Never Heroes
XXIV: Wagers

It was no surprise to Keaton that he was the lone person to accompany Chip when the King decided to attack the Church a few days later. The island housed a large complex that acted as the living quarters and congregation spot for the Church and its servants. Landscaping around the buildings was very minimal, as there was not much land available. What little shrubbery was present appeared to have any life it once held sucked from it.

The duo arrived on the manmade island with ease. There were no defensive measures taken against them and no troops to greet them when they made landfall. Chip complained about how "that ugly-eared bastard of an advisor lied" about the dangers associated with invading the island. Keaton heard him but didn't respond. His attention was focused elsewhere.

Keaton had only been to the compound a handful of times, and each time he had gone as a personal body guard of Saeed's. It would be lie for him to say he understood the daily happenings and routines of the Church. Yet he knew something was off. The moment he first registered the dead shrubs he began to hyper-analyze the entire situation. Fish carcasses were washing up upon the rocky shoreline. Eerie silence hung over them like a darkening storm cloud. Straining his ears, Keaton sought any sign of life but nothing called back to him.

"Something is wrong," he finally said. That silenced whatever complaint Chip was in the middle of making.

Chip turned to face Keaton and found that the man was rigid as a board. Seeing Keaton afraid did nothing to deter Chip, who marched toward the building without hesitation. "Obviously. No one is here. Is this the front door?" he asked.

Keaton watched as Chip approached the large, heavy, absurdly decorated marble doors that were the main entrance to the congregation hall. What normally required two grown men to open with difficulty was flung open by Chip as if they were made of paper. The King disappeared into the darkness of the enemy stronghold. Keaton waited for the sound of battle but nothing came. He resolved to follow Chip inside.

It came as no shock to Keaton to find the place had been abandoned. The lack of activity had already made that abundantly clear. The only thing he couldn't understand was why. As he surveyed the interior of the congregation hall, he noticed that none of the priceless artifacts had been taken. All of the paintings, sculptures, and other works of art and culture remained in place. It was obvious that the members had left with the intention of returning. But when?

"I'm disappointed."

Keaton's heart stopped. His throat went dry. That was a voice he hadn't expected to hear inside the walls of that hall. When had Saeed arrived? Had he been there waiting for them? Or had he just arrived, an incident that could only be described as fate? Was he there to attack them or the Church? Was he the reason the members of the Church seemingly vanished?

Saeed stood on the other side of the large open room. The distance could have been covered by Chip in a mere blink but the King did not react. It seemed to Keaton that Chip was patiently waiting for Saeed to explain his comment. He even crossed his arms over his chest as though he were defiant against the former Prince. It stood as a stark contrast to Saeed, who looked tense and ready for a fight.

A quick check of their surroundings and it appeared as though they were alone. Keaton knew the immense power Chip held. He had suffered from it himself. Saeed stood no chance. Despite the distance that had grown between Saeed and Keaton's heart, he couldn't help but feel a sudden surge of restlessness within. He didn't want to see harm befall Saeed.

Saeed continued, "I gave my power to you because I believed no one could bear the burden of the crown better than the Lancer. You were supposed to be infallible. A man of character unmatched, of integrity unbreakable. It appears I was mistaken."

"I've done more to move your people forward in my short time than you did in your entire life," Chip goaded.

Saeed eyed Chip quietly but never disputed the claim. Debating who ruled better was pointless. In his mind, neither deserved the privileged of being called "great." Besides, there was someone present that deserved his attention more than Chip. Turning his eyes to Keaton, he said, "You disappoint me even more. When you couldn't protect Sa'dia you should have avenged her. Instead you bow at the altar of her killer. All you have ever known is servitude. It's all you will ever amount to. What a waste."

Keaton's entire being felt weighed down by Saeed's words. There was something biting not just in content but also in tone. Saeed scolded him the way only a King could scold a servant. Yet it felt like he was being reprimanded by a father. Even if Keaton wanted to defend himself from the verbal attack he couldn't. All of the fears, guilt, doubts, and misgivings that he had tried to bury were surfacing. He wasn't sure what to do.

Chip, however, wasted no time in firing back. "What right do you have to talk to him like that? You're the one who kept him a servant. I'm the reason Sa'dia isn't here," he said.

