Every minute of the tense silence made the young recruitee more and more nervous, and that entertained the king. This boy stood no chance of joining his elite forces. They both knew it. Hailed from a hostile faction, he appeared too young and too naïve. Yet he came. Why?
Finally, the king replied: “We earned the right to be privileged. Only this year, I rejected 400 candidates to my alliance and accepted 18. I actually wonder… What makes you think you can be the 19th?”
The boy raised his head and looked directly into the king’s eyes. He gave the answer the king least expected to hear: “I will bring you the head of Manticore.”
Disclaimer: All characters are fictitious and any resemblance is purely coincidental.
They were famous. Like, truly famous. It was hard to imagine a single peasant from any distant province who hadn’t heard this name. Manticore. The deadly beast that comes to you in nightmares and steals your happy dreams.
A name that perfectly fit those four commanders.
What held them all together and made them fight on one side? Rumors conveyed multiple versions of the story, each one more fantastic than the last. But no one knew for sure how much truth (if any) could be found within them.
Some said that they were seeking revenge for what had been done to them in the past. The others proclaimed that they had no morals and simply slaughtered anyone for entertainment. A third group suggested that they were the mercenaries of some mighty alliance which hired them to fight where the alliance couldn’t do so openly, due to certain diplomatic agreements. And finally, some believed that they were brought to this world by the gods of war to cast fear into the hearts of ordinary people.
Their real names were likewise unknown. Even among themselves, they referred to each other by their aliases.
Wings. A tall, well-built Roman whose hazelnut eyes contrasted with his black-and-gray hair, which was unusual given his rather young age. Born and educated in the Empire, he was a man of few words. He rarely spoke, but when he did, it was worth listening to. A master of swords and apologist of the war order, he maintained and supported strong discipline in his armies, which enabled them to break through any resistance without significant losses.
Scorpio Tail. Coming from the Horde, this eastern nomad seemed to have a natural ability to talk with the horses. His horse riders visited careless neighbors at night, bringing back valuable resources for development, at times launching lightning-fast attacks against sleepy garrisons. They caused devastating damage, even to elite armies. He was one of the rare people of his tribe who always followed the leader and was loyal up to a point of self-denial, ready to sacrifice his life for the well-being of his group.
Fangs. The very first glance at this handsome, blue-eyed Teuton, with his usual charming smile and silver laughter, revealed that he came from a very different background than the rest of his squad. A truly noble, wealthy background that only the Rebels could boast. The most easy-going out of the four, he seemed to be the easiest opponent to resist, but that was just an illusion. Charismatic, hard-working, and tireless, he was the one who always managed to gather the biggest armies under his command, which he was ready to sacrifice without remorse for a good cause.
And finally, Claws. No one could call this dark-haired Marauder woman with rugged features beautiful or even pretty. Cold and distant, she seemed to be indifferent to anything. Yet, wherever she appeared in her distinct northern outfit made from bear skin, she immediately drew in all eyes. Fast, graceful, and dangerous, she resembled a big wild cat, patiently waiting in ambush for her prey. She never ruled large armies, but had just enough people under her command to persuade nearby villages, with force, to join the required side. Hers, of course. She barely used siege equipment and preferred to stay in the shadow of the others. However, people unerringly felt that she was the real leader out of the four.
The Head of Manticore.
She dreamed again… about what? Some tenuous memories… A small fishing village called Sleeping Cat, located by the northern sea. She returned from the bakery with hot bread in her basket. She was going to make breakfast for her family. Her husband was at war, fighting for some territory against the Rebels, while she took care of the house. This was what she was born for and this was where she felt loved. And needed.
The creaking noise of loading catapults heralded the chaos that followed immediately after. Rebels’ attack! How did they come so close? How had no one noticed them approaching the village with catapults, so deep in the Marauders’ territory? Steppe riders burst into the village, led by a blue-eyed Rebel, followed by… the neighboring Marauder? “Wake up, Kittens! Be quick! We are being attacked!”
“Wake up, boootiful! We are being attacked!” The silver laughter of the Rebel immediately revealed that he was joking, but that was enough for Claws to open her eyes and get rid of what remained of her dream.
