An Unexpected Arrival
The red sun shone its light on the pristine water, the morning's crimson glow glistening off the metal rungs of a proud ship as it sailed towards a city on the opposite horizon from the giant red disc slowly climbing into the sky. The bow of the ship created slight waves over the calm water, although dark clouds were approaching from the west, lightning sporadically flashing against the ashen sky. The ship's crew ran back and forth, shouting orders, making preparations for the approaching storm. If they continued on their present mission, they would be heading straight into the storm. Unwise for a ship even as well supplied as this one, but their captain ordered the ship to maintain its course. Besides, a storm would deter any attempts of pursuit.
Amid the chaos aboard the ship, a young girl of eighteen stood on the ship's bow, strawberry-blonde hair blowing slightly in the breeze. Her lithe frame stood its full 5'10, straight and proud as her green eyes gazed upon the port city Lilia the ship was approaching, her gaze transfixed on the port town.
"Just a little more.. .it won't be long now."
"Whaddya mean, 'sold out?' I want my beer, old man!" A mountain of a man with the cheeks of a drinker, obviously drunk already, held an older man by the collar of his shirt, pulling him halfway over the counter. The dimly- lit tavern was almost vacant this early in the morning, only a few patrons either eating an early breakfast at their tables or passed out on the floor, drunk on what little alcohol the establishment had left to offer.
"I-I-I'm sorry, sir. The ship that transports the beer overseas is late three days. We've already sold our remaining beer out yesterday. The sign on the door says. ."
"I can read, old man! You're lying! You're hiding it, keeping it all to yourself!"
The tavern owner looks shocked. "Why would I do such a thing? If I don't sell it, I can't run my business! I would never. ."
"You're calling ME a liar?" Picking up the tavern owner, the drunk giant threw him onto the wooden floor. He cracked his knuckles.
"You bring that beer out now, or I'll. ."
"You'll leave that man to his business and mind your own, or you'll answer to me."
The large man turned at the new voice. The speaker framed in the door was a mere silhouette in the doorway, the light spilling in behind him. All that was apparent was that he was 6'1, and his golden hair shone even in the dim dawn light. Had the other man been less gone in drink, he might have recognized this stranger. As it was, the giant was too drunk to identify the newcomer.
"Who the hell are you? Back off, or I'll crush your bones into dust!" He turned on the man menacingly.
The golden-haired stranger stepped forward confidently. "You'll try. .but you'll fail miserably."
"Damn big-mouth! I'll shut you up!" The man swung a sloppy punch, which the golden-haired man easily avoided. Ducking, the stranger rammed his elbow into the bigger man's solar plexus. The giant's eyes bulged as he gasped in pain. The stranger then swept his opponent's feet out from under him, bringing the large man crashing to the ground.
Growling, the large man rolled onto his back, and stared into the face of his attacker. His jaw dropped as recognition finally hit. The golden-haired man had strong, masculine features, icy blue eyes staring coldly down on the fallen man. The golden-haired man wore an elegant looking uniform, consisting of a high-collar white jacket with a golden sash, matching white pants, and a sky blue cloak around his shoulders. The cloak was drawn to one side, exposing a sword belt. One hand rested on the hilt. The giant began to tremble in fear.
"Heaven's mercy. .my lord, I did not know. ."
"You are pardoned for attacking an Imperial officer in your drunken state. However, you are expected to conduct yourself in a more orderly fashion, for next time you may find a sword run through your belly." With that, the officer turned and walked out of the tavern. He found two of his fellow soldiers waiting for him.
"Everything alright in there, Zale?"
The golden-haired Zale nodded. "Just a man who drank a bit too much too early in the morning. Nothing an Imperial Guard can't handle."
The Imperial Guard was a service that had been created back in the days of Emperor Eryk, over 250 years ago. When Eryk and his nomadic clan had first settled in the western Travia peninsula, he had elected his most trusted clansmen to act as guards for his future empire. Though it could hardly be called an organized group back in those days, that was the genesis of the Imperial Guards of the Travia Empire. Advances in structure and politics led to changes over the centuries, and now the Travian Imperial Guard was an organized military unit devoted to serving the wishes of the current Emperor, his Greatness Malisis, maintaining his laws and preserving order within his province.
A dark-haired officer, slightly shorter than Zale nodded. "But we still must be on our guard. No one is to enter or exit the city without our knowing about it."
