'It's me… Feral.' She repeated once more.
The red glow behind the visor flickered and the arm faltered. Feral stared imploringly, her fear and tears evident on her face. The Legionnaire's arm stopped morphing and gradually begin to revert back to its original form. The hand trembled and shook in spasms. The Legionnaire turned its face, staring down at the ground. The grip around Feral's neck loosened slightly, and she couldn't help but feel relieved. All of a sudden though, it was as if the Legionnaire awoke from its reverie. It tightened its grip once again, and banged Feral's head against the tree bank, forcing her to cry out in pain. In her panic, she grabbed the Legionnaire's arm and tried to pry it off of her. At this point, Edgar attempted a desperate move of his own. He swiped at the Legionnaire's head with the butt of his Gorm. All it did was antagonize the killer. The Legionnaire spun on Edgar, drawing his arm blade.
Edgar shut his eyes tightly and waited in dreadful expectation for the blade to cleave through him. But it never came. When he dared to ease an eye open, he discovered that the blade had been stopped short, inches away from his neck. The Legionnaire's eye was flickering maddeningly.
'You have a dark secret in you, one which many will find it hard to accept.' The glow sparked fluorescent blue, briefly but strongly. The Legionnaire then tore itself away from the Imperial and Tugev, staggering backwards as it clutched at its head. 'At a moment's weakness you can harm those that you care most about. You must remain ever vigilant and never lose sight of what you believe in.' Feral and Edgar stared on in confusion, as the Legionnaire dropped to its knees and began to smash its head against the ground.
'Wha-what's going on?' Feral asked anxiously as she massaged her throat.
'I have no clue.' Edgar responded. 'But we better high tail it outta here before it remembers we're still here.'
'N-no!' Feral interjected. 'That's still Spud in there!'
'He just tried to kill you!' Edgar argued. 'Or have you forgotten that?!'
'He's not acting like himself!'
'How do you know?! This could very well be how he was meant to act!' Edgar protested.
Just then the Legionnaire stopped its self mutilation. The abrupt disruption of sound drew the worried attention of the Imperial and Tugev. The Legionnaire was on all fours, with arms taut and back rigid. His entire body was shivering with convulsions. Then, the metal skin began to peel back and retreat back into the self-opening scars. Arms and legs were first to be freed from the strange coating – clothing and skin left unharmed. Last to be released was the head, the flow of the retreating layer of metal all spreading towards the right eye. As the metal coating retracted from over his mouth, a guttural cry of anguish was in the process of escaping Spud's lips. '-!' As the remnants of the armor disappeared beneath his flesh, Spud slumped forward on to the ground panting heavily.
There was a brief pause, as the whole shock of the ordeal hung ominously between them. But Edgar's alarm and fear gradually dispersed, and all that remained was his memory and a growing rage.
'You son-of-a-bitch!' Edgar shouted and marched upon the downed man. 'You're a Legionnaire and you didn't tell me?!' Seeing the rage in the Imperial's eyes, Feral darted forward and put herself between him and the Confederate. She braced her paws against Edgar's chest and struggled to keep him back.
'Edgar please!' Feral cried out.
'Please?!' Edgar fumed. 'This bastard massacred my entire unit! Shred them into ribbons!' He glared at Spud who was struggling to push himself off the ground. 'I ought to gut him now before he turns back and finishes the job!'
'I- I didn't k-know.' Spud answered weakly. He glanced over to Edgar with sadness clouding his eyes. 'I h-had no idea.'
'Do you seriously think that's a justifiable excuse?!' Edgar aimed an accusing finger at Spud as he added, 'You and your kind are a blight! You murder everything that moves! Men, women, children – everything!'
'Edgar enough!' Feral shouted.
'After what he almost did to you, you would still side with him?!' Edgar exclaimed irately. 'Bah! I can't deal with either of you now! I'm heading back, I suggest you leave that bastard behind.' Edgar stormed away, while Feral hesitated before taking any action. She glanced towards Spud anxiously. His body was quivering and his bruised face looked pained. Tears clouded his eyes, and all he could do to hide them was wipe them away with a muddied hand. She then surveyed the scene around them, her anxiety growing worse as time passed. The smell of blood was strong and haunting. She could have very well ended up as one of the victims, but she had not. What was she to make of this reprieve? Was Edgar right? Would Spud continue where he left off another day? The thought sent a shiver rolling through her spine. The possibility was there, and she couldn't deny that it scared her.
