Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?: Qasin

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The air was salty and foul, almost to the point of being putrid, as Qasin marched behind the army of over ten thousand men with the Panda King. It was the familiar smell of sweat from countless men going farther than they should in heavy armor under the strain of the midday heat. It was the stench that leached into the uniforms, the lining of their armor, to the point where only thorough scrubbing ever pulled it off. Scrubbing, however, was a task that most men never did, a task that those downwind paid for during every march. It was an expected odor, but Qasin didn’t have to like it. Just blow the other way, he grumpily cursed at the wind as they moved between the trees of the forest.

“It’s quiet,” he said, putting voice to his thoughts. “We haven’t even seen one scout.”

“That’s because they are afraid. When the might of our army moves, even the ground trembles,” the Panda King bragged again. He had been continuously boasting the entire trip: ‘My army can crush anything,’ ‘My army is undefeated,’ ‘Every man in my army can kill ten of those weak Humans.’ He bragged at every possible chance.

“Pay him no heed,” Eve said with her usual fake smile. “He’s just upset that there is a situation he can’t control. The worse it gets, the further he’ll spiral,” she reassured him. But what was the point? Was she also unable to control the situation?

As they got closer to the enemy encampment, less and less of why he was even bothering to stand on this side made sense. Even Eve’s attempts to calm and coax him were becoming transparent. She just doesn’t want her puppet out of line, he thought as his feet moved mechanically. The lure of the upcoming bloodshed was eradicated by the queasy feeling he got from standing too near the Panda King and from listening to Eve try and manipulate him. Perhaps she, too, is feigning confidence even as she begins to lose control. Maybe she knows these things won’t go as she had hoped and that, instead of a glorious victory for her new pet dog, her brother will crush the Panda King, and she will be left unable to control him like she has me.

“This brute butchered the sacred forests! What did the trees ever do to him?” The Panda King gasped as his men began to walk out of the woods, no longer dodging trees but instead stepping over freshly-cut stumps.

“We’re still a ways from the mountain,” Qasin noted, as he struggled to peer over the other warriors, a hard thing to do at his height. “If their lumber harvesting extends this far back, what did they do with all of the wood?”

“Probably lit fires, the hairless monkeys. You know how their kind gets so cold whenever a breeze passes.” The Panda King almost spit the words. Whatever calm and collected demeanor the King had shown when Qasin first met him was clearly gone. “My apologies, am I not being considerate? Are you’re cold as well?” The Panda King laughed at Qasin. “It’s too bad we didn’t bring blankets for our new friends. How inhospitable.” The Panda King’s drooling mouth flicked pieces of spit as he spoke, and his eyes squinted despite his face’s cheerful demeanor.

The hearty laughter grated on Qasin’s ears. “Hubris,” Qasin said. Only one word, but enough to rile the Panda King’s anger and put a sudden stop to his laughter.

“A man is only arrogant when he is wrong,” the fat bear countered. “If he is right, then he is just confident. It’s not hubris to think that we will trample the enemy as if he is naught but dirt beneath our feet when our force is this mighty, and they have only a few hundred men and no understanding of war.”

“Hubris,” Qasin repeated, confident in his assertion. The Panda King would fall, the Humans would no longer be oppressed in this land, and all would be right with the world. The best part about it? He had a front row seat for their downfall. He would, like he had so many times before back in the Human Kingdom, have a front and center view of one of his champions destroying the arrogant competition who dared to challenge him. Darwin was a new champion, but the result would be the same. No cavalry, few archers, no notable magicians . . . The champion that had crushed a legion of White-Horns would not be undone by this rabble. It was indeed hubris for the Panda King to think otherwise.

As the clinking, clacking and clicking sounds of metal crushing metal, pressing dirt, and banging wooden weapon shafts continued to ring out, a noticeable jolt in the cacophony rang through from the front. We’re here. Qasin smiled. Blood would pour bountifully across this once beautiful land.

“What is that? I can’t see the field.” The Panda King tried to look over his troops to no avail. “Guards, prepare the platform!” He yelled as his army finished coming to a stop.