The third, an older man by the name of Garth grunted his agreement. "Yes. They say the pirate crew Death Raiders were sighted in the area. There are rumors going around; it might have been them who attacked that late ship."
The second man nodded. "I've heard of them! Their leader is called Zayne... .he's a ruthless pirate who kills women and children without discrimination! Some say he's not even a man, but a demon in human form!"
"Enough of that!" Zale ordered sharply, glaring at the young trooper. "Imperial soldiers are not to be swayed by old wives' tales! They are only silly rumors and nothing more. Mark my words; Zayne is an ordinary man, and will bleed at the cut of a sword. If he does appear here, you'll see that for yourselves."
Just then, a horn sounded through the town. The three men heard it and looked at each other knowingly.
"An assembly. We'd had better get going." Garth stated. The trio headed towards a large building set a little ways back from the waterfront, its pearl-white walls and circular towers glistening in the sun. It was quite beautiful really, but Zale noticed the dark clouds rolling in from the west, and the sight of them behind the shining building gave the morning an ominous feeling, almost like a bad premonition. He shook his head.
((Must be just my imagination. Those rumors are starting to mess with my head. We've nothing to worry about.))
Ten minutes later, the group sat in a large room on folding chairs, listening to their commander as he spoke. Most of the Imperial guards in the city were here; only a few select had remained behind to maintain order in the city. Zale, being one of the higher-ranking officers, was required to attend all assembles. These assemblies were one of many procedures that helped to unify the minds and spirits of the soldiers.
"Men of the Emperor Malisis, we face a short but real period of uncertainty. Regular supplies from the Medwin province overseas have not arrived on our shores due to bandits roaming the seas. Not any regular bandits, but a group of pirates known as the Death Raiders, led by the fierce murderer Zayne. I'm sure many of you have already heard pieces of this troubling news."
Zale folded his arms, a hint of disgust in his eyes. Why so dramatic? Maybe his fellow officers and superiors were afraid of this Zayne, but Zale wasn't. He was confident he could run the scoundrel through like any other man.
"We have no evidence of these claims, but we must ensure that no more ships meet the same fate as our previous suppliers. We have confirmed the safe arrival of a supply ship on course to our fair city Lilia, due to arrive in twenty minutes. We expect no problems, but until further notified, the port guard will be doubled an hour before and after all arrivals and departures. We have sent requests inland for more support troops and a destroyer vessel. Neither will arrive within a week's time, so until then we must fortify our port as best we can."
Zale looked around at the group of soldiers. His superiors were right; extra defense was needed. Lilia was hardly a strategic point in any battles with the empires' surrounding countries, and should the pirates attack them in full force, they would be hard pressed to push them back. Prodigies like Zale and battle-hardened veterans like Garth were encouraging, but their numbers were limited, and Zale would only rate the skill of their troops as mediocre at best.
"You all will be filed into two squads. The port squad will be stationed at the port to receive the ship and keep on guard against intruders. The patrol squad will be stationed in smaller groups around the city, to remain behind as usual. Go speak to your commanding officers to find out which squad you've been assigned to. Go in honor, and in the Emperor's name."
The men dispersed to their sections within the compound, eager to find out their posting so they could prepare for the ship's arrival. Zale went looking for his commander, but didn't have to look very hard. His commander found him.
Zale turned around and saluted. "Sir."
"At ease. You're being assigned to the port squad. I want you there if anything happens."
"Understood, sir." He turned to go.
"Zale, wait. I wasn't finished."
Zale looked back at his superior.
"I'm assigning these five to the port squad under your command. Make good use of them." He handed Zale a list of five names. The golden- haired youth scanned the list briefly before looking up.
"You want me to command?"
The commander nodded. "Our port's too big for all of us to keep in constant communication. We need people in command who can keep their head in battle and understand the grand scale of what's at stake here. I can trust you with this, I assume?"
Zale nodded, and saluted again. "Sir, yes sir!"
"You feel comfortable taking command of these men?"
"It wouldn't be my first time, sir. I only. .I thought perhaps someone with more experience might be. .?"
"True, but we're counting on the strength of youth as much as experience. That seems to work better against pirates."
Zale nodded. "Understood. You can count on me, sir!"
His commander saluted him back. "I know I can. Dismissed, soldier."
