In his study, an old bald man quietly perused a letter recently delivered to him by an assistant. His face was a stoic mask, but his emotions were in turmoil.
“Sixty-seven dead. Fifteen survivors… and a whole village razed to the ground…” Headmaster Nylen voiced out loud, laying back on his chair.
The letter was a copy of a report from a reconnaissance party of the 10th ward Mystiks Guild, informing of a village in Southeastern Darsus that was burnt to the ground and its populace slaughtered.
The report noted that a young boy—one of the survivors—saw a group of people entering the town earlier that afternoon on the day of the massacre, going to the village elder’s hut to talk. The report also stated that many of the survivors claimed to hear chanting and seeing fire erupting out of thin air like magic.
“Tal’hrus…” He silently muttered.
He had no definitive proof about who the culprits were, but from the savagery and merciless killings, he could only arrive at the same conclusion no matter how many times he thought about it.
The unknown silence that had pervaded for the past four years was finally broken, and the dreadful group had possibly returned.
Setting the report on the desk, Headmaster Nylen got up and moved to the window.
It was the beginning of Guso the second turn, and his academy was once again filling up with students.
Looking outside, he could spot the figures of future potentials walking about the academy grounds. Young men and women who would one day lead and serve the country.
He silently stood by the window, mulling over the large number of deaths, feeling angry at himself for having been complacent for the past years.
“Will you never stop, old friend?” He asked, trying to come up with an answer.
‘You are nothing, but a fool.’ A voice whispered back in his head, almost as clear as the day he heard them.
Words from a lifetime ago.
His white and red Mystiks guild clothes were torn, and his pant leggings had been burnt off. Two shards of ice were lodged in his right thigh, and his face was covered in small shallow cuts. There was a ringing in his head and he could barely feel his right arm as he pressed it against a large gash on his side.
In pain but not willing to give in, he stood up. On the ground around him were three of his comrades and a man whom they had all called brother.
The other three were dead. Their lifeblood had already spilled out and tainted the ground around them.
The fourth man on the other hand, was still breathing. Blood was seeping out of the man’s shoulder and his right leg had been twisted oddly. His clothes were also torn, dirty, and the man looked to have also taken a brutal beating.
“*Ha* kuhh… D-do it… *haah*” The man took deep breaths while glaring up at him with two pale eyes.
He gritted his teeth. With an incantation, his mana drew on the earth and the ground rose up. Coiling itself around his left arm, it hardened and sharpened into an earth spear. “Why Loryl!?” His vision started to blur. “Why…?”
“Do it! *cough cough!*” The man shouted.
He gritted his teeth as tears rolled down his face. Looking at the man who had been a brother to him all his life, “UWAAAAH!!” He thrust the earth spear into the ground, unable take the man’s life.
“*Haaaa* I… knew it…” The man replied triumphantly, lying there half dead.
“My- all my brothers died here today… From this moment forth, we are nothing but strangers.” He spoke as tears rolled down his face. “I pray I never see you again.” He dissolved the spear that was in his hand.
“Hah..Hahaha!… Coward! *Haaah*… you… you were always weak, Nylen… you… you are nothing, but a fool…”
He sighed, regretting his decision that day.
If he had strengthened his resolve and gotten rid of his emotions, he could have saved his friend from becoming the monster that had taken over as the head of Tal’hrus.
Although many believed the criminal organization Tal’hrus started after the war half a century ago, he and many in the Mystiks guild knew better. The organization had merely been brought into the open after the war. Its dark history was unknown, but one thing they could be sure of was that the organization was responsible for most of the wars in the past two hundred years.
He too had been ignorant of them. It was only two years before the war began that he learned of the organization. But by then, it was too late as they had already recruited his closest friend, and the most powerful mage amongst their brotherhood of five. The result of the betrayal was the death of two high ranking captains in the Mystiks guild, and three of his sworn brothers.
Ever since then, he had fought, trying to right his mistakes only to end up losing those he loved in the process. He had grown old without making a dent into the leviathan that was Tal’hrus. Every agent he caught, every conspiracy he unraveled, another took its place.
Nylen walked back to his desk and sat down.
He knew he was too old to be gallivanting around hunting rogue mages or trying to save those out of his reach. Yet, he wasn’t about to give up.
“Why now?” He asked himself, wondering about the sudden resurgence of Tal’hrus.
