Marideen woke everyone up quietly. She had already completely packed her backpack and folded up the heating element. She made no mention of the change in location of the heating element during the night. Darian would have liked to have sat at it for a few minutes and warmed himself. It was always difficult getting warm in the morning.
Instead, he painfully pulled away from his bedding, releasing the remnants of warmth that had managed to cling to them during the night, and wincing as the cold morning air flicked at him. It was surprisingly early. The sun wasn’t even out yet and while the sky was starting to turn a dark grey opposed to the nightly black, it still had at least another hour before the sun crested the horizon.
Maximil was also up, rummaging through his pack. He tossed a small condensed bag to each of them. It took Darian a few moments to realize that it was what constituted as breakfast. He ripped open the metallic seal and eagerly swallowed the ingredients in the pouch.
Beiromon’s eyebrows rose as he pulled out a spoon and ate from the contents properly with the other men. Darian blushed. Even after so much time in the prison, he had been so used to lacking utensils that he occasionally forgot they existed. The food had been easily as good as anything he ever ate in the prison though. He looked regretfully at the package, realizing that there was nothing more.
Maximil sighed after a moment, grabbing a second pouch out of his bag and tossing it to Darian, “If you’re going to look like a sad puppy about it.”
Darian nodded a thank you, and then sat down to join the men. The food in this pouch was different from the other but equally as good. It was eggs, cheese, and meat all mixed together in some kind of omelet of sorts. Marideen walked up to the men. She glanced down at Darian’s second helping and frowned, but decided not to say anything.
“We have to get going in five minutes. I plan to be at Fort Lyons in three days if we can make it.” Marideen stated before taking a pouch from Maximil.
Marideen turned and walked to her pack, eating the food while sitting on a nearby rock. Darian stood, ready to walk over to the rock and join her. A slight shake of Berret’s head and Darian sat back down. Perhaps now was not the time to try to break through her shell.
Before long, the sun broke the horizon and the heat returned three-fold. Despite the rough night and strange dreams, Darian felt surprisingly fresh. He had more energy today, having grown use to the feel of the weight on his back and the pace in his step. He found himself more easily keeping up with the other men. Maximil and Berret continued to chat, and Darian found himself more capable of joining in for longer bouts of time.
“Where are we trying to get to?” Darian finally thought to ask.
“Port Geneva,” Maximil answered, “It’s one of only two ports on this planet and the closest to our location.”
“Didn’t Marideen say something about a fort?” Darian inquired.
“Fort Lyons,” Maximil explained, “It’s a place we can restock supplies. We had some contacts there and should be able to lie low and plan our course. It’s a shame though.”
“What’s a shame?”
“Well you see, Fort Lyons is out of our way. Port Geneva is a strait six days from here.”
“Why don’t we go straight to Port Geneva?” Darian asked with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Well, you can already feel the heat, “Maximil responded, “A desert stands between us and the port. Even if we had the supplies, which we could only get from the fort, it would be a dangerous, exposed, and uncomfortable journey. It’s much safer just to go around. It will take almost two weeks, but there are various supplies posts along the way as well as a few places to replenish our water supply.”
The man in the dream had told him to go straight, “Won’t that be what the Taerrens expect us to do?”
Maximil nodded, “Yes, but if we were in the desert, we’d be completely exposed, the other path at least leaves us a little bit of cover.”
“Besides,” Berret piped in, “We don’t have much of a choice. We don’t have the supplies to make it across the desert. It would be suicide. Not enough water, food, or protection from the elements. Going to the Fort and back to fill up on supplies wouldn’t save us very much time in the long run, and we’d still be left with patrols who may be tracking us from the escape pod. “
Darian nodded. Their reasoning was perfectly sound. However, the dream had told him to do something else. It would be suicide to try to forge the desert. Could he trust his dreams? The darkness had been there in the dream. He had emerged from that darkness. Could he be trusted in the least?
They continued to walk on, although Darian remained silent, deep in thought. Beiromon seemed to notice his change in demeanor but kept his thoughts to himself. As they continued to walk, the landscape finally began to change in appearance. The flat, lifeless plains that had been walking on gave way to larger dunes and hills. Eventually, Darian could see a large plateau in the distance.
As they made their way towards it, Darian became aware of a canyon-like fissure in the plateau that they were heading directly for. At least he wouldn’t be expected to climb it. They entered to the plateau and Darian had to admire the tall towering rocks around him. It made him feel claustrophobic. This was not an easy feat for a man who had lived how he had for the last few years.
