|The Fall of an Empire
Author: MercurialNight PM
A collection of scenes from a D&D campaign I'm in. Four kingdoms have been taken over by an evil Empress, who is responsible for the suffering of each one of our party's characters. Our anger is driven not only by her oppressive reign, but by the wounds of our past. Her death is our quest and our driving desire; revenge and the liberation of the kingdoms is our reward.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Chapters: 9 - Words: 17,748 - Updated: 04-15-13 - Published: 02-16-13 - id: 3101456
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Still working on finishing this one. Have a few more scenes to write on it, but this will do for now.
All her life, she'd had one law to abide by. In a life of idiocy and chaos, one smart rule. Don't get caught. She'd sworn it on her life, on her very own head. Now, her feet flying desperately, buildings and houses blurring into the background, Riley was wondering…how might one survive without their head?
The scrawny form of a young girl was barely perceptible on the streets of a town so riddled with the concerns of its own strife—but when she was running so openly through oft-trodden roads, trailing such pursuers as hers, escaping notice was impossible. Her ragged clothes, sleeves torn off and pant legs full of holes, made it obvious she had no wealth; and her dirty, darkly tanned skin displayed openly that she had no home. Wild knots of bright red, curly hair were thrown back haphazardly by the wind. All this seemed no hindrance at all to the impish smile that split her lips, or the leisure with which she maneuvered through the streets. It was a danger-courting easiness that could just as well maneuver her through the loopholes of life itself.
The enraged shouting of men's voices followed her as she wove through the sparse crowd, avoiding pedestrians and garbage bins, jumping over obstacles like crates and stray dogs which barked savagely as Riley passed. It was easy getting around, her speed barely decreased by the acrobatics, but the soldiers were hard to shake since every passerby pointed them in the right direction. Amazing what fear will do to make people abandon each other. But Riley knew better than to expect any help from her fellow degenerate—not in a place like this, especially. You take care of yourself, you sin for yourself, and you run through your own great escapes.
She glanced back over her shoulder and took an account of her pursuers. The guards were decked out in the only kind splendor Riley had ever seen: the splendor of war. Weapons that glistened, armor that sang as they ran, and muscles like ogres. Faces kinda like ogres, too. Oh boy. Those were not happy faces. Her heart thrummed and she grinned hysterically as the sweet thrill of adrenaline overtook her. What could ever feel greater than that electric euphoria? But adrenaline rushes didn't last forever—and a pity that was, because Riley found herself tiring.
There were three guards now, an increase from the original two. This was getting a bit too stupid, even for her. The longer she drew this out, the more attention she would attract; these soldiers were posted all throughout town. She tried to take routes around them all, but sometimes it was just impossible. She had to find a way out of this before her course took her past another guard.
It took a few more moments of flight and terror before an opportunity finally presented itself. Ahead, there was a shabby merchant's cart, placed conveniently under a roof's overhang. A wry grin split Riley's lips. Life was too easy sometimes.
She veered for the cart, increasing her speed. The merchant, napping on a crate to the side, snorted awake at the sound of the soldiers' shouting, and glanced around with the bleary eyes of an old man. Not a half second later, he was overturned from his perch, shouting with surprise as a dark blur shot past him. Riley seized the lip of the cart's roof and launched herself away from the ground. The shabby structure rattled and shook as Riley landed and immediately jumped again. The old merchant below was far too slow to even yell in her direction; she was gone before the cart's dislodged planks fell to the ground.
The soldiers' arrival overturned the old man again as they shoved him out of the way. Riley, perched on the rooftop, crouched and watched with mild amusement. One of the guards—from the look on his face, he must have been the one she robbed—hoisted himself onto the top of the cart with his friend's help. Still, the spritely child didn't move from her perch.
"Stop there, thieving filth!" She heard him call. "Run any further on pain of death!"
Riley's grin curled devilishly, bright eyes darkening. She lay down on the rooftop, her chin in her hand. "Beautifully original, sir. I never heard such eloquent persuasion. I got no choice but to turn myself in." Riley reached down, dangling one arm over the side of the rooftop. "Take me away, you clever brave!"
