Chapter 20:

Stray

This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table


-Fior Deniev, 19 years old-Bookmark here

The first thing that I smelled as soon as I passed through the door was the acrid scent of gunpowder smoke, something that I was unfortunately familiar with. From where the door spat Vell and I out, a small stairway that appeared to lead into a pantry, the characteristic billowing black clouds weren’t visible, but I could hear the sounds of cannons somewhere above.Bookmark here

“My Lord, is that you? Your return is certainly earlier than expected…” Sudden voices from the top of the stairway, presumably referring to Lowell, put me on high alert.Bookmark here

They posted guards outside this hallway? Not good - I don’t have a weapon…Bookmark here

One of the men, probably concerned as to why there was no response, peered down the stairway. However, thanks to it being dimly lit, we were not seen. “My Lord? Are you there?” he asked.Bookmark here

Not having the talent of mimicry, I couldn’t respond. Sensing that there was something wrong, the guard said something inaudible to his colleague, then started coming down the stairway. I braced myself for the worst - if the man was well trained and well equipped, all Vell and I could do was duck back through the door and keep it blocked.Bookmark here

“... Huh? Who are you two?” Coming within sight, the man was, fortunately, the complete opposite of my worst fears. Unarmored and lean, the guard wielded a metal pipe, which I assumed was to be used as a blunt weapon. “INTRU-”Bookmark here

His shouts were cut short as I covered his mouth with my left hand. After a bout of clumsy pushing and pulling, and him landing several weak strikes to my back, I was able to wrest the pipe from his hand. Raising it over my head, I steeled my resolve to bring it down for a decisive blow. This would be the first time I would use the techniques taught to me in swordsmanship class.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. With one swing to the head, the man crumpled to the ground, unconscious but not dead. Feeling the weight of the pipe in my hand, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disgust. Bookmark here

So this is violence.Bookmark here

The second guard, alarmed by the lack of any callouts from his colleague, now walked down the stairway cautiously. Unable to use the element of surprise, all I could do was wait in the shadows of the flat area until he reached the bottom so his high ground advantage disappeared. Another strike to the head and he fell to the floor as well.Bookmark here

Prying the crudely sharpened stick he held out of his hands, I passed it to Vell. Her grip on it was shaky, and in trying to appear brave but looking like a weak fawn, I could tell that she had no experience with combat training.Bookmark here

“... So, what’s the plan?” she asked, voice trembling as we walked up the stairway into an open hall.Bookmark here

“I guess we’ll have to fight our way to wherever Alistair is being kept,” I responded, looking over the balustrade into a scattered group of rebels below in the castle courtyard. Each of them looked as ordinary as the two guards that lay unconscious in the stairway.Bookmark here

A pipe and a sharpened stick… Their clumsy, untrained movements… These aren’t mercenaries or soldiers… A peasant rebellion…? But what could they possibly be rebelling for?Bookmark here

The castle grounds around us looked somewhat dusty and neglected, so it didn’t seem to be that unfair taxes were being levied on them to fulfill the greed of the rich. The peasants below didn’t look impoverished either, with their tidy appearances and lean but not malnourished builds. Bookmark here

Something felt off to me - I couldn’t imagine that commoners who led lives with such a decent standard of living would overthrow the monarchy… unless provoked. Had the monarchy threatened to take their livelihoods away? Had the King spoken poorly of the commoners, and they were rebelling out of disrespect? Or had unsavory rumours spread by a political faction shaken the trust of the populace? Whatever it was, I was confident that Alistair had no part in it.Bookmark here

BOOOM!Bookmark here

A sudden tremor knocked Vell and I off our feet as the cannons fired once more. Following the trails of smoke in the air with my eyes, I realized that they were not the result of the burning of the castle, but of artillery being shot into the sky. Bookmark here

What the artillerymen were firing at, I had no idea, but there was no time to figure that out. The rebels below had begun advancing up the stairs to the open hallway where we stood. Though they seemed untrained, there was only so much I could do alone. Gritting my teeth, I leapt into combat.Bookmark here

-Alistair Vermilion, 17 years old-Bookmark here

Damn… This is the end, isn’t it?Bookmark here

My wrists were beginning to cramp from gripping the flight sticks tightly, and my vision was beginning to blur. I eyed the fuel gauge wearily, knowing that there was now no way for me to reach the mainland. Having dodged the missiles for several hours now, the Vassar was incredibly low on fuel as well as electricity. With the sun setting, I would be unable to draw any power from the solar panels. Descending down onto the island was the only choice I had left.Bookmark here

