He almost missed it.
"This is your duty, your quest from this moment hence: to survive, and one day bring our legacy through the ages until such time as you find others that are fit to carry on our tradition of service to those whom are in need of it.
His final command from the King, all those centuries ago. The only direct command the man had ever given him, in fact, though they had met on other occasions before it. On several memorable occasions they had hunted together, together with others of his retinue, men whose names were the stuff of legends. Of course, the storytellers had it all wrong. Many of the events and circumstances they reported were distortions of the truth or - more often - outright fabrications.
But some things, they told correctly. The King's shining city, for one. The Holy Isle, for another. The magic of it all. Oh, there had been magic! Around every corner and in the most unexpected places. Common enough that you couldn't help seeing it, not so common that it couldn't take you by surprise. In those days, he had taken pleasure in the journey between the Isle and the King's city, for it was through many leagues of wilderness and there were oft times many perils for the lone traveler. Life held challenges and adventures and marvels everywhere you looked. The struggle was real, as they said now, of course. But it was worthwhile.
It was one of the things he loved about Rhy'din, since he'd come here years ago. The city, surrounded by wilds on all sides, reminded him somewhat of the King's city from so long ago. It was similar, and yet so very different at the same time. The lands surrounding it were the same, and often he would wander them, recalling those days now lost in myth and time.
So lost was he in memories and thoughts of those days that he barely registered the tug at his senses that meant a rip in the fabric of reality had opened, and it wasn't until he heard the shrieking and gibbering of some unknown group of creatures in the near distance. More curious than concerned, he altered his path to see if he could get a look at what was going on.
When he came to the edge of the clearing, he thought he was, at first, seeing some strange pack of animals at play with their prey. It wasn't something he generally liked to watch, though he knew that, even in nature, it happened. He had very nearly turned his back on this grotesque little scene until, when one of the animals tossed the object of their focus into the air, and he'd seen that it was not animal, but human. A woman, bleeding from a number of wounds, as the five strange creatures toyed with her.
There was no pause to consider, no hesitation in his action. Action was called for, and it was what he had been made for. A shift of weight, three light steps, and he leapt into the air as she was falling back towards the quintet of beasts below, arms outstretched to catch her falling body in them, colliding with her hard in mid-air. His momentum carried them a fair distance from where she was going to fall amongst the creatures, twisting as gravity's grip drew them back to the earth's embrace to cushion her fall with his own body, coming to rest near a tree.
The gibbering of the predators reached his ears as his sapphire eyes looked the woman in his arms over. How long they had been at their play was hard to say, but it must have been some length of time, because she looked near her limit. He heard the creatures drawing nearer and knew he had little time, speaking to her softly.
"Are you still alive?"
He thought he detected the faint pulse of life from her, and there was a long moment when she didn't respond and he thought he had only felt the fading sparks remaining...until she drew a shallow, ragged and obviously painful breath. Relief flooded through him as he nodded, sighing softly.
"Wait a little longer."
He looked over his shoulder, seeing the dark, sleek forms prowling closer, their attention focused, their hissing exhortations a clear threat as they closed the distance. Carefully he moved, settling the woman against the tree, noticing the ivory-hilted dagger clutched tightly in her hand in a death grip. That, her attire, and the fact that she was still alive despite her injuries, told a story to his trained eyes. This woman was no careless damsel, some silly maid foolishly stumbling upon a pack of predators, but a woman familiar with blades and other weapons, skilled in their use, a warrior like himself. Curiosity made him wonder how she had come to be in this position, but there was no time to ponder it now.
He heard her murmur of protest as he shifted his weight to stand, felt her make a weak attempt to reach out to him, and put a hand on her shoulder to press her gently back.
He didn't wait to see if she would obey. Indeed, she was in no condition not to. Pushing himself to his feet, he stood and turned, seeing that these creatures had spread out some, and were poised to attack.
As he watched them, time seemed to slow for a moment, as it always did at times like these. Every detail stood out in sharp relief to his senses - every mote of dust shifting through the beams of moonlight filtering through the leaves of the trees overhead, every ripple of muscle under the skin of the creatures in front of him, the scents of blood and adrenaline and damp forest earth intermingling in his nostrils, the chill of the night air on his skin. The thought occurred to him that he could wipe these animals out with a thought. With the power of the Heart of Avalon at his command, it would be simplicity itself.
