A boy of nobility becomes a page, a page becomes a squire, and a squire becomes a knight. Only then does a son of privileged blood become a man in the mountains of Nebo.
To become a page, a boy needs only to reach the tender age of eight. An inevitability. To become a squire, a page needs only to reach the age of twelve. An inevitability. To become a knight, a squire must endure four years of arduous training to condition both his body and soul in such a way that befits a professional warrior and pleases the Phoenix.
At the end of this training, the squire is put to the test. He must earn his knighthood by engaging in combat and killing at least one of his kingdom’s enemies. After completing this task as to which the outcome is most uncertain, only then can a squire become a knight.
Joshua III of House Tzipur, fourth year squire and nephew of King Hezekiah, the supreme ruler of the Kingdom of Nebo, lay belly down in a patch of high grass as he spied upon the ruins of an olden river village. Being that he was located at the edge of a cliff, the view he had was astounding. His best friend, Levi of House Saar, was hidden somewhere behind him, anxiously awaiting the slaughter that was to come.
Nestled between the ancient stone walls of a vale, the village was mostly a ramshackle collection of small to mid-sized huts with straw rooftops that cast dim shadows upon dirt roads. Stakes topped with jeweled dwebite skulls were scattered in a loose ring around the village, marking the place as enemy territory. Wooden palisades served as the village’s walls, rusty iron gates conjoining them where they were separated by a small blue river. At the heart of the settlement, a stone bridge spanned the river, northwest to southeast. A road led from the bridge to the granary in one direction, and all the way up into the mountains in the other. Gray dweba excrement covered the open space where a single main gate once served as an entryway into the village, blocking access.
As Joshua surveyed the village, his tired eyes began to droop. For far too long he had been wide awake and working hard. One moment he was staring at a skull-tipped stake and the next all he saw was total blackness.
Levi took note of his best friend’s careless nap and frowned, reached into his pocket, grabbed a small nugget of silver and –
“Ouch!” Joshua rolled over and grabbed the back of his red-haired head as he looked up at Levi who was perched in a tree.
“If Master Samuel catches you sleeping, he’ll make you restart your training for this year and you won’t be a knight until the next. Then everyone will look down upon you. How can you be so thoughtless?” Levi shook his head.
“I –”Joshua began.
“Hush, grab your spyglass, and look there.” Levi pointed. “She’s come out of the granary at sun’s zenith to perform some type of ritual.”
As the beat of his heart quickened, Joshua was forced to suppress a sigh. He sure as heck wasn’t looking forward to the fighting part of this mission. He was a near useless cripple, having been touched at the age of seven by a man whose palm bore a petrifying curse. Sword-arm rendered useless, he didn’t really want to be a knight because he could never truly live up to the reputation that such a title entailed.
I’ll never be fearsome in battle or capable of defending any lives aside from my own, he thought to himself sadly. Knight. Referring to me by that title is an absurdity. Too bad my father and uncle insist that I become one…
Despite these feelings, Joshua still wanted to see the dwebite queen. So he sat up, grabbed his spyglass with his good arm – the left one – and peeped through the eyepiece.
“Wow, she’s an ugly one,” he said almost immediately upon laying eyes on her.
Unlike the dweba workers and warriors who were vaguely humanoid, the dwebite queen resembled a mantis of sorts. She had eight legs on her abdomen and four arms on her currently upraised thorax. The back of her yellow body was covered in spikes and the front was decorated with large blue circular markings. She had three red eyes which formed a triangle on her oval-shaped head.
This dwebite queen is the ugliest monarch that I’ve ever seen. Even her antennae are ugly…
“She’s definitely nastier than any of the pictures we’ve seen,” Levi remarked.
Neither he nor Joshua had ever seen a living dwebite before. They had been shown a plethora of lifeless exoskeletons though. Whenever dweba died, their bones slowly turned white and their eyes turned into jewels. Seeing this giant abomination here, in full color and breathing, was incredible.
“I can’t believe these things have a religion,” Joshua stated. “Do you think that they worship the Phoenix?”
