By Al Kristopher
"It's him! He's here!"
"What?! You can't be serious!"
"Run away if you value your lives!"
"What? You really WERE serious! It's him! It's Taggart of the Seven Suns!"
"Run! Hide! Get away, ye dogs!"
"Josef, come on! Get a move on! HE'S here!"
"The horses! Where are the horses?!"
"So are we if we don't run! Move-move-MOVE!!!"
Taggart of the Seven Suns smiled dryly as the camp of bandits scampered away. Obviously, in the middle of the burning desert, they had nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. The arid wasteland of the sand and sun was hardly the place to make a hasty retreat into; perhaps the bandits thought it better to die in the desert than be captured by Taggart of the Seven Suns.
None of the eight men made a move. They merely amused themselves by watching the bandits scurry, run, flee, get out--anything to avoid torture or death via the Seven Suns. Only the imperials of the Scarlet Moon Empire demonstrated such terror and fear, and perhaps the City-States up north. The Seven Suns, and their leader Taggart, merely smiled.
"Should we kill them too?" asked one of the men. Taggart's bland smile remained.
"No, let them live," he replied. "Let them live, and let them die by themselves in the desert. Here, take the others and load up your sacks. I'm going to go look for water." The man saluted and prompted his horse to lead the other six in a sacking of the bandit camp. Taggart guided his own steed to the nearby oasis, which was littered with clothes and jars, courtesy of the escaping thieves.
The Seven Suns consisted of the greatest hunters, fighters, and warriors in the land. Each one contributed great skills to the cause: Watauga's great swordsmanship, Mastaba's spying and undercover works, Compte's expert aim with the bow, Tilich's powerful strength, Breuil's massive fortune, Gallegos' agility and speed, and Zama's wisdom and strategy. Taggart, however, was their leader--a man of honor, of power, of deep respect.
Taggart took as many jugs of water as he could carry, along with several items of clothes and other essentials. The Seven Suns would soon route out more bandits and thieves, and so they needed new provisions to assist them in their journey. Although neutral in any political or military arenas, the Seven Suns would pledge eternal allegiance to anyone with enough money to throw around. Their skills were highly sought after by both Imperial and City-State powers--after all, they had single-handedly fended off two small armies of rebels and monsters.
It took a week to escape the desert, and another to reach the next destination. In the time that he had been commander, Taggart had liberated many villages and ended many unjust lives. He had no qualms about killing; the first time he had ended another man's life was when he was twenty-one, and it had been in self-defense. The Seven Suns were not cold-blooded either, but if it came down to it, they certainly knew how to fight back.
Ever since they had laid siege to the now-defunct Toran Castle, the name of the Seven Suns had become infamous. In towns and cities alike, women ran screaming into houses, men grabbed children and old folks, and even soldiers and city officials couldn't help but perspire. Being part of the Seven Suns gave the members great fear and respect.
The next destination was a large temple that had been overtaken by a group of murdering religious fanatics. Bizarre rituals and horrible acts of execution were said to take place there, and anyone who even approached the temple never returned alive. The Seven Suns were promised twelve large bags full of gold if they could kill every member of the cult and bring their heads back.
The sun was just barely peeking out from the evening sky when Mastaba rode back.
"They number fifty, no more or less," he addressed. Taggart nodded his head.
"Zama," he said, "how many does that leave for us?" Zama paused briefly and did the math in his head.
"Well, there'd be about six for each of us to kill, with only a fourth left over."
"Only six?" grumbled Watauga. "My sword is not pleased. Now I understand why we were promised such a pitiful reward."
"Then just think of this as an easy way to make some money," suggested Taggart. Watauga smiled and unsheathed his great sword. It sang in the evening sky, begging to be put to use.
"When do we start?" asked Gallegos. "Dawn?"
"Yes, dawn," said Taggart. "Most of these rituals are done at midnight anyway. If we strike then, we'll have a disadvantage. They'll be too tired to attack in the morning."
The quiet of the misty pre-dawn morning was shattered by the storming of hooves and neighing horses. Eight beasts of burden tore through the temple, knocking over lamps and alters and statues. The sleeping cult members, who had gone to bed just five hours earlier, were far too dazed to stop the animals. Some were trampled to death.
But this horrible catastrophe was merely an appetizer. No sooner had the horses stampeded through the temple did their riders take off after them, slicing and cutting at anything that was not an ally. None of the fanatics could even carry a weapon in such a confused and fatigued moment, let alone fight. In just one single hour, every member of the fanatic cult was dead or dying, and the minor problem was solved.
