“So we can’t kill the panda because we need his help. We can’t wait with him because he doesn’t trust us. We can’t go off and just talk to your brother because he has a ‘soul-stealing’ woman with him. You have explained this all thoroughly, but there is a missing piece you still haven’t told me about.” Qasin looked around annoyedly at the cityscape strung out around him. It wasn’t just the stares, the snide remarks under the breath of the passerbies that were still audible enough for Qasin to hear, or even the pungent smell of a hundred animal people desperately needing a dunk in the river that bothered him most about the area now. He had gotten used to all that.
In fact, their resentment almost made him smile. Thoughts of how he would repay their ‘kindness’ wormed their way through his mind and pulled his lips into a grin. Slice, dice, chop and grind, he thought to himself as the images floated through his head. It was taking a great deal of self-discipline to prevent the grim fantasies in his mind from actually being carried out. He needed to bide his time until Eve was done with the animals here, until they had served their purpose. Once her goal was accomplished, she would have no problem if he dealt justice to these beasts who dared to look down on Humanity with such hateful eyes. I will restore order for mankind in this barbaric land, he told himself, grinning as he glared back at the leering menagerie in the streets.
“If you understand all of that, then what is there left to say?” Eve kept walking through the marketplace, head held high as if nothing were wrong.
How is she comfortable here? How is it that these people don’t irritate her too? “Perhaps the thing that I want to know even after understanding all of that is, why are we still standing in this forsaken den of dogs? The Panda King, to whom you went for help, isn’t interested in us right now, so why do we have to wait around in this city?”
“Because, dear Qasin, they will want us. In fact, as soon as their scouts arrive, they’ll be back, and we need to look confident in our prediction.” Eve continued to strut around, pausing only occasionally to look at items on display around them.
“If they don’t, if we’re stuck waiting for nothing, I’m personally going to go and try to reason with that brother of yours,” Qasin said.
“Qasin, why do you think my brother is worthy of being reasoned with instead of killed when you are already holding your blade and eyeing these citizens like prey?” Eve turned around to look at him. “Why is it that you insist on talking to him, helping him understand, but these people aren’t worth even a moment of your time?”
“The same could be said for you. You constantly nag me to talk instead of kill, yet you force me to talk to the people I want to kill so that you don’t have to converse with the people you want to murder,” Qasin grumbled.
“I don’t want to kill my brother, I just–” Eve protested, but was interrupted by a messenger from the Panda King before her excuse could be voiced. It didn’t matter though. Qasin was sure he had heard it along with every other excuse she had dozens of times before.
“Ma’am, sir, your attention is required in the royal courtyard,” a giant Ursine warrior said as he appeared behind the two. “The King wishes to speak to you.”
“Tell them we’ll be there when we finish up here.” Eve tried to wave off the guard, much to the ire of Qasin, who wanted to conclude the business as quickly as possible, but the guard was persistent.
“Ma’am, the King expressed his desire to see you immediately. We should proceed to the royal courtyard without delay,” he pressed again.
“As I said before, I’ll be there when I finish here,” Eve said, looking at Qasin with a smile. He couldn’t be sure, but he was almost positive that the smile said, ‘See, we were right where we needed to be when we needed to be there. You were upset for nothing.’
“My Lady,” the voice grew deeper and more hoarse, “I believe your business here is concluded,” he said as forcefully as an Ursine might. As he spoke, several dozen Ursine and Panthera warriors began appearing on all sides of Qasin and Eve. Each of them was fully armored, and they were all grouped in a circle surrounding the pair.
“I see, so it’s that type of invitation. Does your King still not trust me? Sending so many people to rush me away . . . Well, I suppose if I must. Let’s go, dear,” she said, turning to Qasin. “We shouldn’t keep our host waiting.” Eve sauntered past the original guard in the direction of the royal courtyard, the entire group of additional guards still surrounding them as they walked.