Zale went to his locker within the compound, changing from his more formal patrol attire into a common foot soldier uniform - a brown leather suit with metal arm and leg guards, breastplate, and helmet. Zale kept his sword though - it had been his father's when he had been in the service of the Imperial Guard. His father had been an soldier for many years, and thus was often away from home, leaving Zale's mother to raise a young boy by herself, with the help of their neighbors, which also looked after him. Zale had always wanted to hear stories about his father's battles and adventures in lands beyond Travian borders. His mother would tell them to him, leaving out details she thought inappropriate or unsuitable for a young boy, often before putting him to bed.
Zale had been fourteen when they had received word that his father had gone missing. He had vanished, and it was concluded that he had abandoned the Imperial Guard. Zale was outraged at the mere suggestion; his father would never dissent! He had been a faithful servant of the Emperor for over 20 years, and still they doubted his loyalty? It was then, Zale decided looking back, that his desire to become an Imperial Guard had solidified. He would enter the Guard, become an officer like his father, and restore the honor of his family name. Having trained at such a young age, he became a great swordsman and rose through the ranks of the Imperial Guard with unparalleled speed. He had been given his father's sword, the only possession they had found of his. Zale kept it in good condition; cleaning, sharpening, and oiling the blade always after using it. Due to such care, it was remarkably well preserved, considering the blade was over 20 years of age itself.
Snapping out of his reverie, Zale fitted the sword belt to his waist and set out for the docks. On the way he met Garth, dressed in similar attire with the exception of the large object strapped to his back. Unlike most soldiers who trained with a sword or spear, Garth wielded a massive iron hammer, forged and tempered to withstand even the hardest blows. Despite his age, Garth still contained the strength of an ox, and could lift the heavy weapon as though it were a wooden staff. Coupled with his years of experience, Garth was a force to be reckoned with in battle. He met Zale with a big grin on his face.
"So we've both been assigned to the port! Figured you would be, of course, but I wondered if they would let an old man like me get in the way." He chuckled.
Zale grinned back, and shook his head. "You're more valuable than most of the young men we have here. I've heard of your battles when you were in the Emperor's army. Now those was impressive battles!"
Garth shrugged. "It was war. Every man played his part. That's all in the past. .let's focus on the mission at hand."
Zale nodded. Garth never did like talking about his experience in the Emperor's army, and Zale didn't want to pry. It was hard at times though, since Zale's goal was to one day gain enough rapport to gain admittance to the army himself. But he respected his friend's wishes to keep his silence.
"I've been put in charge of five men while we're down at the docks. You're one of them." Zale showed the older man the list he'd been given.
Garth glanced at the paper and nodded. "Fine with me. The two of us are unstoppable. No pirate stands a chance 'gainst us, eh?" He said with a wink.
Zale grinned. "My thoughts exactly."
The supply ship fit smoothly against the pier as it docked. A ramp was lowered, and some dock workers rushed forward to open the cargo bay. Zale, along with Garth and the three other men under his command, stood near the bay. They might be asked to help with unloading the cargo. A waste of manpower in Zale's opinion, but orders were orders.
The cargo bay door was lowered, and a loud roar came from inside. Zale turned his head, attentive, and his eyes grew wide. Twenty pirates, all carrying short swords, swarmed out of the cargo bay, quickly wounded or knocking down the defenseless cargo workers, rushing at the surprised soldiers.
"The pirates have seized the cargo ship! To arms, men!" Zale roared, drawing his sword. The four with him likewise drew their weapons and rushed to meet him. Garth moved away from the rest of the group into the melee; Zale didn't mind though. Garth needed room to wield his hammer, and he was experienced in fighting while outnumbered. Zale swung his sword in a backhanded arc, parrying a thrust by an enemy pirate, and quickly slashed downward as he shifted to the side. The pirate went down.
Pirates were now running down the ramp, adding to the invaders' strength. Since the ramp was on the other side from Zale's group though, there was little they could do about that, plus they were hard-pressed already. It seemed that the majority of the pirates' forces were around the cargo bay.
Zale charged through the pirates cutting, slashing, stabbing, and thrusting his way through the chaos. He received a few glancing cuts and scratches, but no major wounds impeded him. About seven pirates fell to his blade, and with the other soldiers holding their ground, Zale took a moment to assess the situation.
The main battle was around the cargo bay, with a few combatants locked in place around the docks. The troops were doing well in keeping the battle contained along the waterfront. But just as he was about to return to battle, quick movement caught Zale's eye. Five pirates, away from the rest of the invaders, ran up a street leading away from the main battle.
No! They're entering the city! We've got to keep them here at the docks!