As Qasin watched the rear line of men unloaded their backpacks of material and begin building a giant, three-story-tall platform in the middle of the field. Qasin sighed. It wasn’t unusual. He had seen nobles like this before even in the Human lands. Qasin personally hated it, firmly believing that a strong leader should be in the front lines of any conflict along with his people; but, he also knew that there would be this type of person–the one who treated his subjects as a means to an end and the battles in war as nothing more than shows where he could watch from afar as other people achieved his objectives for him.

“Are you coming?” The Panda King teased as he started walking up the stairs to seats that were being hastily finished at the top. “I wouldn’t want our guests of honor to miss the destruction of every fighting Human in this land.”

And I don’t want to miss your arrogance being crushed, Qasin thought as he started walking up the stairs. In just a short time a rivalry had developed between Qasin and the fat ruler. Everything about the bear-man reminded Qasin of the Human Council, of how much he had hated the double-talking and snide remarks when they thought they were winning.

“Ladies first,” Qasin extended an arm, letting Eve go up the stairs before him. This fight was going to be a show indeed. He smiled, more assured with each passing moment that things were going to go exactly as he expected.

“What idiots!” the Panda King said as he reached the top of the hastily constructed pavilion and looked out over the field. Qasin couldn’t see what he was talking about at first, but as he finished climbing the stairs and looked out over the field below, he saw it.

            What on earth is he thinking? Qasin thought as he looked out over the battlefield.

“He didn’t even put up a gate?” the Panda King laughed. “That stupid monkey thinks he doesn’t need any defenses, that he can beat us in the open field.”

“I wouldn’t be so confident,” Eve said, looking at the blockade of blue-scaled shields with spears sticking up over them that stood where there should have been a door, gate, or another form of defense. “He is no fool.”

“No fool?” The Panda King couldn’t control his laughter. “He built a massive wall and then left a huge opening for us to come through. Did he think he could stop the forces of our legions with cumbersome shields and unwieldy toothpicks? Or are the toothpicks just complimentary, intended to go with the snack? Those absurdly large shields will make excellent platters.”

“I’m telling you he is no fool,” Eve warned again, but it was obvious from the fact that the King was still chuckling that he didn’t believe it for a minute. There just wasn’t an obvious explanation for what the Human side was doing.

Even Qasin felt defeated looking at the shieldwall. Where is the gate? Where are his pots with molten tar to spill out on the first wave of enemies? Where are the archers lined up against the wall? What happened to the Blue-Drakes? he asked himself, suddenly panicking and doubting that the Humans would even stand a chance. What are you thinking, Champion? His eyes darted across the field, looking for the man who had slain a thousand White-Horns, the man who had brought back the confidence and fire he needed to save the realm and kill the poisonous snakes within his court.

“Let’s not delay the inevitable,” the Panda King said as he turned and walked away from Eve and Qasin, who were still looking over the stand’s railing. “Heralds,” he called down to five horn blowers who sat at the foot of the stand. “Sound the horns! We crush them now!”

As the horns blew and the army started marching forward in a disjointed, clumsy and disorganized fashion, Qasin found himself holding his breath. They weren’t charging, they were walking. The sight left Qasin with an uneasy feeling, as if he could feel every beat of his heart, every second of every minute, that led up to the fight. Out of the Panda King’s legions of troops, only one thousand at most were archers, and they quickly became clear as daylight. They are standing out like a black target on a white background, Qasin thought as he watched the troops separate and leave them unattended. Qasin looked to the woods on either side of the clearing. If he were coordinating the battle, this is where his troops would have rushed in to flank the unprotected archers, crippling the enemy’s ranged attacks–but nothing happened. There wasn’t even the slightest sign of movement on the army’s flanks. This can’t be all. It can’t end like this. Qasin’s heart strained as the possibility of Darwin’s failure became more and more real to him.

Then, through clenched fists, strained eyes, and held breath, he watched it happen. The slowly advancing soldiers, armed with their mixed bag of weapons, crossed the point where a gate should have been. They dodged the spikes as well as they could with only one or two people getting impaled on the long, sharpened poles that surrounded the walls as the force pressed forward. Then, just as the mob reached a narrow gap within the enemy’s defenses, the defenders began shouting incoherently and banging their weapons against their shields creating a deafening clamor. As one, Darwin’s troops then lowered their shields, raised their spears, and crammed together so that no part of their bodies were visible from where Qasin stood watching. It was like staring at an odd mix of a porcupine and a turtle as the spears shot out in front of the ball, and they began slowly inching forward bit by bit at a time. First a crawl, next a slow walk. Then, just barely a jog and then something less. The two armies clashed.