“Maybe –” Levi’s words were cut off before he could even begin to respond as the queen opened up her huge mandibles and roared loud enough to wake slumbering giants.
Her tone conveyed what might be pride.
Seconds later, her roar abruptly transitioned into a snarl of agony as a ballista bolt thumped into her thorax. Three more embedded themselves inside her body after that, sending the queen stumbling sideways before crashing to the ground.
“Now, Joshua! It’s time!” Levi shouted as he hopped down from the tree.
Joshua didn’t immediately get up as his friend dashed back towards the main trail and jumped into the saddle of the horse that they shared. Instead, he waited a moment longer to watch as the seemingly vacant village was overrun by hundreds of dweba as they spilled forth from every orifice of every building to protect their queen. In mere seconds, the dweba were scurrying about and ready to fight.
It’s like watching big, mean, bright ants swarm out of an anthill under attack…
Warrior dweba emerged from their nests to defend the walls. Joshua could identify them as warriors because of their taller height, posture, huge mandibles, and their lack of the two extra arms that worker dweba possessed.
Large balls of fire fell from the sky in arcs to land in various places about the village, destroying everything within their deadly radius. It was awesome to Joshua, to see buildings crumble into flames and dweba die. Not for the first time, he coveted the job of the men who operated the catapults.
“Joshua, come on!” Levi yelled over the new sound of thundering hooves.
Joshua threw the spyglass into his satchel bag. Then he got up, put on his helmet, and sprinted towards the horse. Master Samuel intercepted him before he could mount up behind Levi however, drawing his white unicorn to a stop between Joshua and his friend.
Decked out in the signature white and gold plate armor of a knight, Master Samuel would look to be a valiant hero in the eyes of a stranger. But Joshua was no stranger to this man. He knew Master Samuel to be harsh and unforgiving, and was unnerved at his presence.
Dozens of mounted knights and squires rode past them then, thundering down the slanting trail that would lead them into the vale, onto the road, and to the village.
“Levi, go now!” Master Samuel ordered. “Your skills shouldn’t be wasted protecting Joshua in this battle. I expect the dwebite queen’s head from you!”
Levi hesitated for a moment and began to say something but was cut off.
“I said go!” Master Samuel shouted. Once Levi started on his way down the trail, Master Samuel looked to Joshua, whose cheeks were now flushed and burning with anger. “Get the hell up here on this horse, boy, and pray to the Phoenix that I can get you a kill!”
Joshua complied. He swung his heavy right arm atop the steed and began trying to climb his way up. Unicorns bred for war were a good deal taller and more heavily muscled than normal warhorses. There were no extra stirrups for Joshua to use as leverage, and he was crippled besides. Suffice it to say, he could not mount the unicorn. Joshua tried in vain anyway, until Master Samuel lost whatever amusement he gained from watching him struggle, got off the horse, and forcibly grabbed Joshua.
“Can’t you do anything?” the weapons’ master grumbled as he thrust Joshua up.
Joshua didn’t respond as Master Samuel remounted the unicorn and spurred it forward. On they went down the trail, through a covering of trees tinged with the amber and scarlet leaves of autumn, past large boulders and murky puddles, and finally into the clearing of the vale.
That was when Master Samuel began to grace Joshua with his speech.
“These past four years, you’ve managed to scrape by in your training by clinging to the coattails of Levi like a leech, holding him back while you crawl your way forward. That’s going to change soon. You both are going to be knights. You both will head back to your separate estates. You will be separated from him. I know not what minor gifts your future may bestow, but his prospects are bright. He is to marry Ruby, one of the beautiful gems of House Periy, thus becoming the heir…”
Joshua stopped listening at this point. His eyes grew wet and his bottom lip began to quiver. He hated the fact that he needed to hug the Master with his good arm for support as they traveled, lest he fall from the back of the steed.
