Burning Sky Prelude – Chapter 2
Billows of tar-black smoke and red hot embers turn the morning sky dark, blotting out the sun and Sky Fire alike. But what feeds the flames that give this hellish overcast its shape? Beneath the almost draconic wail of the fires and the suffocating odor of the haze lies the answer. Screams. Cries of fear and agony, the stench of charred flesh, all joined with the harsh, reddish glow that consumes everything in its path, giving way only to the vague silhouettes of those who dare try to navigate through this nightmare.
This burning place? Valiant – a reasonably large castle town near the heart of Etrium. The walls meant to stand and protect its people from the dangers of the outside now ironically trap them within. But something else… lurks inside of this hellfire prison. Something that leads a young man – a mere teen with spiky brown hair – to dash through the streets in a panic, his fumbling steps kicking up settled ash in his wake. Strewn about the cobblestone are bodies. Corpses. Many of them charred beyond recognition. Some even mangled. Broken. Bent in unseemly ways. And the cause stalks this poor survivor, the sound of heavy footfalls and metal screeching against stone piercing through the roar of the blaze that engulfs the town.
Eventually, in his frantic rush for any kind of escape, the cobblestone becomes his enemy. He trips upon an uneven stone in the street, tumbling forward. He’s dead. That’s all he can think in the eternity it takes his body to reach the ground. The poor boy, covered in ash and dripping with sweat, shuffles back, unable to stand as his legs tremble with fear. A silhouette appears in the blaze. When, at last, it emerges, all color leaves the terrified soul.
An Akuma. About the size of a large, fully grown man. Its body is like a devilish mass of living, molten rock with a charred metallic finish, covered in cracks of infernal light and armored in places with a thicker carapace despite its bony, almost skeletal build. Large horns protrude from its head and it snarls at its prey, bearing a mouthful of gnashing fangs. And as it peers down on its would-be victim, looking back is like staring into the eyes of hell, itself. In those eyesockets burns an unholy red flame.
Long have these hellspawn terrorized the people of Gaea, their abominable brimstone and steel forms haunting nightmares for a millennium. The Akuma attack in hordes, reducing everything in their path to a smoldering heap. But it’s the people who have the most to fear from these devils. Their brutality – their tendency to dismember their victims – is well documented. But today… they’ll find no more victims. For as this beast extends its hand of sword-like claws and the man at its mercy cowers in place, a thunderous boom detonates over the area, deafening all for a time. The man sits in a stupor.
What… had just happened? One second, that beast had him dead to rights. Now it lies splayed out along the ground and another person – a tall figure, clad in full Templar armor, with short, well-groomed blonde hair – stands between them both. A golden lion pattern emblazons either of his shoulder guards. “Do not worry, my friend. You now have the protection of Baldrik Jaeger.” But that monster is vicious. How could a single man, possibly…? And yet, it’s already done. As the beast picks itself up, the knight stomps down on its chest cavity, caving it in completely. The burning light in its eyesockets sputters out. And the embers of the demon drift away into the sky as the light throughout its body is extinguished.
The civilian sits there, staring at the lifeless Akuma husk that now lies across from him, a look of sheer terror across his face. He’s absolutely paralyzed, trembling from head to toe and unable to form words of any kind. Yet another ominous wail meets their ears. But this sounds nothing like the roar of the flames. Then it all… clicks. That creature hadn’t been large enough to make such heavy footfalls. Baldrik turns and, from around the corner, emerges another, much larger demon. A heavy unit that spots out the two of them, itself standing some three stories in height. It lumbers forward, tearing through a building to its side with claws like swords giving off a red hot glow, dragging its spiny tail along the pavement behind it, yielding that earsplitting screech from just moments earlier.
The knight narrows his eyes and takes up his two-handed war ax. “Are you injured?” He glances over his shoulder to the frightened boy on the ground, the young man mustering up just enough strength to shake his head. With that affirmation, the knight faces forward once more. “Good. I am certain you must be afraid, my friend. But now is not the time to let fear take hold. I need you to summon your courage. Get yourself to safety. And aid any others you’re able.”
