The horizon seemed to never end, and Darian’s atrophied legs quickly became exhausted at the long daunting task ahead of them. Initially, Marideen had set a far more strenuous pace. She quickly became frustrated as Darian struggled to keep up. Fortunately, Beiromon seemed to struggle just as much.
The two of them had been on Basalt for a long time. A year of nothing but prison rations and artificial gravity had made both men thin and weak compared to the other three. After seeing Beiromon puff and gasp as he crested the first hill, Marideen had adjusted her pace accordingly.
This still didn’t make things easy. Marideen still pressed them relentlessly, occasionally running up ahead, then waiting for them to catch up before running ahead again as if to tease them at their own inadequacies. It irritated Darian to no end, although Beiromon took the work in stride and moved along with a steady rhythm.
Darian had wanted to ask more and to say more, but this pace left him with relatively little breath to have, and conversations just didn’t seem possible. Perhaps that was Marideen’s goal all along, to keep him silent.
Darian might have enjoyed the freedom and the open space, but there was very little to see in the barren landscape around them. After an hour or so, the long stretched out plains of dirt with a spattering of life had already become dull and boring. Instead, Darian simply had the horizon to focus on, which regrettably didn’t seem to change in the slightest.
After a few hours of jogging, Marideen finally allowed them to stop for a bit. It was pretty clear that she was leading the group, with Maximil and Berret following close in line. Beiromon seemed to be amused at this dynamic, although kept silent and followed orders. Darian admitted to himself that he was quite agitated at her tendency to take charge. He had only just become a free man and now he was being told what to do.
The sun was already significantly past its’ zenith. Maximil passed out water to everyone from a series of water canteens, allowing each person a drink before re-securing them on the pack he had worn on his back. Each one of them wore a backpack full of essential supplies. Darian and Beiromon had not been spared in this endeavor, although Darian did not know what was in his pack as of yet.
He pulled it off of his back, flopping down to the ground as he saw the others sit down to rest. His legs were incredibly sore, but he found the aching to be fairly easy to ignore. Compared to the life he had before, this kind of pain seemed almost welcoming.
After a brief moment, he stood back up, walking over to where Marideen was. Unlike the others, she had not removed her backpack. She was crouched down towards the ground, not exactly sitting nor standing. When she saw Darian approaching her, her back stiffened.
“Marideen, I wanted to apologize for some of the things I had said earlier,” Darian said, swallowing his own pride.
Marideen looked up at him with a blank stare, giving nothing away with her features. What exactly did she want from him? He had apologized, hadn’t he? Her gaze continued to look him over until he started to feel uncomfortable in his skin. Finally, her eyes peeled down to the ground, and she picked up a small stone, rolling it between her fingers.
“Do you know why you are such a miserable excuse for a human being?” She asked darkly.
Darian cringed. Well, so much for diplomacy. He suddenly found himself no longer wanting to be a part of this conversation.
“You don’t think about the consequences of your actions,” she finally said, “You make decisions, and you live with them.”
Berret seemed to stiffen at this comment but otherwise continued to move about his business, rifling through one of the backpacks in search of something.
“My father was one of those people,” Marideen continued, seeming to almost be talking to herself, “He believed it. He believed that the act of making a choice is what made you a good leader. All you had to do was make a decision and then live with that decision. If you just kept doing, somehow that would make you a better leader than those that simply followed you.”
Marideen finally looked up at Darian, fierceness in her eyes, “That is a lie. You must always think about what you do. You have to be responsible for your actions. If you don’t think. If you just do. Then you become just like them. The Lord Reagent and his son. You become a tyrant. That’s what you are, Darian, you’re a tyrant.”
Darian’s good humor diminished once again as his anger flared once again, “You don’t even know me.”
Marideen chuckled dryly, “I know your type. In a single day, you destroyed a space station, freed men who may not have wanted to be free, lost hundreds of men their jobs, and flooded the population of this planet with criminals.”