"Filthy urchin! I'll kill you myself!" As he screamed at her, he launched forward—but stopped short on a sudden cracking noise. Riley smirked triumphantly, her narrowed eyes cutting through the guard's shocked gaze. The cart's roof gave way and the guard, screaming curses, crashed down onto his friend and the poor old merchant.
"Oh. That's fine too." Riley shrugged as she stood and brushed herself off. "Abolishing the corporate evil of vending stalls really is much more important than catching thieves, I guess—what with the awful prices on tomatoes these days."
She rambled on and on over their heads as the third guard arrived and unsuccessfully tried to tear his buddies free of the wreckage. They were kind of making progress. Alright…that was enough entertainment. She was pushing her luck now.
Riley waved happily to the guards, offering her sweetest smile. "Thanks for the charity misters!" she chirped, her voice perfectly childlike. Then, like ink spreading over a page, her fox-like features darkened, a sickly sweet mixture of smiling malice. "May fate reward you appropriately."
In the next second, she flitted away, and the shouting of guards followed her across the rooftops. But those voices were all that remained of the pursuit.
Home free. Another day's work well done. Glancing down at the small leather pouch that contained her spoils, Riley allowed herself to smile with pride—no one else would do as much for her.
She traveled a few blocks away before daring to return to the ground. In a different part of town, where the streets were even worse and very few guards patrolled, she returned to a path she used well. She descended into an obscured alleyway with the help of a pile of old crates and turned down the winding maze of gutters and tiny streets. This was the part of town that no one came to, if they had any choice or intelligence.
She had to duck past many shady faces and figures; she didn't want to be followed. Even among her own kind, she trusted no one. It was harder to get around unnoticed here, since most of these cloaked and hooded cutpurses used the same tricks and perceptions as Riley. But none of them had been apprentice to Jarlaxle Scathe. In this city, Riley took pride in being the best there was at the trade of deceit. And the richest, she thought, a grin spreading across her impish face.
Finally, she came to a smaller alleyway hidden among the intricate street patterns, blocked off by a rotting wooden fence. She crouched against the shadowed wall and checked thoroughly to make sure she was alone. Quickly, she swung one of the planks aside and slipped through the narrow space. She replaced the board without a sound and was finally alone.
Riley released a breath, sliding down the brick wall. She brushed the tangled mess of red curls out of her face—a pointless action, since the hair was as unruly as its owner. Catching her breath back, she finally removed the small leather pouch from the length of rope she used as a belt. Panting breathlessly, she looked down at it with evil triumph.
"You better be worth the wanted posters," she mumbled as she opened up the pouch. Almost instantly, Riley's eyes widened and a childlike squeal escaped her. She immediately jerked on the pouch's drawstrings and turned sharp eyes on her surroundings to make sure she was still alone. Affirming this, she peered into the pouch again with greedy delight, biting her knuckles as her feet kicked with excitement.
No wonder he was so mad; that fat hog was hauling five gold pieces! Now that wasn't much at all to anyone with a roof over their head, but to a homeless thief, it was easily a month's worth of avoiding starvation. Well…to any thief but Riley, who never wasted money on her daily bread. Her philosophy: never pay for what could be stolen. But five gold would do wonders towards getting herself a weapon.
Riley spun around and dug at the base of the wall behind her. Her fingers found a hold underneath a loose wooden plank and pried it out, revealing a tiny compartment between the wood and stone of which the house was built. Inside, another pouch. Riley snatched it and shoved the board back into place. Quickly, she opened it up; it was full of silver and copper, all of which equated to about eight gold or so. It had taken months to get her hands on it. She added her earnings from today and sealed it with knots and strings, as tightly as possible. She secured it to her makeshift belt and knotted it several times over.
Finally. She knew how to use a rapier, if she could only get her hands on one—and now she could. It was just like her darling mentor to leave her without a weapon of her own. Heartless old cutthroat. But that was fine. His last lesson to her, Riley figured, was the affirmation of the first one life had ever taught her: eventually, even if you escape for a while, everyone without power will end up completely on their own. It was the only way that people like her could live: to fend for yourself, and forget the world.
Forget everyone. It was impossible to go against that.