So much death floods the once-proud streets of the castle town. Bodies lie all around, several of them Akuma, much like the one that Baldrik had just felled. But also among them are dozens of men and women, some in Templar armor. All left as bloodied, unrecognizable heaps by their demonic assailants. Knights like Baldrik, himself. And as the Akuma approaches, looming over the rather large young knight, it drops another broken, burned body from its molten claws. Baldrik takes a breath and hunkers down. “I will hold these demons at bay.”
But just then, the trembling boy shouts out. “Are you insane?! Look at what those things did to the rest of our own Templars! That monster’s going to kill you! We need to evacuate!” His voice quivers with the very same panic that’s written across his face.
But Baldrik remains steadfast. “And where would you go?”
“This place You’ve all made homes here. Lives. You shouldn’t have to surrender that anyone. Least of all, the Akuma.”
“T-that’s just how things are! The Akuma show up and people move or get killed!”
The civilian reaches out to Baldrik, attempting to grab the knight by the shoulder, maybe talk some sense into him. But as he does, his hand meets some form of… resistance. The air, itself, denying him. As if trying to reach through a concentrated gust of wind. A deep, resolute “Aye…” rumbles out from the Templar. “A grave injustice, if ever there was one. That is the reality in which we live. But it’s one we Templars fight against, every day.” Baldrik looks to one of the Templar bodies near him, the once-lustrous silver armor charred black. “These brave knights understood this.” Then the air around him swirls, soon kicking into a violent vortex.
The immense gale forces the civilian to stumble back, shielding his face with his arm. Then a heavy boom, like the launch of a cannonball, cracks through the air as Baldrik launches himself forward like an arrow, generating a massive back burst. As he rockets toward the enormous iron devil, he draws back his ax. “I will not allow their sacrifices to be in vain” With the force of a hurricane, Baldrik swings his ax down over the monster’s head. But before he can actually connect the blow, the Akuma bucks forward with an ear-splitting roar. It takes one good swing with its hulking arm, swatting the knight away and sending him flying through a storefront, only stopping after he’s crashed through the back wall of the structure, resting in a pile of brick and debris.
As the dust settles, Baldrik picks himself up to aching bones and the sound of popping joints. “All right,” he grumbles, wiping clean a small scrape on his cheek. “That hurt.” It’s not long before he’s back on his feet, cracking his neck and rolling his shoulders. He walks back through the store – a bakery where several people, including the young man from moments prior, hide from the monster outside. No time. If they try to escape, that thing would surely spot them. He motions for the lot of them to stay low, exiting through the front door, rather than the enormous hole he’d just left in the wall, the store bell chiming as it opens. Hearing this, the Akuma turns to Baldrik and takes up a stance like a predator about to pounce. Upon seeing that his weapon is on the other side of this behemoth, Baldrik sighs. “Of course…”
Once again the air forms into a powerful vortex around the knight as his hunkers down. He lurches forward, going for his weapon. But the Akuma stands directly in his path, bringing its fist down on him. Just as it seems the blow may land, another burst of air, right at his feet. With this, Baldrik alters his direction entirely, forcing the beast to drive its fist into the ground, leaving a gaping fissure. The ripple forms an upheaval in Baldrik’s path, cutting him off. He redirects, only to be met with a swipe from the Akuma’s tail that sends him rolling along what’s left of the cobblestone street.
Wincing, Baldrik rights himself and slides to a stop on his heels. Meanwhile, several people in the storefronts all around the street watch through the window in awe. A single knight – not even one of their own – stands before this titan of an Akuma. But as Baldrik regains his footing and gathers his bearings, one of these very people calls out to him. The frantic cry of a woman who dares have hope in such a dire situation. “Look out!”