"Ten-thousand gold coins," observed Zama. "It's actually more than we should have gotten for such a minor job."
"The mayor of Rockland is a poor man," noted Breuil. He nodded at Taggart. "Why we even accept such easy missions is beyond me."
"They're scraping the barrel for us, men," replied their leader. "They can't find anything that'll suit our tastes. We're just too skilled for our own good." The others let out a cheer and rode off to their next destination.
"I still say that was too easy," grunted the powerful Tilich. "I mean, I'm not a smart guy like Zama, but I know an easy challenge when I see one. And that was as simple as they come."
"Clearing the mountains of bandits is usually an easy job anyway," observed Taggart. "But you're right--we just can't find anything to soothe our restless spirits anymore."
"I agree," said Compte. He sighed, and continued to ride off towards Gregminster. "Back in the day, we used to get a LOT of requests from Barbarossa, but now we're stuck with childish tasks." The other Suns remained silent; Taggart grunted.
"Hey," said Mastaba, "you guys hear about this 'Liberation Army' that just sprouted up? I hear that General Silverburg's sister is the leader." The other seven men grumbled, some laughing.
"You mean, uhh... Odessa Silverburg?" asked Tilich. Mastaba nodded his head.
"Yeah. How much you wanna bet that the Empire wants us to quell that little army?"
"I wouldn't stake too much on it," said Breuil. "If it's really that small, then they can handle it themselves."
"Agreed," said Taggart. "But still, I want you all to keep your ears and eyes open. We may still get the call."
"Gotcha, boss," said Breuil.
Their next mission made the Seven Suns smile. It was a suicide mission, one that would surely spell a grisly demise for each of the wandering warriors. Basically, they were to infiltrate the City-State of Jowsten and gain as much information as they could about King Blight's future plans: invasions, troops, provisions, opinions, etc. They would be in enemy territory, they would be heavily outnumbered, and they would probably never make it back.
In short, it made them smile.
"Special request from Emperor Barbarossa himself," addressed Taggart, showing the border guard his pass. The guard swallowed, completely intimidated by the other eight men.
"Y-yes, I s-see. W-well, it l-looks like y-you have everyth-thing in order, s-so I'm gonna l-let you p-pass." Nervously, the guard opened the gate and stepped aside, hoping that none of the eight men would notice him.
Those Jowsten pigs didn't stand a chance.
All eight members of the Seven Suns had been in Jowsten territory before; three of them called it home, and Taggart was one of them. Usually, if someone from the Empire made it inside of the City-States, they would either be arrested or killed; the Seven Suns wandered through the fields and meadows by themselves. Not even the monsters prevented them from reaching their destination.
"What a drag," grumbled Watauga. "We came all this way to bash some skulls, and all we get is a cold reception!"
"I didn't know we were that infamous," mumbled Gallegos. Mastaba laughed.
"You have no idea, do you?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"He means that even babies recognize us," said Taggart. Watauga laughed.
"Yeah. I even overheard a parrot squawking about us." The other men smiled politely. Suddenly, Compte's sensitive hearing picked up a slight rustle in the bushes. He pointed his finger at them, and weapons were unsheathed. From out of the shrubs came a creature that made a few of the men sigh in relief. There was nothing to fear from this beast.
"Just a griffin," observed Mastaba. The others sighed, cast a quick lot, and let fate decide who would do the honors. The dice fell to Gallegos, who speedily sliced the creature's chest open with two flicks of a knife. Having disposed of the creature, the eight wandering warriors galloped towards L'Reinoulle.
Deep inside enemy territory, the Seven Suns would have to rely on Mastaba's spying abilities to see them through. Like most of their other missions, they were being paid poorly for such a dangerous job: only one- hundred thousand gold coins, that would have to be split up between the eight of them. Because of his wealth, Breuil would get the least, and because of his position as leader, Taggart would get the most. Zama, a renowned mathematician, would try to split the winnings up as best he could.
Obviously, money was the most prominent thought on the warrior's minds. The severity and risk of the mission was trite; at most, they could expect to lose their pride. Only one force in the entire world had been able to defeat the Seven Suns, and that was only after many casualties had been afflicted onto the opposing side. Out of all their benefactors, Barbarossa was the one that posed the greatest mistrust; it was his five Generals that had defeated the warriors.
"Approaching Luh Reenolle," said Tilich. Taggart grunted and smiled.
"L'Reinoulle," he said, pronouncing the name perfectly. "But who cares, right? In a few seconds, King Blight is going to receive some very famous and very unwelcome guests, am I right?"
"Unwelcome, he says," snickered Compte. Taggart smiled again and picked out three of the warriors to act as the main group of spies.