“So was this all part of your plan too?” Qasin mumbled in a voice that would be audible only to Eve. He didn’t like the idea of guards listening in on his conversations, a distaste he had developed and fostered when he was constantly forced to guard against the Human Council back in his days of only being a puppet monarch.
“I don’t wish to delay this meeting any more than he does. We need him still, Qasin. Remember that. Yet, we can’t let it seem like we’re happy about being called back,”
“Why not?” he asked, the foul taste from his earlier experiences at court welling up in his mouth. “Why can’t we just state our intentions and be done with this game?” His disgust was growing with each passing moment. Not just with the animals, but with Eve as well. He was beginning to wonder how much of what she said and did was really just part of her games, part of her attempt to move him like a pawn.
Here I thought that I was free of your kind, he thought as he stared at her, his contempt for the people around him slowly finding a new home. Perhaps even now, all I need to do is kill. Will you leave me and play your games elsewhere if I just start murdering your other puppets? It worked once, it worked twice, and it hasn’t failed me yet. If a problem exists, I just need to kill. As his two feet carried him blindly to his destination, these old thoughts flooded Qasin’s head with memories of Wilhelm bleeding out against a wall. He was following Eve for now, but his mind was quickly looking for reasons not to, reasons why he should trust his gut and butcher the people who threatened his kind.
“You were right,” the Panda King said, interrupting Qasin’s thoughts. He had been so concentrated on his anger that he hadn’t noticed the time fly by, and they had already reached the King’s residence. They were standing in front of a courtyard that was at least the size of a small town. Empty, flat and stone, the square arena was filled with hundreds of troops of all races and breeds scattered about in an odd, disorganized fashion. Some of them were sparring within rings composed of the other soldiers gathered around them. There were even soldiers who were clearly gambling in front of or with their superiors.
This rabble . . . This is the rabble that subjugated and beat the Humans of this land? He cursed in his mind in disbelief. From what he had heard and seen in the towns they had passed through, the Humans on his island had never known any semblance of true organization. They had only ever charged at their enemies, facing off in a flurry of mismatched weapons from swords and shields to axes and mauls, yet even they were more unified than this group of louts.
“Word arrived from the scouts hours ago,” The Panda King continued watching his soldiers from where he stood in front of his over-cushioned throne, not even bothering to turn to face them as he spoke. They were now waiting on a three-story-high platform erected against the east wall. Qasin and Eve, who had just arrived, had already managed to draw the attention of fifty to sixty of the closest soldiers.
“And?” Eve pressed, but anyone who saw what was going on would know that the troops wouldn’t be assembled if it wasn’t exactly as Eve had spelled out earlier–if there wasn’t a clear and present threat.
“You hadn’t returned, so I sent for you.” The Panda was terse as he spoke to the two, still not even bothering to look in their direction.
“My good King, forgive my impertinence. I meant to ask you, what was the word?” she politely spoke in a weak, submissive tone that belied her confident exterior. Her voice sounded as if she were a waitress who had spilled a customer’s drink, yet her face was one of a hawk who had just spotted a mouse. “Was it as we feared?”
“It was worse. We expected him to have one or two of the outlying Human factions on his side. We expected him to settle in one of the run down mines with good agricultural reach. Those things would have been well within both our grasp and expectation; but, it is as you said–only worse. Every single Human we know of in the lands has begun to migrate towards the new base at Mt. Lawlheima?. None of our scouts have been able to approach that place. Each one that we send gets killed, burned or eaten by a band of red-eyed drakes. We’ve only had one scout survive to tell the tale of the fiery beasts that descended on his group of six and slaughtered them before they even got halfway to the target destination.” The King’s tone scraped across Qasin’s ear like nails dragging across a steel plate even though the bass in his voice was deep and loud enough to make water ripple.
“Were you able to prevent any of the Humans from reaching Mt. Lawlheima , or did they all make it successfully?” Eve continued to force details out of the beastly ruler.
