A caravan of nine wagons and thirty-six people were traveling on a road toward western Darsus. Being a merchant caravan, it was conducting its annual rotation: West to Aristolk for the sea’s bounty, then South to Cabalut for ores and jewels—trading with the villages and towns in between—before ultimately circling back to Ferrent.
Riders moved to and from the caravan vigilantly, making sure the road was clear and safe.
For the journey, the caravan master had hired two skilled knights, a mage from the 10th ward Mystiks Guild, and eight mercenaries from Ferrent to help guard them.
Sharing a wagon with a family of four, an unassuming young man slept peacefully through the noises of the caravan.
Laying in the shaky and uncomfortable wagon, his eyes were closed, but his mind was wide awake. Try as he might, sleep had eluded him.
He worried over troublesome thoughts even though he knew them to be trivial.
Before the trip, he had even considered kneeling before the King to protect and keep his family safe, but a part of him loathed the idea.
He wondered if he had made the right choice in departing so soon, and questioned himself about his complacency after the incident at the academy, pondering if he should have pursued it to a conclusion.
He thought about those he left behind without so much as a goodbye, and about his family.
He regretted leaving, but the decision has been made and it was a sacrifice he would have to make sooner or later.
Yelling and the sound of hooves came through from the outside and the wagon soon rolled to a halt.
Still laying down, he began dispersing a thin wave of mana outward.
Instantly, his mana honed in on three very distinct and familiar presences.
Before a curious smile could surface on his face, he pretended to yawn and got up to see why they were stopping.
“I’m amazed you could sleep through all that.” A gruff looking man holding two large poles smiled at him.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night. Was too anxious about this trip.”
“This your first time away from Ferrent?”
“First one alone.”
“That so? It gets easier and less exciting the older you get.” The man grinned. “Say… if you’re free, would you mind helping us set up the tents? You’re welcome to share one with my sons if you would like. As you have probably felt, the wagon isn’t really the most comfortable of sleeping places.”
The man was the owner of the wagon and the husband of the family he was sharing it with. They had briefly introduced themselves and exchanged simple pleasantries earlier.
“Just tell me what to do. As for where to sleep, as long as you can spare a blanket, the wagon will do just fine.” He smiled and got up.
Picking up two tent posts, he followed the man out of the wagon.
The sun was setting and they were in an open camp area along the roadside. Scanning the group, everyone was busy preparing to settle for the night.
His eyes quickly fell upon three men who were deftly constructing a large tent.
The three men had followed him from the 3rd ward and coincidentally also joined up with the caravan. Undoubtedly, they were the ones observing him over the past few turns, for he had seen their faces and felt their presences on multiple occasions.
Being constantly observed was nothing new to him. What intrigued him the most, was the extent they were willing to follow him to. He didn’t know what their objectives were, but he was dying to find out.
“You can set those over here.” The man ahead of him instructed, pointing to where two poles were laying.
As they set up the tents, the man’s wife and youngest son began cooking.
The camp consisted of multiple tents in a circular formation with the nine wagons making a large half circle and shielding them from the road. Small cooking fires sprung up on the inside of the formation, and four guards dutifully patrolled the camp’s perimeter for wild animals or enemies, while the mage kept the fires burning.
By the time people started retiring for the night, with a belly full of meaty soup as thanks for his help, Kaidus made his way to the wagons.
Instead of climbing in and going to sleep, he walked past them.
Crossing the road, one of the patrols called out to him but with the excuse of needing to relieve himself, he was able to pass them and enter the woodlands on the opposite side.
By moonlight, he made his way deeper into the forest. After making sure that he was far enough from the camp, Kaidus stopped at a small clearing. Bathed in moonlight and visible to his surroundings, he took a moment to confirm the presence that was following him. “Come out. I know you’re there.” He called out.
… Nothing but silence.
“Would you mind telling me why you’ve been watching me?” He spoke cordially and listened, waiting for an answer. Once again, there was nothing but silence.
“I will not ask a third time. Show yourself.” He threatened.
Instead of a voice, the night answered him with a soft and chilling breeze.
“…” With no sign of progress, “Zion.” He commanded.
A gust of wind tore through the trees, stirring up leaves as if to kick up a storm.
Vanishing from his spot, Kaidus reappeared in the darkness behind a large tree an earshot from his initial position.
