“So, you nervous?” The leaves crunched under Solomon’s boots as the two men walked, dry remnants from a dying summer.
“About patrol?” Desmond smirked without recognizing it. Drawing out his friend’s question has always been amusing, even when he knew the answer.
“You know what I’m talking about, Des. It’s been half a generation since the last time a guard from the Outer Ring has made it past the trials. I mean, in a week, you could be part of the King’s Guard for all we know.” Solomon’s eyes grew in excitement thinking of the adventures that lie past the inner wall. If nothing else, there were less people, classier stores and better food.
Desmond was fully aware of what it would mean to his friends and family, not to mention the Quadrant. Inner Guards are usually chosen after their Binding ceremony when their souls are finally and fully connected with their bodies. Memories flood back, but not all of them, just enough to recall their former profession. Personal memories trickle in over time, which in many cases is a blessing.
“I know what it means and yes, only a fool wouldn’t be nervous. I’m just trying to save it all up and focus that energy. It does no good to talk a fire out of burning.”
“Do you know what they’ll have you do?” Solomon was carrying his quarterstaff lazily. One hand off as he talked with his free hand. It’s full length still remained housed instead of engaged as they were trained to once outside the main wall.
“Not really.” Desmond motions to his friend showing both his hands grasping the staff, subtly reminding his fellow guard. “We’ve all heard the rumors of what’s past mid stage, but I know I can hold myself physically. I think I can outsmart whatever puzzle follows. The final stage, who knows?” Desmond lets his mind wander up to the vibrant moon christening a cloudless sky. “I can only hope,” he concludes as if throwing a wish up to the heavens.
“I’ll be wishing good things for you, even if I may never see you in this life again.”
“Same here.” Desmond ponders the strangeness, remembering this was the second life he’s shared with his friend. The first one’s memories seep in occasionally, but they are never more than a feeling, usually happiness.
Glancing over, Solomon had missed an upper button on his uniform. He was forgetful and at times careless, unlike Desmond who could not help himself for wanting perfection to reflect the Quadrant he represented. He cleared his throat and stopped in their patrol to eye the mistake.
“Des,” Solomon shook his head as he reached up the rigid front of his jacket to find the swaying lapel that crossed over, keeping the armored fabric held tightly to him. “You really need to loosen up.”
Desmond looked his friend from boots to shin plates up to the mid-cape they wore on colder nights. At least his uniform would look the part even if the disheveled look of a soldier who just crawled out of bed. “You’ll thank me if that lapel was the one mistake between you and the Captain seeing it.”
The Captain of the Heart Quadrant’s Outer Guard was one of the burliest men with a temperament fitting his enormous frame. Solomon had been in trouble for his respect for the uniform a few more times than could be overlooked. Anymore and the Captain might assign him to patrolling the roads leading in or be stationed at one of the farms out on the plains.
“When do you go?” Solomon returned to carrying his staff more like a cumbersome gardening tool he had to put away rather than the weapon he was trained to use for combat.
“Right after the Quadrant’s Binding ceremony is complete.” The need to correct Solomon again was an itch Desmond felt compelled to scratch. Instead he rubbed the back of his hand against the stubble of his chin. The coarse feel of sandpaper provided some relief.
“Dang, two weeks?”
“Shh.” Desmond perked his left ear out to the distance away from the wall. The section they were walking along was near the Black Hills and the thick amount of pine and birch trees made it difficult to see past even in the daylight. Brushes and overgrowth peppered the areas between making it easy to hide in, but also difficult for anyone to move through undetected.
Desmond held his hand up carefully and slowly as he began looking out into the darkness. His eyes tried to hone in on where his ears indicated. In the distance, a shadowy movement caused both guards to grasp their staffs a little tighter. “Do you see that?”
Peering out into the eclipsed forest, Solomon’s eyes focused on the mound Desmond had spied. It was too fluid and unpredictable to be the wind rustling a bush. Slowly, the shape took hold and Solomon eased his grip on the quarterstaff while simultaneously extending it fully. “That’s the funniest looking coyote I’ve ever seen. Is it a mutie?”
“Mutants were hunted down in our first father’s age, even if it were; they’re too skittish to come this close to the wall.”
“A wolf maybe?” Solomon’s guesses were starting to take the form of a child’s guessing game.
“Too small, wolves are twice that size.” Desmond continued to peer outward scanning around the places away from the creature.
“Baby wolf?” Solomon kept guessing.
“Without the mother or pack close-by? Not likely.”
“I don’t know, should we try and capture it?”
Rolling his eyes, Desmond wondered what rational sense of mind his friend had. “Hold on, I think I know what that is? Remember our history lessons from grammar school?”
“Des, no matter if it’s this life or the one before it, that’s one class I really cared nothing about.”
That dropped loose another memory from Desmond’s first life. Solomon always needed help when it came to studying. History was his worst subject for in both lives. He smirked at Solomon, “I think it’s a dog.”