“We couldn’t stop a single one. Our scouts were able to follow the trails while they were all still fresh, that is how we were able to discover their position Lawlheima. When one group failed to report in, however, we were forced to send another to search for them. They found their corpses sprawled out and riddled with arrows. The scouts believe that Darwin sent troops to make sure there wasn’t an issue,” the King continued, almost every word causing an involuntary twitch in Qasin’s eye.
Qasin stood dazed as he listened to the two. In the formative years of his youth, he had always dreamed of dragons. Each day he had wondered what it would be like to ride one of them, how magnificent it would be to soar through the skies on the greatest beast in the land, yet the mention of them being domesticated went entirely unnoticed. Despite all the excitement of hearing about Blue-Drakes being tamed and domesticated, his mind could only focus on one pair of words: Human factions. This man had come to the land but a few days past, and he had already united every Human in the vicinity. He had pulled them together, built them a home and sent people to defend them on their journey to it. All the while this flea-ridden furball had hoped and wished for his men to kill them.
What horrible truth about his plans has Eve hidden from me that would make me want to stand here and not with my own people? Qasin’s mind raced as he tried to find justifications for the fact that he was currently siding with the enemy of his once great champion.
“Well, it may be too late for this to be a clean and simple battle.” Eve looked over at the troops. “But, if we don’t try, it will be too late for you to ever win anyway.”
“You were right before about his plotting and scheming. How certain are you that I don’t have more time, that I can’t prepare more troops and study the enemy? We could summon more troops from the surrounding areas and march against him with the full might of the Kingdom.” The Panda King rolled his paws back and forth across the railing as he looked with a somber frown at the men below. “If this goes wrong, if we lose too much, and then the Kingdom might still be lost. The other towns and races are only kept in check by our might and our commanding visage. Both must stay strong.”
“Did your men not get butchered by a handful his drakes? If he gains the control of hundreds, will all the forces of every Kingdom in all the known lands be enough to stand against him?” Eve chiseled away at the Panda King’s stubbornness.
“Even the number he has now is worrisome,” the Panda King conceded, taking a deep breath. He was clearly used to always being right, to having the last word, and it showed in his hesitance. Qasin had met his kind in the chambers of his old keep over and over again. They knew more than any man should, and they only struck once they were able to account for every thorn on the stem of the flower. It was a terrifying type of man to fight against if he could find a way around your weapon, but not one to ever initiate action without having something to gain and a clear path to victory. It wasn’t the kind of man to ever stand up and fight for the people.
To stand up and fight for the people, he repeated the idea in his mind. To stand up for the people . . . That’s what I have always done. This . . . What people . . . Whose people am I standing up for now? He looked to Eve for answers, but she was still busy playing her game, working her words and jabbering away with the Panda King. They were talking about troops, and she was telling truths in such a simple, precise way that Qasin almost felt like they were worse than lies. She was leaving out her own motivations, neglecting to mention her own personal reasons for turning to the King. She told the ruler that Darwin had to be stopped, but made it seem as if it was only in the interest of the Panda King, that she had nothing to gain from his defeat. Each word dragged out as if it were certain her brother would seek to destroy the Panda King. After having walked the streets of this town, Qasin wasn’t even entirely sure that he was bothered by the idea. This is why killing has always been the answer. The blade doesn’t lie; it tells only one truth.
“You will not win,” Qasin said, his tongue acting with his temper before his patience could stop him from blurting it out. “Your army is weak, undisciplined, and lacking in cohesion. You could wait for all of the men from all of your subjects to be called to serve you, but he will break you like so many waves against the shore before you can wear down the rock of his force.”
The Panda King and Eve, who had been talking at some length while Qasin had stewed in his rage, stared at him. “Please, do tell me why you would make such a preposterous claim. Since the unification of Ursine and Panthera forces, our armies have never been broken–even when outnumbered.”