Saeed's attention turned back to him. There was something unsettling in the way the dead Prince eyed him, as though he were mocking him. Between this and Chip's already strong feelings against Saeed, he felt the rage building within. By this point, Chip had learned to embrace the wrath that swelled. Before all of this, he had snuffed out those negative feelings with false optimism and friendlessness. Now that he had nothing left, he had no reason to masquerade.

Chip's hand went to the hilt of his sword; Saeed shifted in preparation for an attack. "You don't have the right to lecture him on Sa'dia or where he places his loyalty. Where's your loyalty to him or Sa'dia? You don't have any," Chip accused.

Saeed said nothing. He merely cocked his head to the side, like a puppy processing a foreign sound. The only change in attitude came when his eyes darkened.

Keaton surprised even himself when he heard his shaking voice say, "You are in no position to criticize. I have made mistakes but I will atone for them. But for you? Your arrogance has grown."

"I have atoned. Death was my atonement."

"Death is not atonement. It is a consequence."

Again, the only sign of emotion was in Saeed's eyes. They narrowed, as though he were both confused and offended by the words out of Keaton's mouth. The sword in his possession was removed from the sheath but a few inches. "If I have to kill you, I will ensure your soul is protected, so that it may enter Eternal Heaven at the end."

Keaton was silent. He didn't even move his body in reaction to the obvious physical threat that Saeed made when the dead Prince prepared to brandish his sword. All he could do was swallow the dry lump stuck in his throat.

The first to attack was Chip. He unleashed a blast of energy from where he stood, let loose by a half-hearted jabbing of his fist. The incoming attack crossed the distance between the two men within a blink. Saeed was able to deflect blast, brandishing his sword and cutting the offensive strike with a single upward swing. As the energy dispersed, its intense heat burned objects in its path. Anything flammable, from rugs to paintings, was lit by the concentrated energy.

The two men exchanged several such attacks in quick succession. Keaton was a bewildered observer, trying to gather all the data being his sent his way but being unable to process it fully before more actions took place. The fight was happening at speeds his eyes couldn't keep up with.

"I never liked you very much," a newcomer's voice said, startling close to his ear, "but I'd hate to be the asshole that kills you. Do us all a favor and get out of here while you can."

Twirling around, Keaton found that Emily was mere inches from him. The proximity of her caused him to stumble backward. His heart seized from the scare. Although he towered over her, he felt undeniably small underneath her fierce gaze. After releasing a held breath, he mustered up enough authority to spit back, "I will not abandon His Majesty the way you have."

She gave a half smirk, feigned agreement with a nod, and then said, "It's almost like you didn't listen to what Saeed just said. Don't you think you're worth a little more than that? Or do you have some perverted sense of duty like that kid we fucked up in the mountains?"

It took a few seconds for what Emily said to click in Keaton's head. She was talking about Ervin. The memory did nothing to ease Keaton, who soon felt his body heat up in a fit of rage. Without thought he drew his small sword and attempted an attack on Emily. It was futile. Effortlessly she caught the blade in the palm of her hand.

The sharp edge should have cut her skin, but it didn't leave a scratch. A red mark where the edge made contact was all that came from his useless attempt. With a simply flick of her wrist the blade was broken. She discarded the worthless metal nonchalantly.

Keaton was undeterred despite having his sword broken in half like a toothpick. He thrusted what remained of the blade at Emily. She caught it again. It looked as though she was preparing to counter by throwing a punch, but she never got the chance.

Emily sensed someone approaching from behind. Immediately she loosened her grip on the sword. Instinct had her duck and twist to face her attacker. Chip had come to Keaton's rescue and attempted to shank Emily in the back with his own sword. There was no chance for her to defend herself. Someone else did.

The appearance of Walter before Chip certainly jolted something within the mad King's psyche, as he sputtered to a halt as he tried to reconcile reality with his wishes. It was the same for Walter, who despite having made the decision to defend Emily, still had yet to fully embrace the idea that Chip was their mortal enemy. The result was a few seconds of downtime in an otherwise chaotic situation.

Emily scurried back to her feet and away from the dumbfounded group. Removing her own sword from its sheath she prepared to attack Chip. She was stopped, however, when Walter put his hand out. The basic gesture was enough for her to slow down and cease attacking.

Silence entered the hall. Walter observed Chip closely. The King before him was still the same average man that he had grown up with; Chip still slumped his shoulders, still leaned unceremoniously on his right leg, and had done nothing to change his subpar physical condition despite his warrior status. These little things comforted him. They were a reminder of his friend, little ticks and quirks that belonged entirely to him.