As Baldrik looks up, he’s overtaken by an intense stream of fire, straight from the Akuma’s mouth. The people in the buildings all look on in horror as their only hope is engulfed by the hellfire inferno, like so many others before him. Some turn away, others cry in despair. But… it all stops when a voice bellows out from beneath those flames. “There is no need for that.” The people all look to the blaze in shock. With a gust of wind, the flames disperse and Baldrik stands surrounded by some manner of air dome, completely unfazed by the heat. “I am Baldrik Jaeger of the Templar Order, Lion Squadron.” The Akuma roars and lurches toward him but he stands his ground, drawing back a fist with a powerful current of air swirling around his arm. “And I will not die so easily!”
In that moment, Baldrik throws a punch that collides with the Akuma’s own. The ensuing shockwave shatters every window in the vicinity, extinguishing all the residual flames in the area and fragmenting the already sundered pavement beneath them even more. After a brief delay, the Akuma’s arm buckles, eventually cracking in several places. First smoke pours through, then embers as the cracks grow wider. Soon they form massive gashes with an infernal blaze pouring through. Finally, the entire forearm crumbles to pieces with fire and brimstone erupting from the hole where its arm had been. Yet, even so, the demon doesn’t seem deterred or even fazed.
Seeing his chance, Baldrik dashes around the Akuma. It lashes at him with its long, barbed tail. But he leaps over it, rolling to a stop where his ax rests on the ground as his opponent turns around and charges him again. “Indeed. This injustice we Templars cannot let stand. So, monster, let me show you, as a Templar…” The knight responds in kind, spinning and catapulting himself forward on the power of a tremendous burst of air. With this mighty leap, he takes his ax in both hands. “Why we are called the Sword of the Goddess!” The monster takes a swing at Baldrik with its remaining arm. But in a move faster than the monster or any onlooker is able to follow, Baldrik drops from the air like a brick, abruptly changing direction yet again.
Then comes a moment that drops every onlooker’s jaw, nearly to the floor as Baldrik, now low, takes a single, precise swing, straight up along the Akuma’s spine. His ax cleaves straight through, bisecting the beast perfectly down the center. For a moment, all is quiet. Black ash seeps through the slit down the Akuma’s core, but no flames. The blaze in its eyes flickers and eventually fades completely. Then, the very light that gave it life explodes from its body, making a geyser of hellfire a mile into the sky. Baldrik stares at the flames until they dissipate. His gaze falls back to the battle-torn Valiant streets and the bodies of the Templars who fell to the attack. “Justice Be Done, my friends,” he says, bowing his head in respect.
The day had been so beautiful before all of this. Now the streets are ravaged and stained with the blood of the fallen. But as the dust clears, those once hidden now emerge from their shelters. The battle is over. For the time being, at least. People gather in the square, where the husk of the heavy Akuma lies and Baldrik stands triumphant over it, his ax in hand at his side. As he raises his head from his prayers for the fallen, he finds the survivors all around him, some kneeling, others simply gawking.
One of the few surviving Templars approaches Baldrik, limping with his arm slung over the shoulder of the civilian Baldrik had encountered earlier. “You… you did it. You killed every last one of them. Even the big one that wiped us out.”
Baldrik turns his head towards the walls in the distance. “Not all…”
The civilian balks. “What, you mean there’s more?”
That tone. Fear. Disbelief. Reasonable things to be feeling. And with his senses tuned to a greater level than the ordinary men and women around him, he hears it all. The continued roar of distant flames. The muffled screams for help from citizens trapped in the rubble. When he turns to them, he’s met with the concerned faces of the crowd. How should he respond? With a deep breath, he stands tall. “Lay your worries to rest, my friends.” He holds his closed fist over his heart as a symbol of his oath. “Let me be your shield.”
Be it the words, themselves, or the confidence of the voice speaking them, something about what he’d said is resonant. Among the crowd he catches glimpses of hopeful smiles through frightened tears. Neighbor comforting neighbor in these trying times. Good. Despair never solved anything. So the knight continues. “There is work to be done. People in need of aid. I’ll save everyone I’m able. Then we’ll need to gather the people, get them to safety.” But even as he says such, most of the town is in ruins. There’s only one place left, safe enough to sustain everyone for any amount of time. Baldrik nods to the castle towards the back of town. “There. We’ll gather everyone left in the castle and decide our next move, thereafter. Go.”
