Still thwarting Sloth's mind control... Circulation: 123,711,044 Issue: 249 | 21st day of Swimming, Y8
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The Price of Faith: Part Six


by mutedsanity

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The corridors seemed to go on forever. One right after another, pushing us along down stairs and through doors when there was nowhere else to go. All the while we hardly even breathed, stepping as though expecting there to be land mines under our feet, jumping at every little noise. My heart was beating so loud that I could have sworn Radom could hear it. After what seemed like ages of walking, I was certain the bottom floor was approaching soon, and so far so good.

     But, of course, at one point we heard footsteps behind us, steadily approaching. Panicking, the three of us dove into the nearest silent room, and found ourselves in a large stone area with several wooden barrels scattered about, filled with food. To my despair, the multiple footsteps were still getting ever-closer, and so we all dove into the first barrels we saw upon impulse. While Radom and Wira hid themselves in casks of their own, I slipped into mine with much more difficulty, being bigger than them, and crammed up inside, hugging my knees and bowing my head. I was submerged in fruit, and with the top sealed I could hardly breathe.

     Just as soon as I had settled myself into silence, I heard the door open. My breath caught in my through as the murmur of voices entered the room.

     "You've gotta be kidding, man. He wants us to take all of these down for that party?"

     "Yup. King's orders. Gotta feed the guests somehow, aye?"

     "Psh." I heard someone sigh and a barrel creak. "Well, everybody take one and let's head downstairs."

     I bit my lip, my eyes wide against the inky blackness around me, and listened as several guards hauled up barrels and made their way out of the room. Then, suddenly, I felt a lurch and heard someone straining.

     "This thing's awfully heavy," someone mumbled, and I had to bite back any noise as the barrel I was in was hoisted up. "Why do I gotta get the heavy one?"

     "Stop complaining, you ninny."

     I started moving, and clung to myself with the lurches of the barrel and stumbling of the fellow that was unknowingly carrying me. "What's he have in here, bricks?" I heard him mumble, and heard the faint drone of other voices as he made his way down the hall.

     My mind was racing and I kept quiet with everything in me. A party? Imagine all the people! I couldn't go down there! But I couldn't get out now and let the guards see me, either! And what about Radom and that Wocky? Had the guards taken their barrels as well?

     Well, I'd see soon enough. The barrel creaked and rocked for a few minutes, all the while making me more dizzy and jarred. But then it was roughly lowered onto the floor, and I heard panting. "Let's leave them here for the cooks," I heard someone say, followed by several other full wooden casks creaking to a rest on the floor.

     I willed myself to stay put for a few more minutes, until I was sure the guards had left. Then I let out my breath in a long sigh, my heart pounding, and hissed through the wood, "Radom? Wira?"

     "I don't know about you, but I think this is pretty comfortable. We ought to move in, don't you think?"

     I offered a relieved smile at the familiar voice. Radom. I shoved the top off my barrel and stood, taking a few deep breaths of fresh air as I stood. "Well, you be my guest, but I'm getting out of here," I muttered in reply to his sarcasm, staggering out of the barrel and stretching. I smoothed down my clothes and slung my knapsack over my shoulder once more.

     "Mm. Tempting, but I think I'll pass."

     "What's going on here?"

     "Well... we're in barrels. That's the extent of my knowledge," his voice came from nearby, and I looked to my side to see Radom shoving his way out of a barrel one over from mine, wriggling out of loaves of bread to hop lightly onto the ground. He shook himself off and looked up at me with a faint smirk.

     I looked around and found that we were in yet another corridor, but this time it led to giant double-doors that no doubt led into the main part of the castle. The walls were lined with a few smaller doors, paintings, and various suits of armor on display. I looked back down with a frown just as Wira was climbing out of his barrel.

     "That guy said there was a party!" the Wocky moaned, giving us a dejected look. "How are we supposed to get through there?" If only we could get through this one room, we could get out of the castle right through the front doors, no window jumping or wall scaling needed.

     Radom's eyes scanned the room, and just as I was looking helplessly at Wira, the Lupe grinned wryly. "I have an idea."

      ~*~*~*~*~*~*~

     We pushed back the double-doors, and I squinted into the abrupt shine of light that greeted my sensitive eyes. Once I had blinked back the sharpness, my eyes began to adjust, and I could have fainted right there.

     The king seemed to think one thing here. Invite the whole world or it's not a party. The entire huge room was stuffed to the gills with people, all finely dressed, most chatting or eating, all milling about and enjoying themselves. There was a musicale in progress in the entry hall. It was being led by a balding Gelert with a banjo who urged everyone to sing along in a voice made breathless by his enthusiasm. And among everything, King Skarl himself sat on his throne, watching it all with a sour look on his face. Perhaps this was some attempt to try cheering him up, as he had been a grump ever since the war, but it only seemed to be annoying him.

