Chapter 3: It’s a Long, Long Way

OK! I have now officially run out of buffer, so updates will be very slow and random.

As Lesus predicted, Grisia did indeed end up with a massive hangover. He also ended up with a visit from his teacher, a reprimand from the same, and an order from the doctor not to get out of bed.
 As soon as the bells rang out for Sices, Lesus snuck into the “warm, good” faction’s quarters and into Grisia’s room, where the future Sun Knight lay bandaged like a mummy.
 “How are you going to get your things packed now?...” Lesus gently put a plate of cookies by Grisia’s bed, and the future Sun Knight turned to sniff them. “Echilan made these for you once he found out what happened.”
 “Tell him I said thanks,” Grisia said, or at least he tried to say it; the poor boy was so badly battered that he had trouble speaking. Lesus frowned.
 “Grisia, are you quite sure you’re all right?...Speak slowly.”
 “...I’ve been worse off.”
 “Do you need any help?”
 “I’ll be fine.”
 “No, really, do you need any help?”
 “For the love of the Light God, Lesus, are you my mother or something?”
 “...As you will.” Lesus turned away, leaving the cookies with Grisia. Just as he was about to close the door, he looked back at Grisia’s trunk. It was half-open and overflowing with clothes, dried food, boiled sweets and...hey, was that porn?
 “Grisia, what am I going to do with you?” Lesus sighed as he left.

 In the end, Grisia did manage to rouse himself from the bed sans bandages; he managed to make the body mask mixture and preservative, he managed to pack his clothes, and he even managed to neaten his luggage up somewhat!
 Meanwhile, the carriages were waiting outside, and teachers and students alike were loading their trunks on. Even though nobody wanted to admit it, they all looked like a family of sorts. But that family was missing someone...
 “Where’s Grisia?” asked Neo, tapping his foot impatiently.
 Lesus sighed and looked down. Judging by the state of his luggage, he knew a thing or two Grisia was likely up to...
 “Sir Sun Knight,” he began, “I should set out and find him, to bring to his attention the harshness of the God of Light.”
 “Eh, no need for that now!” Neo snapped.
 “Hey, wait up!” said Chikus. “Why are you going over to help him?! That’s my job!”
 “Chikus, please, I...” Lesus started, but then tailed off, a distinct blush rising on his cheeks. It would be very embarrassing if anyone else saw Grisia in that position...
 “B-b-b-but S-Sun’s my best friend,” stuttered Georgo. “I should b-be helping him at a time like this.” He’d caught on to the apprentice Judgement Knight’s expression, and there was no way he was going to pass up a chance to humiliate his enemy.
 You bastard, thought Lesus.
 Neo pasted a wide, rather smug smile on his face. “Chikus, Georgo, go and find Grisia.”
 “Yes, sir!” Chikus enthusiastically saluted him and ran off towards Grisia’s quarters. Georgo followed, smirking slyly.

 “Mnnh!” Grisia grunted, as Chikus and Georgo opened the door.
 “Grisia, how much stuff have you got there?” Chikus asked.
 “Oh...huh, what?!” Grisia snapped forward to look at the two boys, evidently slightly shocked that someone had walked in on him.
 “You’re having trouble closing that trunk, aren’t you?” Georgo remarked.
 “Oh, no, I can do it myself,” said Grisia, straining to fasten one of the flaps. With a mighty effort, he just about managed, only to have the fastening pop out a second later.
 Georgo raised an eyebrow.
 “Hey, Georgo, if you go sit on the trunk while Grisia and I fasten the flaps, we can get it done,” Chikus half-yelled, squatting down to help the future Sun Knight.
 “Ah, b-but d-don’t Grisia’s things need repacking?” Georgo brushed his fingers down the blonde boy’s trunk. “Like this shouldn’t be there...” He began to pull out Grisia’s things.
 “No, it’s all fine,” Grisia insisted, shoving them back in roughly and slapping Georgo’s hand away, something that earned him a death glare. “I really don’t need help packing, just getting it fastened. Chikus is right.”
 Georgo glowered as he threw himself down on the trunk with more force than was really necessary.
 “Shit, it’s almost Tierce!” exclaimed Chikus. “We should get going.” And with that said, he threw himself into the work, Grisia following slowly behind.