“And I am certain that was the same confidence the White-Wings shared before facing off against him. An army that would have wrecked the combined forces of the Human, White-Horn and Black-Wing lands was dealt with as if it were mere play-thing by that champion. He waded into the battle with less than a hundred troops and crushed the army without even a single lost man. If one of his men was killed, certainly no one saw it, and no body was ever found,” Qasin said confidently, remembering how Darwin had saved them from the White-Wing invasion on that day.
He saved my people. The thought ran through his head. Before the Panda King could even respond or Eve could shoot daggers at him with her glare, Qasin felt a small smile grow across his face as he remembered how Eve’s brother had helped avert a disaster of epic proportions. During the fray, he had led a force of Demons for the sake of the Humans and the White-Horns and the Black-Wings that he had never met. Yet, despite that fact, Eve stood here now insisting the Demon that saved their lands was an enemy. What foe protects you from certain death or destruction?
“Perhaps it is just that the leader of those forces did not listen to his advisors. A wise King builds an army with the aide of his people’s representatives. I had heard that the King of the Human Kingdom was the type of bad King who never once listened to the words of the Human Council, that he didn’t understand the importance of good advice from sagely men who obviously knew better. Perhaps he also had the same approach with the military.” The Panda King’s voice was calm and gentle, but his face was almost snarling as he addressed Qasin. “Perhaps his inability to understand the complexities of men and follow the advice of those who could is why even his closest advisors sought his death.”
Qasin, staring the panda in his black eyes, felt that familiar bile begin to rise. As he broke his gaze to glance at Eve, he couldn’t help but get even angrier. This blowhard monarch is the one you are pitting against the greatest champion the Human Race has ever had? He questioned her again in his mind, his subconscious telling him that everything about this scenario was wrong. Why did I even follow you out here in the first place? he started to seriously question for the first time since the journey began. There had been something about her, a magic sort of charm that had pulled and tugged at him like a leash, an allure bolstered by the fact that every word she said had sounded right. That leash, however, was now losing its strength with each passing moment.
“You can go to war . . .” Qasin almost stopped himself from arguing. Each passing thought told him, Let him think he is right. Our champion will destroy him, and the Humans in this Kingdom will be free from the tyranny of these oppressive beasts. The only thing that made him attempt to dissuade the Panda King, clearly against Eve’s desires, was that he didn’t want even one more innocent person to die. “You can try to fight him, but if you wish to talk about listening to counsel, consider listening to mine as well. I can’t stop you, but just as she has wrapped Darwin around her finger, she will use your own desires against you,” he said, pointing to Eve, whose pale complexion was starting to turn red in anger. He hated having to keep a civil tone. It was like dragging a blade across his own skin just trying to be polite and helpful to someone who would sooner kill every member of his species than give them the time of day.
“He isn’t wrong,” Eve started off by agreeing with him. “He did decimate a force of thousands with barely a hundred men, but one of them was so powerful she could have done it by herself. That one will most likely be absent from this fight if we move today, but she will be certain to return if we wait too long.”
“Very well. I’ve listened to both of you for counsel,” he growled at Qasin, almost ignoring Eve now. “But, as you said, I can go to war, and I will. We move as soon as every soldier in the town is ready. There is no point in delaying the inevitable. They are but a few hours’ march, and, at the end of those hours, we shall teach. We shall educate the filthy, hairless ape imposters that no King, especially not I, the greatest of great Animal Kings, should ever fear the wrath of a handful of men, who are even less than monkeys.”
Qasin smiled to himself despite the insults. He should have been mad. He had been completely ignored, insulted, and he knew that good people would probably die today–but he couldn’t stop the rush. There was a feeling of joy because he knew a battle was coming, a battle where his champion would crush this Panda King no matter how great he thought his army was. No, you shall learn that a handful of Humans, even if they are now turned into Demons, will not be subjugated by uncivilized fiends like you. He laughed to himself as he thought about the slaughter to come. When a problem rears its head, Darwin will slay it. That’s how great men solve their problems. They eradicate them.