“Pass me another energy drink, will you?” I asked Olivia.Bookmark here

Quickly chugging it down and tossing the small bottle to the floor of the cockpit, I prepared myself for the perilous dive that was about to ensue. The closer I got to the ground, the less time I would have to dodge each missile.Bookmark here

As for where I could land… I eyed the surroundings below, trying to find a place that I could land safely. The places that were suitable for landing without crashing to a horrible, fiery death seemed to be swarming with rebels; if I landed in those locations, I would be captured. On the other hand, the places without rebels were either too far for me to reach without being struck down mid-air, or too dangerous to land in. The hangar was an option, of course, but there were no supplies there - Olivia and I would starve to death in hiding.Bookmark here

Deep breaths, Alistair. In and out. Look carefully. You can do this.Bookmark here

Eh?Bookmark here

While I had been doing my breathing exercises, the sounds below had dampened to a murmur. The roars of the artillery had ceased - fortunate timing, as if this persisted the dive to the ground would be much safer. As for why, I was about to find out. Opening the glove compartment beneath the seat, I took out a handheld telescope and held it up to my eye.Bookmark here

The artillerymen had left their various posts around the outer castle wall, and were running towards the hallways, where I could see swarms upon swarms of rebels converging. Due to the narrow nature of the hallways, it seemed that they were advancing one at a time down the hall slowly. Bookmark here

Fiddling with the zoom knob to see what they were doing, I felt my heartbeat stand still. In the mess below, I could see a glimpse of light blue and blonde hair at the end of the trail of rebels, slowly being pushed back down the hallway.Bookmark here

… Fior? Vell? What are they doing here? Did they come here from Japan?Bookmark here

AH- that’s right, the door! I could go through that to Japan!Bookmark here

However, the small stairway that led to the door was blocked by the trail of rebels. To get to it, I would have to join the fight alongside Fior and Vell. The Vassar wasn’t equipped with weapons, nor did I have any weapons training. Sure, if I crashed the Vassar into the balustrade, perhaps I could take out a couple of the rebels - however, the two of them had been pushed far past the stairway, and I would be separated from them.Bookmark here

Rummaging around in the glove compartment for something I could use, I struck gold. Why are these here? Better question - when did I make these? Three years ago?Bookmark here

“Hold on tight,” I said softly, reorienting the Vassar.Bookmark here

“Eh?” whimpered Olivia right before I pushed the flight sticks as far forward as they could go.Bookmark here

The engines of the Vassar probably were roaring louder than they had ever been - I couldn’t hear them, of course, over the sound of Olivia’s screaming. We were going at such a high speed that my breathing became strained, and I could feel the blood rushing out of my head. I was so close to blacking out… until I wasn’t.Bookmark here

Now that the fuel tank and battery had been completely depleted, the Vassar began to decelerate rapidly, carried downwards only by gravity. Within seconds, we were falling like a stone, the air resistance killing all horizontal velocity we had. My peripheral vision returned, and I hastily made some adjustments to our trajectory - just in time.Bookmark here

KRRRAAAAASH!!Bookmark here

The balustrade exploded into pieces as the Vassar crashed into it, windshield shattering in the process. Coughing from the smoke and debris, I had never been more glad that I had replaced it with safety glass - if I hadn’t, the resulting jagged shards probably would’ve gouged out my eyes.Bookmark here

The rebels, in a panic after the Vassar’s sudden appearance and crash landing, started sprinting away, afraid that the object unknown to them might be dangerous. Those trapped in between where I was and where Fior and Vell became agitated, pushing against each other to try and escape past the two.Bookmark here

Pushing aside a panel of shattered glass to exit the cockpit, I pulled one of the metal cylinders I had found in the glove compartment out of my pocket. Raising it like I would a sword, I pointed it at the rebels trapped in the hallway.Bookmark here

“CLOSE YOUR EYES!”Bookmark here

-Fior Deniev, 19 years old-Bookmark here

For a moment after the bang, the world was painted white.Bookmark here

When it all faded, and the pain in my eyes subsided, the group of rebels that stood between us and Alistair had mostly disappeared, having thrown themselves off the balustrade onto the lower level.Bookmark here

“YOU KNOW WHERE TO MEET!” he shouted over the chaos.Bookmark here

Pushing aside the remaining rebels, who were huddled on the ground in fear of the sound, I ran through the debris-littered hallway with Vell in tow. Alistair stood in front of the stairway with a woman who appeared to be a maid, waving another flash bomb at the men on the other side of the hallway, threatening them with another burst of light. As soon as the two of us made it to him, he triggered it, blinding all of us yet again.Bookmark here