And, without another word, Baldrik slings his ax over his shoulder with one hand, racing off into town on his own. Indeed, no more lives would be unnecessarily lost, this day. Not as long as he has any say in the matter.
Later on, the castle doors shut as Baldrik carries in the last of the survivors. People congregate in the main hall, some passing out water as others rest themselves. Many lie covered in scrapes and soot. Members of the clergy tend to the injured in a makeshift clinic at the back of the room. A glowing white book levitates in front of one young man, his hands outstretched over a woman before him as he chants in an archaic tongue, her bruises slowly vanishing. Some comfort frightened children and others bring out small rations of soup and bread, prepared in the castle’s fully stocked kitchen. What few Templars remain, and are able-bodied, stand guard.
Baldrik brings the last of the rescued civilians to the clinic and makes his way to the ramparts, soon joined by the injured young Templar and the civilian from the streets, the latter still helping the former stand as he limps along with his arm in a sling. The castle stands tall over the rest of the town. From this altitude, one can see well over the walls, out to the fields and forest on the outskirts. In the distance, a wave of black creeps across the green hills, advancing slowly in their direction. Baldrik nods towards it. “There.”
The black mass is indeed a horde – the Akuma’s signature formation. A wave of advancing death that destroys everything in its wake. Forests are leveled, grassy fields reduced to barren wastelands, and whole settlements around to rubble. The key identifier of their approach? The billows of black ash, flooding the sky and trailing behind them. The remains of everything they leave in their wake. The younger knight trembles, a shaky “How?” on his lips. “How in Gaea’s name are we going to fight that?”
Baldrik doesn’t say anything, at first. His gaze remains fixed on the cloud of death that draws ever nearer. But then, removing his ax from the harness on his back, he turns around and steps inside. “With a quarter ton of adamantine.”
The young knight leaves the civilian’s side and races… hobbles after him. “Sir? S-sir, wait!” The young recruit grabs him by the shoulder with his good arm. “Hold on, now! With respect, sir, you can’t go out there. It’s suicide!”
“He’s right!” the teen says, catching up and returning to the young knight’s side to brace him up. “Sir, that’s impossible!”
Baldrik pauses, his back to the fledgling. “Do you mind if I ask your names?”
“My… T-Tristan. It’s Tristan, sir.” the knight says.
“A-and I’m Elliot.”
“Tristan. Elliot. Both strong names. I understand your concern. But it is unnecessary.” What is this man saying? One knight can’t possibly fight an entire horde. This is exactly the time for concern. So… why can Tristan not bring himself to object further? Why can’t Elliot speak up, even as he continues? “I am a Templar. Just as yourself, Tristan. It is our duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves. And to assure those on the verge of despair that all will be well.” Then the towering knight looks back, a confident grin across his lips, reaching out and placing a firm hand on the young knight’s shoulder. “I won’t be here for that second part. If you’d do me a favor, look after the people, for me. I’ll be right back.” Then he steps back, giving Elliot a confident wink.
As Baldrik turns to leave, Tristan stands there in a daze. What a thing to ask of him. Everything will be all right? It’s a fantasy. It doesn’t make any sense. How is that possible? And, moreover… why does Tristan find himself believing it, the more he mulls it over in his head? His gaze settles on Elliot. A teenager. A frightened kid. Yet here he is, holding it together in all of this, as best he can. Before this madman can get far, a willful “Sir!” forces its way from Tristan’s core. Baldrik turns to find the young knight, through his injuries, doing his best to salute. And thus, the warrior nods, disappearing through the castle entrance.