The earlier ringing of metal on metal was nothing compared to the cacophony of noise created by the hundreds of swords, axes, knives and halberds as they attempting to penetrate the shieldwall created by the Humans’ front line. Yet, despite the ferocity of the initial surge, the Human line refused to give way. On the contrary, the soldiers on the Panda King’s front line found themselves being gored, crushed and thrown to the ground by dozens of spears quickly stabbing each and every soldier they could reach.

“What is happening?” The Panda King stared, dumbfounded, at the clash from his cushioned seat. It wasn’t easy to make out, but Qasin had been in enough fights to know what to look for when a line was dying. “Are our are men making any progress? Are the wannabe monkeys folding in defeat yet?” He was shouting at his subordinates, his anger palpable as the victory he had assumed would happen in an instant was inexplicably taking longer than anticipated.

“I told you he wasn’t a fool, that this should be taken seriously.” Eve smugly watched the fight from the railing, never having taken her chair. “You wouldn’t listen. You just charged in blindly as if it were that simple.”

Defiant, the Panda King ignored Eve. His face grew stern, but he wouldn’t budge. “We will win this day,” he assured everyone watching the spectacle. “We will crush them. Just wait. They hide behind a pebble, believing it will stop a tsunami,” he said with a puffed up chest and a grin baring every tooth it could. Yet, no sooner he had made his declaration than the battle took another turn. There weren’t any archers visible on the wall, but as soon as the Humans defending the gap made any ground against their enemy, they would stop and back up. Then, what seemed like hundreds, if not thousands, of arrows shot up from behind the walls and rained down on the Panda King’s troops.

The damage wasn’t severe. The front line was comprised of strong Ursine warriors with good armor, and they were able to take several hits without falling over, but the barrage was disheartening to the morale of the animal army nonetheless. They had just gone from a sure victory to being repelled by a wall of shields, and now they were being prickled and stabbed by hundreds of falling arrows. Even the Panda King, watching his troops die left and right, could feel their spirits being sapped. “If they think arrows are going to win this fight for them, then let’s show them what real archery looks like! Sound the horn for the archers. Advance to firing position!” the Panda King ordered to the horns. A different, higher pitched set of horns blew this time, three blasts in a very deliberate pattern. It was obviously their way of signalling the archers over the noise of the battle. A rather handy method, Qasin noted, thinking about how he might adopt it for his Kingdom back home.

As the archers began making their way towards the wall, two flaming arrows went up into the air from behind the enemy wall. At this point, Qasin could see that whatever hope the Panda King had of a swift victory had been dashed instantly. Even if he were to eventually triumph, the victory would only be seized through a miserable battle of attrition, but even that thought seemed fanciful as the fire arrows, which signaled the enemy’s next phase of attack, summoned a horde of flying Blue-Drakes from each side of the mountain. They flew over the wall, over the enemies, and then rained hell and brimstone down on the archers. As the archers did their best to try and prick and pelt the beasts, explosions of fire shot up from the ground as the very earth itself seemed to catch fire.

After finishing their first flight path, they circled around, and then all the Blue-Drakes at once ignited the ground in a giant arch of burning flames across the field. “I see the Hydra is still intact,” Qasin, the only one amused at the situation, laughed. While the semicircle was being set ablaze, a second crew of Blue-Drakes, each holding on to a single head of a Hydra and two holding its tail, flew down the center from the mountain and dropped the Hydra plumb in the middle of the burning half-ring of fire. Then, the circling Blue-Drakes that had passed by started swinging low enough to drop off warriors before continuing to rain explosive fire into the middle of the enemy forces from above.

The Panda King’s archers were decimated. The front line was dying by the wave with no sign of having made any impact on the Humans. The fire was making the panda’s army smell like barbeque on the battlefield; and now, to top it all off, and as if to add insult to injury, a giant Hydra with dozens of skilled fighters were claiming a spot in the very middle of the terrain. “No . . . No, we can’t fail. We can’t fail here. Everything is counting on this.” Eve started to panic, her eyes flashing red. “This is . . . This is your fault!” She yelled at Qasin, “You just had to stop and save those people. If you hadn’t bothered with them, we would have made it in time!”