Hiding behind a large tree, a man silently watched and listened to his target from the shadows of the forest. Suddenly, something incomprehensible occurred before his very eyes.
One moment he was spying on a paranoid child yelling out into the darkness. The next, a storm was blowing through the area.
As he tried to shield himself from the sudden gust, the boy disappeared and before he knew it, a displeased face with two glowing eyes were staring at him from behind.
A strength unknown to him locked him in place and a dreadful chill had begun invading his body.
A servant of the Vatenger house for the past decade, he had prided himself on being able to seamlessly blend into any situation and being impossible to detect. Out of the three who had been dispatched for the job, he was the most masterful in the art of stealth and had been chosen to be their target’s shadow.
Their job was to simply observe the boy without being noticed and to report any suspicious behaviors to their lord.
After three turns of watching the seemingly ordinary boy going about his mundane life without noticing or being aware of them, he had mindlessly followed the boy into the woods to keep an eye on the child. By the time he realized his mistake, it was already too late.
“To have followed me from Ferrent, what are you and your companions after?”
A powerful voice wrapped itself around his body, threatening to strangle and rip him to shreds. The man opened his mouth, but quickly held his tongue.
“Speak, or I leave you here for the korgas and wolves.”
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He spoke with fear and surprise in his voice. “I heard voices a-and came to check if someone was in trouble.”
“Not the answer I’m looking for.”
Immediately ice began covering up his arms and legs, starting from his fingertips and feet. “Wh-what are you doi–!” ‘-ng to me?! Uaahhh!!!’ He screamed in his head, for his voice had suddenly stopped.
Shocked, the man kept trying to scream but his voice refused to come out. He tried to defend himself, but his arms refused to move as the ice was already up to his shoulders. He willed himself to run, but his legs were frozen stiff.
An agonizing sense of doom crept over him and he quickly understood the severity of his situation. Shaking his head incessantly to plea for his life, his face twisted with pain as he took unstable breaths.
“Who sent you?” The boy questioned.
*Hah… ha…* He breathed heavily, trying to come up with a plausible excuse. “I,” he spoke and heard his own voice, “I d-d-don’t know what you are ta-talking about…” At the pace it was going, he would freeze to death. “I-I swear… I’m just on my w-way to see f-f-family near L-lake Vanass.” He stuttered as his lips began stiffening.
“I feel like I’m being taken for a fool. Do not assume that I am ignorant of what has been shadowing me for the past three turns.” Two pitiless eyes glowed back at him. “What is it that lord Vatenger wants?” The boy questioned sternly.
“…” He could not answer but only shiver after hearing that the boy had known of their activities and their lord all along.
“… If you do not wish to speak, allow me to suggest something.” The boy stated, taking a step back as the thick layer of ice encasing his body began shattering. “I don’t care what your orders were, but here is what you and your companions are going to do. Tomorrow at dawn, all three of you will return to Ferrent. Go and tell your lord that as an apology for disciplining his son in his stead and out of respect for his noble decisions, I have permitted this intrusion on my life. I don’t know what he is after, but let him know that this has gone on long enough and it is past time we ended this bothersome business. As he can clearly see, I am neither a menace nor do I wish to flaunt my strength without provocation.”
In the darkness, a golden glint flashed in the boy’s glowing eyes and the boy’s hair also began to glow with streaks of silver. “But be warned. The next spies sent after me or my family will be returned in pieces. Provocation or not, I will not have my family living their lives under constant observation. To be scrutinized like prisoners.” The boy’s tone had suddenly changed and the chill of the night turned into a biting freeze once again.
“…” He could not find words to reply. As if tangible, a deathly aura, one the likes he had never felt before could almost be seen swirling around the young boy like a thick coat of death, ushering for its next prey.
“Did I make myself clear?”
“… Y-yes… Very.” He could do nothing but lower his head and comply. The dreadful feeling was not something he wished to encounter a second time.
Come morning, three of the caravan’s passengers decided to give up the journey, opting to return to Ferrent.
As night fell on the second day of the trip, the caravan made camp outside of a small guard outpost, similar to that of a proximity village.
As the world slumbered around him, Kaidus slipped out of the camp, slipping past two patrols and made his way into the woods. Unlike the previous night, with no one following him, an orb of light guided his path through the dark forest.