Even as the thought occurred to him, however, he rejected it. Such measures were unnecessary, even if they simplified things. These were merely animals, cunning beasts, and the prospect of a physical contest held its own simple, primal appeal.
A thought was all it took to summon Angelis to his hand, a scintillating shaft of light flaring from his left hand to form itself into the long, sleek, shining blade. The burst of light made the creatures flinch for a moment, drawing them into a headlong rush. All five moved as one as he shifted the sword into a defensive position, letting them come, a faint smile on his lips.
This was what he loved, this sensation. On the cusp of combat was where he found he felt the most alive, the most focused and ready. But then, it had always been so, ever since the moment he had drawn his first breath.
As they closed and leapt for him, he went into motion, leaping up into an acrobatic, twisting flip over the middle of their charging formation, the long blade swinging in a swift, silvery arc as he passed over the creature in the middle and coming down on his feet as the predators missed their marks, facing the rear of them. The beast in the middle did not land on its feet as its companions did but instead crashed in boneless heap as its head parted company from the rest of its body, tumbling awkwardly along the ground a moment. Blood dripped from Angelis as he stood there, waiting for the remaining four creatures to turn back towards him.
They did, not even heeding the fate of their fallen comrade, just immediately resumed their assault. One of them gained his footing quicker than the others and came at him, gibbering and snarling as it came, leaping for his throat when it got close enough.
He stepped to the side as it leapt, his eyes not on it but another of the sleek beasts that had recovered and was unfolding what he could now see were leathery wings folded tight against their sides, poised for a flying leap to attack from above. With a quick whiplike motion he flung Angelis at it, snapping his wrist at just the right moment to send it whickering through the night air end over end. The sleek shining blade intercepted the creature just as it leapt upward, Angelis flying straight and true, the blade impacting on the edge directly on the centerline of the animal's skull with a sound like an axe being driven into sodden wood.
The Guardian did not see this, however, for as the blade left his hand he had turned his focus to the animal leaping for his throat. The step and throw had placed him just out of the reach of the animal's jaws as it flew past, but it swiped at him with a razor-clawed foot, which raked across his chest before he could get out of the way, parting the fabric of his shirt and the flesh under it. Silvery-violet fluid leaked from the cuts for a moment before they started to close as the Heart of Avalon glimmered at his throat, healing the wound.
The pain sharpened rather than distracted his senses. In a way, it was good to know that - powerful as he had become - he could still bleed, still feel pain.
As its momentum carried it past, he reached out and caught it with both hands by a hind leg, pivoting in the same direction as he did so. The sound of light running feet behind him told him that one of the others was closing in, and so he swung the animal in his grip around that direction, using his own strength and its momentum to turn its attack against it and the one now streaking in low for his legs. The resulting collision jarred his arms but he didn't let go as the charging beast went crashing to the side, holding on as he swung the creature around on its side into a nearby tree. There were the multiple wet snapping sounds from inside it as its back and ribs splintered under the force of the impact and it screamed out a blood-curdling shriek of agony as he let it fall to the ground to writhe in torment.
Turning, he regarded the remaining two creatures, one hanging back as the other was struggling dazedly to its feet, clearly winded by the blow it had received. A new awareness seemed to have come into the former's gaze as it snarled and chattered at him threateningly, as though this man before it might not be worth continuing this contest over the woman they had been toying with.
As it continued jabbering at him, he raised his left hand, twitching his fingers in a "come on" gesture. The gesture produced twin flarings of brilliant light as Angelis vanished from the skull of the animal he had thrown it at and reappeared in his hand.
Both beasts began to circle him warily as he settled into a defensive posture once again, moving to opposite sides of him, regarding him as he turned back and forth, waiting for them to make their move.
The creatures were graceful, lithe, dark shapes around him, now fallen silent, prowling their circle around him. There was almost no indication when the attack came - these were natural, graceful predators, clearly very cunning ones.
What they couldn't know was that they were dealing with a predator themselves, one with centuries of experience, and when they came he was ready for them.
They came from in front and behind, the one in front leaping upwards in a flying leap, the one behind coming for his knees. It was an effective tactic, one that would have worked, but that it was one he knew well. A quick step to the side and a swift twist, a hard swing in low, turning to follow through as the other descended, and with a hard, perfect upward thrust, it was over.