A bird flew up overhead, long steady sweeps of its’ wings gliding it through the air. He looked up at the bird in wonder. It had been years since he had last seen a bird. He remembered what they looked like, he had remembered seeing them before. However, like everything else, it felt more like he had read about them than actually seen them before, and sight didn’t do the literature justice.
After a few moments, he realized that he was no longer walking with the rest of his party. Maximil called after him, the group having turned off on a side path where he himself was still moving straight. Marideen looked annoyed at this, but the rest of them seemed to be amused.
He had to go straight ahead. That’s what the man had told him to do. Darian pointed down the chasm in the direction he had been walking.
“That way is the desert?” He asked.
Maximil looked confused but nodded in confirmation. Darian looked down the path. Go straight. Suicide. A man he must meet. He felt for his intuition. It had always helped him so much before. Which direction did he need to go? What direction was the best? It had been so easy on Basalt. Go left, go right, stop. It was always clear, always simple, and always correct.
However, he felt nothing now. There was no indication of what to do. No assurance to relieve his doubts. Trust the shadowed man, or trust the people who were with him now. He sighed, turning away from the desert path and towards the party. He took a step forward. Pain, death, destruction. He cringed at the onslaught of feelings and emotions.
There was his answer. Not exactly how he intended it, but now he knew. Even if he couldn’t trust the man in his dream, he had to trust himself. He turned away and began walking straight. Several shouts of protest came and he could hear loud footprints that echoed off the chasm walls heading towards him.
“What are you doing?” Beiromon asked between pants of breath as they caught up.
“I need to go this way,” Darian said, continuing to walk in that direction.
“Why? We already discussed this, that way is suicide,” Maximil said, less out of breath than his friend.
“I had a dream, I have a good feeling about this way,” Darian responded.
Beiromon’s eyes flashed in understanding, and he stopped what he was about to say. The other men did not catch his change of demeanor and stormed on right ahead.
“That’s insane. A dream?” Maximil chided.
Even Berret looked genuinely concerned, “This is a bad idea, Fort Lyon is the safe route.”
“I have someone I need to meet,” Darian reassured them, “You don’t need to come with me, but this is something I have to do.”
This seemed to confuse the two men even further.
“The desert is an inhospitable place, you can’t do this alone.” Berret tried to explain.
“This is something he has to do, I will join him,” Beiromon said.
Both Berret and Maximil stared at Beiromon with incredulity. Darian smiled, Beiromon really did believe in Darian. Darian had doubted Beiromon’s trust in the past, but he didn’t think he’d doubt it again after this.
“We cannot afford to split up our supplies. All of us are needed for this journey,” Berret attempted to explain.
“None of this matters, we are going to Fort Lyons,” Marideen’s voice cut in, cutting off everyone else.
“Exactly, why is that?” Darian glared back at Marideen.
Marideen walked up to him, her face becoming close to his, “I won’t let some insane idiot risk the lives of me or my men, you can either come with us or die here.”
“Marideen!” Maximil exclaimed in shock.
“That isn’t necessary,” Berret tried to reassure her, “At worse, we can give him a small number of supplies and send him on his way.”
“What if the guards catch up to him?” Marideen asked, “He could tell them where we are. He could reveal details about us. Besides, we need every supply we have.”
Berret seemed unable to argue with her and her dark gaze, turning his head away after a few moments of her stare. She turned her head back to Darian.
“So, are you done yet?” Marideen asked, assuming the situation was settled.
“Alright,” Darian said, a grin on his face, “How about a wager?”
Marideen looked like she was about ready to strike him there. If looks could kill, he imagined he’d be six feet under by now. However, her silence awarded him the opportunity to continue.
“Swordfight,” He said, causing her to raise an eyebrow, “First person to strike the other a solid blow wins.”
She looked him up and down, and for the first time, open amusement showed on her face. It was a sour, condescending amusement, but he would take it.
“You think you can beat me?” She responded, her mirth sharp.
“I know I can beat you,” Darian shrugged, winking at Beiromon.
Marideen glared at him for a few more minutes, then abruptly turned, diving into her pack and coming out with two practice swords. She actually had practice swords in her backpack. More than one of them. Darian had thought they’d need to spend a half hour looking for some sturdy sticks. He panicked inside for a moment, suddenly realizing this was really happening. What had he just gotten himself into?