If I wasn’t a damn cripple…
“If anyone is to pilot Adramelech, it is him,” Master Samuel continued, oblivious to the fact that Joshua refused to listen. “… shall be the bane of the Croceus dweba brood…”
Joshua began to focus as they came before the wooden palisades, which were taller than he had perceived at a distance and covered in thick gray webbing – dweba excrement. The knights and squires in front of him and Master Samuel continued on at full speed towards the gate. Thick black smoke billowed in front of them, showing Joshua that the knight skirmishers had already burned a passage through the feces that clogged the entrance to the city.
The smell of acrid dweba droppings was strong enough to make Joshua grimace.
Right outside the gate, Master Samuel drew his unicorn to a stop beside an unconscious squire who lay sprawled next to his injured horse. The squire was as still as a corpse and his horse convulsed with spasms, both rendered immobile by wicked sleep-inducing stingers that had been shot forth from the mouths of dwebite warriors. The squire had been hit between the neck and shoulder, and the horse had been struck in several places across its chest. Two other horses slept next to them involuntarily upon the ground. Their riders were absent, most certainly hard at work fighting inside the village.
Glancing at the nasty venom-streaked stingers, Joshua was more than a little bit glad that he hadn’t been at the front of the charge.
“Young Sampson…” Master Samuel shook his head as they rode away from the limp squire. “He won’t become a knight today. Better if it was you who had been poisoned than him.”
It was at this point that Joshua gritted his teeth and swore he would kill at least two–
No, three dweba today. I’ll prove Master Samuel wrong, he told himself.
Immediately upon entering the gate, the unicorn trampled a wounded dwebite warrior, crushing its chest and head straight into the ground. In the midst of the fray, Master Samuel halted the steed and surveyed their surroundings.
Dark smoke wafted from burning buildings. Violet dweba blood painted the grass and cobblestones. Squires that wore red tunics and chainmail slaughtered dweba workers, while fully armored knights battled the warriors.
Joshua scanned the perimeter, searching for his prey. He saw two worker dweba advance upon a squire, but they were dispatched quickly, the short blade-like bones of their exoskeletons no match for the boy’s sword and shield. He saw a warrior dwebite drive a spear through the calf of a squire and latch onto his helmet with its pincers, trapping his head in a vice as dark blood spilled from the boy’s wound.
The dwebite twisted its own head, intending to snap the squire’s neck. Joshua knew he should go there to help, but then a knight chopped the dwebite’s head off with an axe, saving the squire from imminent death. Reddish purple blood began to spray everywhere as the warrior dwebite’s decapitated body fell to the ground.
Joshua continued his search and quickly spotted the dwebite he wanted to kill. It was a worker that stood atop a group of barrels that were stacked against the wall of an ancient shop that was not burning. The dwebite snarled and glared, but for some reason it did not join in the struggle.
“Master Samuel!” Joshua exclaimed as he pointed at the abomination. “There!”
Loose wet strands of saliva slopped forth from the dwebite’s awful mouth as it beat its chest with four clenched fists. This thing was clearly hindered in some way mentally and it seemed to have no intention of leaving its pedestal to join the fray. From horseback,
Joshua could easily decapitate the creature if Master Samuel spurred his steed by it.
Perfect target, Joshua thought to himself as he fumbled to draw his sword from its sheath.
But the Master had something else in mind, much to Joshua’s dismay. He spurred the unicorn in the direction of the raving dwebite, but gave it a wide berth as his eyes were set upon a different target. A target that was a warrior. A target that was too deadly for Joshua to handle.
Unprepared for the sudden burst of speed because he was fumbling to draw his sword, Joshua fell from the rump of the unicorn and landed hard in a puddle of mud. The puddle was cold and wet and sticky.
Joshua knew that he would be reminded of this later, during the post combat review when Master Samuel would make a point of pointing this mistake out to the rest of the class.
Joshua wasted no time in coming to his feet. He didn’t want to die and he didn’t want to shame his family by failing this test. He got up in just enough time to see Master Samuel sever the warrior’s left arm with his sword as he passed, causing it to drop the crude spiky spear that it held.