Moments later, at the gates, Baldrik stares over the nearby fields. The Akuma horde marches ever forward. Dozens – no – hundreds of the iron devils, all in one cluster. Even a handful of the heavy units that stand out among the sea of ordinary ones. The gate operator stands by and Baldrik passes through the massive doors. “Lock up behind me. I’ll do what I can, but it will buy time for reinforcements to arrive.”
The operator nods. And as those doors close behind Baldrik, the click of the tumblers leaves him in silence. The battlefield awaits him. And here he stands, alone with his thoughts. Reinforcements? Not likely. The odds of that are much too low with the Uprising about. Baldrik knows that. And with this many Akuma… No. There’s no time. Even if the rest of the Squadron did come. The knight clenches his fist at his side, his head bowed. Is false hope all I have to offer these people? But then he looks ahead to the steady-approaching mass of pitch black forms. Of course not. What kind of Templar would allow their hopes to be in vain? Then I suppose that leaves only one way this is allowed to end. A gentle breeze spins up around him, rapidly evolving into a turbulent wind. He stands tall, sporting a battle-ready smile as the horde picks up speed. “I win!” And like that, he takes off into the fray.
98… 99… 100. Baldrik breathes heavy as he stands in the midst of the Akuma horde’s onslaught, another of the demons falling into a heap at his feet. Bloodied bruises riddle his body and his armor has most definitely seen better days. 300 strong were the Akuma when this all began. Now Baldrik figures he must have cut through at least a third of them. A hearty laugh bellows out from his diaphragm as he cracks another demon over the head with his ax. “Come on! At least make it a challenge for me!” As if heeding his call, a large shadow overtakes Baldrik completely. He turns in time to get himself smacked across the battlefield by a heavy unit, just as large as the one he’d fought in town. His ears ring and his bones rattle as he picks himself up, wiping a small drip of blood from the corner of his mouth. “Better…”
Before Baldrik can properly get back to his feet, more of the standard Akuma swarm him. They dogpile on, clawing and scraping at him until he’s finally able to explode out from beneath them with a tremendous burst of force, swinging his ax and cleaving the lot of them in half. Still, there’s no time to regain his bearings. A large, red hot claw reaches over him. He narrowly escapes being sliced to ribbons with a quick jump back. But the tips of those molten claws catch his armor, gliding through the steel chest plate like water. Sliding backwards, Baldrik winces and looks down. In his armor is a large, red hot gash from the point of contact. What’s more, even further beneath that are a pair of skin-deep slashes across his chest, the wounds already sealed shut from the raw heat.
Baldrik lunges at the enormous demon, but before he can ever reach it, a smaller one jumps him. A minor distraction. Dispatched easily enough. But that split second is all it takes. The instant he looks up, the tree trunk-thick tail of the heavy slams across his torso. Only a last second burst of pressure he exerts around his body keeps him standing. But even standing, he goes sliding back on his heels, digging into the earth beneath his feet. When he relaxes, his chestplate falls to pieces, leaving only the shredded remains of his gambeson. But Baldrik merely scoffs, tearing away the tattered fabric. What would it help against these beasts, anyhow?
Underneath, the knight bears a deep blue tattoo, its archaic design resembling an ascending bird. “Very well, then. I will show you.” The Akuma continue their assault, but Baldrik doesn’t waver. His eyes and the symbol on his chest emanate with a bright blue light as an absolutely staggering pressure builds around him. The smaller ones attack him, only to meet insurmountable resistance. As if being held back from their prey, purely by the wind itself. “Behold the force of a Graced Knight. This is Pressure Overwhelming!” With a single swing, all of that pressure concentrates around the edge of his ax. In a split second, the entire cluster of Akuma is torn to bits.
Graces. Magical brands that give ordinary mortals extraordinary abilities. In the right hands, just one Graced Knight could turn the tide of a battle. And Baldrik wields his as masterfully as an artist at work. But even so, a crucial part of mastery… is a thorough understanding of one’s limitations.