She didn’t really want to bring it back.
“Well, not quite,” Fangs was in his usual good mood. “But your young admirer is here again, waiting at the city gates. If I hadn’t known for sure that your heart was made of the ice of the northern sea, where you were born, I would have said that you’re giving him hope. Perhaps I should be merciful to him and just end his torture.” The Teuton stood up from the chair he was comfortably sitting in and looked out of the window. “Yes, that’s a good idea. I’ll send my men. He’s definitely bothering you more than he should and making you feel uneasy. Let’s sort it out once and for all.”
He made a step towards the door, ready to leave.
“Wait, stop…” Claws was finally wide-awake, stretching her arms, and at this moment resembling a cat even more than usual. “Don’t do it just yet, okay? We are still missing someone from the Dynasty in our squad to complete it and this boy is Dynasty-born. I’ll talk to him.”
The Rebel frowned.
“I still do not get your obsession with making our squad five. Yes, we come from four different factions and none of us feels much attachment to the place we were born. At least not enough to fight for it. We all know our reasons that keep us united. But are you sure? Why do we need someone from the Dynasty anyway? What benefit would it bring? I don’t get it.”
For a short moment, his cold, ruthless nature broke out through his usual charming mask, but it was just a glimpse. He quickly regained his usual calm mood.
“But… Just like we agreed. You are the head; I am the arms. And this is totally your call. I’ll follow.”
He turned his head to the two silent guards waiting for him at the door and ordered:
“Bring him here.”
“I hope she knows what she’s doing.” Those words, uttered by otherwise silent Wings, expressed the mood of the whole team. “We are nowhere near in a position to take risky decisions and contest all five factions at once. And to be honest, I see no point to that. We really need to define one side we should be loyal to. Not Marauders, I believe she will never forgive them. Not Rebels either, they will never forgive you, Fangs, for uniting forces with us instead of your usual alliance. So, that leaves us with the Horde, the Empire, and well, the Dynasty?”
“I thought you weren’t a big fan of the Empire nor the Horde, Wingy,” the Teuton leaned up against the wall, watching how the tall Roman was walking from one wall of the command center, where they convened the meeting, to the other. “I have vague memories that it was exactly the Horde attack that caused you to experience the most devastating defeat in your life because your faction didn’t trust you as a commander and didn’t provide you with support. And that led you to losing all your trusted followers. Now the Empire is on the verge of falling into negligence; I see no strong forces there that are able to resist my old squad. They are a true war machine and will just catapult their scarce villages to the ground in no time and even your famous Roman economy won’t help them rebuild. I’m surprised you even brought the Empire into the equation. I guess you still haven’t got rid of your nostalgic feelings towards them, huh? The Horde though… What would you say, Scorpio?”
“The Horde still has no leader,” the stony-face of the nomad was emotionless as usual. “They haven’t gone through their local skirmishes in their attempt to define who should have the ancient powers. But even if they did, this doesn’t matter to me. I will follow my squad wherever we decide to go. Even,” he hesitated a bit, “if this war is with all five factions. My horsemen are bored. More enemies, more prey.” The nomad stood to his feet. There was something awkward about him when he wasn’t in the saddle, as if he felt uncomfortable when he was touching the ground. “I need to go now. Another scout report arrived; I see them grow impatient since they found something interesting in a nearby village. I should take care of that.”
The Hun left the room without saying any other word. Fangs smiled wryly.
“Sometimes I envy our nomadic Scorpio Tail, Wingy, don’t you?” He sighed. “This world is so simple for him. I wish I could do the same and just stop bothering to contemplate what to do. I only hope that we can resist long enough to pay all our debts.”
Wings didn’t answer. There was no need to answer. They both knew exactly each other’s thoughts.
“So, you were born in Dynasty?” If Fangs ever saw icy Claws in that state, he would never have believed it was real. Yet, this boy somehow pulled her heart strings, which no one expected her to have kept. The strings that led to her past, which she diligently buried in her everyday duties. The boy was so young. So naïve… And he reminded her of someone who she would have preferred not to be reminded. Her kittens.