The warrior dwebite flinched from its wound. Master Samuel rounded his steed and locked eyes with Joshua. Now was the time. Joshua screamed as he charged.
Lord Malachi. Levi knew the man to be jovial, cheery faced, and bleary eyed. What he didn’t know the man to be was a complete savage upon the field of battle.
Violet blood spurted in the air as Lord Malachi severed dwebite limbs and torsos with a massive double-bladed axe, drenching himself in life fluid as he screamed in berserk exultation. Such was his fury that the press of little yellow dweba bodies began to give way and recede, falling back in fear of what looked to them to be a giant. This was surprising, because Levi never even knew that dweba were keen enough to know fear or that Lord Malachi was savage enough to instill the sense of it into them.
Lord Malachi brought down his axe, cleaving a dwebite worker into two separate vertical pieces, making Levi recall that the other teachers had always joked about the violence that Lord Malachi would bring to the fight. About how he would “bite the pincer off a dwebite.”
Prior to this engagement, Levi just couldn’t envision such behavior from the man, but now that he saw it firsthand, Levi found it to be very funny. Very funny and very useful. Lord Malachi was clearing a path through the horde. A path that had already crossed the bridge and led straight to the queen. She was only several dozen feet away from Levi now.
Levi stepped on a dead warrior dwebite’s face as he readied his bow, notching an arrow to the string. Knights and squires ran past to assist Lord Malachi as Levi directed the ichor-soaked head of the arrow upward to touch the flames of a burning straw rooftop.
Perhaps sensing his intentions, the wounded dwebite queen looked straight at Levi as he aimed his bow at her. If her gaze could’ve tossed him backwards into the river at that moment, it would have. However a mean stare was powerless and a flaming arrow was something to fear. Levi fired the arrow. The queen screamed as she ignited into a mass of blistering orange flames.
Lord Malachi burst forward at the dweba who stood between the humans and the queen. Then he spun around forcefully and swiped his battle-axe low to the ground, using the momentum of his turn to separate dweba feet and shins from the rest of their legs. Levi ran past him then, heading straight into the throng of receding yellow bodies. His sword flashed left, right, and down as he advanced, cleanly robbing three sick creatures of their sick lives.
Three more kills makes ten. He had ten kills now, three warriors and seven workers. Their blood painted him, and the paint smelled sweet.
A significant increase in the pitch of the burning queen’s loud screams of agony heralded her crash to the ground. That was when the dweba began an all-out retreat back into their holes. Levi couldn’t blame them. There was no reason left to fight because their queen was now unsalvageable. It was better off for them to live today to infest another city tomorrow, spawn a new queen, and continue to blight the earth.
A ragged cheer began to sound as the battle-weary humans began to realize what had just happened, picking up in tempo as more and more voices added themselves to the chorus.
Levi hesitated for a moment as he approached the queen’s flaming carcass. He had to remove her big head, but he didn’t want to get burned. A strong hand fell upon his shoulder then and he almost jumped in surprise. Then he felt at ease when he realized that the hand belonged to Lord Malachi.
“Good job, kid,” Lord Malachi said. “You make us all proud, all the time.”
Lord Malachi stepped forward and swung his battle axe down, chopping off the queen’s head. Then he captured the head within one of the curves of his axe-blade and rolled it into a puddle. Steam wafted up as the burnt head cooled. Feeling triumphant, Levi smiled when Lord Malachi picked the charred head up by a pincer and gave it to him.
“You earned this, hero,” Lord Malachi said as he raised Levi’s arm, brandishing the queen’s head for all the assembled to see.
Bolstered by pride, the cheering grew louder and stronger. At least fifty of Levi’s brethren surrounded him, shouting their praise.
Suddenly a group of squires parted, and two were pushed to the side as another burst forth from the crowd and tripped over a dead dwebite exoskeleton. The squire tried his best not to fall, but fall he did, albeit he got right back up fast enough to pretend that his hands and knees had never spent more than two seconds on the ground.
Sami, twin brother of Sampson, Levi soon identified as the squire removed his helm.