Baldrik leaps back, out of harm’s way. I need to keep its usage down. But if things continue like this… The instant he lands, more of the devils are in his face. He parries the claws of those going for vitals with his ax, though endures a slash or two from the others, eventually dashing back again, away from the middle of the fighting. The outer edges. That’s where things would be easiest. But when he gets there, the Akuma all snap turn to his position, a fiery light building up from their cores. Baldrik raises his arms and a dome of pressurized air swirls around him as the Akuma spew hellish flames his way. Had the strain not been enough to get him to sweat, already, the heat of the joined attack now gives him ample excuse. All the while, the demons slowly march towards him, the flames getting hotter, the closer they get.
When the flames stop, Baldrik’s first sight is that of a heavy unit, looming over him. He tries to take a swing at it, but the behemoth swipes the ax from his hand with its tail. It brings its enormous fist down on him. But, by pure instinct, Baldrik draws back his own and meets the Akuma, punch-to-punch. Much like before, a shockwave rips through the air from the clash. But the standard Akuma dig their claws into the ground to anchor themselves. Meanwhile, Baldrik’s arm trembles. After a pause, several tears open down it, blood trickling from them all. With the pause this buys him, he snatches up his ax and slips back, putting some distance between him and the horde.
His breathing isn’t getting any lighter. His body is covered in wounds and he can’t help but feel heavy. Nearly 200 of these monsters still remain. This is the time to do something – anything – decisive. That or be overwhelmed. But the town… There’s no way they’d be able to evacuate. Not with all the injured. The beasts are back on him, soon enough, forcing him to fend them off. His attention falls on the heavy. Looking more closely, it hadn’t gotten away from that exchange completely unscathed. Brimstone and embers flow like blood from small cracks he’d left in its arm. But that brings him to his own arm. It wouldn’t withstand another clash like that. And damaging his other one could prove to be a fatal error…
Even so, he fights. To buy himself time and think of a plan. Thank gods for adamantine. Despite this constant barrage of enemies, his ax doesn’t dull in the slightest. All he’d need is one shot at that behemoth and the silver edge could sunder the beast’s hide like paper. But the hardest metal in all of Gaea would mean nothing if he couldn’t get close enough. With so many Akuma present, he can’t maneuver as freely as he had against the last one. There simply isn’t enough… space. Wait. That’s it. In that train of thought, a flash of inspiration strikes.
The light of Baldrik’s Grace brightens, the cool blue tinting the battlefield around him. Dirt and pebbles at his feet rise around him, gravity itself yielding to the building pressure. An ethereal blue aura flows from his body, trailing into the air like glowing mist as he buckles down into a stance of concentration. The air around him compresses into a dome of sheer force that repels every Akuma that attacks it. Then, with the wave of his hand, the air pressure dome explodes outward, expanding in a massive radius, visible all the way from the ramparts of the castle in Valiant. Swept away are absolutely any Akuma standing nearby. Some try to anchor themselves as they had earlier. But it’s all in vain. They’re all blown back, nonetheless. Only the heavy stands firm, bracing itself with everything – its claws, its tail, a lower position, anything to keep it on its feet.
When the blast fades, Baldrik stands at its epicenter, a clearing made amidst the horde. But that’s it. Breathing room. He draws back his ax, not to swing. No. This is something else. He shuts his eyes. Concentrates. The aura around his body expands. It reaches out, encompassing not just himself, but his mighty weapon. Meanwhile, the heavy Akuma screeches. The blast now subsided, it charges toward him, its claws igniting with an unholy flame.
It’s on top of him in a flash, swiping at him with both pairs of claws. But it finds only the ground with this strike, Baldrik having flung himself to the side, spinning his ax like a windmill in his hand. When it takes notice, it whips around with a swing of its tail. But again it finds nothing, the knight now in the air over its head, still spinning his weapon. That infernal light builds inside of the beast’s mouth, erupting in a stream of flame skyward. But when those flames disperse, there is no charbroiled corpse within them. Baldrik lands in front of the Akuma, his ax still spinning rapidly. Then, just as it brings its head down, one swift motion sends the weapon flying through the air like a javelin, but with the power of a tornado. The simple act of it leaving the knight’s hand summons a cloud-parting gale.