     I looked to either side, taking in how utterly ridiculous the two boys looked. They were both clad in the best fitting suits of armor they could find, though the silver metal was far too big on the both of them. Wira looked as though he were going to trip and break something with each clumsy step, and right now wore a look of utter horror at all of these people. Radom's suit was also far too big and anything but graceful, and with his effortless walk he looked as though he would step right out of it at any moment.

     I had my coat and scarf on again, trying to remain as covered up as possible, my head lowered and wings as concealed as I could get them. Our hope was to slip through this crowd before anyone took too much notice to us, and then we could make a break for it once we were outside. Guards and a prisoner, perhaps? Whatever we were trying to pull, I didn't have much faith in it.

     My heart was doing pirouettes in my chest. Radom's eyes flicked to me. I wanted to laugh for some reason. Or scream. He laughed softly through his nose. "Right. I'm guarding you. I hope you appreciate that," the Brown Lupe muttered, smirking and standing tall in his goofy-looking armor.

     "Let's just get out of here," I muttered, trying to keep my voice low while still being heard over all the other voices, "and quickly."

     I glanced at Wira, who returned my questioning look with a slow, deliberate nod, and then the three of us started walking. Wira clanked and stumbled with each step, and I had to keep myself from flinching. I just tried not to be noticed, strolling along and keeping small, not meeting anyone's gaze.

     Radom walked a bit ahead of us, slipping around people and charting a path as though not at all worried that somebody would notice how very strange he looked. I could hardly believe it. This was working. It was actually working. We were steadily making our way through the crowd, ever-closer to the doorway out of here, and with hardly more than an odd look or a glance.

     By the time the guards got suspicious, we'd be long gone. Radom was brilliant. Or insane. Funny how those two went hand-in-hand as far as that Lupe went.

     Closer Closer. Almost there. And then---

     CRASH.

     I just about jumped out of my skin, whirling around to find myself staring wide-eyed at Wira, who had tripped and stumbled right into a table, knocking it over and shedding the loose armor he had just barely been keeping on all this time. Heads turned, and people gasped when they saw the dirty peasant of a Wocky.

     There was a brief interval of silence. The next thing I knew, Radom had shaken off his armor and was yelling, "RUN!"

     He shoved Wira onto his feet with his snout and took off, followed promptly by the blue Wocky, who was shrieking and flailing in a most ungainly fashion after the flawless bolt of Radom. I shot after them, holding my knapsack and coat as tightly as I could, catching people drawing back in confusion, and a few guards starting to pursue us, the wail of their whistles right on our tails.

     The three of us practically flew out of the castle, and I just about shouted with joy when I felt the dirt and grass pounding under my feet, felt the cold rush of wind hit my face, saw the beautiful night sky rippling with moonlight above us. I couldn't believe how much had happened in one day.

     Three guards were right behind us, spears brandished and shouts ordering us to stop. Radom dashed right into the marketplace, now nearly deserted for the night, with a few people left here and there gathering up their goods to call it a night. "Split up!" he called, and I complied at once, veering off to sprint in another direction. Wira scampered off in yet another way, but I realized with a groan that there were three of us, and three guards. One followed each.

     I veered around stalls and tarps, the few people that remained stopping to stare at this spectacle, but I knew I couldn't run forever. So I veered to a halt and snatched up the first large rock I saw on the ground, swerving around to face the guard, who was almost upon me. He swung his spear, which I dodged with a yelp and staggered back, my eyes wide. I had never had to fight like this before!

     I quickly retreated at his forceful swings, and when I was out of his reach, I braced myself and inclined my arm. Just as the guard was rushing towards me again, I flung the stone as him as hard as I could, hoping with everything in me that I would hit where I aimed. And, to my surprise...

     It did. The stone hit him hard on the head. The guard stopped in his tracks and swayed for a moment. Then he slumped forward into a heap on the ground, knocked out. I staggered back a few paces, panting, stunned. It worked! Well, that was one down. I could only hope it would be as easy for Radom and Wira as it had been for me. I hastily stuffed my coat and scarf into my bag to get them out of my way and held it close, trying to catch my breath as I turned to see where the other two were, the cool night breeze stirring my glossy hair.

     I spotted Radom at once. As always, he was causing a scene.

     He was running across the empty stalls, leaping from tabletop to tabletop, occasionally knocking askew what few things were left and calling back to stunned strangers, "Sorry!" The guard was right behind him, racing across the ground after the Lupe, who was making his way across any surface that could hold his weight.

     Just as the guard was about to catch up to him, Radom abruptly leapt up and onto a tarp hanging over one of the market stalls, pausing briefly as it sunk slightly under his weight. The guard staggered to a stop under it and lashed out with his spear, which Radom dodged, and it ended up slashing a hole in the tarp and getting caught.

     The guard struggled with his spear for a moment, and Radom took this opportunity with a grin. He snatched the spear up in his teeth and wrenched it away from the guard, then swung it around and right down onto the guard's head. It clanked against the helmet sharply, and the guard went slack at once. He, too, slumped over unconscious in the grass in a clatter of armor. I was glad we didn't have to hurt either of them. But I knew they wouldn't stay out forever.

