I remember when I first put on the helm and became a member of the Knights. I was young and headstrong. My mother was the first one to tell me about the Knights and the Eternal Prince they served. The Prince had come ages ago, telling the world about the coming of the King. He spread light in a time of darkness, healing the sick, slaying demons, and even bringing the dead to life. He taught people how to live and started the order of the Knights. But he was betrayed by his own people and martyred. Yet even Death could not hold the Eternal Prince (hence the "eternal" bit). After defeating Death, he left for his kingdom, promising to come back. He gave the Knights the Knight's Code and told them to spread the news of his return.
It has been many ages since that has happened. The Knight's order still lives, but hope is failing. Darkness still runs rampant. People no longer believe in an invisible king and his forgotten prince. Even I sometimes start to doubt. But then I remember the day I took up the helmet and I press on, slowly but surely.
Taking the Helm
Barnett, our instructor, was in fine form that day. He strode back and forth across the floor as we sat in the little amphitheater. His armor gleamed in the sunlight, burning golden like a holy flame. His sheathed broadsword swung at his hip with each long step. His broad jaw opened and closed, allowing his commanding voice to leap out at us. Sergeant Barnett was a man who taught with his blade as well as his voice.
We sat in our armor, listening to him lecture on the importance of the helmet. "This is the most important piece of armor!" He roared. "It is the symbol of your knighthood. It is what keeps your head on your shoulders."
"Oh but it's so uncomfortable sometimes!" he whined.
"Well without it, you are no different than any other man with a
sword. Maccabeus! Get down here!"
Maccabeus leapt up from beside me and bolted down the stairs and stood at attention. His armor was composed of polished steel. His helmet was simple, like mine, covering the head and part of the neck. The only difference was the giant visor with vertical slits to see through. He pulled it down, covering his hazel eyes. He stood at the ready with a loud "Sir!"
Barnett barked at him. "Hold still, soldier. Do you believe in the Eternal Prince and his power to protect you?"
"Sir, that I do sir!"
"Be ready to prove it, soldier!" Barnett walked to the edge of the stage, picked up his massive shield and strode back to Maccabeus. He strapped the shield to his arm. Suddenly, he smashed Maccabeus across the head with his shield. The clang was almost deafening, the echo bouncing around the amphitheater. We all gaped in awe as Maccabeus stumbled back, trying to get his footing. He finally got his feet straight and the sergeant dealt him another blow. The sound made our ears ring. Maccabeus reeled as a few students stood, ready to rush to his aid. I stayed in my seat. I knew what was going on.
Barnett dropped his shield and grabbed Maccabeus's arm, steadying him. He yelled, "Now take off that helmet, soldier!" Maccabeus complied. He took off the helmet and the sergeant took it, holding it aloft for all of us to see. There was not so much as a dent. Maccabeus was a little dizzy, but unharmed. "As you can see," Barnett said, "The Helmet of Salvation keeps the faithful safe. The stronger your trust in the Prince the more effective it works. Now, don't go trying this on each other. I picked Maccabeus because I knew he could handle it." Mac's eyes rolled around in his head. He smiled and raised his fist in triumph.
I thought it was a bit extreme, but the point was made. My colleagues rose in a cheer and applauded. This is why people think the Knights are insane. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. We really are insane sometimes. I can see why people would think that. We serve an invisible king, believe in a prince that can't die, and smack each other around. I stopped thinking, realizing that I was questioning myself. Barnett thankfully interrupted my thoughts.
"Darwin!" I stood up straight. "Sir!"
"Did you not hear me? Find a partner and start sparring. Now, soldier!"
"Sir, yes sir!" He walked up the stairs a ways so he could keep an eye on the other students. I looked for a partner as I walked down the steps. Since I was distracted, I had missed out on pairing with some of the easier opponents. This was not unusual. I tended to drift off during lectures; even if they were as "exciting" as this one. And, as usual, Maccabeus was the only one left. Really, who's going to spar with a man who just took two blows from the Sergeant?
Maccabeus smiled when he saw me and swung his claymore over his shoulder. "Ready to have another go, Darwin?" I sighed and tried to smile back. "Sure," I said. "You know how I love a challenge."
"And I enjoy them too, comrade." He held the claymore aloft. It was almost as tall as he was, and I think he's five inches over six feet. It's also about as wide as two feet. As anyone could guess, it looked really heavy. But Maccabeus was like a well-toned ox. It was bad enough he was handsome, but to have all that strength too? It almost made me jealous with my dull looks and average build.
My bronze combat shield hung over my back. I unslung it and slipped my right arm into the sleeve. A combat shield is a convenient tool. Combat shields have a built in sheath that holds the sword, effectively combining both sword and shield into one object. With my left hand, I drew my sword. It was nothing very fancy: a steel broadsword with about three feet of reach.