“DAMN IT, ALISTAIR, YOU DIDN’T GIVE US WARNING THAT TIME!” I yelled over the pandemonium.Bookmark here

“WHO CARES, JUST GET GOING!” he responded. Unable to see anything, it was my turn to be led by Vell to the bottom, where we quickly crossed through to the other side. Moments later, Alistair and the maid crossed through as well, and we leaned against the wall of the railway station, desperately trying to catch our breaths.Bookmark here

“T-Thank you… hah… for coming… to try and save… hah… me,” Alistair panted between labored breaths.Bookmark here

Before Vell or I could respond, the doorknob turned on its own, making my blood run cold.Bookmark here

“SHIT! THEY’RE COMING THROUGH!” Vell screamed, drawing the attention of the Japanese passersby. “WE HAVE TO LEAVE!”Bookmark here

The four of us ran through the exit toward the scramble crossing, with a handful of brave rebels in pursuit. As we ran through the rain, Alistair searched in his pockets, only to come up empty.Bookmark here

My mind raced to come up with a solution. While the crowds at the crossing had thinned somewhat, they would still be able to see us. I was the only one of us four who had any regular athletic training in the past, probably, and with all the fighting I had done back in Redjuve, the war-fever was beginning to wear off, leaving me exhausted. There was no way we would be able to fight them off or outrun them.Bookmark here

“We have to split up,” I told the other three. “I’ll go to the left, you three go to the right.”Bookmark here

“What?! Why?!” exclaimed Vell between pained breaths. Bookmark here

“I’m the tallest one of us - and I have the most uniquely colored hair. If you three blend in with the crowd on the right, I can lead them away from you guys.” I responded, barely able to draw any oxygen from the thick, soupy air.Bookmark here

“And what about you -”Bookmark here

Just do it!” I cut off Alistair.Bookmark here

Reaching the crossing and wading through the first stream of pedestrians, I split off from the group, trying to keep my back straight to make myself more conspicuous. Miraculously, it worked - now all the pursuers were on my tail. They didn’t notice Alistair, Vell, and the maid joining the flow of passersby. Bookmark here

I did it. They’ll be safe.Bookmark here

I didn’t have time to celebrate - there were still the rebels behind me, and my footsteps were beginning to slow. With every step I took, a jolt of pain ran through my legs, and my peripheral vision was beginning to fade. Why they were still pursuing me when I wasn’t their target for execution, I had no clue, but I was desperate.Bookmark here

Using up every last bit of power I had, I threw open the wooden sliding door of a nearby ramen shop and ducked in. Scrambling to get behind the kitchen counter, the last thing I saw before I blacked out was the face of a man who had purple hair.Bookmark here

-----------------------Bookmark here

When I came to, a bald man wearing an apron was crouching over me.Bookmark here

“You okay, son?” he asked, pressing something cold to my forehead.Bookmark here

“Y-yeah… did they leave?”Bookmark here

“The three crazy men that came in wearing strange clothing and waving metal pipes? Yeah, they left, once I pointed at the sword,” he pointed at a scabbard which was mounted on the wall of his restaurant.Bookmark here

I tried to stand up, but I was still weak, only managing to sit up against the kitchen drawers.Bookmark here

“You gave Ristall, my employee, quite a fright, you know? A kid with blue hair slamming the door open, running behind the counter, and promptly fainting? When he called me down, he sounded just as scared as the day I met him,” the shop owner chuckled. Grabbing a steaming bowl of soup from the counter above, he handed it to me. “Drink this.”Bookmark here

It was the most delicious bowl of soup I had ever had. I couldn’t help but cry as the tension left my body, melted by the salty broth. Perhaps I needed it after all the tears I had shed running in the rain.Bookmark here

“Whoa! Drink slowly, or you’ll choke!”Bookmark here

Wiping my mouth with my sleeve, having finished the soup, I asked, “What time is it?”Bookmark here

“It’s half an hour past midnight, kid. You’re lucky we were open.”Bookmark here

-----------------------Bookmark here

Standing in front of the bookstore where I had dropped my things haphazardly, I sighed a sigh that was both dejected and relieved. The backpack hadn’t been stolen, nor any of the money inside it.Bookmark here

On the other hand, the door back to the Empire was closed. I would be stuck in Japan for a year, and with the money I had left, it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t pay for lodging or food. No longer was I Fior of the Deniev Imperial Family. I was simply Fior. With a lack of credentials in this world, it would be a grueling restart. Bookmark here

“Hey, aren’t you that guy who visited our pawn shop once?” came a voice from behind me.Bookmark here

Real Aire
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