It pierces straight through the heavy’s core, leaving a massive hole in its chest… but it doesn’t stop there. No, as the ax continues to soar, the cone of air around it parts the horde straight down the middle, leaving many crushed by the unyielding pressure. Eventually, the weapon arcs, striking the ground like a meteor with such force that it blows aside any demons still in its path. The air of the battlefield turns still, for a time. Almost silent. But as Baldrik stands upright, the heavy staggers forward. A second later, the fiery light in its eyes flickers out and it falls over, reduced to a mere husk, the residual flames in its body erupting into the sky as any Akuma’s does. Until all that’s left is black smoke.
With this one move, the situation becomes… winnable, but far is it from over. The brand on his chest now dipping between bright and dim, there’s no telling how much longer Baldrik would be able to hold out. So much energy sapped, his weapon now somewhere amidst the horde, the heat bearing down on him as much as the ache in his bones… this would still be an uphill battle, indeed. The remainder of the Akuma wouldn’t die easily. Not in his condition. But without the heavy to contend with, Baldrik takes a breath and plants himself. The rest of the horde roars forward as he raises his fists and turns his body. Even with all he’d just done, there still stand just over 100 of the monsters. And as they descend upon him, he draws back an arm, his grace illuminating. On his weary breath, a resolute “Come then.”
Dawn breaks over Valiant. The battle had lasted well into the night. But as the first glimmers of daylight peek over the town walls, the gate bell tolls. The surviving Templars stand by, all healed up and ready for whatever may lie on the other side. As one of them climbs the lookout, he’s overcome with pure astonishment. Standing behind the gate is none other than Baldrik, his body covered in bruises and burns. He’s dripping with blood and the edge of his ax is stained black with soot. But he stands. The gate opens and he steps through, raising one fist to the air in triumph. A weak “I won,” trickling out before he collapses into the arms of the junior knights, Tristan among them.
“Sir?” Tristan says, struggling to help hold up the motionless form of the knight who dwarfs all the rest around him. “Sir Jaeger? Sir Jaeger!”
But everything goes… white. The young man’s voice trails into a dreamlike echo.
“So?” a man says, sitting at the bar of a packed tavern, his cheeks rosy from the mug of ale sitting across from him, nearly emptied to the bottom. All around sit men and women of varied shapes and sizes, all looking to one silver-haired older man, sitting at the center of the bar, wolfing down ale. Even sitting, it’s clear how much he towers over his drunken neighbor who goes about pressing him further, an eager “What then?” bouncing out of him like a child at storytime, waiting for the next part.
The older man slams down his mug with a satisfied sigh, wiping his well-bearded mouth with the back of his hand. He reaches to his questioner, patting him hard on the back with a scarred, incredibly muscular arm. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, my friend! But, as you can see…” He then gestures to himself. “I’m not dead.” He gives a hearty laugh before turning back to his restless listeners. “So, there you have it. The story of how I earned the title of Great Knight and became ‘Baldrik the Unstoppable’. Are you lot finally satisfied?” Indeed. The man sitting at this bar is Baldrik Jaeger. A living legend among the Templars. Some thirty years later. Retired.
But not all are so taken by the legend. One man at a table near the door grunts. “Not until I’ve had another mug,” he slurs. He’s soon joined by several more of the hardy men and women around the room.
Behind the bar, a redheaded, freckled young woman rolls her green eyes at the suggestion as she works on cleaning a glass. “All right, Seamus,” she says, grabbing his tankard and those of the others around the bar to top them off. “But any of you pass out in my bar, I’m throwin’ your slobbering hides in the streets.” And she could do it, too. She’s a tall thing. Broad shoulders. Toned. A bit of muscle on her. Not to mention her own share of scars. One, in particular, crossing the bridge of her nose, intersecting another down her left cheek from her eye.
Getting his mug back, Seamus raises it high. “To Baldrik. Puttin’ those devils away for good. And to Adeline for servin’ the best ale, this side of Feroth.”