Zale caught the older man's eye, and looked towards the isolated pirate group. Garth followed Zale's gaze, then nodded. Giving a smile of gratitude, Zale ran after them in hot pursuit. Without a word, the two men had understood each other. Garth would command their unit until Zale returned.
"It's this way! Just a little further!"
A bulky pirate, dressed in a striped shirt and red bandana led the other four in the group through the city. As they charged down the street, a few patrol soldiers caught sight of them.
"Hey you! Stop right there!" One shouted. Drawing their swords, the two began to follow, but barely took two steps before darts struck their throats. A small teenage pirate with long arms and legs had flung poison darts with deadly accuracy, his projectiles hitting their mark. He grinned as they continued their flight through the city.
Soon the group reached a small, flat gray building. Two guards stood outside the entrance, and a pair of twins from the pirate group engaged them in battle while the large pirate, the young boy, and a third mysterious figure dressed all in black entered the compound.
The three raced into a little office, startling the guards there.
"Who the hell? You're not allowed here!" The bulky pirate with the red bandana made short work of the guards inside with two swift punches. Grabbing the keys, he tossed them to the black figure, who now led the race through a heavy door, down a flight of stairs, and into an prison area. Several of the in-mates yelled and hollered for the black figure to release them, but the pirates was looking for one person in particular. Eventually, they found a cell containing an old man.
At the sound of his name, the old man's head shot up and he walked over to the cell door, a bit of a limp in his step.
"By Alyssa's waves, it's really you! Zayne, I knew you'd come for me!"
The black figure nodded. "Always."
The large pirate placed the key into the lock, and pulled the door open. Zayne and Mervin came together for a quick embrace.
"Are you hurt?"
Mervin shook his head. "No, but I'm afraid I won't be able to keep up with you. You already knew that though." He glanced down at his bad leg.
Zayne nodded. "Bruno!"
The pirate that had opened the cell door now scooped the old man into his arms, and the group raced back out of the building. When they reached outside, they stopped in surprise. The twins lay on the ground, their wounds heavy. A soldier, sword in hand, grinned slightly as the group emerged.
"So that's what this is, a jailbreak?"
It wasn't difficult to follow the pirates' trail. Zale found two guards lying on the ground, groaning.
"You alright?" Zale asked, kneeling next to one of them.
One of them nodded.
"They. .headed towards the prison. .be careful. ."
"I'll be back to help you soon. Just stay still for now."
Moving on, he found the two prison soldiers slain, and two identical twins, pirates, standing over them. Yelling a war cry, Zale sliced one down the back before he could turn around. His twin, enraged, spun around in dizzying circles, then suddenly thrust his sword, aimed at Zale's head. The young man ducked, and thrust his own sword into his opponent's chest. He joined his brother on the ground. Zale had no time to celebrate though, as more pirates emerged from the prison, carrying a newly sprung inmate. A light went off in Zale's head. It all made sense now. The bloody battle down at the docks was all just a diversion so these pirates could break out the old man.
"So that's what this is, a jailbreak?"
A black-robed figure looked at the other pirates. "You three return to the ship. I'll be there shortly." This mysterious figure had a strange, high- pitched voice.
"We won't leave you to. ."
"Go, NOW!" He thundered.
The three reluctantly moved away. Zale let them go; this black- dressed man was his opponent.
"Zayne, I presume? I must say this is an honor."
Zayne chuckled in that weird, high-pitched voice. "You must be either brave or crazy to challenge me. Prepare to die!" Zayne drew a short sword and thrust it at Zale. Zale dodged to the side and swung his own sword, but the pirate blocked and jumped high in the air, twisting over Zale's head. The black figure brought his sword down in an overhead chop, but Zale stepped back, then quickly charged into Zayne with his shoulder, knocking him down. Taking advantage of his charge move, Zale thrust his sword towards Zayne's heart. The pirate rolled to the side just in time, Zale's sword slashing the black cloak. Zale pulled his sword back, yanking the cloak off and ripping some of the clothes off the pirate. Zale took a step back in shock.
"You. .you're a girl?"
Before him stood a young girl, about 5'10 with strawberry-blonde hair and dazzlingly green eyes. Her pretty features were formed in a glare as she got up off the ground.
"Got a problem with that?" She dropped the disguised voice, her normal voice rang in Zale's ears like the chime of a bell.