Once he was far enough, he reached into his rucksack and pulled out a gray cloak. Having donned the cloak, with a thought, he took to the skies and flew southward.
In the darkness, he continued until he came upon a dense forest. An orb of light once again manifested itself to illuminate his surroundings as he descended to the forest floor.
Closing his eyes, Kaidus dispersed a thin wave of mana outward, making sure there were no people or anything that could impede him nearby.
After confirming his situation, he reached into a hidden pocket on the inside of his undershirt and took out a small translucent shard, barely the size of his palm. He had kept its overflowing mana sealed to be used for his own purpose, and tonight was one such night. “Valathiirvanux.” The word of unbinding came out of his mouth, and the forest shook as the shard exploded with power once again. A soft mist-like fog began oozing out and the translucent shard solidified, reflecting his glowing eyes as he stared at it.
From one of the rings underneath his gloved hand, a different orb of pure white emerged. Expanding and stretching itself, the orb transformed into a figure of light before kneeling. “Master.”
“I am positive there is another one of these in Darsus. Find it.” He presented the shard that was overflowing with mana to the spirit. The mist began flowing toward Vishan like it was being sucked up and in moments, the overpowering aura from the shard vanished. “I will be heading east. Come back to me once you have found its location.”
“By Your Will, Master.” The entity obeyed, instantly vanishing in a flash of light.
“Masssterrr. I ssshould have gone.” A voice hissed, clearly dissatisfied at his decision.
“Vishan will be faster. If you wish to play, do it while we’re moving.” He replied, shooting out of the forest and back into the sky. It would be long nights of flight, and days of sleeping again.
Tal’hrus already knew his name and place of residence. To hope they forgot or wait and see what might happened was unthinkable. It was imperative he dealt with them before continuing his journey.
The armor stared back at him, ridiculing him for all his failures. Four times he had put it on, and four times he had felt unworthy of wearing it. To still call himself a knight after all his failures, it was quite laughable. Thinking about how they got to where they are, Biran could not help but laugh at himself, seeing how powerless he was.
When they first got ambushed, the other knights had sacrificed themselves to allow him to escape with the prince. It had been hunters who saved them from that forest, and the kindness of the citizens who helped them get to his father in Port Vetias.
He had failed to help defend the ship from pirates, and could do nothing while those around him were slaughtered. It was not he who protected the prince, but the people around him. To have been given a set of armor and sword all because he could fight, he was ashamed of himself.
“Biran. Are you going again today?” A young boy’s voice questioned from the doorway.
“Yes. Forgive me for leaving your side again.”
“It’s okay. They need your help more than I do.”
“Thank you… Will you be alright alone?”
“I won’t be alone. I’m staying with Eshi and Vil until you come back. We’re going to fish again today.” The boy replied cheerfully.
“I see… Be careful.”
“You too.” The boy replied, leaving him to his shame.
Children were amazing.
Before he knew it, the prince had already acclimatized himself to their new life. The boy had grown energetic and gotten along quite well with many of the kids his age. The idea of continuing their lives as refugees in Vilute had crossed his mind whenever he saw the boy so happy, but such actions would be a betrayal to everyone they lost in their path. Their place was not in Malpaars, but Unotus.
He on the other hand, had made very few connections with those around him. The thoughts of returning to Unotus were always there, telling him to go back.
He had asked around and learned which roads and directions would lead where, but they had neither the resources nor strength to make a safe journey back home to Karathas.
His life was dull and unfulfilled, working for a cause he knew nothing about. He was free to leave, but there was nowhere to go, and his honor would not allow him to leave without paying his debts.
Picking up the breastplate, he began equipping what he could.
He had obtained the armor while on a gathering expedition two turns ago. Having assisted the guards in taking down a small team of slavers that attacked his group, he had caught the eyes of one of the knights and was awarded the crude set of armor—taken from the slavers. Ever since then, instead of helping gather or transport provisions, he had been reassigned as a guard to help those who were venturing out of the city for food or trade.
A large group of people were already standing in front of the city’s gates as the final preparations were being made, and people were in the midst of talking about what to expect for the upcoming expedition.
“Biran.” The knight in charge of their group saw and called him as he joined them. “The Princess has returned and wishes to speak with you. Please head over to the barrack.”
With a puzzled glance but not questioning the order, Biran quickly nodded and stepped away from the team. Turning around toward the city’s center, he made his way to the large building that the knights were occupying.