'S-spud?' She hesitantly called out.
'Go.' Spud ordered morosely.
'Just go!' Spud repeated. 'I'll follow… if I want to…'
Feral reluctantly obeyed, glancing back towards him for a brief moment before disappearing into the woods.
* * *
The trek back was laborious and depressing in nature. Birds perched in the trees above seemed to mourn the heroes' burdens, as they made their way back. Ahead, the Tugev settlement was already amidst celebrations, but for the three it all seemed hollow and meaningless. The three had, without a doubt, gained a victory but the loss was far too great – the loss of innocence; and it was all centered around one person.
Spud had decided to head back with the others, though he kept his distance from them. He had considered staying behind, but he had no clue where he would go. Though his friends had every reason to loathe him, he needed them. He only hoped that time would heal the grave wound that their discovery inflicted.
One by one they entered the village, greeted by a roar of applause and cheer and yet their plight, the shadow hanging heavily over them, went unnoticed. The hunting party was present, at the front of the crowd. They stood tall and proud, with their right paw across their chest. Sorran stepped forward, clapping triumphantly. 'You did it!' He bellowed approvingly. 'By the Ancient Spirits, you did it!'
'Whatever.' Edgar muttered as he walked past him towards his tent.
It was the first sign that something amiss had transpired, and it stunned the Tugev irrevocably. They stared aghast, eyes focused on the Imperial's back and their pack leader's stunned expression. He then turned to his approaching daughter, who too was clouded by a sullen mood. 'Child, what has happened?' He asked nervously.
'I don't want to talk about it.' She replied and kept on walking towards her own home. This caused murmurs to sweep amongst the Tugev. Fears and speculations ran wild, growing into an unbearable crescendo. Feral's father stabbed his arm straight up into the air, silencing them abruptly. His people then realized his stern gaze was transfixed ahead. Across from him, on the outskirts of the settlement, was Spud. He was standing still, his arms hanging limply by his side, and his head was bowed low.
Sorran motioned his people to stay behind and return to their duties while he approached the Confederate. His face was stern and hid his suspicions. If all three had returned a casualty was out of the question. Since Spud had kept his distance it left one possibility. 'What happened Grey One?' Feral's father asked.
Spud did not meet his eyes. He did not wish to see the rage in the Tugev leader's eyes once he revealed what was wrong. 'I am a Legionnaire…' He said softly, the truth of it bringing shame to his heart.
Sorran murmured something before replying, 'So you discovered the truth. I hoped you'd learn much later.' Spud shot him an alarmed look. Feral's father wasn't angry. Neither did he look concerned. Instead there was a sympathetic expression on his face.
'Y-you knew?!' Spud gasped. 'And you didn't warn me?!' Rage started to build due to the deception. His heart pounded in his ears and his hands clenched into fists.
'To what effect?' Feral's father replied calmly. 'You needed to learn this on your own.'
'I almost murdered your daughter!' Spud yelled. Raising his voice at the pack leader was what one would have considered a bad idea. Though the Tugev could not understand the language, they knew very well from the tone that it was no way to speak to a man in power. While some shuddered and ever stared at the scene, the male Tugevs grabbed their weapons and approached cautiously yet quickly. Sorran, having expected as such, raised his paw and instructed them back.
'But you didn't.' He replied calmly as he lowered his arm.
Spud gave him a blank look before exploding with anger. 'Don't you understand what almost happened?! I could have killed your daughter! I murdered four men and almost killed my friends alongside them!' His anger sent his blood pumping and with it his skin began to split. The Tugev backed away as they watched this happen. They didn't understand but they knew full well it wasn't good.
'And I say again.' Sorran calmly replied, 'Could have but you didn't. What does that tell you?'
Spud was momentarily confused by the question which allowed him a moment of calm. The splits all across his body hesitated, the silver liquid waiting tentatively to spread out and take over.
'I ask you this, and I wish you to ponder on it delicately.' Sorran continued. 'Who is the stronger? You or it?'
