Chapter 60 — Gods and Illusions III
“Do you think Beck will make it in time?”
Carter looked up from his position in the cell’s darkest corner as he addressed the lady seated near its only door. The pair was being held alongside two strangers. One was a large, unconscious squirrel, and the other an equally unconscious bear. The rodent had been asleep ever since he was thrown into the cell, whereas the latter’s state was derived from the centaurs’ handiwork. Targg, as the man had called himself, had been a little too lively. He would have been sure to attract a group of guards had Marleena not clobbered him over the head with the butt of her heavy metal spear.
“Stop being such a coward. You’ll clear your name if you just fight and win.”
The mare snapped at Carter with a glare. Unlike her masculine counterpart, she had no intention of sitting around and awaiting rescue. She knew that Beckard had promised to send a search party if they failed to return within the day, but the mountain was vast and the cat was unaware of their capture. Whoever he sent was unlikely to think of checking the borrokian gaol.
“I don’t want to fight.”
“Are you really still whining? It’s your fault we’re here in the first place. We could’ve been in and out in half a day if you didn’t decide to open your big fat mouth."
“I’m sorry, Marleena. I didn’t think that they would take us in for somethi—”
“Didn’t think? Of course you didn’t think. You never think! Next time, stop and use your head before you decide to start telling everyone around us that we managed to sneak in without paying the fee!”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. They didn’t lock us up for it last time.”
The male centaur slouched and hung his shoulders. He didn’t think his actions were particularly unacceptable. Pvraggdt, the watcher that was their guide, was a well known smuggler. Everyone that recognized him was well aware that he was only ever accompanied by illegals. And as the borroks themselves had little need for currency, no one thought it a matter worth pursuing. The watcher had never done the settlement any harm and his word was as good as any token of trust.
“Last time, they weren’t under attack,” said Marleena, through gritted teeth. “Why would you admit to sneaking past the guard right after they told you he’d been killed? You moron!”
“I just thought it would be better if we cleared our names before they accused us of murder.”
“That’s a terrible idea, you spineless imbecile!”
“Really? It sounds like a great idea to me.”
A third voice interjected itself into the conversation as the squirrel pushed himself off the ground and crawled between the two centaurs.
“We may be locked up right now, but I’m sure they’ll realise that they’ve messed up soon enough. If I’m reading the tropes right, they’ll be releasing us by the end of the day. Much better than picking an unnecessary fight, I’d say.”
“You see, Marleena? Even he agrees with me. I was acting with our best interests at heart.”
Adjusting his glasses, the centaur extended a hand to the oversized squirrel and greeted him with a soft smile. “Nice to meet you, friend. I’m Carter, centaurian plainsrunner, and that temperamental young lady is Ms. Morgan, my employer’s daughter.”
“Marleena Morgan, thoroughbred.”
“I’m Geoffrey Hogdstoose, but I’d rather just go by Geoff, if you don’t mind,” said the squirrel.
Carter nodded. “Of course, Geoff. So how did you wind up here?”
“Well, I was at the scene of the crime when the bridge’s guard was murdered. They didn’t take too kindly to me when I tried to explain that I was just a witness. I tried to resist, so they knocked me out. I should’ve just come quietly to begin with and saved myself the trouble.”
“You see, Marleena? That’s exactly why I thought it would be best to be honest.”
“It clearly didn’t work.” The mare tapped the butt of her spear against the ground and clicked her tongue. “Are you imbeciles both just going to ignore the fact that we’re about to be put through trial by combat?”
“Trial by combat? Really?”
The squirrel’s tail rose as his whole body stiffened. It was clearly the last thing he expected.
“Sadly, yes.” Carter shook his head. “There was another attack shortly after you were brought in, and they decided that they were going to round up all the outsiders and have us prove our innocence.”
“That’s… strange. I thought… no, maybe I need to reconsider…”
The squirrel started muttering under his breath, with only bits and pieces still audible.
“Geoff? Geoff…? I think we’ve lost him.” The stallion snapped his fingers in front of the rodent’s face, but the tree-dweller remained unresponsive. He had already shut out all external stimulus. “What an odd fellow. Nice, but odd.”
“He’s just as much of an imbecile as you are,” spat Marleena.
“Ma’am, please. I’m just trying to b—” Carter froze in the middle of his sentence, his ears twitching.