I just had to stop and save them? That was the wrong thing? Qasin thought, but he said nothing. He just stared at her as she clutched her hair so tightly she almost tore it out.

“We’re not going to fail,” the Panda King said, looking over the field. “We just need to pull back the forces, regroup and get the heavy siege equipment out here. If he wants to huddle up under a wall of shields, we’ll crush that wall like we crush every other wall. As far as the Blue-Drakes are concerned, we have the numbers, and we have the nets. We can take refuge under the cover of the trees until we have enough net throwers to rip them out of the sky.”

“I can’t . . . I won’t let it end this way,” Eve mumbled to herself, completely ignoring the Panda King’s new plan. Her feet started to lift into the air, and her body slowly started to hover half a meter above the ground. Her red eyes began glowing like rubies under light, and she began to reach her hands out towards the wall of Humans holding shields. “I don’t care anymore if I have to interfere. I don’t care if this causes problems for us, Stephanie. I won’t let you win like this!” she shouted as the air around her started to crackle with charges of electricity.

This . . . This is worse than with the pirates. Qasin watched, first in wonder and then in horror. This will murder every man, woman and child over there if it has even close to the same effect it did on those brigands. If the King sounds the retreat, there is no telling how much damage proper siege equipment will do. Looking around at his situation, Qasin started putting everything together. One Panda King, three guards, and then I can make it over the railing, he mentally added up his danger. If I get over there, then, given the way those weaklings fight, I should be able to . . . He wanted to finish plotting, to plan out his entire escape route, but just seeing Eve let him know that her spell was almost done. “I’m sorry,” he whispered at her. In a way, he really was. She was the first person who had taken the time to get to know him as anyone or anything other than the King. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, pulling out his blade and stabbing it through Eve’s back, directly into her heart, before she could even see him move.

He heard her gargle blood as her now limp body fell to the floor in front of him. He heard the Panda King roaring at him, but it didn’t matter. It was too late for them. Without Eve, the Panda King would fall for sure. Without Eve, his people, the Humans of this land, would be free from the tyranny of the repulsive monarch.

Qasin then turned to the Panda King, but he had seen his betrayal and already closed the distance between him and Qasin, slamming Qasin in the chest with a fist that left Qasin skidding across the floor. As Qasin got up and readied himself for the second attack, the panda chuckled at him. “Is this the might of a Human swordsman? You can’t even figure out where your feet are,” he taunted, but Qasin didn’t react. He had stayed alive in fights because he knew precisely when to ignore an opponent’s challenge, and this was one of those times. As the Panda King dropped to all fours and charged again, Qasin was slightly more prepared. With one sword he intercepted the panda’s clawed hand, which was about to tear into his flesh. With his other blade, he cut the tendons of the aggressing arm even as the great force of the blow sent Qasin flying back against the railing.

The impact of the railing crushed in on his lungs, audibly snapping a few ribs, but Qasin wasn’t alone in his pain as he coughed up blood. The Panda King had taken a serious hit too. He had halted his charge after hitting Qasin, recoiling as he felt the deep cuts from the Human’s blade. As soon as the furious Ursine tried to resume his charge position on all fours, he found himself limping and unable to put any pressure on his injured limb. The Panda King, irritated at losing his ability to charge, stood up. “So you think you’ve gained an advantage, you pitiful primate?” he snarled. “You think I can’t kill you with one hand tied behind my back? I can crush any man!” he roared.

“Just like you’ve managed to crush the Humans over there behind me?” Qasin taunted in return. While the enemy had size and strength on his side and clearly wasn’t lacking in speed, Qasin still had his wits. The Panda was so mad he wasn’t even thinking straight, and he needed to use that to his advantage. “Perhaps you could come over here, and I can teach you how to juggle and dance like the bears do back home.”

“Nonsense! There are no juggling bears!”

“Oh, but there are. We make them beg, whimper and plead for fish. They do tricks at our command.” Qasin continued to bait the panda, watching as the animal’s eyes grew bloodshot with hatred as if every vein in them were slowly bursting from his rage. “But don’t worry, I’m not insulting you. The bears back home are different. They can’t speak or behave. They’re a lesser species, less . . . Human.”