The armory was on the other side of town. She should get going. If she was fast, she could get there before the midday rush, when all the travelers got into town.
As she crouched within the shadows, sharp eyes flickering over the crowded street, she watched the dust from many hooves and wagon wheels rise in clouds for her cover. It was the merchant district, set up right along the street that led to the city gate, perfectly polished and decorated for the incoming tourists. This city had two faces. One, hers, where all the criminals and lowlifes fought for table scraps. The other, this one: the 'respectable' stone-paved streets of business and commerce. If you asked her, it was just as filthy as her side of town; it just looked clean and shiny on the outside. The rush of travelers passing through usually happened around this time of day, and to her bad luck, that was what she found herself stuck in. Figures; she hadn't been quick enough. Too many guard posts had forced her to take detours. She could wait it out, of course, but…nah, she was sick of waiting.
She'd have to get through it without attracting attention from guards. That was the only problem. They usually cleared the streets of beggars and undesirables when the tourists came in. She'd be questioned for sure. For once, she wasn't up to illegal ambition, but the risk of getting arrested was higher than ever! Unfair. The smithy was just down the street from the alley she was hiding in; she could see it right there. Riley scowled, fists clenched as she growled at nothing. Screw this! No matter what she was doing, she'd be arrested for the way she looked. If she wasn't so…
No, shut up. If she let herself think like that, what kind of thoughts would follow? Nothing productive. Her eyes narrowed and reassumed their calculating stare. She could find an opening in the crowd—maybe a big wagon would come by, and she could use it as cover. She kept her eyes open and surveyed the stream of traffic.
…What was that?
It was a gigantic mass of thundering footsteps and muscles and hair, that's what. Riley had never seen a man so huge. He towered above the crowd like a colossal statue, scattering pedestrians with an aura of strength. No one wanted to come within feet of him. It was a giant—it had to be. His beard was the length of her arm, for goodness' sake! Riley pressed herself against the wall and gaped at the figure as he passed. His natural movements were sure and slow, as if he had all the time in the world. He was wearing an axe that was easily taller than her. But he carried something else on his back, too. His supplies.
What might that bulging bag contain? He was an adventurer, or mercenary, or soldier, those were the only things this man could be—occupations which all paid extremely well.
…No. No, Riley. That's a horrible idea. The worst you've ever had, in fact. You're not doing it.
But…but the loot…
Riley tore at her hair and kicked the wall, muffling her whines and growls. Curse her insatiable love of shiny things and danger! Fine! She'd do it, because she'd never forgive herself if she didn't, and because stupid Jarlaxle would do it in a laughing heartbeat. She flung herself out into the street, inwardly cursing herself to the nine flaming layers, and did the best she could at disappearing beneath the clouds of dust and folds of traveling cloaks.
She jumped from person to person, weaving around pedestrians and horses until she could get close to the giant. There was a ten-foot radius of clear space around him. Though Riley didn't blame any of them for keeping a safe distance, she cursed them for it all the same. It was impossible to get within stealing distance under the cover of a crowd. Her only chance was to sneak directly behind him, snatch the first valuable thing her fingers touched, and run like she'd never run before.
This had to be the absolute dumbest thing she'd ever done. But hey. Dumb things were best done quickly, she figured.
Riley sprung forward, quickening her steps, though she took care to appear as if she were simply walking down the street. She inched closer to the giant, approaching from directly behind. The first rush of adrenaline hit her when she realized that she could literally feel his footsteps shake the ground. Her heart thrummed nervously. He could snap her entire ribcage with a punch, if he wanted. She crept closer.
Finally, the opportunity came, and she had no choice but to do it. She shot forward suddenly, closing the remaining feet between them, her tiny hand reaching for a pouch on his belt.
She had her fingers around something metallic—the hilt of a weapon?—when suddenly, without warning, the giant stopped in his tracks.
She wasted a split second frozen in complete terror. Finally, her legs kicked into gear and she bolted the other way, fast as she could. She didn't care about her cover now; if this guy caught her, she was dead. She'd rather attract the guards than this Titan.