“Those men should be free,” Darian struggled to get an upper hand on the argument.
“Free?” Marideen laughed cruelly, “Those men were murderers, rapists, killers. They were in prison for a reason. Just like that, you freed them all across this planet, on the millions of unsuspecting civilians who will find their security and safety gone because of you. All because you do, and don’t think. Although maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, a murderer like you probably relishes the anarchy you will have caused.”
Darian growled, but she spoke again before he could get another word in. This was no going well at all.
“So who was she?’ Marideen asked, “The woman you raped and murdered?”
Darian grimaced. Damn Phineas for having assigned him that particular set of crimes. It really destroyed all credibility he would ever have outside of the prison itself. Even inside, being labeled a rapist didn’t do him any favors.
Darian stepped forward. Marideen pulled a knife from her sleeve, immediately brandishing it in a threatening gesture. Despite the knife being mere inches from Darian’s throat, he willed himself not to step back. He stared into her eyes. Those same eyes he had thought about for years, dark with anger and hate. She stared back defiantly, daring him to make a move.
“The only crime I ever committed was murder. I killed a man because he killed someone who mattered to me,” Darian told her,” If I was able to do it all over again, I’d still kill him.”
With that he turned away from her, letting out a small breath of relief at finally being away from her blade. He fought the urge to look back to see the effect his words had on her. They probably had none. The woman was ice and steel.
After making a dozen or so steps towards his waiting backpack, a large figure suddenly moved in his way.
“You and I need to talk. Maximillion said, Berret a few feet behind him “Now.”
After a moment, Darian nodded. He looked back at Marideen. Her head was now turned away from him as she busied herself with some chore that he couldn’t make out. As he followed Maximillion a bit away from the camp, Beiromon noticed, stood, and followed close behind. At least he wouldn’t need to make it through this conversation alone.
Before long, he was sitting on a nearby cropping of rocks, with Berret and Maximillion staring at him in uncomfortable silence. Beiromon sat slightly apart from both groups, perhaps trying to give off the appearance of being a neutral party. Darian was pretty certain Marideen had noticed their departure but had kept her space deliberately.
“Marideen,” Maximil spoke up in a slow drawl, the name cutting like a dagger through Darian, “She is a very fragile girl in some ways.”
Darian frowned. What was this about? Marideen? Fragile? She was probably the farthest thing from fragile. If she was a vase, she would only shatter so that she could cut you with the jagged pieces that remained.
“I guess, what I am trying to say,” Maximil continued, adjusting his position on the rock he chose to sit on, “Marideen is like family to us. We have been through a lot together. We don’t want to see her hurt.”
Darian looked over at Berret. His eyes seemed to be intent on Darian, but he let Maximillion do all the talking. Beiromon seemed to have the faintest hint of a smirk on his face as if this was a joke that only he had been let in on. Darian wished he had been in on the joke. It made no sense.
“I don’t really understand,” Darian answered honestly.
“Don’t hurt Marideen’s feelings,” Berret spoke up.
Beiromon was most definitely smiling now, curse the man. Feelings? Marideen had feelings he could hurt?
“I don’t think you have to worry about Marideen, she’s let her feelings about me be pretty known. Hate would seem to light a word right now,” Darian responded.
Maximil shook his head enthusiastically, “You do not know Marideen as well as we do. We have known her since she was a little girl. After her sister died, she became very closed off, very mistrusting. What happened with Markus…”
“What happened with Markus?” Beiromon interrupted a sound of concern on his voice.
“Markus had a few questionable contacts, people who should have known things they did not. Marideen investigated him and found out that he was a Psiblade.”
Beiromon gasped, “No, Is this true?”
“It is, he was fully willing to confess. However, she banished him from her sight, kicked him out of the Lancers. We do not know what happened to him since. The worst is that now she employs a Psiblade, one that isn’t a Lancer, and just works for the money she gives him. She gives him more trust than she gives her own Lieutenants.”