 All the same, they only just made it to the carriages as the last bell for Tierce was ringing out. Neo’s glares were almost enough to kill them, although he smiled brilliantly.
 “Damn it,” he whispered to Chasel through gritted teeth, “they almost made the rest of us late!”
 “ know this is why people leave margins for error when they plan things, right?”
 Everything was dropped, however, as the Pope came towards them in a billow of clerical robes, carrying his staff of office.
 “I assume everything is ready?” he said, his voice dangerously sweet. Neo nodded coldly and gestured towards a richly decorated carriage.
 Grisia nudged Chikus – well, it was more like he elbowed Chikus in the ribs, but he did it gracefully. “Why is the Pope coming with us?”
 Chikus shrugged. “Maybe our teachers think we’re too rowdy, so they’re taking an extra person along with them?”
 “And what’s an old man like the Pope going to do? Restrain us with his holy papal powers?”
 Chikus couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, maybe. It would be funny to see.”
 Neo clapped his hands. “Get in the carriages! It’s time to go.”
 So of course the Pope took the most comfortable and expensive carriage first. Then Neo, never one to forgo luxury, hopped into the second most expensive carriage and spread his legs over the seat to stop anyone else from getting in. With much shooting of dirty looks, Vaign, Teppe, Elmyr and Tyron climbed into a carriage, as did Chasel, Islé and Arimell – who didn’t really seem to mind sharing. At last only Phoebus, Hermis and Nuvol were left: while Hermis was shooting death glares at his two coach buddies, Phoebus was too busy looking out of the window, and Nuvol was silently hugging a crate of wine.
 “No wonder he’s got the wine,” Chikus whispered loudly, pointing at Nuvol. “A life like this would be enough to turn anyone to drink.”
 “Not so loud!” Grisia said. “Anyway, let’s get on the carriages.”
 He surveyed his options. Lesus was already being dragged away by Laica, so there was no point coming along with them. He didn’t really know Vival and Aivis, who were anyway absorbed in their conversation, and there was no chance that he was going along with Georgo or even Ceo, who would be absorbed in paperwork. Elmairy was genuinely nice, but he was going along trying to keep Demos company while the little Cloud Knight was huddled in a corner...
 “Chikus, Echilan, are you coming?” he called. “Hurry up, otherwise we won’t get a good seat.”
 Chikus tore off to catch up with the blonde boy, while Echilan strode behind. Grisia practically threw himself into the carriage and was promptly crushed by Chikus, who wrapped his arms fiercely around him.
 “Get off me!” Grisia growled in a rather inelegant manner. “Are you gay or something?”
 “...” Echilan, sitting ramrod straight in his seat, was giving both the other boys an unusually chilly glare, even for the Ice Knight-to-be.

 The coach-driver cracked his whip; the horses began to clop-clop on their way, and the carriages started to move in a long convoy, Neo’s carriage in the lead. Grisia and Echilan were half-leaning out of the windows, looking at the wide-paved streets of Leaf Bud City, while Chikus was desperately trying to pull the curtains across.
 “These are holy carriages,” he said, “and our teachers will kill us if anyone sees we’re goofing around!”
 “Eh,” yawned Grisia, “it’s a holiday. Even if we’re still holy knight-apprentices on holiday, we get a break, right?”
 “We get a break if we don’t get caught having a break, OK?” Echilan was still staring blankly out of the window. All of a sudden, his expression seemed to change: he seemed boyish, more alive, even smiling. “That’s my dad’s bakery,” he said, pointing with one skinny arm towards a squat, delicious-smelling building.
 “It smells amazing in there,” said Grisia wistfully.
 “Yeah, it does,” Chikus agreed. “Hey, Echilan, if we go in there, can we get discounts?”
 “Do I look like I could get you one?” said Echilan, pretending to be affronted.
 “Of course!” Chikus was grinning widely. “What else are friends for?”
 “...” Echilan would never admit it, but he liked it when Chikus and Grisia acted like idiots. It gave him a chance to loosen up and take a break from being the stern, expressionless Ice Knight. And right now, he couldn’t help but smile.