Marideen tossed him one of the swords and he awkwardly caught it, the blade striking the ground before he could reposition his grip. She sneered at him, brandishing hers with a series of quick flourishes.
Beiromon walked up to Darian, patting him on the shoulder and looking into his eyes with concern.
“She is a lot more skilled than she used to be, she’s been trained. Even with your… gifts- “he whispered that part softer so no one could hear, “you barely beat me in half of our bouts. She is a trained, distinguished swordsman in the prime of her health.”
“It’s okay,” Darian reassured him, “I know what I’m doing. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?”
“Do not think that because these swords are blunt, she lacks the capacity nor the willingness to kill you with them,” Beiromon warned.
He didn’t say that as a threat, but as an actuality. Would she actually kill him to get him out of the way? Darian didn’t think he was that big of a pain, but now that Beiromon said it, he started to think it might be true.
Darian swallowed, “I’ll be fine.”
Even he knew he sounded much less confident now. Beiromon took several steps back, raising his hand up high.
“A little uncommon, but we might as well treat this as an official duel match,” He called out loud, Darian Starchild, of no particular house, challenges Marideen Cleefe, Head of House Cleefe, to a duel. The first strike wins, no holds, no restrictions. Now please state your conditions!”
“If I win,” Marideen responded, her voice high and clear as if they were in a colosseum with a crowd of listeners versus an empty canyon, “Then Darian will follow us to Fort Lyon. He will carry twice his current load. He will ask no questions, he will not even speak another word until we are off this planet.”
Marideen and Beiromon both looked at Darian. It looked like it was his turn to speak.
“If I win,” Darian tried to emulate them, “Marideen Cleefe will have to wear a dress.”
Beiromon choked suddenly, and a barking laugh came from Maximil to the side before he quickly stifled himself. Darian could see that even Berret broke and covered a small smile. Marideen’s back had stiffened with his words, her glower turning even darker.
“Oh, very well, Marideen must follow me into the desert, and not keep taking charge all the time,” Darian waved his hand dismissively.
“If you win against me,” She responded darkly, “I’d wear a dress and follow you.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Darian reassured her, “Just the second part.”
Beiromon rolled his eyes, bringing his hand back up, “Are both parties in agreement?”
“I am,” they both said in unison.
“Very well,” Beiromon continued to call, “Then the match is to begin. Now!”
Beiromon dropped his hand down, then took several steps back to stand with the other spectators. Marideen instantly dropped low, her body became fluid and slick. He had seen her fight before. At least partially once. It had been a bit smoky and he wasn’t particularly paying attention.
She seemed to move with a deadly grace, her body low to the ground, her sword out, and held across her body in a protective form before she was even close to him. The stance Darian had been taught by Beiromon was considerably different than the stance Marideen now used.
The form he knew required him to stand tall with a straight back. The sword he held directly in front of him, taking an opponent straight on. It was a very standard form for nobles, particularly during duels. Looking at Marideen, it felt painfully inadequate. He had never been taught to fight against anyone who had a form different than his own. He would need to fill that gap in is knowledge, but it didn’t help him now.
Marideen darted at him, closing the distance within a second. Her blade swung at Darian, striking him on the shoulder, then the leg, then the neck. He never had a chance to block with her speed. Darian’s eyes refocused, the vision ending as she darted towards him. He moved. He wasn’t as fast as Marideen. He knew that he could not match her in skill. However, he could see her movements. He could feel them before she made them.
He backed up, instantly losing ground as she pressed him, her blade flourishing in quick stabs and strikes. He evaded them, blocking when he had to, taking a step back for every step she pressed. The training he had received from Beiromon had certainly helped. He now knew what to do with the information that flooded into his brain. He knew how to block this strike, how to avoid that one. Still, she was so fast, and the only thing he could do was defend.
Her attacks continued with fury, and Darian quickly got a sense of surprise from her that he had held his own, and frustration at her own inability to strike him. As he continued to dodge, evade, and block, his instincts barely keeping ahead of her, he slowly felt his energy ebbing away. He couldn’t keep this up, not like she could. He needed to be quicker; he needed to anticipate her movements sooner.
However, he couldn’t anticipate her motions, because she was making her decisions in the moment. Constantly assessing her situation, she would change a block to a strike without hesitation. For the first time, his abilities seemed woefully inadequate to the task.