Beiromon nodded steadily, but Darian was quickly becoming lost.
“Wait a minute, what’s a Psiblade?” he asked.
Maximil turned back to him, “An assassin, of sorts. They are skilled mercenaries for hire. They usually are hired by nobles to steal, kill, or frame other nobles, particularly when they don’t want to be caught. Most houses keep one under employ, if for no other reason than to keep the other houses at bay. It’s often just a standoff, each house not using theirs in fear that another house will use it. There are a few very skilled Psiblades that can curve the balance, but those are rare. “
“Who are they?” Beiromon asked curiously.
“If I knew their names, then they wouldn’t have been very good Psiblades,” Maximil shrugged, “Either way, you’re getting me off subject. I was talking about you and Marideen.”
Darian didn’t like the way he said that.
“There is no me and Marideen,” Darian snapped.
“Good,” Maximil said, breaking into a smile, “See that it stays that way. Or we might need to have a more physical conversation. I like you, Darian. I wouldn’t like to have to kill you.”
Despite the lightness from which Maximil made the threat, Darian had no doubt that he would go through with it. He grimaced to himself. The conversation seemed to die out with that, falling back into the uncomfortable quiet they were in before.
“Since we are talking,” Beiromon suddenly interrupted the silence, “I did want to ask you something Berret. It’s about, well, your arm.”
Berret looked down at his stump, having grown so accustomed to it that he seemed surprised anyone was asking about it.
“Oh, that’s right, you weren’t with us when it happened,” Berret began, “Well you see-“
“He cut it off,” Darian spoke up, seemingly unable to hold his words back.
It wasn’t intuition this time. The words that came out of his mouth came from something muggier than that. A memory. He remembered looking over Danelle’s shoulder. He remembered the dark-haired man with the sword take off Berret’s arm in a single swing. He remembered that man approaching him, Danelle standing in the man’s way, refusing to move. He remembered what happened next.
He cringed and lowered his head, “Demetry, he cut it off with that sword of his. You were trying to protect everyone. It was me that he wanted though. He had pointed at me. He cut off your arm because of me.”
Darian finally raised his head, looking at Berret. Berret’s eyes had widened a bit, but otherwise, his expression seemed pretty stoic.
“I had suspected,” Berret said after a moment, “But I didn’t know for certain.”
Maximil looked confused staring between Berret and Darian.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve met Darian here, Max,” Berret turned to him and nodded.
Maximil looked sharply at Darian, then a sudden look of recognition appeared of his face, “By the stars, it is you. The Starchild here?”
Darian blinked, “Starchild?”
“Isn’t that what the crazy Hucton lady called him,” He turned to Berret, who shrugged noncommittally, “She called you her Starchild.”
“Well, my name is Darian,” Darian responded.
“Yes, of course, Darian Starchild.” Maximil smiled proudly.
“I don’t-” Darian began
“Oh, I am sorry, it is an Ertlander tradition. In my culture, you gain a last name later in life. It… it requires an event, something tremendous, in one’s life to earn the name, and it is always given by another. Young men often make sport of trying to give each other last names. I once knew a man named Leer Buttface. His friends were not being kind to him that day. Fortunately, he was able to get a new name soon after. He married and his wife gave him a new last name.” Maximil started to trail off, realizing he said more than he should have.
Darian nodded. He couldn’t remember his last name; it seemed like something worth having.
“Very Well, that’s fine with me,” Darian said.
This seemed to brighten Maximil up significantly, “Ah, I knew I’d like you. I’ll still kill you if you touch Marideen, but I would feel bad about it first.”
Darian joined Maximil in a laugh, starting to get a sense of his humor. He was still was pretty certain Maximil meant it, but at least they could laugh about it. Darian had no intention of getting close to Marideen anyway.
“It’s time to get going,” Marideen announced in a loud voice.