Before she could get two steps away, she felt the crushing grip of a huge hand close around her leg. She couldn't help it; she screamed. She tugged away, kicking with all her might—but she may as well be stuck in a bear trap; there was no getting loose now. He pulled, and Riley was thrown to the ground. She nearly bit the tip of her tongue off. Then, she was being dragged backward, clawing at the dirt and screaming for all her lungs were worth. The world turned over as she was lifted from the ground altogether, left nothing but empty air to strike at.
Hanging upside-down, she was brought up to eye-level with the colossal being. His strikingly distinctive eyes, dark and deep like a clouded sky, narrowed as he examined her.
"Little girl," his voice rumbled like an avalanche. "Why are you stealing?"
Riley unthawed from her shock and broke into a chorus of shrieking and thrashing. She yowled like a trapped cat, beating and kicking at his vice-like fingers. "Let go! Let me go, you giant freak of nature! I'll cut your throat out! I'll shred you to sawdust, you brute-headed, overgrown bull! Get off!"
The giant's bushy eyebrows rose, but it was more out of curiosity and surprise rather than any fear of her "threats." He grumbled to himself, like a low hum, a sound that vibrated through Riley's bones. It sounded like disapproval.
"To steal is wrong." The booming voice rushed past her like the wind itself carried it. "Haven't you been taught, little thing?"
"It's wrong to hang people upside down!" she shrieked back, aiming insignificant blows at his face. Her hair flew around wildly and her face was turning red from being upside-down—not to mention her struggling like a crazed jackrabbit. She latched onto his arm and attempted to curl upward as best she could, at least trying to get her head pointed towards the sky again. But the angle at which it placed her trapped leg was painful; her flexibility did nothing for her in this situation.
She screamed angrily and let go, swinging back down into humiliation. "Let me down, will you! My head's gonna bust open!"
His huge eyes narrowed, eyebrows drawing closer together. He held her up closer to his face, scrutinizing her. Riley only stared back in silence, trying to decide whether it would be a good idea to gouge his eyes out. Maybe he wouldn't fling her halfway across the city.
After another distrustful grumble, she finally felt herself being lowered. Her hands clambered for the ground until she was finally deposited on solid cobblestone again. Immediately, she made a wild dash for freedom. But she was dizzy by now and ended up running the wrong freaking way. She crashed into his leg—might as well be a tree trunk—and fell on her back, whining as she cradled her head. 'Riley, you perfect moron…'
A hand grabbed her by the upper arm and hauled her to her feet. She did her best to scream again, tugging and thrashing in vain. Her feet slipped on the stones as she twisted in his grip, trying to claw at the ground for leverage. She was hurting herself, but didn't seem to notice.
"Lemme go, I didn't do anything!"
"Stop that, little girl."
"Screw you, giant oaf!"
The giant knelt down, bringing his commanding stare to her level, and jerked her forward, so close to his face that she had no choice but to look at him. His eyes were heavy and dark, forcing her to listen.
Peculiarly, Riley fell silent. Eyes fixed on his face, she gradually stopped struggling. She was afraid of him. Not of his physical power, or his ability to crush her with a twitch of his fist, but of something else—whatever it was his eyes carried, it had the ability to completely disassemble her. But somehow, she didn't think that was the result he wanted. He returned sadness for her fear.
From this close, she could see the square set of his strong jaw, the gray undertone to his skin, his sloped forehead that lead into hair like a lion's mane. He did have giant in him; he had to. But there were no wrinkles. Was he…young? How? Why didn't he look stupid, like giants were supposed to? And why wasn't he trying to throw her onto the chopping block?! He should be calling for the guards to come and execute the gutter scum. But instead, he stared down at her with that regretful expression and spoke to her, in his deep, mountainous voice.
"Stealing is wrong. No matter how hard it has been for you to live, dishonest paths can't be made right."
His eyes were not sharp, but they penetrated through her anger, making it insignificant. It made her feel...childish. She was anything but childish! She'd seen more than had all the ignorant sheep in this town, who didn't bother looking at things they knew weren't right. She knew more than the power-driven lords who controlled the very world. Childhood had been driven out of her. Who did he think he was, scolding her, ordering her how to live? As if he had a right to it. Just because he was powerful…
"You don't know anything!" she screamed in his face, fearlessly challenging the behemoth at whose mercy she stood captive. "Take me to jail or kill me, but don't talk to me like you know something! You have no idea how or why I have lived!"