He had no other choice. He had to do it. Darian closed his eyes. He expected the blow Marideen would deliver to be instantaneous. He expected he’d be heading toward Fort Lyons within the hour. Instead, he moved. His arms moved, his legs moved, and he could feel the pressure as her sword landed. Then it landed again. Then again.
He shut down his ears, refusing to listen to the world outside. He willed himself to not see anything, even shadows in his eyelids. He demanded that his body did not react to the feeling of the sword, his feet, or his body. Then he began to fight.
He moved his body purely on instinct, not thinking about it. He didn’t even feel it. He let his body move however it felt like moving. He strengthened his muscles, changed his footing, and moved himself without letting any senses get in the way of his intuition.
He surged forward, the sword making contact more often than dodging now. He was only vaguely aware of the feeling as the sword struck each time. He was only vaguely aware that he was gaining ground. However, he was moving. Still, he could feel himself getting weaker by the moment. Exhaustion was starting to overcome him, and he couldn’t maintain it any longer. He had to end this now. However, for all of his intuition and instincts, he just couldn’t break through Marideen’s defense.
He waited, continuing to defend and attack. He kept feeling for the right opportunity. Is that it? It was the same move he had once used on Beiromon. He would not make it out unharmed, but he needed the strike. He had to follow the dream. He had to take this chance.
He lunged down to his knee in a sudden move that Marideen didn’t expect, his practice sword stabbing out toward Marideen. His eyes opened and he could see it. His blade jammed into her leg, causing her to twist away from it. Her sword came down, striking his head hard. Darkness surrounded him.
“I think he’s going to be okay,” a voice came through the mugginess.
Darian’s eyes opened. The world around him seemed to be muggy and warped. The face over him appeared to be Marideen’s. She looked worried. He must have hit himself on the head harder than he thought. He blinked trying to shake away the dizziness.
“Aw, there you see, he’s awake,“ Maximil said, frowning at Marideen, “You didn’t have to hit him so hard.”
Marideen shrugged, her face lacking any real emotion. The worried look must have been a trick of his eyes. Darian sat up, finding Berret and Beiromon there offering helping hands.
“I won,” Darian declared.
“I’m sorry?” Marideen asked, her voice indignant.
“I struck you first,” Darian explained.
“By barely a second, and I delivered the killing blow, I’m sorry, you lost,” Marideen defended herself.
Beiromon stood up, glancing between the two of them, “I’m sorry Mari, but the conditions were for first solid strike.”
Marideen’s eyes darted to Beiromon, a look of anger now on her face, “He cheated!”
“What?” Darian cried indignantly, finally back up on his feet, “How do you figure that?”
She clearly looked angry. She had been trained to kill, not to injure, so she probably willingly took Darian’s weak blow to have the killing blow. However, the result was that she lost based on the conditions of the match. I only one based on a technicality. Marideen didn’t spare lives and would sacrifice for the killing blow. In a life-death fight, even if my abilities were better, Darian would die every time.
“You have no skill at fighting. I can tell that. Anyone can tell that. Your form is sloppy. You technique is poor, there is no way that you fairly beat me,” Marideen insisted.
Beiromon’s back stiffened at this, clearly offended by her comment towards his pupil, “He won, fair and square. Did your new swordmaster teach you how to whine when you don’t get your way along with that new sword form?”
Marideen looked away and blushed. It was the first time Darian had ever seen her do something so fragile. He had never seen her show any kind of innocence or break in confidence before now, and the sight was quite interesting. Marideen noticed everyone looking at her now.
“Fine,” she threw up her hands and schooled her face, “We’ll go into the desert, without enough supplies, and be dead in three days. That’s how much water we have, and it’s a six day journey.”
Everyone seemed to let out a collective breath at her final decision.
“Are you really sure about this?” Berret asked Darian, “This still does not sound sane to me.”
“You don’t have to go with,” Darian explained, “I just know this is the path I have to take, but you don’t need to go with me.”
“We’re all going, “ Marideen snapped, still angry at her admission of defeat.
Berret glanced at her, then back at Darian, raising his hands and shrugging, “It looks like it’s decided.”
Darian nodded, moving over to the backpack he had put down once the duel had started. He picked it back up and began walking towards the desert. Everyone started following close behind. Now he was leading them. He just hoped he knew what he was doing.