 Soon they passed the great creaking gates of the city, and almost immediately the boys were thrown by the two twin stenches of rotting flesh and sewage, pungent reminders of the king’s power and the poverty in the city. They did what any normal, not particularly bright teenage boys would do and tried to shut the memories out of their heads as the scenery changed from city to country. The smell of fields and farms filtered into the hot, dark carriage, making them pinch their noses to block it out, and the roads became bumpy and poorly-paved sooner than they would have liked, throwing them around like rag dolls inside a curtained little box.
 Finally the carriages abruptly swerved, throwing the boys around even more, and pulled over into a fairly small strip of land which was clear of trees and undergrowth. From outside they could hear their teachers swearing, cursing and muttering, but at last Neo called them to get out of the carriages; sick of the summer heat, the boys would have jumped out with joy were they not sweating, exhausted and suffering from more than a little nausea. They trooped down on shaky legs to lean by the trees and sit in the shade.
 “Some idiot’s let a tree be felled in the middle of the fucking road!” Vaign growled, half-spitting with anger.
 “Calm down,” purred Teppe – he was the kind of person accustomed to purring – as he massaged Vaign’s shoulders. “We’ll find our way around it.”
 “Agreed,” said Neo. “The woods aren’t too bad around here; we’ll be able to fit the carriages through and we can keep on way was it again?”
 “South-east,” sighed Chasel. “We should have been going south-east. Which reminds me...why did we leave the city through the Western Gate?”
 “Oh, it just seemed the quickest route to take,” shrugged Neo. “And besides, I didn’t know.”
 “You didn’t know?! How long have you lived in this city for?!”
 “There were no signposts!” Neo protested.
 “There are no signposts anyway! You’re supposed to know where you’re going!” Teppe pointed out.
 “Yeah, and it wasn’t particularly quick considering it took us over half an hour to get out of the city,” Hermis butted in.
 “Brother Metal.” Neo’s tone grew cold. “I am the leader of the Twelve Holy Knights and if I say it’s the quickest way out, it’s the quickest way out. Understand?”
 “...” Hermis just glowered, but didn’t dare go against the Sun Knight.
 “What about bandits, though?” Elmyr asked. “And highwaymen and dark elves...”
 “What have I said before?” Neo waved his hand away. “I’m the strongest Sun Knight in history. These things don’t bother me. Now, we should get back into the carriages and continue on through the woods!”
 Arguing with a Sun Knight was unheard of, not to mention impossible, even if the Sun Knight were to make an...ahem...questionable decision. Especially if the Sun Knight were to make a questionable decision. With sanguine demeanour, he led the convoy on into the woods, away from the stifling heat of the sun, but also away from roads, signage and anything resembling safety. The carriages bumped along unpleasantly, but they did so regularly enough that the boys, exhausted by the heat, could peacefully fall asleep on the carriage floors.
 Normally, the squeaks of the wheels and the snapping of the twigs were loud enough to drown out most other noise; although it wasn’t impossible to hold a conversation, it was fairly difficult and it was irritating to try. Thus most of the time, the boys lay on the carriage floor (for there was more space), sometimes looking up to see the sunlight filter through the curtains, but most of the time trying to get some sleep.
 The carriages were juddering to a halt now, now stopping, now starting, the horses neighing in fear and the coach-drivers using every ounce of will to restrain them. Harsh voices rang through the trees, rousing Grisia, Chikus and Echilan.
 “Get them!” someone was yelling. “I’ll try and trash the carriages first.”
 It can’t be said that, even without the proper implements, the outlaws weren’t methodical in hacking and slashing at whatever got in their way. Twigs and trees fell without discrimination; the finely carved ornamentation on the coaches was destroyed by anything with a sharp edge. The teachers were pouring out of the ruined carriages, swords and shields to hand, and desperately trying to put up a fight against ten times their number or more. Everywhere you looked, blood and guts covered the woods in shades of red and brown.
 In one of the other carriages, Lesus was retching for all he was worth; Chikus was looking unusually pale, and even Echilan allowed himself to look worried. Grisia, too, looked quite unsettled as he peered at the scene in morbid fascination.
 “Even the Pope’s joining in,” he breathed. “This really can’t be good.”
 “Yeah, and outlaw gangs aren’t normally this big,” said Chikus, more quietly than usual.
 None of the holy knights were weaklings; Teppe and Nuvol could move with astonishing swiftness, and Neo was a force of nature. But they were twelve grown men against almost a hundred and fifty, fighting in unfamiliar territory. Their violence caused more problems than it solved, setting trees on fire and flinging them around like they were no more than hairpins. At last a burning log lodged itself in the carriage Grisia, Chikus and Echilan shared, and too scared to think properly, Chikus grabbed his coach buddies by the wrist and hurled them out onto the broken twigs below.
 It wasn’t the most comfortable landing, nor was it the coolest: the heat from the burning log, and now from the carriage too, was practically roasting the boys. They were only slightly more sure of their lives, and Echilan began to look for cover. A terrified Grisia froze the carriage and the surrounding area, putting out the fire but making Chikus slip as he ran to join in the fight. The distinct cries of grown men floated over from beyond the carriage as they slipped on the ice, and chills of fear gripped Grisia as he recognised Neo’s cries, then Chasel’s.
 “I’m going into the fight!” yelled Chikus, his voice shaking with ill-concealed fear.
 Grisia clutched his arm. “You’ll die! If our teachers are having a hard time, you’re not going to have it any easier!”
 For a second Chikus grew more serious and sad as he looked back at Grisia. “If everyone thought like that,” he tried to laugh, although it came out more like a sob, “we wouldn’t have anyone left to fight, would we?” Deftly he stepped over the ice, unsheathing his great two-handed sword.
 The future Sun Knight just stood there blinking for a second. Then his eyes seemed to light up suddenly, in something that wasn’t quite fear and wasn’t quite anticipation either.
 “Wait for me!” he cried, trying to keep his balance on the slippery surfaces. His training in the art of graceful falls had certainly helped, but all the same his body sometimes swayed in ways a little wild and chaotic for a Sun Knight. In the end, he did manage to clamber up on top of the ice-encased carriage, and a ball of holy magic started to form between his palms.
 Neo and Chasel were lying crumpled by the wreck, their breathing ragged. Grisia didn’t particularly care for either of them, for one was cruel and the other almost entirely unknown to him, but he reached down for his teacher’s hand and muttered a quick prayer of healing.
 Warm light seemed to flow into the older man’s body, and he gracefully rose and thanked his student. His manner was perfunctory and not overly polite, but beneath his words and formulaic actions there was a speck somewhere of genuine respect. He lifted up Chasel roughly, just as Chikus darted through to battle, and both men readied themselves to fight again. Grisia sat watching, a cat’s cradle of holy magic between his fingertips, ready to cast buffs on anyone who needed them. Meanwhile, Echilan moved himself off to Lesus’s carriage.
 The woods were, rather unpleasantly, hot and cold at the same time, but Grisia was too intensely focused on his magic to notice. He’d stopped merely buffing Chikus and the teachers and had gone on to attacking the outlaws with simple spells, making them slip or trip or temporarily paralysing them. It wasn’t much, but it was helping: whereas before the travellers were simply overwhelmed, now they were gaining a hold on the fight, a hold that only grew stronger.
 That is not to say that the fight grew any less bloody or hard. Men’s bodies fell like flies, covered in more wounds than they were in clothing – and that was just the ones who didn’t get up again. Even the Holy Knights, despite Grisia’s and the Pope’s best efforts, were badly hurt and only carrying on through sheer force of will.
 The cries and screams grew less frequent. The forest grew stiller, the pace of the fight slower. At last the last outlaw fell to the ground in a silence so quiet even breathing was too loud and harsh an action. For a moment everyone kept an almost religious peace.
 “Put the fires out,” snapped Neo, visibly shaken by the event; Islé, Echilan and Grisia duly followed his orders. The leader of the Holy Knights called everyone over to a relatively clear area, where teachers and students alike formed a circle. Everyone stood up, for it was too cold to sit down.
 “Obviously this wasn’t a normal event,” Neo began, his voice shaking.
 “But it could have been completely avoided,” cut in Hermis, “if we had a leader with actual common sense!”
 A screeching racket of voices started up, some accusing Neo, some accusing Hermis, some accusing each other, some frantically trying to restore order. In the midst of all this the students had drawn away into their own little group, where Lesus effortlessly took charge.
 “Well, one of the carriages is completely wrecked,” he started. “Another...well, it needs cleaning out.” Georgo tried and failed to repress a snigger, for which he earned several death glares. “We might end up either really cramped, sharing with the teachers, or squeezing into the luggage carts...oh, and we need to find wheelwrights, carpenters and decorators.”
 Grisia swallowed. “That’ll cost...wait, a good wheelwright might charge about three gold ducats, a carpenter who can repair the damage about the same, and decorators...”
 “...They might go up into sovereigns,” said Echilan flatly.
 The boys dug their hands into their pockets, but found precious little.
 “We’re fucked, aren’t we?” asked Laica.