Almost over. There was a hard, rapid, whimpering panting sound from the one he had smashed into the tree, he noticed, and he walked over to it, looking down at the animal. There was an harrowing sort of beauty to it, he saw. It was no longer thrashing at all, but letting out pained whimpers as it lay there, panting hard. Its one visible eye rolled to look at him piteously as he regarded the beast, clearly mortally wounded and suffering. He saw its eye focus on him, and it let out a lowing sort of whimper, one foreleg scrabbling meekly at the earth.
The creature couldn?t have been plainer in its meaning if it had been given the power of speech. Moving to reverse his grip on the hilt of Angelis, he placed the sleek point of the sword just behind the creature?s foreleg, finding the soft channel between ribs, and shoved downward to pierce the beast?s heart, stilling it forever.
The sword came easily as he pulled it from its bloody sheath, giving it a vigorous shake so that the blood slipped from its surface, not a droplet left behind to cling to the metal. With that he released his grip on the hilt, and with a brilliant scintillating flare of multicolored light the blade vanished.
Finally he turned, sapphire eyes searching out the treet and the figure slumped, sitting, just where he?d left her. The entire exchange had taken perhaps a few minutes, but judging by the state he?d found her in he was surprised when he reached her and found her still hanging on by a thread. Her hand had finally fallen limp, relinquishing its hold upon the ivory-hilted dagger, though only as far as her fingertips.
There was little time to consider such things, though, and he quickly reached out a hand to lay in the middle of her chest, the other coming up to touch the Heart of Avalon where it hung at his throat. The jet-black stone pulsed with sudden life, a shifting multicolored gleam of light shimmering from the faceted depths. The same glowing light ebbed out from under his hand on her chest at the same time, flowing out from this point of contact with a fluid suddenness, seeking out her wounds like a living thing.
As he directed the flow of energy from the Heart, he could feel her injuries. The creatures had certainly worked her over well, he thought, but there had to be more too it than that...unless they had been at work on her for a while longer before he came across them. More than just the shredded skin and muscles from the claws and teeth of the beats, more than just battering and bruising from being tossed around. He could sense massive internal injuries as well, and beneath it all, something else he couldn?t identify. As though she held within her some barely contained explosion of power.
Whatever it was, however, it was not something he could affect, that much was certain. He let the Heart of Avalon do its work, withdrawing his senses from this woman, watching as her wounds knitted closed, faster and faster, until not even a scar remained to tell the tale.
At long last, the shimmering light faded, and he settled back on his heels, looking her over. Though her body had healed and he could sense the pulse of life from her strongly now, healing so much at such a speed took its toll, and she would need rest. With a slight lean he reached down to her side and lifted the dagger from where it rested at her fingertips. As he did so she moaned softly, her eyelids fluttering as her hand twitched to close around the hilt that was no longer there.
Her voice was a low rasp, barely more than a whisper as she spoke the name. It wasn?t one he was familiar with. Then again, this woman was a stranger to him, as well. Not that such was a surprise - despite his being a part of the well-known Ravenlock family, he had few enough friends outside his very small circle.
?...promised...keep my word??
He frowned slightly as he listened, idly holding the knife in one hand as he waited for more, but none came. He took a moment to examine the blade he held, flipping it around to catch it by the hilt with an ease of long familiarity with such weapons. He had seen enough of them to know it was a remarkable piece, and the way she had held onto it suggested it was more than simply a weapon to her.
He took a moment to wipe it clean carefully, noting the sleek design of the blade and the carvings on the ivory hilts. Moving carefully, he repositioned her arm and slid the blade back into the empty sheath at her side, then moved to pull the cloak from over her head and shoulders, carefully shifting her weight as he did to avoid tearing it. He took a moment to settle her in a more comfortable position against the tree before covering her with her cloak, noting the hue-shifting quality of the cloth. It covered her completely from shoulders down to her feet, blending neatly against the mossy green-and-brown trunk and forest floor around her. Curious, he pulled the hood of it over her face, and as he suspected, the illusion was such that he nearly could not distinguish her sitting there, even as close as he was. He did not worry that other predators might happen upon her here - the presence of so much violent death had a way of driving the life from an area for a while - and as he stood and listened, he found that the forest was gratifyingly silent for the moment. Satisfied that the danger had passed for the time being, he set to work.