     Radom dropped the spear and hopped down from the overhanging canvas, pausing to grin at the knocked-out guard briefly. "Sorry about that, buddy."

     I smiled weakly at his odd antics. But that was quickly broken by a shriek, and Radom and I looked over in unison at Wira, who seemed to be having much less luck with his guard than we had. Well, one left. Wira was snaking all over the place in an attempt to get away, but the guard was seconds away from catching him.

     We both seemed to react at once. In a flash, Radom and I had bolted over to the Wocky's side, and both stood in front of him defensively, causing the guard to pause when he realized that it was now one against three. Wira cowered behind us, but Radom and I held our ground. Radom growled low in his throat, eyes fixed on the guard, ears back, wiry frame poised for a pounce. I held both hands forward threateningly, concentrating on the guard. I didn't want to wear myself out any more with magic, but of course I would if I had to.

     But the guard wised up. He took one look at the both of us, and shot out of there like a bullet. I stared for a moment as he retreated back to the castle, lowering my hands, before I let myself smile bewilderedly. "Nerves of steel, that one," I muttered sarcastically, quirking a brow.

     Radom laughed and relaxed, turning to face Wira with a grin, who was staring in shock. The Wocky adopted his tough outlook once he realized he was out of any real danger, standing tall and letting out a, "Hmph! We showed them!"

     "Mm. We being Radom and I," I added, rolling my eyes.

     Wira shot me a glare and snorted. "Hey!"

     "Better to get hurt by the truth than comforted by a lie," Radom mused, smirking faintly and shaking his head.

     The Wocky just frowned and eyed us both for a moment. "Those guys are crazy. I'll get them for this one day, you just wait!"

     But Radom just arched his eyebrows and smiled very faintly, almost in a puzzling sort of way. "And what will that prove? Then you'll be no better than them." He shook his head again, his voice taking on that soft and oddly wise tone I had heard before. "You want to change their minds, not kill them for weaknesses we all have."

     "But I want---"

     "I should warn you, getting what you want and being happy are two quite different things."

     Wira just stared at Radom oddly for a moment. Even I had to watch him for a moment there. It was so strange how he just came up with such wise things out of the blue like that. I nodded slightly in agreement and looked back at the Wocky, breaking the quiet that had fallen for a second with my murmuring, "We've got to get out of here while we can. You should go home."

     "Yeah..." He paused for a moment. Stared at us. He turned to leave, but then paused again. "Hey, uh..." Wira hesitated, rubbing the back of his neck uncertainly. "You're right. And thanks. For helping me escape, that is."

     Radom just smiled softly and nodded in reply. Then Wira turned and fled off into the darkness. He wanted to go home on his own, Fyora give me patience, the stubborn thing. But Radom and I had our own way to go now, and so we turned and started in the opposite direction once Wira had vanished into the darkness.

     I hoped he would be alright. But I'm sure he was. Radom and I hurried through Meridell and back into the forest, where we were finally safe. Safe from all those people, that castle, those guards, safe under the trees. When we were far enough from Meridell and deep enough into the woods, the peaceful silence and still figures in the darkness, the leaves rustling in the cool night breeze, all reminded me just how exhausted and starving I really was.

     We found fruit and berries to eat, and after I had hungrily taken in my fill, I promptly collapsed under a tree. We had a long journey ahead of us still. But three shards down. Four more to go. I just wanted to sleep now. It had been one long day, I'll tell you that.

     That evening went slowly, I was grateful for that. Radom praised my display of magic and bravery and how I had taken out that guard, and I told him how great he was for always being so brave and calm in the face of danger like that. He had been the real reason I had made it out of there in one piece, I was sure. We would keep moving in the morning. But we were both so wiped out from that day, we talked a tiny bit and then practically passed out.

     Curled up under a tree with Radom, lulled to sleep by the soft night sounds, that night I dreamed.

     I was walking across harvest lands that were heavy with crops. It was all a beautiful red-gold, the soil flourishing with a bounty of crops and plants, and overhead was a sky so clear and blue that it was painful to behold. Dried wheat stalks whispered against my legs as I brushed past, and I looked down to see that ripe fruits were scattering onto the dirt with a sound like a sigh. I bent to pick them, one by one from the earth, and place them in my gathered bag, but even as I did, the wind stirred itself and began waving its hand over the fields, strewing the fruit. I tried desperately to gather them all, but I couldn't, and the more I grabbed the more weighed down I became.

     Suddenly, paws touched lightly against the packed earth beside me. Radom stood beside me, a bag held in between his fangs, which were revealed in a grin. Now I could distribute the fruit so that he could hold half and I could carry the other half. And suddenly, it didn't seem so heavy anymore. So much easier to carry. When we shared the load, it would never weigh us down.

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» The Price of Faith: Part One
» The Price of Faith: Part Two
» The Price of Faith: Part Three
» The Price of Faith: Part Four
» The Price of Faith: Part Five
» The Price of Faith: Part Seven



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