"Mastaba, I want you to bring Compte and Gallegos with you. You three are the fastest and the most secretive, so I can count on you to do the dirty work. Watauga, you and Tilich will come with me. We'll barge in from the front and the sides and surround the guards while Mastaba's team floods them from within. Breuil, Zama, I want you two to come in after us and finish off the guards. I don't want to cause a ruckus--"
A great fit of laughing overcame the Seven Suns. Taggart smiled patiently.
"Seriously, though," he continued, "it's not our job to kill these people, just to spy on them. That's why I'm relying on you, Mastaba. You're going to be my number one guy for this mission, and I want everyone else to support him. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" saluted the Seven warriors. Taggart nodded his head.
"We'll take two hours to refresh ourselves," he said. "By then, most of the guards should be having dinner. We'll attack while they're eating and distract everyone while Compte and Gallegos filter out as much information as they can. Once you think you've got enough, blow your horns four times--that's four times, and that'll be the signal to retreat. I repeat: if you hear a horn being blown four times, RETREAT. That is an order. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now, let's set up camp and refresh ourselves."
Two hours passed. Those Jowsten pigs never knew what hit them.
"Torches! Bring torches!"
"Torches nothing, I'm stocking up crossbows!"
"Stock up provisions! Bar the gates! Don't want anyone else coming in!"
"Sir! Fifteen of our finest guards have been killed!"
"Sir! Reports say that it's the Seven Suns!"
"They're robbing the storehouses!"
"They're burning down the barns!"
"All our horses have been freed!"
"No! What are they up to now?" Taggart and his friends cackled madly, riding and whooping in the late night air. In the massive confusion, it appeared as if there were much more than just eight warriors scurrying about; half of the guards were too blind to even notice they were fighting their own ranks. Taggart himself had entrusted Mastaba and Tilich to handle the soldiers; he himself would pay a visit to the treasury vaults.
"Sire! Sire! We're under attack!"
"What!?" Agares Blight nearly leaped out of his throne, the burning rage building in his voice. "Alert all commands! Bring archers to the tall towers! Summon our finest warriors to this very room!"
"That's impossible, Sire! Our archers have already been killed, and nearly a tenth of the others have been slain with them!" Agares Blight growled fiercely.
"Who is it? Is it Barbarossa?"
"No, sire! Rumor has it that it's the Seven Suns!"
"IMPOSSIBLE!!" roared Blight. His son Luca glowered.
"Ah, I was wondering when they'd show up," he cackled. A mighty sword was unleashed from its scabbard. "Lucifer and I are glad to hear that--hehehehehehehe! You know, I've always wanted to test my mettle against the might of the Seven Suns--especially that Taggart! Heeheeheeheeheeheehee!!" Luca grinned viciously, cackled madly, and nearly stormed out of the room before being stopped by his father.
"Wait, Luca! I know these Seven Suns better than you do! There's a good chance that you may die!" Luca roared out in rage, nearly foaming at the mouth.
"A good chance I might die?!" he spat. He chortled heartlessly. "Hahaha--that's a good one, old man! No, no, no, I shall live--they're the ones that shall die, not I!" He cackled again, and hastily stalked out of the room. Agares Blight sighed, powerless to stop his barbaric son.
"That's the signal," noted Zama, pricking his ears up. No mistaking it--the sound of Compte's horn being sounded four times echoed across the night air. Zama grunted, hastily guiding his steed to the gate. He never got past the drawbridge.
"What's the rush?!" snarled Prince Blight, his powerful sword lit up like a torch. Zama cursed quietly and brought out his own sword.
"Out of my way, highness," he ordered. Luca Blight nearly suffocated from the laughter, and continued laughing as he rammed his blade into Zama's stomach.
"You worthless maggot!" spat Luca, gleaming joyfully. Zama grunted in pain, but managed to shove a small knife into Luca's arm before falling to the ground in a heap.
"Zama's been killed!" shouted a voice. Compte's strong sense of hearing picked up the previous statement, and his heart sank. To kill even one of the Seven Suns was no easy task; all evidence pointed to the maniacal Prince Blight, for he was possibly the only man in Jowston that could commit such a deed.
"I must avenge him," said Compte to himself. Digging his trusty crossbow from his satchel, Compte aimed the arrow straight at the evil Prince's nose. Even though the two warriors were on separate sides of the castle, Compte's eyes and aim would have killed a man miles away. Wordlessly, he pulled the trigger, sending an arrow singing into the night.