Spud glanced at his hands. He had relaxed them though he could not remember when. He was of two minds – a little more accurately than he would have ever imagined previously. Every fiber in him warned him that the foul entity residing in his body was the stronger. Its strength was unparalleled, as was its passion for senseless murder. The mere thought of this provoked a brooding fear that festered in the base of his heart. Sorran sensed Spud's growing unease and put a paw on his shoulder. 'Could have.' He repeated.
Could have. The words echoed in Spud's mind. His eyes then grew wide. Could have! He had stopped it from happening! It was his own will power that prevented the Legionnaire – or whatever it was inside his body – from continuing in its attack. He glanced at Feral's father in astonishment. 'I… I stopped it from happening…' He stuttered.
Feral's father clapped him on the back proudly, almost causing Spud to stumble forward. 'That's it Grey One. You and nothing else.' He responded. 'We all have a little evil that lurks within us. In your case it can manifest itself in our physical world.' Spud cringed at the thought. 'However all evil can be subjugated for a greater purpose.' Sorran started to lead the Confederate back into the village. Witnessing that there was no longer any high tensions between the two, the Tugev eagerly awaited their return.
'Thank you for your words.' Spud said. 'I will hold them close.' A sullen expression grew on his face. 'Now,' Spud continued, 'I have to resolve the damage that's already been caused.'
'Give them time.' Sorran responded.
'I worry for your daughter.' Spud said. 'She was quick to defend me in Edgar's presence but I know she fears me – now more than ever.'
'I will talk with her.'
'Thank you.' Feral's Father walked into the village barely taking a few steps before Spud spoke up again. 'How is it you knew of the Legionnaire within me?'
Sorran smirked as he turned towards the Confederate. 'The Ancient Spirits told me.' He replied and gave him a wink. Had it been earlier, the gesture would have surely riled Spud up once again. However, this time, he laughed. 'Count your blessings Grey One.' Sorran continued, which brought a serious expression to Spud's face. 'Your amnesia has given you your humanity and an upper hand against the plight that struggles within you. Count them day by day and never forget.' Sorran finished with a warm smile on his face. 'Now, we must prepare for tonight's celebrations!' He roared and pounded his chest proudly. Several male Tugev responded with their own roar and chest pounding.
Spud, seeing the infectious gesture spread through the Njeshёve, was compelled to join in. He roared hoarsely, equivalent to a kitten with a sore throat and pounded his chest flatly. For a brief spell, there was silence as the Tugev stared blankly at him and Spud gazed back in sheepish embarrassment. Then, as a rolling tide, they broke into laughter – male and female. Several of the male approached him proudly and lifted the Confederate onto their shoulders. This was unexpected for Spud and left him feeling awkward as they carried him into the village. He glanced over his shoulder towards Sorran who was following behind. Feral's Father smiled at him and gestured to him to enjoy. It wasn't easy, but Spud tried. Fighting the anxiety and awkwardness within him, he waved at the gathering Tugev who cheered loudly. He wondered if they were aware of the truth that lurked within him or if they forgot what his uniform once stood for. They didn't seem to care.
But there was at least one person that did. Or at least was conflicted in whether he did or not. Edgar watched as Spud was carried around the village as a hero of some great crusade. A part of him was disgusted and felt tempted to put an end to the merriment. But there was that small part that held him back. He blamed the photo that he kept tucked in his glove. 'A Legionnaire.' Edgar muttered. 'I know what I said about him before but now I'm not so ready to accept it anymore.' He grumbled and instinctively formed a fist. 'I've witnessed what he is capable of. As the Legionnaire he has no restraint; no compassion and no mercy.' Edgar pulled the photo from his glove and glanced at it, sighing in the process. 'But you would tell me that was then and this is now.' Edgar said morosely. 'You would point out to me that he destroyed my expectations when he spared me and the Tugev.' The Imperial put the photo back and took a deep breath. 'Even though we're no longer together you still manage to be right all the time. Damn your wisdom.' He added with a wry laugh.
* * *
From cracks in the straw and bark walls, fading sunlight crept into the small hut that was reserved to the royal daughter. Feral sat on her stool gazing into her mirror. Every now and then she attempted to arrange her hair, but shortly gave up on the endeavor. There was sadness in her eyes, and seeing it in the reflection broke her concentration. She was just about ready to give up altogether and head outside when suddenly more light flooded inside her room. She turned round sharply and scowled as her father entered.
'Bfebifiruast ife inlatr feivy' He said.