 “...So we should just follow the rivers and it’ll be fine!” said Teppe, beads of sweat standing out on his brow.
 “You can’t see anything in this wood,” snapped Neo. “If I saw rivers, I would have followed them!”
 “Knowing your sense of direction, that’s unlikely,” Hermis muttered. Neo glowered at him – gracefully, of course.
 “What’s your problem?” shrugged Vaign. “Just burn or cut down the trees, then you’ll see the rivers!”
 “Vaign, does being the Blaze Knight also mean being stupider than a pile of rocks? This is your most idiotic scheme to date!”
 Arimell sighed. “Has nobody thought of asking for directions?”
 “No!” Neo practically yelled.
 “There’s nobody to ask in these woods except for outlaws and dark elves,” Chasel said coldly. “I think our best course of action is to keep on going through them, if we can, and hope we see a road or clearing at some point. We can try navigating with the stars, and I’ve got a compass.”
 “Going on through the woodland is what got us into this mess in the first place,” hissed the Pope, “and I don’t hold with those foreign inventions.”
 Even Elmyr was losing his temper. “So what are we to do? Sit around here and wait to die?”
 “Don’t be so pessimistic,” came a silky voice. The Holy Knights and their students turned round in awe, wonder and not a little bit of horror as they saw its owner.
 “Hey!” cried Chikus. “They’re-“