the soft floor. One down, Deikon thought, as he made a final strike to the bandit's face, knocking him unconscious.
No longer did the group have the confidence they had before Deikon's first strike. The laughs and grins were now replaced with a series of growls and scowls. The air filled with the song of swords being pulled from sheaths. At that moment, Deikon felt that Elbrem's random chords were a much more pleasing ambiance.
Now was not the time to remain unarmed. Deikon reached to his side where his Switch-Staff dangled. He unclipped it from his belt and held it out in front of him. It was only a foot in length, made with wood and etched with jagged symbols.
The growls and scowls returned to cackles and grins. The group's confidence had returned. It was no more than a tube that their enemy was holding. Seven swords united against a lone man with a wooden stick. They liked their odds.
A switch was hit the foot long stick shot out in both directions, extending to a full length battle staff. The odds weren't so good for the bandits anymore.
"It's only a stick!" The large one, still standing to the side, hollered to his men, "You are armed with swords. It is no more than a wooden stick. It will buckle under the force of your swords. Now march!"
They moved forward, swords drawn, a mixture of scowls and grins on all their faces. The circle got smaller and smaller, and Deikon still needed a space for his little friend to dash through.
Waiting for the perfect moment, he crouched low. Elbrem did the same, but not for the same reasons as Deikon. In a quick flash he let the staff loose behind him, crashing its end into the chest of an astonished brute.
A space was open! Deikon held onto his companion's collar and leaped through the gap, tossing him into the bushes once the circle was cleared. He mouthed his apologies as he heard his friend tumble and crash out of sight.
Seven more to go; the odds weren't so good. His attention was differed back to the crowd as he eyed two bandits moving to flank him. He waited, wanting them to take his sides; he wanted them to get into a position that he could turn against them.
The rest of the group held back, letting the two moves out to the edges of the path. Both were very cautious in their approach, especially the one moving along Deikon's right. They were aware of the patch, but they were also aware that he could sense, or even see, anything that approached from that direction.
But their cautiousness was costing them too much time. It was time to step it up a notch.
"Stop dawdling!" Their commander bellowed.
So they made their move.
The two flanking the lone warrior began their attack, diving in with swords leading. They were quickly deflected away with a quick tap of Deikon's staff. Their defences were wide open. He made quick work of them as pushed his staff straight forward, its ends simultaneously colliding with the tenderness of each man's stomach. Lurched over, they were vulnerable to his leathered boots as Deikon lifted off the ground, making a complete flip backwards, connecting with their faces on the way. Two more were down.
The remaining bandits would not make the same mistake of splitting from their group; they attacked all at once. It was a storm of swords, a barrage of fury as five moved on one. The swords emitted a mixture of clangs and thuds as it came in contact with their opponent's staff. They were surprised to see it hold up so well, but were even more surprised at how fast Deikon was moving to block each and every attack.
One dropped out of the fight as he tumbled to the earthen floor, a harmonic humming in his ear. The last image he viewed was that of a little boy, clubbing him over the head with some sort of instrument.
Deikon could not keep up with the flurry that bore down on him. He blocked high left; low right, turned away a jab, missed a swipe moving high and right, missed a slash toward his left leg. He was getting in bad shape with nicks, scrapes and slashes marking his arms and legs.
And then it began.
His eyes seemed to drift away from the moving weapons ahead of him. He gazed into infinite, yet he still blocked each and every attack that was thrown his way. Faster and faster he moved until the blades were too slow to be of any threat.
In one deft swipe, he sent the troupe several yards down the forest path.
They all looked on him in horror, his gaze hollow and lifeless and sending chills of utter fear down the spines of the bandits. They had their own suspicions as to what this man had become.
"Demon!" They cried out in horror, "He is possessed!"
They scrambled away, passed their leader, and far into deepest reaches of the path, never to return.
"Come back here! He is no demon!" The barbarian reached for his sword – one that would require a normal man to wield with two hands – and held it with an extended arm, "We shall see who the demon is."
Reaching into a small pouch, the warrior pulled out a brownish substance and began to chew on it. Within moments he began to get rowdy, smacking the flat side of his blade against his palm, digging into the dirt with his foot, and howling at the sky.
"Ever hear of savage root, my friend?" His voice was deep, haunting and he drooled with each vowel, "Makes a berserker out of any man. Oh, the joys of being unstoppable!"