His eyes darkened again, housing a deep storm that she didn't understand. Riley had the sudden urge to run, but she knew he would catch her again. For once, she couldn't get away.
"I would not kill you," he asserted.
Riley returned his stare, her eyes vicious, rebellious, and agonized. She saw something in his stern gaze change. It was impossible to overlook: the weariness, the disappointment, the resignation. He didn't want this fight. He was tired—of what, she wasn't sure, but it certainly wasn't because she was a challenging opponent. She was helpless. It was unsettling and disgusting to think herself so powerless, but even more so, it was confusing. If you were powerless, you died to the powerful—that was how it always worked—and yet, he wouldn't kill her. She saw that clearly and undeniably, but she still didn't understand it.
"And I can't take you to jail." The giant released her arm as gently as he could manage. Riley didn't run. She was completely taken aback, by both the return of her freedom and by the softness with which he gave it. Well—it was about as close to 'soft' as a voice like his could get. It was still confusing. What angle was he playing here? Was he toying with his prey?
"Why." It was a demand, not a question, full of suspicion and spite.
He still didn't react the way he should. There was a shine to his eyes when he answered calmly, "You never did steal anything."
She had no reply to that, not even a spiteful one. She could only stare at him, open her mouth, close it again, and narrow her eyes. Was he…mocking her? His lips weren't smiling, but his voice was. She could tell, he was laughing at her! I'm the best thief this side of the mountain range, you pig-headed colossus! But as much as this entire encounter had hurt her pride, it wasn't important when her life was on the line.
"No. I didn't." She turned away, shoving her hands in her pockets. It was time to go, before he changed his crazy mind. Didn't matter why she'd gotten lucky, only that she took advantage of it.
"That means you're gonna let me go. Ain't that right, big guy?" That wasn't a question either, and she didn't give him a chance to answer. She turned away, walked a few casual steps. She glanced over her shoulder, just once, and for a split second, her eyes may have softened. Then, without warning, she broke into a dead sprint and bolted away.
Riley left the giant kneeling in the middle of the street, staring after her until she ducked into her realm of deception and disappeared among the crowd.
The wooden plank swung back into its position, sealing her away from the world again. She slammed her back against the fence, blocking it off, as if the giant were standing right outside her safe haven. But he wasn't. She'd left him far behind, on the complete opposite side of town. The stare he gave her, though, was not as easily deserted.
She breathed heavily, fingers digging at the trampled dirt beneath her, and listened to the distant sounds of squabbling peasants. The smell of poverty pervaded from the alleys and damp dirt streets. She felt the spiteful legs of a cockroach steal across her hand. Riley closed her eyes.
Wonder what kind of life it was, to live like him. Powerful enough to fend for yourself. Strong enough to get what you need. He could have trampled her, had he decided to. It would be easy. She escaped, but only because he allowed it—he decided that it was within her power. It shouldn't matter, but…when she thought of her leg snapping in his grip… and how easy it would have been…it mattered more than anything. More than survival.
She escaped, like she always did. But what was it she escaped to? Constant hiding, powerlessness, loopholes and underhanded maneuvers. Nothing was triumph. Nothing was like the steadiness with which the giant had held her in place with nothing but a stare.
She wanted to cast the thought from her mind, because never had she before, nor would she now, ever admit that her life was anything less than freedom. To know that was to surrender to her own prison. As much a prison as had been her birthplace.
Not anymore. She would have her own strength. Riley's hand went to the pouch tied at her hip.
Her fingers felt nothing but air.
Her eyes shot open wide. No… Riley released startled cry and spun around onto her hands and knees, eyes flickering frantically around her. She searched her clothes again and again. She left her alley and backtracked to the place where she'd been caught, and then repeated everything a dozen times, but no trace of the money upon which her freedom depended was anywhere to be found. Breathless and livid, she returned to her alley and tore up the brickwork, but the hiding spaces were all empty.