“A dog? Holy lord. My grandfather mentioned having a dog in his first life, but they’ve been gone for generations, haven’t they?”
“Around here.” Desmond’s look flattened as an almost inaudible chiming came from the dog’s direction.
“Around here?” Solomon stared through Desmond as if his words made him invisible. “Outlanders? We haven’t had trouble from them since our own Binding.”
“The thing about streaks, Sol, is they have to end sometime.”
“You think maybe the dog got lost from its owner then?”
A cold stare into the brisk night was Desmond’s only reply.
“We should send up a flare, y’think?” The electronic wrist communications were shelved a few years ago. They only went out with vehicle patrols since there had been no disturbances for over a decade. It was an effort to conserve power towards research and production of the geo-thermal conductor. Once that was online, electricity wouldn’t be an issue for the next ten generations.
Flares were used to alarm the other guards, but also any citizen with the sense to notice a bright pulsing mini-sun in the sky. It was crude, but the long standing peace around the kingdom the last decade had made it easy to not rely on the science age technology.
“I think we should continue on our route and get the next patrol to signal.”
“Why?” Desmond quietly responds by looking up with more emphasis than necessary. Above, a canopy of branches missing over half of their leaves rustled in the slight fall wind. A flare would go up, get stuck and ignite a good part of the southern forest. They’d have to walk another hundred meters to put one up safely. And truly, that wasn’t Desmond’s reasoning for not putting up a signal.
“Keep walking, Solomon.” Desmond gripped his staff with both hands, tightening in clockwise motion that released the catch housing the blade in its base. A sharp metallic clink and a six inch, double-sided blade immediately protrudes at the top of his staff. He eyes to Solomon to do the same.
“We’re not alone.”
To say either man was panicked would be a lie. They were trained for this kind of tension. Even though all of their combat experience from this life was done in training, memories from their lives before kick into play.
A bitter taste bites at the back of Solomon’s throat. Sound muffles through the increased beating of his heart and his eyes feel like they’re moving faster than needed. Oppositely, Desmond feels alert and all of his senses amplified. He hears the light movement of footsteps trying to ease through the shadows in the woods. The smell of them is blocked by a wind carrying toward them in their favor.
The two guards pass by the dog slowly. Its pointy ears stick straight up and there appears to be no violence in him. His mouth is agape and a tongue hangs out the side like a wet towel draped over a perch. Desmond makes no motion to directly stare at the dog, but he doesn’t let him out of his peripheral vision for as long as his walk allows. A part of him thinks there are just some spies trying to lurk in the dark, curious of the happenings around the kingdom of Haven Hill. The matter of reality was always different.
A sharp whizzing sound ends abruptly as a shaft collides into the back of Desmond’s shoulders. Not much can get through guard armor. Still the impact produced a small twinge of pain up his neck. While turning, Desmond calculated the sound of the arrow from the moment he heard it to the time it struck. Figuring that out, he knew roughly where and how far away his assailant was and he arched his arm and released his staff in an arching motion.
The staff flew through the air like a giant arrow; its bass-like sound reverberated in the rather still night. Desmond heard a similar treble whining heading toward him as his staff collided into the chest of an outlander. The impact knocked him squarely to the ground, writhing at the large protrusion impaling him.
In a full sprint, Desmond strides across the side path, eyeing the second and apparently last of the scouts taking shots at them. He’s crouched behind the base of a tall evergreen, giving no full view of his body. There was only the glint of the metal arrowhead as the outlander pulled back to aim again.
Another ringing whistle pierced the night as the arrow approached Desmond. Luck saved him this time as the arrow collided into the gauntlet on his right forearm, just before striking him in the neck, where there was no protection.
Adrenaline pumped Desmond’s legs for him as he narrowed his focus on his staff wiggling around in the air like a flagpole in the wind. Grasping the tapered handle, he retracted the spearhead from the first outlander. A wet crunch is followed by groaning moments of pain as the first archer bleeds out.
Using the tree as an obstacle, Desmond moved erratically from side to side forcing the outlander to constantly adjust and question his target’s path. When he was within ten feet, Desmond propped his arm back with his staff and feigned a release. The outlander fell for it and momentarily ducked behind the tree giving him shelter. It was long enough to try one move.
Desmond reached toward the base of his weapon and swung it around with both hands like a samurai warrior preparing to deliver a powerful blow. He released the staff and it rotated through the air like a boomerang the sand people used. The outlander poked around and drew back his line just as the staff hits the tree. The centrifugal force wraps it around the trunk as the edge hits the outlander in the back of the head. He releases the arrow into a catawampus fashion off target.
A few feet separated Desmond from his target and in one great stride he propelled himself forward, arching his back as he soared through the air, cape fluttering behind him. His knee prominently led his body and before the outlander could retract another arrow from his quiver, Desmond’s knee collided with the point of the outlander’s jaw. A deep popping could be heard behind the mask protecting the intruder’s face.