“Shhh… something’s coming.”
He pressed his head against the wall so that he could better pay attention to the footsteps. Something was approaching, and it wasn’t a borrok or a warrior. It only had two legs and it didn’t chitter as it walked. The occasional rustling of clothing seemed to indicate that it was something more intelligent. His first guess was that it was the sentinel, back to take another pair into the arena. It seemed like a solid assumption at first, but he began to doubt it as he realised that the auditory stimulus was accompanied by a faint glow. The dull magical light led the centaur to raise a brow. Borroks didn’t need light to see. That was why they had turned the sunless subspace into their refuge to begin with. Or at least that was the theory that one of the citadel’s more intelligent individuals had proposed.
Carter gulped as the light grew brighter. After another brief moment, the glow’s source finally drew close enough for it to be revealed. The figure it came from was tiny. Its bipedal outline was noticeably shorter than the horse-man’s, even in his seated position.
Seeing its—her—features, the stallion found himself with his mouth open and his breath caught in his throat. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes. The hallucination before him was practically the spitting image of what an average centaurian mercenary, like Carter, imagined a foreign princess to be. She had a thin, dainty build, fair, pale skin, and a silken bluish white mane that, even bloodstained and uncombed, left a deep-rooted impression of awe.
Her body was glowing with an almost divine light, with the crystalline blade in her chest serving as its primary source, no doubt a racial feature of sorts. Delicate glimmering scales could be seen peeking out from the cuts in her cloak. But as beautiful, tempting, and almost immoral as they were, the lemella were but an extra. His eyes had long been drawn away from them. The stallion’s focus had settled instead on her head. And not because of her pretty features, nor her stunning check scales. It wasn't even her piercing, slit-eyed gaze. Nay, he was staring at the part of her that had taken his breath away.
To merely describe them as shapely was an act of blasphemy that no centaur could possibly let slide. They were, in a word, heavenly. Each had a thick base that grew out into a fine tip, the transition of which was flawlessly uniform. Not a single point along the length was any wider than the one before it. The fur decorating them was fluffy and well maintained, coming in the same bluish white as her hair. If that was all they were, then they would simply be ideal, but the glowing princess’ went further beyond. Their size, their jaw-dropping size, pushed them into the realm of the divine. From base to tip, they were one and a half times as long as her head was wide, a fantasy that every stallion had dreamed, but none had ever seen fulfilled.
“Carter Plainsrunner, Marleena Morgan.” She called for them. Her voice was soft, frail even.
“Who are you, and how do you know our names?”
Marleena snapped out a response, as she always did, but a momentary quiver had betrayed her nervousness. Unsettling the merchant’s daughter even further was the lack of an answer. The visitor continued to draw nearer without identifying herself or explaining her presence.
“You should leave.”
That one line was all she said as she walked right up to the door. One of her hands reached towards the magical icy lock that kept their cage sealed, the lock that not even Marleena’s thousand strength could break. At first, nothing seemed to happen. But after a brief pause, the construct began to disintegrate, leaving not a trace behind as it was sucked into a singular point in space.
“Take the left path. The guards are gone.”
“Wait, what i—”
Finally coming back to his senses, Carter tried to question the fair maiden’s instructions, but as she looked upon him, he found himself incapable of both speech and movement. He was stuck in position, seemingly frozen by an overpowering, inexplicable force. He couldn't even open his log to check the entry that explained its source. Likewise, Marleena stiffened and fell over; she had been subjected to the same mysterious power.
“Stop asking questions. Just go.”
The door flung open on its own accord as she moved her hand towards the direction of her origin and pointed a finger down the hall.
Carter looked towards Marleena as soon as his body unfroze. The party’s decision maker still seemed a bit nervous, trembling as she turned to match her guard’s gaze. Her weapon still at the ready, she gulped, nodded, and slowly stood up, motioning for him to follow as she cautiously walked to the open door. The pair had expected the mysterious figure to guide them, but she started walking down the hall opposite the point she had denoted before Marleena was able to step out of the cage. Carter tried following her with his ears, but he wasn’t able to track her. She had suddenly vanished without a trace, footsteps and all.
Taking a deep breath, he picked up the squirrel that had introduced himself as Geoff and followed after Marleena. He paused for a second to consider rescuing the bear as well, but with no way to carry the massive brute, he discarded the thought and continued on his way. Targg would have to save himself.