Taking out a piece of paper, he began writing down instructions on how to proceed with the new problem.
‘Someone forced them out of Darsus before…’ He mused and a curious smile crept onto his face before he even took notice, halting his hand.
His search for the mysterious party that devastated the organization years ago had been futile, but his thoughts quickly went back to the only other Malizur within Darsus: a woman seventeen years his junior and known as ‘Rhasula’ for her mastery of the Shadow Element.
Yet the woman had denied any involvement and he himself could not for the life of him see the woman going out of her way to bother with Tal’hrus or care about the plight of the people.
His thoughts settled onto someone else entirely. Someone that knew of the organization, had come into contact with them, and had the overwhelming strength to oppose them. He could only think of one other person.
He recalled the bizarre coincidence from years ago that coincided with the boy’s absence from school, and his lack of security after having been marked by the dangerous organization.
The boy had also denied any involvement with Tal’hrus after they attempted to recruit him, but the situation around the boy was too mysterious.
He took out a new piece of paper and began drafting a different set of instructions.
“Ngahh!! Ngaaahhh!! WAAAA!”
The sound of Lance’s wailing became louder and louder until it woke him up.
“Kai! Help!” Another voice followed after. “Kai!” Anise was holding their baby brother and shouting at him with a distraught voice as she came into the room. “Help!” The young girl pleaded again, holding the baby awkwardly.
He quickly got out of bed and took Lance off her hands. “Where’s mother and father?” He asked with a tired yawn.
“Momma is cooking and daddy left already.” His sister replied, flopping onto his bed with an over exaggerated show of exhaustion.
Even in his arms, the baby continued to cry. “Lance Zakrus Paltos. If you keep this up, we’re going to have to change your middle name.” He warned, looking into his brother’s beady eyes.
The baby began crying even harder.
“Did he just wake up?” He enquired, looked at Anise.
“He’s probably hungry. Let’s take him to mother.”
With Adalina feeding Lance in the living room, they were tasked with cleaning the kitchen and setting up the table.
“Anise.” Kaidus called out to his sister as he watched her wiping the kitchen table.
A turn had passed ever since he made his decision, but he could never find the right time to tell them.
“Hm?” Two inquisitive brown eyes peered back at him.
“… Never mind.” He gave her a smile and continued to ladle soup into a large bowl.
“Hehehe. You’re weird.” The little girl giggled and continued wiping the table. “Oh! Did you know that it’s going to be Sylvie’s birthday soon?” She added excitedly.
“Really?” He knew Sylvia’s birthday was in Guso, but had never outright asked her about it.
“Anise. Do you like Sylvia?” He questioned as he brought the bowl of soup over to the table.
“Uh-huh.” She then made a devious grin. “Kai. Do you like Sylvie?”
He stopped and looked at his sister. The girl was studying him curiously. “I do.” He replied as he set the bowl down on the table.
Ever since his return, he had grown quite fond of Sylvia. Learning more about her from Anise and the girl herself, hearing about what she’d done for his family while he was away from Adalina, and seeing her always trying her hardest in everything she does. There was no reason to dislike the girl. Ever since that day he heard her humming in the library, being around her had started to feel normal, and she was even talking to him more easily.
“Hehehe. It’s a secret, but Sylvie likes you too. Lots.” Anise was grinning happily. “But I like Kai the most!” She suddenly clung onto his arm
“I like Anise the most too.” He smiled and gently pat her head. As they have yet to complete their task, “Can you get the plates while I bring out the roast?” He instructed the endearing girl and she quickly complied.
In his room, Kaidus was copying a rough map of Malpaars from a book onto a large piece of paper.
The book was more of a journal about a traveler’s journey and adventures in Malpaars. Although it was an old book, the details were magnificent and listed quite a number of landmarks that would have stood the test of time. There were even sketches of various plants and animals native to Malpaars in the journal, and successive drawings of how the traveler saw the continent after every ten pages or so, with minute changes here and there.
He had borrowed the journal from the 3rd ward central library, and had been flipping back and forth between the pages, trying to get a conclusive image of Malpaars’ true shape. The crude map had taken him most of the previous night along with his morning after breakfast and afternoon to draw, and it was quite close to being done.
Along with the map, most of his preparations were done. He had a large sum of money hidden in his dresser that would be used to pay for a ship and anything else required to get to his destination. His three years with the mercenary had not been wasted, and he knew how to sustain himself without being conspicuous.