She released a sudden shriek, slamming her fist against the rotting wooden fence, her barrier against the world, which murmured bitterly of the pains of others and gave her no answer.
Trembling, Riley slid down to her knees, collapsed halfway between the fence and the ground. She hung her head, disheveled hair trailing in the dust.
It happened when he caught her. He hadn't even taken it from her…and yet he had, in an indirect way, because she remembered now that the weight tied to her belt had been missing ever since she ran from the giant. She'd dropped it, probably when he hung her upside-down. It was him, the whole confusing idea of everything he did, that made her forget about it. That stupid stare of his—it messed her up.
What did he know that she didn't? What gave him the ability to stop her from running, even for a moment? It was one more power she couldn't fight, and she hated it. She hated him for having it.
Hot tears stung her eyes and her fists clenched in the dirt. She hated them all.
She needed to know. She had to find and wield whatever strength it had been that forced her into submission, and use it to defeat the world that had always suppressed her. Above all things, Riley was convinced of one: she needed power.
As the day faded, the air grew chill, and the street-side lanterns were lit to guide the passing wayfarer, the respectable city drew its shutters closed and slowly let the night have its domain. The night guards relieved their day-shift comrades. And the thieves crept like spiders out of the shadows. They flooded the streets in minutes, watched suspiciously by every soldier's eye, but never actually disturbing the illusion of calm. It was generally agreed upon that no one should cause a disturbance at night, so as not to impair the freedom of all the others who were chased off the streets during the day.
Riley had never broken that rule, and so she stayed out of the range of anger from other criminals. After everything her teacher had put her through, she figured she just might have to hang herself if she was ever stupid enough to get caught in the dark.
She walked along the side of the streets, hands in her pockets, moving as if she had no clear direction. The shadows that lined each road were plenty enough to cover her scrawny figure, so she didn't have to try anything fancy to stay hidden.
It was a short walk if you took routes that only she knew. Despite the lack of glory, her sort of life did have its perks. Riley ducked into a particular alleyway, picked her way around the lantern-lit backyard of a cobbler's shop, and moved towards a ladder on the back side of the building. She didn't particularly need it, but it made things easier. The rooftops were the quickest way to get almost anywhere in this town.
The rooftop path took her there without so much as one sighting by guards. She wasn't worried about guards at all, though, and it was almost something of a disappointment as, a few yards away from the tavern, she set foot on solid ground in complete safety. She checked for soldiers immediately. Seemed like there were none patrolling this particular street, which was strange, because this tavern didn't exactly attract the most respectable clientele. Riley's eyes narrowed as she glanced around her. Something felt off about that.
It didn't seem to affect her at all, though, so she minded her own business.
She turned her attention to the tavern. Finally, something that could intimidate the cocky kid. She'd only ever been in taverns long enough to get yelled at and kicked out. Riley was unaccustomed to being in close proximity to other people. By choice, at least. And let's not forget that these were the kind of people who went out in the middle of the night to get drunk. Riley sighed, squared her jaw, and figured there was no other option than to walk in like she owned the place. Or to sneak in like a rat. Whatever worked.
She was feet away from the door when she stopped in her tracks. From inside came shouting voices and the sound of wood splintering. A fight? Different, though…the voices weren't drunk. Suddenly, a sudden rush of alarm told her to move, now. Riley knew to listen to such instincts.
She turned aside and threw herself into a roll, diving into the shadows, just as the door exploded in a shower of splintered wood. The missile that had broken it landed in the street, skipped across the stones, and came to rest in a cluttered heap in the ditch. From her hiding spot, Riley could clearly see the shine of his armor. A soldier.
This she had to see. Whoever was doing such a thing to soldiers was a friend of hers. She crept up to the door, peering around the side, and her jaw dropped at the sight.
The bar was a swarming mess of fists and broken tables. There was yelling and shouting and brawling, patrons cowering in the corners, broken glass and furniture used as weapons. And it was all centered around one man. One eight foot tall, axe-wielding man. The goliath.