Adeline stands behind the bar with her arms crossed. “Compliments are nice. Coin is nicer,” she says.
At that, the mugs around the room spring up with a rowdy cheer before coming to the mouths of their holders. Barrels worth of ale disappear in seconds. When all’s said and done, the crowd slams their mugs down on the tables and bar. From the front of the room, one of the women calls out. “Seamus, best be careful! Any more and you’ll outdo the man ya just toasted!”
Baldrik sits upright, folding his arms and arching an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Only if you’re worried, old man,” Seamus laughs.
“Me? Worried? Friend, I think you may need to hear that story a second time.”
A sharp “Oi,” from Adeline catches them both. She glances up at the pair as she washes a dish behind the bar. Something in her eyes spells authority. Like a mother preparing to discipline her children. The gaze, alone, says everything for her. A firm “No” that stops the two men, both of them very much older than her, cold.
“Ah, lighten up, Adeline. It’s just a bit of fun,” Seamus says.
“Then have your ‘fun’ in someone else’s tavern. I can’t afford to have him getting into a drinking contest in mine. He’ll empty my reserves.”
“Take it from me, Seamus. Ya don’t want to challenge Baldrik to a drinking contest. He’ll win. And you’ll wind up sleeping on the street. Or did ya forget what I said earlier about passin’ out in here?”
Baldrik pats Seamus on the shoulder. “Not to worry, my friend. I’m sure you’d have lasted longer than the others.”
Seamus scoffs. “Ah, fine. Another time, then, old man.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
A woman speaks up from a table across the room. “Baldrik! You’ve got plenty more stories where that one comes from, haven’t you?”
“Aye. That I do.”
Another of the women at that table chimes in. “We all know you’ve put down more than your fair share of Akuma in your day, bloody devils. But surely you’ve got actual war stories to tell. You know. Battles from the Uprising!”
Adeline freezes with her back to everything else. Something… a tingle settles into her spine. The atmosphere shifts. Not that the drunks around her can tell. The next of the women speaks up. “Yeah! The Lion Squadron’s the most famous Templar group in all the war! You must have plenty of stories, putting those blasted imps in their place.” Stop. This really needs to stop. Adeline glances over her shoulder, sure enough, fixed on Baldrik’s face is a thousand yard stare.
All throughout the bar, the demand builds. More and more the people clamor for one of Baldrik’s actual war stories. Stories of fighting the Djinn during the Uprising with the others in his company. His boisterous energy, his charisma, it all tanks. His smile has long since gone. He just… sits. “Look at that,” one of the crowd says. “He’s got so many tales, he has to think about which’un to tell.”
Not close. Not even remotely. “All right, you lot,” Adeline says, setting her dish down on a rack and tossing her drying cloth over her shoulder. “It’s that time of day. We’re closing up the bar for the night. Beat it. If you got a room, here, get to it.”
Needless to say, this news doesn’t go over well, being met with the collective groan of the crowd. “But Baldrik’s got more stories to tell!” one of the drunk women says, barely able to keep herself from tipping over where she sits.
“Ah, come on, Adeline,” Seamus adds. “You can wait just a wee bit longer. The rate Baldrik spins his tales? We’ll be out of here in-”
“Now, Seamus. I’ll keep your tab running. Unless you want the bill now. But I don’t want to go alarming your wife, this late at night.”
Seamus scoffs and drunkenly hoists himself up, leaving amidst the irritated throng with a grumble. Adeline sees everyone out, including those ascending the stairs to the inn on the second floor, then turns to Baldrik. “Hey.” She extends a broom out to the retired old knight. “Help me clean up the bar, would ya?”
Baldrik returns to his senses enough to nod and get up from his still. A somber “Aye” escapes him as he takes the broom in hand. Adeline watches as he proceeds to sweep the floors without a peep, still looking incredibly distant. But without much more to be done about it, she returns to wiping down the counter.
To Be Continued…