The outlander’s eyes rolled back into his head and his knees gave out, folding him like a tent whose support beam was knocked away. On the ground, the man looked dead, lying haphazardly like a broken cup void of original shape.
Desmond stood up tall and retrieved his quarterstaff lying on the ground. He glanced around the tree line and saw no other movement. His ears didn’t pick up on any scuttling feet or irregular brush movement. A pungent odor wafted across his back with the slight breeze. Outlanders carry a hefty smell of body odor and leather mixed together. Most likely they hadn’t bathed since the change in climate over a month ago.
Looking back down at the unconscious outlander, Desmond made a quick stab with the blade side of his staff into the man’s jugular artery. A small eruption of blood shot upward, followed by another less prominent one. In a few seconds, it spread around in a puddle beneath the man’s head.
Desmond shifted tracks in his mind from fighting to detecting and one thing flooded him with panic. His friend’s absent words quickly alert him and he turns to find Solomon on the ground where they were first attacked.
“Solomon.” He almost whispers it to himself and then Desmond’s ears feel like they’re full of cotton. The world closes off around as he loses track of time running to his friend’s side.
Reaching Solomon, an arrow is standing erect from his neck. The arrow that pierced the night sky as Desmond launched his staff at the outlander didn’t miss him. It hit its target and is now housed in his friend’s throat. If it were a few more inches down and he would have been safe. If they still wore their face masks instead of turning them in with their wrist communicators. Lots of ifs, but no satisfaction would come with the answers.
A familiar chiming from before broke Desmond’s concentration and a quick turn showed him that it was coming from the dog. It timidly came closer to him, stopping every few feet as if to assess his welcome.
Ignoring the dog for now, he turned back to Solomon. They had grown up together, twice. It would be another generation before he can see his friend again, but at least he takes comfort in knowing he will see him again. His time in this generation was cut short; he hadn’t even found a wife yet. Soldiers rarely did and guards even less so. Hopefully in his next life, they could both take pleasure knowing they will have a better life. The inner wall was meant for people reaching their third generation.
The chiming sound was more metallic and clinking louder as the dog approached. An arm’s reach away, the dog stopped. Desmond turned to the animal and the dog lowered its head.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We all have to die sooner or later, but it’s by no means an end.”
Still, as if to disregard his attempts to provide solace, the dog kept its head down.
Desmond looked back at his friend and removed the arrow. The sound to go along with it made Desmond’s stomach lurch for a few heartbeats. He placed the arrow on his friend’s chest and folded his arms over it. Placing his staff beside him, Desmond reaches into the pouch on his friend’s leg and produced the flare gun.
The dog whined softly in the back of its throat.
Eyeing the possible outcome of taking this dog in, Desmond decided if asked, the story would be that the dog alerted them to danger in woods. It had been what saved his life at least. Not a total lie, but truth enough to spare him from being taken away for god knows what purpose.
“C’mere, boy,” Desmond called to the dog while patting the side of his leg.
On cue, the dog lifted its head and approached the last few feet, turning into Desmond’s body in hopes of affection. The metallic tinkling sound was coming from around its neck. Inspecting more closely, they were tags. One displayed the dog’s name and the other, the name of his owner.
“Jinx, eh?” Desmond announced. “Not quite a lucky name, is it?”
The dog panted as a reply, the happy tongue rolled out the side of its mouth again like before. Desmond removed the collar carefully and knew he’ll have to put a new collar back on later when he could get to a shop inside the wall.
Jinx winced slightly as the collar was removed. The inner lining had protruding metal barbs curving inward. This was how outlanders domesticated their animals, through pain. Desmond recalled feelings of disgust from his first life when thinking of the outlanders. Facing them before was different. They were brutal and had numbers. This attack, there were only two and they seemed to try and use the dog as a decoy.
Desmond rubbed Jinx on the top of his and the dog appeared to lean into the touch as if asking for more. The only thing Desmond could think of was the war the outlanders opened up again and what it could mean.
“Let’s go signal the others and tell them what happened.” Desmond stopped rubbing on Jinx and stood tall. Pike in hand, he started to make for the clearing ahead to send up a flare. Looking back, Jinx remained still as if waiting for a command.
“You coming?” Desmond asked as if the dog understood his language. Patting his leg again, the dog responded and quickly galloped to him.
Solomon’s body was almost peaceful looking, lying on the ground like he was waiting for someone to wake him. Sadly, his soul was returning to the ethereal chamber in the castle to await his next body in a generation. Desmond looked forward to meeting his friend again and will miss his company. Hopefully, Jinx can accompany him on patrol as a substitute until his trials.
Desmond smiled in sorrowful recognition of his friend’s passing. This life’s memories were cut short now for both of them. He planned on finding retribution for that if not answers.
“Goodbye, my friend. Until that day…” Desmond turned and with a pat of his leg, he and Jinx embarked again.
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