Then his eyes reached Chip's face. While he had managed to keep his hair short enough to keep it out of his face, it was matted and greasy, shoved upward by the circlet that signified his position. Spotty stubble adorned Chip's chin, cheeks, and above his lip. The skin was red and with blemishes. His lips were dray and cracked.

Yet what gave Walter pause were Chip's eyes. Walter had never been one to believe the eyes were some sort of window into people's souls – he hadn't ever really believed in souls before, for that matter. Eyes were nothing more than an organ that reflected light and processed visual detail. However it took only a brief glance into Chip's eyes for him to notice a stark difference. There was no beacon of hope shining within; nor was there a murky, brewing storm of fury. They were dead, bleak, empty.

The silence was shattered when Walter let the sword in his hand slip. The sound of it clattering against the stone floor reverberated. Chip didn't even flinch at the sight or sound. Walter offered a compromise, "Put your sword down. Let's fight like men. We haven't thrown punches since we were kids. If I win, you come with us."

"To where?" Chip asked.

"To meet God."

Chip laughed. It was brief. "God? You don't believe in God."

"I don't know any other term that would work in this case," Walter said, refusing to elaborate further.

A beat passed before Chip asked, "What if I win?"

There was only one thing that Chip wanted, only one thing that could possibly satisfy him. Walter knew it wasn't his place to offer, but did so regardless, "Whatever it takes, even if it comes down to the last drop of our energy, Sarah will be returned to you."

Emily wasn't fond of such an offer and made to clear when she quietly cursed Walter's name. It caused Chip to glance her direction, but she had turned away. Then his eyes went to the next person in the room, Saeed. Saeed showed no outward sign of emotion over Walter's offer.

Chip questioned, "What will you do if I win?"

Saeed didn't hesitate. "I will kill the Grand Master for making that decision for Sarah. And then I will you."

"I'll slit Saeed's throat, so that doesn't happen," Walter countered immediately.

"Why don't you slit his throat now?" Chip said.

Walter processed the request and contemplated it, although it happened within a few seconds and without a change in expression, so those around him had no idea. It wasn't until he bent down to pick his discarded sword up did the others react. Emily said something to him, but he didn't hear it; the only sound he registered was the annoyed huff from Saeed.

Everything happened within a span of a few seconds. Walter rapidly approached Saeed, who stood ready to defend. Someone approached from Walter's left and he diverted his attention to spearing the oncoming attacker. His small sword pierced through flesh just above a small plate of armor, popping through the flesh like a toothpick into a freshly baked pie. The arm of the attack went dead; a sword in the process of being swung at Walter clattered to the ground as the hand went numb and slack.

Walter ripped the sword from the attacker harshly, slicing more nerves and muscle as he freed his sword. The enemy flopped to the ground, smashing their head against the hard flooring as they fell. He turned his attention to finishing off this would-be enemy, and found that it was Keaton whom he had just maimed. Regardless, there was no hesitation as he lifted his sword and prepared to jab it into the young man's throat.

Yet he couldn't. It wasn't a psychological barrier, nor was anyone physically holding his arm back. However no matter the force and effort he put into it, his arm simply would not budge. It was as though it was frozen in place. Even attempting to lower his arm caused him immense pain. His entire body began to tense. He could feel his skin turn red as the temperature in body rose every time he tried to move.

The next to enter his vision was Sarah, who had thus far been absent. As she knelt next to Keaton, Saeed and Emily descended to the site and prepared to protect Sarah should Walter turn his sword on her. As soon as he was at her side, Saeed asked Sarah, "Is this Brother Kaveh's power? You have it?"

It was clear he was referring to the stone-still Walter. Sarah, however, hadn't even looked at Walter. Her attention was on Keaton. "I don't have Brother Kaveh's ego. I have Sister Tahere's," she said.

Saeed glanced down at Keaton, who had already lost consciousness. The injury was severe, but Sarah had already repaired the worst of it. Her immediate appearance at Keaton's side made sense given her confession. Saeed looked back to Walter and found the hold on him was lessening gradually. Afraid of the truth, Saeed hesitated to look toward Chip. Slowly he gained the confidence to and slowly his eyes moved that direction. Chip was gone.

A sudden sensation of warmth tickled Saeed's neck. Violently shifting direction, he looked up just in time to see the tip of Chip's sword honed in on his heart and moving to strike.