The group broke apart, moving towards the area that had unloaded their burdens in. They put their backpacks back on, offering each other help with straps or buckles as they needed them. Once they were all done, they began to march with a bit of a renewed vigor.
After the conversation with Max and Berret, the atmosphere had already become significantly better. The two men slowed their pace, keeping alongside Beiromon and Darian for the most part. This did not make Marideen happy. She continued to press them to move fast, remaining apart from the rest of the group as she did.
The two men talked and joked comfortably. When Beiromon or Darian was able to manage a breath, they occasionally joined in with a remark or two. Just listening to the two men provided enough of a distraction that the time past far quicker. Before long, the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. Marideen signaled them to make camp.
Maximil began rummaging around in the backpacks, coming out with a heater that seemed to emit no light. It was convenient for this kind of situation. Marideen moved off from the group, claiming that she was going to scout ahead for possible dangers. Despite the two men’s concerns about Marideen’s emotions, they seemed to care very little for her safety in the middle of the night. They simply trusted that she could handle any dangers that could arise.
“So what happened to you,” Berret interrupted Darian’s thoughts as he warmed himself over the heater, “It never sat well with me, that we left you there, but I wasn’t even aware of what was going on by that time.”
Berret raised the stump as if to accentuate the point. Maximil leaned over as well, curious.
Darian wasn’t entirely sure what he should tell these men. With Beiromon, he had been desperate and lacked anyone to communicate his feelings too. With these men, he feared that if he said too much, it might make his life considerably more difficult. After a moment’s thought, he decided to tell them the truth. At least, he told them a version of the truth.
He told them about how he had learned the language from a man who seemed to be able to understand him. He mentioned the experiments and the searing pain that had accompanied him during each procedure. He told them how he had befriended the scientist, who helped him escape. The prison records were all fake, of course, but he had been a murderer. They had both been there to witness that.
He decided to omit several pieces of information. His abilities were one of the things he decided were not worth telling these men. He told them how he escaped, and luckily they did not press him on the exact details of how he acquired all of the exploits to overriding the station’s security.
Beiromon kept his face expressionless, making no attempt to oust Darian’s deliberate omissions. He’d need to thank the man for that. As he approached the end of his story, he finally decided to tell the men the events with Deiron Cleefe. At first, they remained quiet in a silent shock.
Berret began to protest first, not quite willing to accept what Darian had seen. Soon he wore outright anger at his face. Maximil remained quiet though, a thoughtful expression n his face. As Berret continued to press, Darian eventually had to end the conversation by telling Berret to ask Marideen if we wanted confirmation.
Berret responded by doing exactly that. He stood up and walked away stiffly, approaching Marideen, who still separated herself from the rest of them. They spoke for a while, although Darian couldn’t hear what they said from this distance. They then began to argue for a time. Eventually, Marideen seemed to have calmed him down. He nodded a few times, then finally turned away, walking some distance away from the camp before sitting down and staring out at the sky in contemplation.
After he had left, Marideen turned her gaze at Darian, catching him watching them. He could tell even from this distance that her eyes darkened. He almost thought he could hear a growl from her lips being carried by the wind before she turned and walked away in the opposite direction of Berret.
The rest of the night, Darian mostly just listened to Beiromon and Maximil, who seemed to have grown into a rhythm of talking and chatting. Beiromon had apparently grown a much less refined tongue from his time in prison, and Max found tremendous enjoyment at hearing some of the jokes inmates were telling these days.
Maximil reassured Darian that he had been in the right by telling them the truth. Deiron had always been a much closer friend to Berret than either of them. Beiromon had been a hired hand and had mostly worked with his daughters, never really engaging with him too often. Maximil had respected the man but had always had his suspicions against anyone who was raised a noble.
Eventually, the camp quieted and each of the men found a comfortable spot, laid out their bedding, and started drifting off to sleep. Darian heard Berret return some time during the night. He had thought about going to talk to the man but decided it was better to say nothing. Eventually, he drifted off to sleep, where nothing butt nightmares awaited him.