“Yes, but sometimes I also spent time in Rebels’ territory. I have relatives there.” The boy was well instructed by the king on how to answer certain questions and was now grateful to him for that. The king seemed to know her quite well, and what at first seemed a bizarre answer in fact turned into the other internal shield that he broke. He was scared to death, but the reward was too good. He dreamed about this his whole life. The elite Rebel forces! Fangs was just stupid that he changed his never losing alliance to embark on the adventure of his life with some refugees. What was he thinking? But that was for the better. They now had a vacancy that he intended to fill himself. At least the king had firmly promised him that.
“Yes, I guess we might even have met there. I vaguely remember.” Claws looked distracted and preoccupied with her memories. “What happened to your parents?”
“The territory where they lived was conquered by Marauders this fall.” The boy looked at the white wall and maintained a long pause, a technique he had also learned from the king. “Since then, I heard nothing from them. Maybe they are still there. Maybe not. I guess, I’ll never know…”
Claws frowned. Another lost soul in this world of war. Maybe she finally found the purpose for her fight? To bring back the child’s family? She hesitated and then asked a final question.
“So, what was the message the Dynasty wants you to give to me?” The boy relaxed a bit. It seemed that the hardest part was over. For this question he also had an answer ready.
“The Dynasty wants to offer you help and support. They scouted all Rebels’ and their friendly Marauders’ territories for the past three weeks constantly and they know all their strong and weak spots. You are in the ideal location to strike the Marauders who are friendly to the northern Rebels. They want you to get prepared. And with targeted hits, you’ll be able to remove ancient powers from all the Marauders’ territories and even bring some to the Dynasty. For that, if you succeed, they will include you into their victory scroll.”
“I do not care about victory scrolls,” Claws shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “Never did. If I had, I would have joined the Rebels when they were offering me that together with Fangs. So far, they seem to be the strongest force here. But your words sound like a plan. And this is what we’re currently missing. I need to talk to the others.”
For the past few exhausting weeks, the Manticore squad moved farther and farther into the Marauders’ territory, fiercely fighting for each step they moved into the north. Some regions have already fallen under their attacks, and the Dynasty banner was about to rise deep inside the Marauders’ lands.
Yet something was not right about everything and the squad had more and more doubts about the situation. It seemed that the Rebels and the Dynasty, by now the two strongest forces, were avoiding direct confrontation and were simply slaughtering weaker opponents (not without the help of Manticore). As they did so, they cleared space for their future one-on-one battlefield.
There were some rumors that they even acted together, attacking other alliances both from the west and from the south simultaneously, making them stretch their defenses which became thinner by the day. No one could say for certain whether it was pure coincidence or organized action, though, as diplomats of the two main forces maintained icy silence.
The Dynasty boy, or the “Kitten” (an alias he first received from Claw) was surprisingly useful. He was not even close to the level of the other four, but he was delighted by the task he received. It involved taking care of defense, and he fully accepted this responsibility, training recruits and making sure they would get the best armor. They managed to gather considerable defensive forces there. And yet, despite his success, day after day the boy’s mood became gloomier and gloomier, and that was hard not to notice.
Sometimes Claw heard how the boy was crying into his pillow at night and at those moments, her heart felt his pain. They still didn’t manage to find his parents and she believed that was the cause of his distress. The poor, lost soul…
But the real reason was simpler and more frightening at the same time. Having joined the Manticore squad, with each new day the “Kitten” saw the real people behind the famous aliases which they used to the outside world. Very tired and very loyal to each other people whose only aim in this war was survival. Day after day, he gained more respect for what they did and how they acted, and felt more and more attached to the famous squad. Yet, he was perfectly aware what destiny had been prepared for all four of them. And every time he received a dispatch from an unknown person, he hesitated to open it, scared to see the message inside. This was the real reason, that made his days dark and nights uneasy.
He made it a habit to open unexpected dispatches only in the morning and felt genuine relief if they merely contained a random question, which people often wrote to the four. That meant he could survive another day without worry. And still, it happened. Right after he opened another random message, he suddenly saw the bold handwriting of the king, which he recognized immediately. The message was short but left him no hope.
“The time has come.”
To be continued.