I took a defensive stance in response to Maccabeus's aggressive stance. As if there's any other stance you can take wielding a metal tree. We stared at each other intently. We heard Barnett whistle. And Maccabeus jumped at me, as other students around me jumped at their respective partners. There followed an eruption of loud clangs as students lashed out at each other, metal meeting metal.
Maccabeus's claymore bit into my shield, the force of the impact nearly sending me to my knees. He raised his sword and struck again, faster than he should have been able to. I took it on my shield again, my body shaking. He struck a third time, even harder. I blocked it again and dropped my defense, letting his sword fall to the side. I moved quickly, swinging my sword at his side. He moved back, swinging his sword back up to keep me at a distance. I dodged and started to take the offensive. I slashed at him a few times. He blocked with his wide blade. I suddenly stopped attacking, giving up my offense and my guard. He took the bait and swung down. I dodged back and his sword hit the ground. I pinned his blade with my foot and my shield. I thrusted my sword forward, stopping right at his throat.
Trying to catch my breath, I said, "Checkmate." He smiled. But there was something suspicious about the way he-
Suddenly, he twisted his sword, sending me off balance. I rolled and tried to get back on my feet. I found my footing at the same time I found his sword across my neck. He smiled. It was not an arrogant smile. I kind of wish it had been. "Checkmate."
"If I may,"
"You will anyway." I rubbed the oily rag up and down my sword.
"Come now." Mac frowned, putting his sword down. "Am I that pushy?"
"You can be. But you have the best intentions. So go ahead." I began putting the hilt and blade back together. Mac waited before speaking, watching me with eyebrows raised. "Okay then," he said.
"You fight like you're trying to win."
"Isn't that the point?"
"Well, yes and no," he furrowed his brows. It's rather impressive how expressive someone can be with just two strips of hair. "Yes, we must win. But we cannot always win. Victory is a great incentive, but it should not be our ultimate goal."
"So what is our ultimate goal?"
And like a mantra, he replied "For the glory of the Prince.
"Doesn't victory bring him glory?"
"Yes, of course. But if we lose, we still bring him glory. The point is not to fight for the sake of winning. If you fight for the sake of winning, then that means you have a fear of losing."
What he said hurt. It never occurred to me how much I hated losing. But even then, I didn't see how losing made any progress. He must have noticed the impact of his words. "I don't mean to call you a coward or a sore loser."
"Yeah." There was a slightly awkward silence. I stared into my sword for a while. Finally I remembered one of Barnett's lessons. I repeated it aloud. "Fight like you have a helmet."
"Barnett said it once. I think it meant something like: don't be afraid to lose. The helmet keeps us from dying, at least from dying easily. As long as we wear it, we can't lose our heads."
Mac brightened up. "Exactly! We need to fight like we have no fear of losing. In a sense, we never really can lose, we just can't win!"
I didn't bother telling him how ridiculous that sounded. What he said almost made sense. But I think he was missing something.
I couldn't stop thinking about what had Mac and I were talking about as I was walking home. There were so many things that didn't make sense. If I wasn't fighting to win, what was the point? And if the Prince was not satisfied with victory, what was good enough? The buildings that crowded the streets loomed high overhead, demanding answers to my questions. The answers were as clear as the darkness of the night. What was the point? Why bother fighting?
Then an answer came. It was so close, I actually tripped on it. After getting the taste of cobblestone out of my mouth, I stood and turned around. There was something black on the ground. It slowly rose up and took shape. It was hard enough to see without trying to figure out what it was turning into. Shape-shifters are not altogether uncommon among our many enemies. And in the dark, when they can become a part of any shadow, I had the disadvantage.
It grew limbs, feet, then hands. I thought I saw a sword. It was growing to about my height. When it was done, it slumped a little, hanging what must have been its head. I heard a low murmer as I slowly unslung my shield and drew my sword. "Who are you?" I asked.
"I. . . don't know." It shook its head slowly, shimmering and shifting.
"who sent you?" It vibrated and sobbed an "I don't know."
I was getting a little irritated. "Well, then what do you want?"
"What's. . . the point?"
"What?" It's voice was eerily familiar.
"If I can't win, what's the point? What's good enough? Am I good enough?"
"Wait a second." I felt a strange tugging in my chest.
"what's so great about Maccabeus? Why does he get all the praise? He's wrong. Winning is everything." It was shaking its head fasrer and faster. Panic was in its voice, and it was talking faster and faster.
"Calm down," I said more to myself than the shade. I almost felt a strange sort of pity for it. "what's wrong with you."