The barrack as they called it, was more of a fortress.
Built as a circular structure in the middle of the city with the capacity to house over two hundred people, it was four stories tall and made of stone reinforced by magic. Three tall towers stood on the inside of the structure and acted as watchtowers that overlooked the entire visible zone within the protective barrier of the fog. Being circular in structure, the inside of the building was open and had a large courtyard.
“I heard Princess Vernera wants to talk to me?” Biran asked a knight that was standing guard.
“She is waiting in the war room. I shall escort you.” A female voice replied, and the woman began walking away.
The war room was a simple room within the Barrack. No decorations adorned the walls, nor was there coloration in the room. It was nothing more than a couple of chairs around a large table with a map in the middle. As he walked in, the princess and two other knights were already sitting and waiting for him.
“You wish to speak with me?” Biran questioned, not sitting down.
“Yes. Please sit down.” Princess Vernera politely motioned for him to do so. “I have seen you going with the hunting groups a few times, but I’ve never had the chance to talk to you. For that, I apologize.”
“There is no reason to apologize. You need not make time for one such as myself.” He promptly took a seat, unsure about the royal customs of Unotus.
“Biran Newfeld was it? If I’m not mistaken, you joined us eight turns ago with your son.”
“You are not mistaken. We are forever in your debt.” He replied cordially.
“I see.” The Princess’ mouth curved into a soft smile. “Komor here has told me many things about you. He says you are a very capable fighter.”
“He overestimates me. I am but barely competent.”
“Being able to hold your own against a knight is not an overestimation.” The man named Komor interjected.
It was also the knight, Komor, who allocated the armor and sword to him in the first place. He had also had the pleasure of dueling the man multiple times over the past two turns.
“Komor says you have a very refined fighting style. Can you tell me who you are and where you’re from?”
“I am very sorry, but I can’t. Having given my name is already enough of a detriment to myself.”
“… Then I will ask no further on the subject.”
“Thank you for understanding.” Biran replied, lowering his head in gratitude.
The princess took a long moment to stare at him. “I know you must be curious about why I wished to speak with you.”
“Well the truth is, I would like for you to join us. Malpaar’s liberation army. I know it is sudden, but I would very much appreciate it if you could lend us your strength.” Princess Vernera lowered her head.
“I hate to be an ungrateful man after saying that I am in your debt, but I cannot join your cause.” Biran replied, not looking the princes in the eyes. “There is something I must do at all cost.”
“Biran–” The man named Komor stood up but was quickly stopped.
“… I understand. It was selfish to have pushed it on you like that.” Princess Vernera calmly replied.
“By the way. How are you and your son faring in Vilute?”
“We are doing fine. There is nothing we want for. Thank you for allowing us to take refuge.”
“Is that so? I’m glad to hear that. I’m sorry for taking so much of your time, but before I let you go, there is one last thing I wish to discuss with you.” The Princess’ face changed into a hardened and more political one. “You see… I’ve ran into some very strange rumors lately. Something about a kidnapping from Unotus.”
He could feel his body stiffening. “Kidnapping?” Biran replied, self-conscious of his change in composure.
“Yes. Word has it, that a knight mercilessly slaughtered his brethren while they slept and kidnapped the youngest son of the Vatius Empire.” Biran’s face began to pale.
“The rumors also stated that he might have fled with the prince to Malpaars.” Upon finishing her statement, the Princess’ two knights stood up.
“LIES!” Biran shouted, hearing the fabrications and seeing their suspicions.
“Why should I believe you? Biran Naingart?” The beautiful and sympathetic Princess was gone. In front of him, sat a proud and dignified Queen ready to pass judgement.
With no other options, he began explaining his situation in the hopes that they would understand his plight.
Starting from the attack by the group of cutthroats and the unknown mage. To being on the run from various people, all the way to how they were captured by pirates, then sold to the slavers.
The truth was the only thing he had that could save him, but it was all up to them if they believed him or not.
A smile appeared on the Princess’ face after he finished. “Thank you.”
“Ha…” He tried to calmly sit back down on his chair, but his heart was beating sporadically. He had entertained the thought of fighting, but there was no way he could have fought all three knights in the room along with the princess, who was a mage. “Now that you know the truth… what do you plan to do with us?”
“Nothing. In fact, I wish to offer you a deal and my assistance.”