Deikon stood calm, waiting for the man to take action, his Switch-Staff back at his side. It wasn't long before returned to his nimble steps as the large blade came up and bore down on the honed fighter. Deikon was able to dive away in time – and the decision was wise – as the weapon came down, bearing a deep slit into the ground.
The beast was quick to recover, slashing wide to the side through dust filled air, but again Deikon dove. A few trees were unfortunate to be in the path, being cleanly severed from their perches.
Another swipe and another, Deikon only dove from each attack. He did not remain as nimble as he caught a glance that tore a long line across his thigh while leaping high into a nearby tree.
"A demon you be," The berserker uttered, "No man can jump that high." He gazed upon the man as Deikon's wound began to close, his face straining through much pain, "A demon you be."
The behemoth found himself face to face with the man again, his opponent's feet landing softly on the soil. He had him now, right in his grasp. There was no way he could escape with one final swipe across. He held his sword out wide, began to make a powerful slash to catch his opponent in his powerful trap…
Deikon opened the Switch-Staff once more, right into the berserker's chin, snapping his neck back. In one final blow, he squared a kick into the fiend's chest, sending him crashing into a tree on the opposite side of the path.
The prone fighter was still, very still. Deikon approached him and checked his pulse. He smiled and nodded to know that he was still alive. It was against Deikon's personal code to kill a man, no matter how savage he was. By the time he would wake he would be rid of the savage root's influence, but he would remember what had transpired. Hopefully what he remembers will deter him from coming down these paths again.
"Deikon!" A small voice cried out from the bushes, "It's so quiet now! Is it over?"
"Yes, it's over." Deikon chuckled and moved over to where the voice was being emitted. He extended an arm into the bush and pulled his friend into the open airs.
"Did you see?" Elbrem breathed giddily.
"I took out a bandit." The halfling made swiping motions with his arms, "Tripped him up and smacked him in the head with my..." A look of horror flushed over his face as he dashed back to the bush, "My lute!" He bellowed, holding up what used to be his most prized possession.
"Well, at least the return of the songs of the wood will be most pleasing to the ear," Deikon dared to speak, drawing a cold glare from his friend. Deikon could only shrug in response.
"Hey!" A voice hollered from up the path, "Hey you! Are you of Oringard?"
Deikon looked up to see a small man dressed in a thin grey robe. He must have been in his late teens, if not early twenties. He wore a belt with an emblem Deikon did not recognize.
"Are you of Oringard?" The boy repeated.
Deikon simply nodded, looking closer to the emblem of what looked like an E.
"I am of Enrid," The boy continued, "I have come a long way. I must speak with your king, it is urgent."
"We are on duty at the moment," Deikon proclaimed, "We are continuing down the path. You may continue down the path. Oringard is only a few hours away. Just tell them Deikon sent you."
The boy nodded his thanks and started down the path, only to have a firm hand grasp his arm. Deikon's ear perked up, his eyes quickly scanning in and along the trees.
"What is it?" The messenger questioned, only to tighten his lips in silence as Deikon moved a finger in front of his own.
A crossbow from the darkness unleashed a bolt, clipping the messenger in the arm slightly, the force of it pulled back as Deikon grabbed it while in flight. The boy winced painfully and turned over.
Deikon licked the tip of the bolt and spat its contents.
"Firesbane," He spat, getting up to chase the one who had let it fly, only to quickly return to the injured boy's side, "Highly illegal in these parts. Extremely potent as well."
Deikon listened as he heard the figure that hid in the shadows of the woods dash off, long into the distance.
Turning back to the boy, his face now pale, Deikon started fidgeting with a pouch on his belt.
"Is he going to make it?" Elbrem worried with wide eyes as he brushed the boy's hair out of his eyes.
"He'll be fine," Deikon pulled out some small leaves, chewed them up and placed them over the wound, "These should help. At times where my body can't expel poison on its own, I keep these in handy. It should dilute the poison enough for his immune system to take care of the rest."
"Should we head back to Oringard?" Elbrem gazed to Deikon, the concern for the boy spilling from his eyes.
"The mission is over," Deikon said with a tone of finality. He lifted the messenger over his shoulder and made haste to return to Oringard. Elbrem followed close behind, a broken lute in tow.