Chapter 12: Not Even Once

It had only taken them two days to venture deep enough into the forest to reach Elias's camp. The way out proved to take much longer. Due to the size of Elias's force, which Doglyn estimated was equivalent to any lord of the land's, the march to Alonzo had taken three days already, and they had yet to leave the forest. It was difficult for the army to advance together through the woods, though the mounts they had seemed to help. Many of Elias's soldiers rode beasts that resembled horses but for the fact that they sported a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and paws instead of hooves.

Throughout the march, Doglyn, Duke Patrick, and TJ had been confined to what was essentially a cage born through the forest by two of Elias's beasts. Thanks to the magic of the monk Teddison, the cage floated across the ground with no means of support, preventing it from getting caught up in the brush and roots that littered the forest floor. Other than a daily visit from the jailor to bring the captives food, they had no real contact with Elias's men. The soldiers that passed by the cage kept their eyes averted and stopped speaking as soon as they were within earshot of the prisoners. Most of the time, however, the soldiers steered clear of them. Even the two guards posted on either side of the cage, who were either deaf or did a wonderful job of pretending to be, refusing to respond to both Doglyn's hails and Duke Patrick's taunts.

As far as Doglyn was concerned, the less oversight the better, and the captives had made good use of it. In whispered voices throughout their trek back out of the forest, Doglyn and the Duke had laid out a plan for escape. The plan had been hatched the first day on the march, but Duke Patrick suggested they wait until they were close to the forest's edge before acting, thus making it easier to escape back to Alonzo and warn Zaloba and the others before Elias's army arrived. Doglyn had waited impatiently for days, and finally the time to act had come. The trees had thinned, and the sky had become visible in flashes through the canopy, which meant that the army was nearing the forest's edge.

Around mid-day, the jailor came with their daily allotment of food. As the man approached Doglyn looked at Duke Patrick, who nodded almost imperceptibly. As the jailor reached into the cage to pass the food through the bars, Patrick grabbed the man's wrist and pulled. The man pitched forward and slammed into the bars, where Duke Patrick kept him pinned while pulling out a small blade Elias's troops had failed to relieve him of. The jailor shrieked in alarm, and the guards on either side of the cage reached for their swords.

Patrick shook his head at them. "Don't. I'll cut his throat if you make one wrong move," he said nodding to the jailor.

Doglyn shuffled over to where the Duke had the man pinned and reached through the bars, relieving the jailor of his keys. It took a bit of concentration, but he was able to reach around the bars and unlock the cage from the inside. As soon as the door unlocked, Doglyn sprang out of the cage and onto the nearest guard. He knocked the man out with one well-placed punch, then grabbed the guard's sword off his belt. He turned toward the other guard and found the man running through the forest, no doubt hoping to warn Elias. Doglyn threw the sword at the guard, but to his surprise, the blade missed its intended mark and lodged itself in a tree trunk. I must be off from being cramped in that cage.

The guard continued running, but Doglyn supposed it didn't really matter very much whether or not Elias knew he had escaped the cage. Escaping the army was Duke Patrick's job, Doglyn's task was much more straightforward: eliminate Elias. Doglyn looked back at his companion, who had knocked out the jailor and was stepping out of the cage. The two beast-horses continued bearing the prison through the forest, oblivious that its occupants had escaped. Patrick nodded to Doglyn. They both knew the plan, there were no need for parting words. Doglyn turned and followed the guard, retrieving his borrowed sword along the way. Duke Patrick slung the still-unconscious Technician TJ over his shoulders and set off in the direction the cage had been traveling, hoping to sneak past the army and warn Alonzo of the impending invasion.

As Doglyn followed the guard, he attempted to minimize the amount of noise he was making. Apparently the cage had been kept well away from the bulk of the army, because Doglyn didn't see a single soldier as he moved through the woods, something that struck him as odd since there were usually at least a few within sight of the cage. Doglyn decided not to linger on it and simply thank Willdog for his luck instead. As he ran he began to feel more winded than usual. The cage must have taken a harder toll on him than he had thought. Once he wasn't careful where he stepped and he tripped over a tree root. He fell to the ground rather ungracefully for someone who was essentially a demi-god. What the HFIL is wrong with me? Doglyn knew he would have little chance of succeeding at his mission if his newly-found lack of coordination continued into the fight that was to come, but he had confidence that as soon as his blade met another he would shake off any rust the cage might have forced him to gather.