She twisted the hilt on her sword, and suddenly the blade separated into segments, connected by a flexible iron cable. The girl charged full- force at Zale, swinging the segmented sword with expertise. Zale swung his sword upward, deflecting the strike, and retreated a few steps, holding his sword at the ready.
Zayne slashed at his neck. Zale brought his sword up to block, but one segment grazed his cheek, making a small cut. Zale barely flinched. He moved forward, making sharp deft chopping motions with his sword, but Zayne blocked or dodged all attacks. She suddenly lunged forward, and Zale stepped back, swinging his sword in an arc to block the attack. Zale's block had lots of force behind, forcing Zayne back a few steps.
Suddenly, Zale felt a sharp prick in his neck. He turned to see the teenager laughing at him. He had been struck with one of those darts. He had no time to deal with that though, as Zayne charged at him again, her sword-whip coming down on him. Zale brought his blade up to block, and got to his feet wobbly. Whatever the poison was, it made him feel feverish and made his vision swirl. Zayne whipped her segmented sword to the side, then down diagonally. Zale backed up, parrying both attacks.
"What's the matter? Going easy on me because I'm a girl? Face the facts, soldier-boy. If you don't fight your hardest, you'll end up dead!" She yelled, slashing at his feet. Zale jumped, lifting his feet off the ground, then brought his feet down on her segmented sword, yanking it from her hand. He held his sword out, poised at her neck. Zayne stood there, still with awe.
"No way. .he beat me even when he was poisoned!?"
He glared at her, focusing hard. "Surrender now, or die."
"Put it away, soldier. We've got insurance."
Zale looked over at the teenager standing nearby. He had a young woman at knifepoint, poised at her throat. Zale felt a chill run down his spine despite the fever the poison had given him.
Zayne rolled away from Zale, grinning. "Don't even think of following us. We'll be taking her as a hostage, to ensure a clean getaway."
Zale swallowed; his vision was fuzzy again. But he took a step forward. "Stop this Zayne! She's innocent, she has nothing to do with this!"
Zayne nodded. "Which is why you'll let us escape, if you value her life."
Zale didn't know the young woman, but it was the sworn duty of all Imperial soldiers to protect the citizenry. But in his weakened state, Zale wasn't sure he could stop them. One last plan came into his mind. He hated to do it, but he was sworn to protect any innocent person.
"Let her go, Zayne! Take me as your hostage instead!"
And this, he saw, wasn't expected. Zayne was silent for a moment, looking at him closely.
"You'll agree to be our hostage?"
Zale nodded. The motion took more effort than it should have. "Yes."
Zayne stared at him suspiciously for a moment. "I want your word, on your honor as a Imperial soldier, that you'll come willingly and won't try to escape."
It was really becoming difficult to breath. Zale pushed the hazy feeling back as much he could. Now would not be a good to pass out.
"I swear it, on my honor."
She seemed satisfied. "Throw down your sword."
Zale sheathed it and threw it at Zayne's feet. A wave of dizziness hit him and he got down on one knee. He blinked rapidly, trying to make the world stabilize.
The large pirate came running up. "Mervin's on the ship. I came back to help, but it looks like you've got everything under control." He stated, looking at the poisoned soldier.
Zayne motioned towards Zale. "Pick him up. We're taking that soldier with us."
The massive pirate hoisted Zale over his shoulder, who in his weakened state could offer no resistance. The pirate band then made their way back to the ship. Zale started to feel even hotter and soon passed out.
The Imperial Guards were doing well against the pirates. They had killed or wounded a lot of pirates, but had sustained heavy losses themselves. Garth dragged an injured young soldier around a building, serving as a temporary first aid center. Leaving the youth in the medics' care, Garth went back into the battle to drive the pirates back. Before he reached the center of the fighting though, Garth caught sight of the isolated pirate group return. They avoided the battle nearby, running up the plank of the ship. Garth gasped as he noticed Zale was slumped over a pirate's shoulder.
Garth made his way towards the ship, fighting off pirates as he went. His progress was quite slow, since the pirates still had plenty of strength left. But he was determined to reach Zale. As he made his way to the other side however, the plank was drawn up, cutting him off! The remaining pirates fell back into the cargo bay, and raised the door.
((Dammit! Zale, there's nothing I can do!))
As Garth watched helplessly, the ship backed out of the harbor towards the sea. The guards were too weary from the battle to stop them, and could only watch as the pirate's borrowed ship set out back across the sea. Garth stood among them, his eyes staring after the ship, full of worry.