Thursday, July 01, 2010

Cassius (the Redeeming)

The two of them weren't very far from the camp when they heard something crashing through the brush ahead. The girl froze, and looked up at her father's face. He waved at her to get down, and they both crouched, eyes darting around the forest, looking for the source of the noise. Suddenly, they saw a huge shape move between two trees. It moved toward them and into a shaft of moonlight, resolving into a huge beast, covered with brown shaggy hair and metal plates, two curving horns on its head, its face that of a bull. In its hands was an enormous axe, its twin edges bare and glinting in the light.

The girl shrieked, and ran back towards the camp. The man left behind turned and called out to her. "Honey, wait, don't run. Honey, it's ok! It's just-" and he gave up as she vanished into the green. He sagged. "It's just our escort, Sir Cassius," he said to himself.

He turned toward the minotaur. "My apologies, good sir knight. I've told her you're here to protect us. She's just a little flighty."

The minotaur waved off his apologies. "It's all right. I've certainly suffered worse insults. It's just Cassius, though. I've not earned my knighthood yet." He removed his helm, the metal curved oddly to accommodate his horns.

"Hanlon, isn't it?" The man nodded. "Do you mind if I sit for a moment? I've just run a ways, and this armor is a bit heavy. I'd like to catch my breath. If you'd sit with me, I'd appreciate it."

"Of course." There might have been a slight tint to the man's voice, but no fear showed on his face. There was a fallen log a stride or two away. Cassisus clanked a bit as he sat. Hanlon's movements were a bit more quiet.

"I must apologize again for my daughter. I'm not sure why she's so nervous, normally she's quite well-behaved."

"Normally, she's not part of a caravan. Especially one that's been attacked three times in twice as many days. She's used to her protector looking like you. I'm a bit of a transition." Cassius smiled, his lips pulling back to reveal his sharp teeth. "It's all right for a child to fear monsters. It's healthy."

Hanlon spoke up. "But you're no monster - " Cassius cut him off.

"Oh, but I am. I've done horrible things. Horrible. In my youth, my brothers and I, we ran wild. We were worse than any bandit, and this valley was our stomping ground. We raided countless caravans just like this one. Not half a day from here was Ufirth, which we burned to the ground. We killed men by the score, and worse than that, we ate what we killed." He grinned his sharp grin again, no mirth at all. Hanlon's eye's grew wider, but he did not pull away.

"We drank in the fear and the power, and we reveled in it. There were fortunes on our head, and we collected our own wanted posters as a point of pride. One day, we set upon a small temple. We'd hit it before - taken the meager collection and stuffed the priest down the well. Good fun, we thought. We were looking for more of the same.

"My brother Kratus was the first in the door. He kicked in the door and ran in. Not two seconds later, he crashed out, knocking me over. A hole in his chest spilled his blood over me as his breath rattled out. I was stunned, so it took me a second to push his dying body off of me.

"Marcus and August were fighting an armored man - easily a foot or two smaller than they. Yet they could not close with him. He swung his sword, catching every swing of their axes, turning their blows to the ground. I heard a muffled sound coming from him, and realized he was laughing at them. I was infuriated. I charged his back. We were to be feared, I thought, respected. Not laughed at.

"I never even saw the blow that stopped me. I came to with a long gash in my head", and Cassius pointed to a scar, "and a hole in my chest. I should have been dead. I was not. My brothers were not so lucky. Our bodies had been piled in a ditch, out in the woods. Like offal, or rotting meat. No burial or respect given.

"I pulled my axe from our grave, and trudged my way back to the temple. The door was already back on its hinges. Like we'd never been there at all. I stood outside and roared for our killer to come out. To face me. I yelled, specifically, for justice for the death of my brothers.

"And so the knight emerged. His helm was off, and his sword still in its sheath. He was a human and old-looking. His face was shaved, and his hair grey and cropped close. 'For justice?' he said, and cocked his head at me. I rushed him, and he stepped aside, tripping me. I pushed at the ground to right myself, but my strength left me. He squatted by my face and looked at me. Then I felt a fist crack me on the side of the head, and blacked out.