Doglyn shook himself off and set off once again after the guard. By now the man was out of his sight, but he had left a very obvious trail through the forest, and he had been running in a straight line the entire time anyway. Doglyn proceeded cautiously for a few minutes. He still hadn't seen any other soldiers, and just when he was beginning to once again question the fact, he found out why. He ducked under a particularly thick branch and found himself in a clearing. At the far of the clearing was what could only be Elias's personal litter, as the Evil Lord himself was currently lounging on it with a cluster of grapes in one hand and a thoughtful expression on his face. Between Elias and Doglyn stood at least a hundred soldiers. As soon as he ducked into the clearing they all drew their weapons and stared at him; they had clearly been waiting for him.

Elias himself turned to look at the intruder before hopping off the litter with a smile on his face. He spread his arms wide and walked towards Doglyn. The soldiers in the clearing parted as he approached, the grapes still in his hand. He stopped when he reached the front of the ranks, ten meters away from Doglyn. "So glad you could finally join us!" Elias proclaimed before popping a grape into his mouth. "Though you're a bit later than I expected. Have some trouble escaping?"

Doglyn scoffed. "Hardly. Just biding our time."

"Our?" Elias asked thoughtfully. "Ah yes, I had almost forgotten about Duke Patrick. He is no doubt making his way towards Alonzo as we speak, but don't worry, he will be dealt with."

Doglyn didn't like the ominous tone Elias spoke with, but he pushed his concern for Patrick to the back of his mind. The Duke was more than capable of handling himself, and Doglyn couldn't afford to be distracted at the moment. He turned his attention back towards Elias. "So your plan was... to let me escape and then have me fight your entire army?" he asked, gesturing towards the soldiers behind the Evil Lord.

Elias shook his head, "Wrong and wrong again. The plan was to let you escape-"

"Why?" Doglyn butted in. "Do you seriously expect me to believe you would willingly let me get away?"

Elias looked annoyed at having been interrupted, but answered the question anyway. "First of all, you were never in any danger of escaping the forest. Sure, we let you dance around outside your cage while we watched, but we would never have let you leave the forest. Second, the reason you were allowed to escape was to prove a point."

"Which is?"

"That I can beat you," Elias said with a smile.

"By siccing your army on me? Hardly beating me." Doglyn countered.

"Incorrect once again!" Elias exclaimed. "For one, this isn't anywhere close to the full strength of my army. For another, they're just here to watch. I am a glutton for an audience."

Doglyn laughed. "You actually believe that you can best me in combat?"

A dangerous glint came to Elias's eyes. "I'm certain of it."

"Then enough talk!" Doglyn shouted, lunging at Elias with an overhead slash that would have cleaved the other man in two."

Elias spun away from the blow and ripped his sword from its scabbard. He came at Doglyn with a low-to-high strike that Doglyn caught with his own sword before returning the favor with another slash. The two exchanged blows, with Elias taking a defensive posture and forcing Doglyn to come after him. Despite Doglyn's confidence that he was the superior swordsman, he couldn't seem to get through Elias's guard. In fact, his swings felt sluggish, and he began to get winded only a short time into the duel. Finally, Elias dodged one of his blows, and Doglyn was unable to stop his sword in time. He stumbled forward and fell to one knee. He tried to whip his sword around to block what would surely be Elias's counterattack, but none came. Instead, Elias was standing ten feet away with a smirk on his face. "Having trouble?" he taunted.

That was when it dawned on Doglyn what was happening. He tried to stand but found that his legs were far weaker than they ought to be. In fact, nothing seemed to be right about the way he felt. His vision was swimming, and he could barely lift his sword. He planted his hands on the ground in attempt to remain upright. "What... did you do to me?" Doglyn choked out, noticing that his speech was slurred as well.

"Dear, general," Elias said shaking his head sadly, "you really ought to know not to eat anything your enemy gives you. Especially if you didn't see it prepared."

Doglyn's mind flashed back to the meals that had been provided thrice a day for he and the Duke whilst they were in the cage. The bastard drugged us. That's why he was so confident. Doglyn realized that he must not have felt the effects until his heart rate had elevated, allowing the drug to circulate through his blood. He felt his anger rising, but his mind was so fuzzy that he could barely bite out a curse. "Shon of a-" Doglyn slurred.

"There there," Elias interrupted. "It will all be over in a moment," he said, walking over to his opponent.

Doglyn looked up just in time to see Elias's sword swinging towards his head...