The escape went smoothly. The underground prison’s closest exit was guard-free as described, and from there, the pair only needed to make a beeline for the tunnel that led out of the settlement. As centaurs, they had no trouble covering the straight shot that was the road to freedom. All they had to do was run. It didn’t matter if there were things in their way. Their massive thousand-pound frames allowed them to gallop straight through anyone that tried to block their path, watcher, borrok, bear, or otherwise. Not even the sentinel would have been able to stop them, once they picked up enough speed. Both were about halfway to their second ascension; a mere once ascended borrok was no match for the raw strength wrought from their level 150 racial classes.
Only after exiting the city and leaping over the bridge did the pair finally slow to a trot. There were no pursuers. Not even any of the fliers had given chase. The few that they had spotted along the way had all been heading to the arena.
“Well, that was certainly an experience.” Geoff swooshed his tail around as he leapt off the stallion’s back and landed on the ground. “Thanks for getting me out of there. I didn’t realise it was time for us to go. I think I might’ve got a little lost in my thoughts.”
“A little? A little? You haven’t said anything for minutes!” shouted Marleena.
“I’m sorry, it’s a bit of a bad habit of mine.” The squirrel smiled sheepishly. “How did you convince them to let us out anyway?”
“We didn’t,” said Carter. “And I don’t think any of us will be able to visit this place anymore, at least not for a while.”
“Well… that certainly complicates things,” said Geoff. “Do you think I can find any rotbloods anywhere else? I need to duel one, for reasons.”
“I doubt it,” said Carter.
“That writes off that condition… then if I want… I’m going to…” The squirrel sank deep into another set of thoughts.
“There he goes again,” said Carter, who tried waving a hoof in front of the smaller man’s face.
“I know I’ve said it already, but he’s just as much of an imbecile as you,” said Marleena.
“You really didn’t have to say it again, Ma’am. I heard you the first time.”
The mare crossed her arms and humphed before looking over her shoulder, as if to check for the phantom that had come to their aid. “Who do you think that was, anyway?”
“I don’t know...” Carter did the same as he caught his breath. “Was she even a person?”
“Are you stupid? You spoke with her. What else could she have been, but a person?”
“Maybe a spirit of some sort. People don’t glow,” said the stallion. “And I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone capable of disintegrating a magical lock like that either.”
“Could you tell where she went when she walked down the hall?”
Carter shook his head. “It was like she vanished.”
“You’re the most useless guard I’ve ever had.” Marleena sighed.
“I’m trying Marleena, I really am.”
“We’ll have to report this to Beck.”
“He’s not going to be happy to hear it.” The stallion slowly shook his head as he recalled the phantom’s form. And ears. Mostly her ears. “Do you think she might have been a celestial or divine?”
“Don’t be so ridiculous. Alfred is the only celestial here that would give us the light of day. She was probably just another librarian.”
Carter agreed, but not because the younger centaur’s argument had won him over. He was already convinced that his prayers had been answered, and that they had been saved by none other than the goddess of ears. The fact that he had prayed to the goddess of war was a convincing argument to the contrary, but as a man easily distracted by his second mind, he was too preoccupied to recall that particular tidbit.
“We’d best get back to camp,” said Marleena. “Get running, you lazy oaf. I’m sick of all the snow, and I’m dying to treat myself to some fresh hay.”
“Camp? Do you guys happen to know any other people?” asked Geoff, who had somehow missed an entire conversation. “I’ve been trying to look for people to help me kill the things I need for a specific ascension, and the one girl I’ve been trying to follow around has been eluding me. Haven’t even caught so much as a glimpse of her since she killed the bridge’s toll guy.”
“Then you might want to come with us. We’re headed to the citadel,” said Carter.
Marleena had started shooting the squirrel glares ever since he had casually branded himself a stalker, but the stallion extended him an invitation nonetheless. The citadel was already home to all sorts of irregulars. Another deviant would hardly make a difference.
“The citadel? Can’t say I’ve heard of that.”
“It’s where Marleena and I have been staying,” explained the plainsrunner. “I don’t think anyone else we know has come all the way up to the peak, but you might be able to find who you’re looking for if you come with us.”
“Sounds like as good an idea as any. I’m in.”
With a smile and a nod, the red-furred rodent hopped back atop the stallion’s back and made for pastures anew.