"I just," it raised its head suddenly, my own brown eyes looking at me from a mask of darkness, "I just really hate losing." It came at me then. Stumbling more than running, wielding it's sword clumsily. I dodged back easily. It stopped after missing. I waited. "I hate losing," it said. It swung at the air. "I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it," it kept repeating, swinging the sword faster, and faster. It ran for me, screaming now, and swinging wildly. I blocked most of the attacks, falling back, waiting on it to let up or grow tired. It moved so quickly and the constant blows were like a heavy weight pushing me down. It pushed me back and I stumbled. Its other hand stretched out several feet, grabbing my shield. A desperate tug of war commenced, before my shield was torn from my arm. It came at me again and I started using my sword to parry. I got cut several times across the arms and chest. I could feel the blood and sweat drenching my clothes. But it still kept coming. Then something snapped in my mind.
"Get back," I cried, cutting across its face. It leapt back, easily dodging. It tilted its head, watching me gasp for air and bleed on the ground. "You can't win," it said simply. "I won't lose."
"Shut up!" Suddenly it was right front of me. I looked into its eyes, trying to comprehend the sudden burst of speed. "You shut up, it said." Then I felt my chest explode. Something cold was where my heart should be. I looked down to see its dark hand puncturing my chest. It squeezed my heart. "You lose. I win."
How many times have I lost now? What's the point if I can't win? I did my best, didn't I? At least, I think I did. I might as well give up. I dropped my sword. I slowly took off my helmet. It raised its sword to my exposed neck. I was going to die. I was always told that when we die, we finally get to see the Prince. His servants carry off the dead to his palace to be buried. And like a peaceful Valhalla, the souls of the dead go to see him and feast with him for eternity.
So if I lose, I get to see the Prince. No more fighting and losing. Sounds nice. So even when I lose, I still win. There is victory in death, to die is to gain. What would I say to the Prince? I wonder if I could bring him a gift? I looked into the eyes of my killer. And I said, "Your head will do."
As it tilted its head in confusion, I took the helmet in my hands and slammed it into the monster's head. It dropped me, cradling its head. I could feel the blood running out of me. Not much time before I bleed out. I stood up and kicked out, sending the shade sprawling. I picked up my sword and dragged my feet to where it was lying. I looked down into its eyes. They were blank now, no longer my shade of brown. I put my boot on what I supposed was its throat. "For the king," I whispered. Then I swung down. The head rolled to the side as the body shook with tremors. When it stopped, I felt a sort of peace. I wondered if I could get the head gift-wrapped before I passed out.
I woke up on a cot. Barnett was standing over me. I looked over to see my shield and sword leaning up against the wall of what seemed to be the inside of a tent. My helmet was on a table next to me. There were bandadges wrapped tightly around my body. I was thirsty. I told Barnett so. He nodded and brought me some water. I slowly sat up, trying to ignore the pains in my body. I drank some of the water when Barnett came back in. He looked me over.
"Well?" I asked.
"Just wondering how you could have passed out form a few scratches." Sarcastic old goat. "So what was it?"
I gave my report. A shadowy figure with a sword came out of nowhere trying to cut my head off. I didn't tell him all of what it said or that it had my eyes.
"Sounds like the Shadows of Doubt. They take on the form of their victims. They use doubt to demoralize their opponents, weakening them and slowing them down before killing them. They disappear after dying. You kill them by either letting go of the doubt they feed off of, or a good swing of the blade. The creepiest part is when they start talking with your own voice and looking at you with your own eyes." I was surprised but tried to hide it, drinking in silence.
"I'm sure you don't want to talk about it. No one really does; especially when they end up in a medical tent."
"So I'm not dead?"
"Hmm. Shame," I said. "Guess I still have to go to your lectures. I was looking forward to my little vacation." I smiled a bit. He snorted and stood. As he left the room I stopped him. "Hey, Brother Barnett," I called, using the respectful title. He turned, eyebrows raised.
"How do you know about the eyes?"
"Lad, we've all fought them at some point." He lifted up his shirt, revealing a five-fingered scar over his heart. "Guess we have a matching pair, eh lad?" I turned a little red. "Good thing you had your helmet, eh?" He let his shirt down and got serious.
I almost took off my helmet. Almost gave up. I had dropped my shield and my weapon. The helmet saved my life, thinking about it. The helmet was the reason for my victory.
"They take away shields fairly easily," he said. "And no weapon is fast enough, unless you have plenty of experience killing them. But it's hard killing something that's wearing your face. Your helmet is the only thing they can't touch. That's why the Helmet of Salvation is your most important tool." He walked away on that note. I looked over at the table at my helmet. I reached over, grabbed it, and put it on. Fits like a glove.