Feral turned away and made a harder effort to focus on her hair. 'Why should I care?' She replied.
'I see you insist in using the human tongue.' Her father sighed. He approached her from behind, and stood squarely in line with her. From the reflection, it gave the impression he towered over her. For a second it shook Feral's nerves. 'Though you do not feel strongly about our heritage, our people do. It does not look well upon our family for a royal member to shun tradition.'
'Tradition.' Feral scoffed. 'I am my own person but you insist on forcing me to obey a dying culture.'
Her father slammed his fist on to the table, startling Feral. 'This is your people you speak foully about!' He roared indignantly. 'You have a duty as a member of the royal line to preserve and respect the culture of the Tugev.' Her father's anger then subsided a little and he conceded, 'Though an element of change is welcome.'
'But not where it matters most.' Feral protested.
'Our people are not ready for it. They expect this of us.'
'No.' Feral said crossly. 'The celebration for the return of the hunters is expected. The Joining Ritual is only expected of me – and I do not accept it.'
'You have little choice in the matter my child.' Her father responded solemnly. 'We have delayed it longer than expected. You were meant to partake the ritual when you came of age, but instead I granted you permission to head out into the world and learn.'
'And I have learnt, and there is more to learn.' Feral replied. 'Forcing me to wed a male who I barely know, just because the Ancient Spirits deem it so, is unfair.'
'The decision is out of my hands.' Her father replied sternly. 'The ritual will proceed tonight whether you attend or not.' He made to leave, pausing briefly at the entrance. 'Maybe once you inherit the clan, you can forego the rituals and lead the people into an enlightened age.' Feral shuddered at the severity in her father's tone. It saddened her but she tried desperately to maintain her serious expression. It held out up until her father left the hut, where she then folded her arms on the table and buried her tearful face in them.
* * *
The moon was full and hung beautifully out over the Tugev settlement, as if its interest had been piqued by the festivities below. The music was in full swing and the food was steaming. An intoxicating aroma permeated the atmosphere, making the weak-willed swoon with the delectable smell. Spud's stomach was grumbling in high expectation. If it were any louder the hunters would have surely assumed it to be some wild beast that stumbled into their home. Thankfully, everyone was too busy with the banquet to really give him or his stomach any notice.
The atmosphere was charged with a different kind of thrill. It was different from the night before, more noticeably amongst the males. While the woman went about preparing the banquet as if there was no difference than this night from the last, (bar a few of the younger female Tugev who talked excitedly about something or other) the males seemed especially more groomed and well mannered. Some even displayed feats of strength or speed and contested other males against their prowess. Spud couldn't understand this. Was it normal for them to behave like this? All they had done was rescue some of their people from the Confederacy. Then again, they did truly fear the Ranorans. Maybe it was natural.
Just then, to Spud absolute surprise, Edgar sat down in an empty space beside him. To further his surprise, Edgar even went as far as asking, 'How're you doing kid?'
At first, Spud simply stared blankly before replying. 'Fine… Uh… I didn't think you'd want to be anywhere near me in light of what happened today.'
Edgar glanced at him, his face firm. 'I'm going to be straight with you. I don't like the fact that you are a Legionnaire.'
'But Mr. Carter-' Spud attempted to say.
'Let me finish.' Edgar interrupted with his hand raised. 'I am also aware you had no knowledge of this at the time. Though you were the Legionnaire you did pull your swing.' Edgar then smiled. 'Got to admit, I do like having my head attached to my shoulders.' Edgar put out his hand. 'Friends?' Spud stared at it in shock before registering the gesture. Instead of taking him by the hand, Spud hugged the bewildered Imperial. 'Alright, get off!' Edgar said sternly. 'This is the sort of thing that gets people killed!'
Spud backed away smiling; an expression reflected on Edgar's face. The following moment, a thought came upon Spud, one that showed on his face. 'I just remembered!' He exclaimed – a statement that put Edgar on edge. Spud reached into his pockets and revealed the notes and maps he lifted from the Ranoran camp. 'I came across these. Not sure what to make of them.' Spud said as he handed the items to the curious Imperial.
Edgar glanced them over, his face revealing he understood very little of what he held in his hands. 'I will have to go over these in greater detail tonight.' He replied as he pocketed the notes into his glove.