Overcome with rage at this last unthinkable insult, the Panda King sprang forward at Qasin, swiping at him with his good hand. Qasin saw the attack telegraphed a mile away and ducked under it, using both his blades to sever the tendons of the monarch’s good limb as he had done with the other. As Qasin crouched and lifted his swords into the powerful arm sweeping over him, he grimaced from the intense pain in his sides where his ribs had been broken against the railing. The Panda King, doing his best to press his attack despite the fresh wound, followed up by kicking at Qasin in an odd kung fu fashion, but Qasin dodged the attack, just barely managing to stumble out of range in time.

Not wanting to lose momentum and let his enemy regain his composure, Qasin decided to take the offensive this time. As the Panda King desperately swung his two gimped hands down upon Qasin from his right side, Qasin took the blow with his left shoulder as he pulled the blade in his right hand across the Panda King’ jugular.

As the panda fought to keep his balance and stop the blood from spewing out of his neck, Qasin fought just to stand up as his shattered ribs and mauled shoulder ached in unrelenting pain. The blows had taken their toll. After taking a moment to regain his breath, he looked around and laughed. The Heralds were below, horns ready, but there was no one to tell them what to blow. The fallen King’s guards were on the field with the rest of the soldiers, and he, the only Human on this side of the fight, was left alone upon the King’s platform to stand witness to the battle below.

“I’m sorry, Eve,” he said again, louder this time, as he turned to see where her body had fallen. Only, it wasn’t there.

“Qasin, I’m sorry too,” he heard her say from the railing behind him, where she was now standing, clutching the wound he had given her. “You have no idea what you’ve done,” she said, beginning to float again. If Qasin had had the energy, he would have tried to stab her, stop her mid-spell, but he could barely stand. “You, for the sake of a few thousand people who are no longer even Human, may have damned millions!” she angrily shouted as her body started to draw blood from the Panda King and heal her wounds.

“You . . .” Qasin found even speaking a bit difficult. “You keep saying that, but how can I trust you? I know the way you twist words.”

“Because,” she sighed, the spell now ripping the life from the five Heralds below, their screams muted by the blood that poured out of their mouths. “I trusted you. I tried to help you become something more, something greater, but you just couldn’t get past it, could you? You just couldn’t get past that ridiculous destructive nature of yours. It always has to be violence with you!”

“That’s rich.” Qasin used his sword for support as he started limping towards Eve. “You didn’t even try diplomacy with your own brother, but you accuse me of loving violence?” Each step he took was painful yet necessary as he walked towards Eve, who was hovering a foot above the ground with an odd mixture of blood and purple energy swirling about her.

“You should have trusted me!” Eve shouted back, her eyes now glowing purple with the same energy that floated around her.

“I did.” Qasin took another labored breath. “You just didn’t know me,” he managed to get out. Then, before she could respond again, he dashed at her, plunging his blade into her stomach. “This is just who I am,” he said, pulling the blade out of her.

“That’s why I’m sorry too.” She put on a smile that was almost instantly betrayed by the welling tears in her eyes. “I can’t have you standing in my way,” she said. Qasin saw that the fresh sword wound he had given her was already healed. Suddenly, the purple energy that had been encircling her rushed into him all at once from every angle. Eve’s spell pulled and ripped at his insides, the clawing energy finally bursting forth from his chest as if it were some beastly maw which carried his still-beating heart in its teeth. The energies then gnashed the heart into so many tiny pieces that it appeared to be nothing more than orbs of blood hovering in the air, which Eve drank up as Qasin watched in silent horror.

In that brief moment, between the terror of knowing he was dead and the abject horror of watching his heart being torn into a thousand pieces and greedily sucked up by Eve, he had torn emotions as to which was worse. Was it that he was going to die, or was it that his death was worthless? She had somehow shrugged off the wounds he had inflicted, and he was certain she would be able to go into the battle unscathed, destroying every Human there.

But then, as his body fell limp to the floor, so did hers. She was healed, but whatever she had done had taken its toll. That fact meant that the people he had died to protect were safe for now. Knowing that his death meant something for Humanity drew a smile across his lips as he lay on the ground powerless but at peace, unable to even tighten his fingers around the hilt of the sword that still lay in his hand. As he died, with all the burden of Kingdoms and conquests behind him, his last thoughts were on the woman with whom his fate had been so tightly bound. She really is beautiful, he thought, still smiling as his vision finally went dark.

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