"When I came to, I was in a bed. I could see that my chest was bandaged, but I was set in restraints. Another human in a white shift saw that I was awake, and scurried away. Soon enough, the knight came by and stood by my bed. I shouted insults at him, and asked why he did not face me in combat. He told me he had no interest in fighting a wounded opponent. Heal, he said, and he would face me again.

"So I waited, and healed. The attendants changed my bandages and waited on me. The knight came by occasionally. To make sure I was preparing for our fight, he said. After a few weeks, I managed to wrestle myself out of the restraints, and pushed my way outside to a courtyard.

"I had been moved after he knocked me out apparently. This was not the temple, but some lord's keep. I yelled my challenge, holding a stone broken from the pavement, my dressing gown flapping about my hooves.

"The knight came out, donned his helm, drew his sword, and laid me out in a manner of seconds.

"I spent the next few weeks healing up again, before I broke loose and the knight took me down again. This repeated itself several times. Each time, the knight came by afterwards, and each time, I issued my challenge.

"Finally, I asked him why he did not kill me? Why keep me alive if he knew I was only going to break free and try to kill him again? It was then that he told me of his lord Bahamut, and of mercy. Bahamut had seen fit to grant me mercy, he said, sparing my life when I should have died. He was only following his lord's example.

"I broke out that afternoon, and tried to stab him with a broken flagpole.

"After about six months of this, the knight came by and told me that he was tired of facing such a weak opponent. He said if I would give him my parole that I would not try to escape, or kill anyone else, and if I spent the month training, that he would let me face him again and the end of the month.

"Even though I was eager to face him again, and a month seemed like too long a time to wait to collect his head, I agreed. I was weary of losing. I was weary of my sickbed.

"At the end of the month, he beat me again. He disarmed me and made me yield, his sword to my throat. Give it another month, he said.

"Eventually he started training me himself. 'You want something done right', he said, 'and I don't want to wait another month for you to face me not knowing how to parry.' I tried to kill him in training, but he just sidestepped my blows and critiqued my form.

"He taught me my first prayers as a way to still my mind for combat. I continued on my own, figuring that if Bahamut had saved me, maybe he would help me kill the old bastard.

Cassius paused his story. The shadows had grown darker. Above the two of them, the stars had vanished and the sky was the steely gray of pre-dawn. Hanlon's face was almost completely obscured.

"Well," the man rasped. "Did you kill him?"

"That's the thing. Creatures like you always want to know that. Humans and other folk are generally more interested in what it was that changed me, what made me turn the corner from vicious killer into true believer. Was it a tender moment? Did I cry as I realized my past sins?" Cassius stood up, and Hanlon scrambled off the log.

"Creatures? What do you mean?" Hanlon's voice was torn now. It dropped too low and squeaked at the end. His body was almost entirely hidden in the still dark shadows, all details obscured.

"Come off it creature. I'd apologize for deceiving you, but you've been trying to deceive me, so it's all the same. And I did appreciate the chance to catch my breath. I found Hanlon Albrecht's body a good two miles out, and I ran every step of the way back." Cassius's axe was in his hands, edges gleaming with the coming morning.

Hanlon, or the thing that had looked like him, hissed. Its form distended, inky tentacles and claws waving and flashing at the edge of the shadow. "And Bahamut's mercy," a distorted echo of Hanlon's voice called, "is it for me too?"

"Not for me to say." Cassius clapped his helm back on. "Redeem yourself!" he bellowed, "for I can not do it for you!" And Cassius charged into the shadow.

Cassius repents for a youth ill-spent. He has devoted himself to the life of a Paladin, and hopes that he may one day overcome the wrong he has wrought.

His family had long since disowned him and his brothers, well before their death. His only family now is the knight who killed them, who brought Cassius to his current path.

Cassius still faces him in mortal combat once a year, to make good on his oath. Each year, they both live. Cassius wonders what would be justice - killing the knight for the death of his brothers? His own death, for the wrongs he has done? He does not know for sure, and counts each reprise as another instance of Bahamut's mercy.

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