Every passing day brought him one step closer to the day of departure, and one step further away from his family.
Adalina could feel something was wrong.
Her son had felt distant lately, and she didn’t know what to make of it. He was still her mature and responsible son, but for the past turn, Kaidus had been quieter than usual.
Ever since the beginning of the year, there were times she caught him just staring blankly with a solemn expression on his face, as if in deep and troubled thoughts. Other times, she would see him watching over his younger siblings with a disheartened look as if filled with regret.
She had watched the boy grow from the silent child she thought to be a mute, into a bright young man with the world at his fingertips. Yet whenever she looked at him, there was always the sinking feeling that their time together would eventually end. That one day he would leave her side and walk a path of his own choosing. Marry a girl of his choice, and raise his family in a world far away from her, as she had done to her parents.
All of her children gave her strength, but he had been the one who was beside her during the lowest points in her life, ever watchful and pushing her forward.
“Ouch!” She dropped the knife and pulled back her hand as blood began oozing out of her index finger.
“Mother?” Her son’s voice called out from the living room. She could hear his footsteps coming closer. “Mother, are you okay?” Kaidus questioned as he entered the kitchen.
“I am. Just cut myself.” She smiled, seeing his worried face and held up her finger. She couldn’t help but chuckle at the mistake as it’s been at least half a decade since she last injured herself while cooking.
“Is everything alright? It’s not like you to cut yourself.” He replied, taking her hand in his.
In an instant, the throbbing pain from her finger was gone.
She quickly noticed that her son’s hands had grown larger and were calloused from the years of sword training. Yet, she could still feel his gentle strength as he held her hand and healed it. “Thank you, but everything is fine.” She replied, embracing her son.
“Don’t worry about me.” Adalina responded, making up her mind. “Is everything alright with you?” She returned his question.
“…” Her son was silent, but through their contact, she could feel something was wrong.
“Kaidus. What’s been worrying you? And don’t say nothing, because I know there is definitely something troubling you. Won’t you tell me?” She pleaded.
She released the embrace and stared into his dark eyes. “You?”
“I’ve been thinking of journeying to Malpaars.” He replied back. His voice was as calm as ever.
“A journey? And to Malpaars?” She was petrified. ‘Now?’ The word got caught in her thoughts.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you all, but I just got back and didn’t know how to. It’s what’s been troubling me.”
“But why? And why Malpaars?”
“I did some research about drakalls during my year at the academy and I want to learn more about them. It was why I wanted to join the mercenaries. Everything was to prepare myself for the journey. I also wish to see the outside world for myself, not just Darsus, but all of the seven continents. I want to observe with my own eyes its many wonders. To witness the majesty of the Derzul’s floating castles, to gape at Araun’s Claws, and to comprehend the ever-swirling tides of the Abyssal Maws. To explore the unknown and experience cultures and lands that I’ve spent my whole life reading about.” The boy replied, staring back at her with eyes filled with resolve and curiosity.
“You can’t!” Before she could say anything, her daughter’s voice bellowed through the room. Anise quickly ran over and wrapped her arms around Kaidus. “You can’t leave Kai! You can’t!” Anise began to tear up. “You just got back! You promished!”
“Darling…” Adalina watched as tears poured out of her baby’s eyes. She understood how the girl felt.
In her mind, Kaidus was what held the family together. He was her eldest, and her strength. Troyle loved him dearly, and her little girl revered him, always trying to imitate him in whatever she could.
To lose her son again so soon after three long years, it was too cruel.
“Anise. Listen t-” The boy attempted to say something.
“NO! You can’t leave! I won’t let you!” Anise shouted.
“I’m not leaving yet.”
“Hu-?” Anise stopped and gave puzzled look. Part angry, part sad, and all surprised.
“?” Also surprised, Adalina looked at her son.
“I’m planning to leave in Fulta. It’s still a long ways away.”
“NO!” Anise cried out again.
Her heart sunk even further upon hearing when he would be leaving. He had grown up too fast, and was leaving them too early. Normal children would still be attending school, playing with their friends, and learning about love.
But she knew he wasn’t normal. She had always known.
Malpaars was far, and if he was to travel the world like he said, it could be years, even a decade before they see each other again. She wanted to tell him to stay, but she knew he had already made up his mind. There was nothing she could do but think about how to make the most of their time together.