There were at least half a dozen Imperial guards, decked out in full plate and chain mail, throwing themselves at the giant. They were all repelled every single time. To see him in action was unlike anything Riley had ever witnessed. He wasn't even using his axe. The soldiers would charge at him, and he lifted his massive arm to sweep them away. His foot, big enough to crush Riley's head, plowed into the chest of another soldier, throwing him to the ground with a force that seemed unnatural and impossible. But his movements were not clumsy and oafish. He avoided swords. He evaded blows. He was always balanced, with perfect control over every ounce of his weight. Another soldier came towards him—he grabbed his head in his giant hand, twisted into a kneeling position, and slammed the man so hard into the ground that he splintered the floorboards into pieces.
The soldiers stopped coming.
He stood up slowly, exuding might and terror. Splintered wood fell from his knuckles as he shook his hand and popped the fingers. A rumbling sound of comtemplation rolled from his lungs as he surveyed the bar and the remaining guards. They were in a half-circle before him, lances and swrods pointed upward.
One brave soul had the guts to shout: "Goliath! By the inescapable Empress, we demand you come with us!"
The giant grumbled again, his dark eyes looking down on the man, who suddenly seemed a lot smaller. The soldier shifted his feet and re-gripped his lance.
"Y-you are required to re-join the ranks of the Imperial army! If you resist, you will be killed like your kin!"
That did it. The giant's ice-blue eyes widened, his face twisting as it flooded with rage that froze Riley's blood as she watched. He gripped the lance and snapped it in two, lunged forward on one knee, and released a booming roar that shook timbers into the face of the moronic soldier who thought it was a bright idea to kick a behemoth in the shin.
Riley yelped and spun out of the doorway just in time to avoid the torrential rush of fleeing soldiers. She gaped at their backs as they screamed and tripped over themselves, running like rabbits off into the night.
What just happened…?
Inside the bar, the scene was suddenly empty. The only sound was the giant's breathing, heavy and strong like a force of the wind. The few remaining people slowly emerged from their hiding spots, murmuring quietly in wonder, shifting around broken table legs and shattered glass. Riley's eye slowly appeared from behind the doorframe. The giant was just standing there. He began to looking around the bar in confusion. He glanced toward what must have been the barkeep, a man in an apron gaping as he huddled in the corner, his dishrag still clutched in one hand. The giant's eyebrows rose, and he winced guiltily. The giant released a low growling sound, startling the barkeep, who started stammering and shaking in a way that really grated on Riley's nerves.
"W-what do you want!? Take anything, I won't try to stop you!"
The goliath's posture relaxed completely; he took a step backward and shook his head. When he spoke, his voice still carried the growling, booming anger—so no one listened to the words. "But…No. I do not want—"
"J-just leave us alone! I beg you—don't hurt anyone else!"
The goliath was silent. Everyone in the room cowered away from him. Some stupid woman was crying and trying to be quiet. But Riley saw his face. And it was…hurt.
He only nodded, keeping his head bowed in deference to the barkeep, and then turned to walk out the door. Stunned by it all, Riley didn't react quickly enough. As his eyes turned to the doorway, she saw them lock directly with hers. The giant paused, surprised—he recognized her. She was caught.
Riley backed away slowly. She didn't run. She could always do that. But right now, she backed up into the dark street, completely exposed in the open, while the goliath emerged from the yellow-lit doorway of the tavern.
She stood and gazed in wonder, and now, she could see nothing in his face of anger. It was stoic and sorrowful. His throat humming with an exhaled breath, he turned his eyes down and reached for his belt. Riley jumped and shielded herself as he suddenly extended his fist toward her. But she remained rooted to the spot, and after a moment she realized that nothing bad was happening to her. She stared as his thick fingers opened. In the palm of his hand was a tiny leather pouch.
Riley stared at his face in complete disbelief. He nodded at his hand, prompting her. She reached out, and her fingers closed gently around the money she'd lost. She looked at it in her hands, and clutched it tightly against her stomach as she met the giant's eyes.
He was alone.
"…Come with me," Riley mumbled, tearing her eyes away as she turned toward the road. After a few steps, she felt the thumping of his footsteps behind her.
And now she had a new problem. Riley walked down the empty and dark street, completely amazed and enraged at herself, and wondered where the heck she was supposed to put a goliath.