He gasped in horror as Luca Blight caught the arrow and snapped it in two. Having been spotted, Compte vaulted over the castle wall and cautiously scaled down. He was stopped short by a salvo of arrows from behind, and never lived to see another sunrise.
Watauga growled fiercely. Breuil was dead, all right, and from the looks of it, he had been killed by Luca Blight. No ordinary sword could have dug such a deep wound in Breuil's body; no, that was done by a very special blade. Watauga knew his swords well; he recognized the cut and even the depth and severity of the scarring, and matched it up to the design of a sword named Lucifer, Luca Blight's sword.
Watauga cursed silently and unsheathed his own weapon. Luca Blight was a mere ten meters away, completely unaware of the swordsman. He was chortling uncontrollably, and would never see Watauga coming. Silently, the swordsman creeped closer... closer... closer...
"You think I didn't notice you, pig?!?!" screamed Luca suddenly, ramming his blade in Watauga's stomach. The inferior swordsman collapsed, spat out blood and curses, and fell to the floor. Luca giggled viciously, dipping his hands in the blood of another foe. Suddenly, the defeated swordsman rammed his own blade into Luca's body, but only managed to slice off a small portion of his side. Luca cursed, lopped off the man's head, and cackled as he licked the blood off of his hands.
By sunrise, the entire castle was quiet. The sounds of a raid had long ago ended; the sounds of people screaming and dying might never end. Four of the Seven Suns were dead; Mastaba and Gallegos had escaped and would lead rich lives for the rest of their years, Tilich had disappeared, and Taggart...
Taggart was in prison. He would be executed in three days.
One day passed without anything to show for it, except an empty belly and a sleepless night.
Another day passed, leaving Taggart sickly and wan.
The dawn of the third day came, and Taggart received his very first visitor.
"And... this is the leader of the so-called Seven Suns?"
"Yes, he is."
"He looks pale. Have you been feeding him?"
"No, we have not. Part of the punishment."
"I see. No such thing as a final meal?"
"Not for the likes of him."
"Hm, I see. And his surviving friends?"
"Unimportant. They won't return for him."
"I see. May I speak with him?"
"Of course. He's unarmed, of course, and he's too weak to fight back."
"Thank you." One of the two men left the prison, but the second one remained. Silently, he opened the jail door and let himself inside the cell. Wordlessly, the man found a stool and sat on it, and stared at Taggart's starving body.
"Who are you?" asked Taggart weakly.
"My name is Warren," said the man, "and I'm a very important person. Let's just leave it at that, shall we? And who are you?"
"My name is Taggart, and I used to be important as well," replied Taggart. "Let's just leave it at that." Warren smiled lightly.
"Fair enough. You know, Taggart, I shouldn't say this, but that was a very brave thing you did the other night."
"Not really," replied Taggart. "I've done much bigger jobs than this. Oh, sorry, I should have told you. I'm sort of like a traveling mercenary, at least I was until today. You see, I was hired by Barbarossa to infiltrate Jowsten and ascertain whether any warlike feelings exist within the City-State. I suppose the mission was a mixed success; my other three friends are nowhere to be found, but everyone else is dead, myself included." Taggart swallowed and sat up, gazing at the other man dully. "That's why I'm telling you all this. I'm going to die very soon, so I really have nothing to lose."
A pause. Warren smiled, just barely.
"I admire your spirit," he said. "But such a spirit as yours cannot be doused so early. I realize that you were the leader of the Seven Suns, and I realize that you sold your skills to the highest bidder; still, I cannot help but admire you." He paused, only briefly, and cleared his throat. "That is why I wish to offer you a job."
"I'm kinda out of the business now," replied Taggart dryly. "The Seven Suns are no more--dead, vanished, retreated, or imprisoned like me. I'm useless now."
"Not entirely," replied Warren mysteriously. "I meant I wanted to offer you a job individually. Now, there's no way for me to bail you out of prison, but if you wish to live, I can arrange for you to become my servant. I guarantee you, it is better than death, and I have been told that I am a good master." Taggart smiled, although hardly amused, and grunted to himself.
"Just like that?" he said.
"Just like that," nodded Warren. Taggart grunted again, nearly laughing out loud.
"Of course I'll take the job," he said. "I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, I'm restless, and I'm a condemned man. I'd have to add insanity to that list if I refused your offer." Warren smiled, and the two men shook hands.
"I shall make the arrangements myself," said Warren. "Later this afternoon, I will have my escort come and release you from these bars, and you will have to come along with me. Of course, you realize that you must call me 'Master Warren' from now on, at least until you pay me back for this debt." Taggart smirked and crossed his arms.
"I knew there'd be a catch," he grunted.
And that's how it was.