“Where’s Anise?” Troyle questioned as he got home.
His daughter was usually the first to greet him yet he had already removed his swords and boots, and she was nowhere to be seen.
“In her room.” Adalina replied, trying to give him a smile.
“What’s wrong?” He investigated, feeling that the atmosphere was different and seeing that his wife’s commonly cheerful demeanor had all but waned.
Troyle entered his son’s room. The boy was currently hunched over his desk and scribbling something. “What’re you doing there?”
“Father. Just a little side project.” The boy replied, turning to look at him before going back to whatever he was doing.
“Looks like a map. I’m guessing Malpaars.” He stated, making it quite obvious that he knew.
“… So mother has told you.”
“Of course, she told me. Were you ever planning to let us know?” He took a seat on the bed.
“I was. I just didn’t know how or when.” Kaidus replied with a sullen voice and stopped drawing.
… They sat in silence for a brief awkward moment.
“… You know, I too was a young man filled with wanderlust.” Troyle spoke up. “It was why I became a mercenary in the first place. Had I not, who knows what I would be doing now. Maybe married to someone else and living an entirely different life. I may even be the leader of a village somewhere or a captain of the guards there, and living cozily without worrying about my life or the life of a noble. Or maybe I’d have become a bandit somewhere, or dead, seeing how the only thing I’m good for is fighting.” He grinned.
“But I am none of those. I made my choice, I stuck with it, and the consequences brought me here. Sure, it wasn’t all fine and dandy and the road here was filled with ups and downs, but I am happy where those choices took me. I have a loving wife who bore me two great sons, and a dazzling daughter who I would go to the ends of the world for. If I was to go back and do everything over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing,” he paused. “Well, maybe a few minor changes here and there.” He grinned again, looking at his son who was staring back in confusion.
“I will not tell you that you are too young, or that you should wait until you are older. Our sparring sessions have shown me enough. You are strong. If you wish to go and explore the world, I will not stop you. I know you will be fine. I will even try and help your mother and sister to understand. But if… Sorry, I’m getting a little off topic from my original thoughts. I guess what I’m trying to say is, should you choose to do something, don’t regret it later.” He smiled and got up.
“Also, make up with your sister before dinner please. I know she’s mad at you, but I also know that you are the best at cheering her up.”
He stood up and walked to the door before turning back around. “How long do you think you will be gone anyways?”
“A year or two maybe? Three at the most? I was planning to go to Malpaars first, then come back before heading to the others.”
“Hahahaha. Your mother was worried you’d be gone forever. I guess she’ll be glad to hear about that.”
“Hmm?” He replied, seeing the boy staring back at him.
His mouth curved upward into a warm smile. “You were always different from the other kids. Your mother and I both knew it was only a matter of time until you left us. Don’t worry about it.” He replied, putting up a strong fatherly front and leaving the room.
Deep inside, he was extremely proud of the boy. His wife had borne him a son beyond his expectations, a son capable of walking in his footsteps and surpassing him in every aspect. There was nothing more a father would wish for. There was no use in holding the child back, coveting him and hiding him from the world.
“Go away. I hate you…” His sister spoke in a muffled voice from the bed. Her face was buried in a pillow on her knees, and she had draped her blanket over her head and body.
“Don’t say that.” Kaidus replied, moving over to sit beside his sister on the bed.
“But you promised!” Anise cried out. Her tone of voice was changing into that of a whimper.
“I did, and I am keeping it. Am I not here with you now? Did I not come back because I promised I would?” He gave her a hug, trying to appease her.
“B-but you’re leaving again…” She muttered as he pulled her into his embrace.
“I won’t be gone long, and I’ll be back before you know it. You don’t need me always around you, do you? You’re already a big girl.” He replied, brushing away her hair from her face. “You have mother, father, Lance, Sylvia, and the whole Varath family with you. If you also go to school, I’m sure you’ll make some new friends and forget about me.” He smiled, giving her a kiss on the forehead.
“But I don’t want them… I want to stay with Kai…” She sniffed.
“I’m sorry.” He hugged her to his chest. “I know it’s a little early, but if you ever want to talk to me,” He pulled out a smooth silver ring from his pocket and handed it to Anise. “Tell Hasen, and you’ll be able to talk to me through this.”
It was a communication ring, created by using the mirror shard he acquired from Zavon years ago.