Sami had a freckled face, buck teeth, and amber eyes. His hair was red like most of the Nebonites, but he kept it cut close enough to his scalp that it appeared to be brown. A large scar lived upon Sami’s left cheek. Levi had put it there a long time ago during a heated training session.
“All of you must come quickly,” Sami said. “The battle is not yet over. A one-armed dwebite is fighting one-armed Joshua to the death even as I speak.”
Sami’s voice was low and droning by nature. It always sounded as if his nose was stuffed. Levi wanted to spit in his face right now but he forced himself not to.
“Where are they?” Levi demanded.
When Sami pointed in the direction, Levi immediately raced towards the place where Joshua was said to be in trouble. As he moved, Levi prayed to the Phoenix that Joshua would be alright, for if anyone was to lose a fight to a one-armed dwebite, it would be him.
A silvery steel sword pitted against two, short, curving, blade-like bones that protruded from the top of a warrior dwebite’s wrist – Joshua was lucky that Master Samuel had chopped off the dwebite’s arm that had borne its crude bone-axe, and he was sure that the Master had done that unintentionally.
Even so, despite Joshua’s good luck, he was unlucky, because he was losing this fight. The dwebite warrior was incredibly tall for its kind, which meant that it was about three inches taller than Joshua. It was also fierce, fast, and desperate, attacking Joshua viciously with slashes and kicks and then backing away before he could strike back.
Sweat stung Joshua’s eyes, leaked from his armpits, and soaked his underclothes. He sensed that the surrounding battle was over and that everyone was watching him struggle. A few of the people who were his friends shouted their encouragement, but as time went on, their enthusiasm melted and their mouths closed.
Utter silence ensued. An awkward silence. An embarrassing silence.
Joshua knocked away another one of the dwebite’s strikes and failed yet again to counter. He and the dwebite began to circle each other and that was when he noticed Levi watching from the front of the crowd with a face that was tense with worry.
“You can do it, Joshua!” he shouted. “Come on!”
Maybe Joshua would’ve succeeded if he had felt boosted by his friend’s encouragement, but he felt irritated instead, growling as he launched a wild diagonal strike at his foe.
The attack grazed the dwebite warrior as it moved aside to Joshua’s right.
Before he could regain a defensive posture, the creature began striking Joshua in the head with its blade/-like protrusions.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Every time the claws struck his helmet it made that sound.
Joshua started to stumble backwards and sideways.
“Come on, Joshua. Come on!” People in the crowd began to shout. They sounded disappointed and exasperated, as if he was letting them down.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Joshua fell to his knees with his back turned towards the dwebite. It mounted him before he could regain his footing, latched its pincers onto his helmet and drove his face into a puddle of muddy water that was just deep enough to choke him. Pressed down by the creature’s weight, Joshua’s good arm was trapped beneath him.
“Come on, Joshua! Come on!” he heard his so-called brethren shout.
Rage built up inside Joshua’s head as he listened to them rant while he suffocated.
Is anybody going to help me? he wondered. Or are they just going to let me die?
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
Joshua managed to get up off the ground soon after he heard that sound. The dwebite was still behind him though. It tried to wrap its arm around his neck to choke him from behind, but he managed to fend off the limb with his left arm. Joshua rushed backwards as he struggled with the dwebite and then fell on top of it. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of Levi, and knew that his friend had hacked off one of the dwebite’s pincers.
Silent tears trickled down Joshua’s cheeks as he twisted around to mount the dwebite. Once he gained position, he began to slam his stone fist into the warrior’s face. Joshua struck the creature repeatedly, landing almost twenty blows and completely breaking its face before the beast stopped moving.
Exhausted and enraged, Joshua gasped in air, and soon managed to control his tears. Utter silence surrounded him. Hooves tromped the ground as a unicorn plodded up right behind him and whinnied.
“Riding the coattails,” he heard Master Samuel whisper softly, smugly. “Soon that will change.”
Never before had Joshua felt so ashamed.