The man ran for his life, trying to get as far as he could from the murderous group of villagers. The spear wound on his shoulder was bleeding and he held his right hand over it, applying pressure to keep himself from bleeding out. Although he feared for his life, there was a nefarious grin on his face.
After four days of searching the dense southern forest, his team had finally found it. The new location of the former Vernigale village residents, along with the former lord of Imvera, whom they had been hunting. The information was invaluable, and he ran, thanking the gods for keeping him alive.
The man passed the fork in the road and headed north, keeping his brisk pace while pushing through the pain. With quick short breaks, he ran until the stars were out and the half-moon was shining overhead. Filled with a sense of duty and expectations from his Countess, he refused to give up and succumb to the coldness that was beckoning him. He ran until he could run no more before dragging himself, moving forward as his body began to numb.
As the night matured, he eventually forced his weary body back to the large area where they had set up a temporary camp. He saw the glow of campfires burning from a distance and began to shout for someone to assist him.
“Who is it?!”
Fortunately for him, as he got closer to the camp, one of the lookouts heard him and came to check. “I am Delos of team four! Where is the Countess?!” The man shouted back with what little strength he had left in him.
“Team four? Where are the others?” The bumbling man who ran over to him questioned.
“Dead.” Delos fell to the ground as he saw two more men running in their direction. “I must speak to the Countess at once. We must move now, or risk losing them!” The three men quickly understood what he was talking about. One of them took off while the two ran over to help and support him.
Before long, they were carrying him through the camp, toward the center where a luxurious pavilion made of stone had been erected. The man who ran ahead earlier was already there waiting for them and though it was the dead of night, others were stirring from their tents.
“The Countess has been notified. Go on in.” The man quickly motioned, opening the flap of animal hide covering the entrance.
Released from his two supports, Delos strengthened his legs and strolled into the stone structure confidently.
The structure was almost like a small house. The entry opened into a large room fitted with a wide table, a writing desk, six chairs, and light stones on all four corners of the room. Further in, there was an opening in the back wall, leading into the Countess’ sleeping chamber.
“So you’ve returned, Delos. Judging from the need to wake me, I presume you’ve found our prey?” A sharp and sweet voice came through from the back room. He could also hear the sound of clothes rubbing against skin.
“Yes, my lady.” Delos promptly replied, kneeling as he did so.
The sweet voice gripped his heart and compelled him to answer. “In the Vanian forests, half a day’s march from here. They chased us to the roads and murdered Hywel and Vaiss. I barely escaped with my life.”
“It is unfortunate for Hywel and Vaiss, but I am glad. Thank you for coming back to me safely. Well done.”
“Such- such words are too kind for the likes of me.” Powerful emotions stirred from inside him, and he felt strengthened by her kindness.
“Please go and tell Egald to wake the men. We’re moving at once.”
“Understood, my lady.” Delos got up to leave but stopped. “Forgive me my lady, but I saw him. I saw the old lord and I couldn’t do anything.”
“Is that so? … Please do not fret over it. We shall finish them by tomorrow’s end, thanks to you. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now go.”
Such compassionate words. He was truly unworthy. “Of course.” Delos bowed once more, then retreated out of the stone pavilion. All his pain and exhaustion had evaporated while in her presence, but they quickly returned to reclaim his body once he was outside.
Tired and throbbing with pain but filled with a sense of accomplishment, he swiftly issued the commands he was given. Soon, Egald who had been standing beside the entrance was running about, yelling for their forces to wake up and get ready.
Worn out from the long day, Delos moved to a vacant tent where he could lay down and wait for a medic. Closing his eyes, he blacked out for a moment before hearing a commotion, one very different from the irritability of having to wake up in the middle of the night. There was shouting about unknown intruders in the camp, and the commotion eventually became louder as people began moving about. Before long, the disorder in the camp quieted. Out of curiosity, he sat up to take a look. Down the path he had come through earlier, two men—held at sword point—were being led in his direction.
Delos rubbed his eyes, certain that he’d seen the trespassers before. His drowsiness quickly vanished, realizing they were the two who helped him earlier that evening. As they neared, he quickly stood up. The young man caught his eyes and he thought he saw a smile forming. For a brief instant, the boy’s lips moved as if saying “thank you” to him as they approached him.
“Wha- What are they doing here?” He inquired.
“Said they helped you earlier. Is that true?” Luka, a tall skinny man towering above many of those in the camp answered. The man’s voice had a low baritone, unfitting for his gangly appearance.
Delos trudged before them, closing in on the young man. “You followed me?” He spoke with a voice filled with irritation.
“I believe a reward for services rendered is appropriate, don’t you?” The young man calmly replied. “We are also looking for work, so perhaps this Countess of yours would like to hire two capable swordsmen? We did save your life after all.”
“Hah! Capable you say? I see an errand boy and a bed slave. The Countess does not need the two of you.” One of the four men sharply countered.
“Delos. Does the boy speak true?” Luka questioned again.
Delos stared at the two before him. He had seen their skills earlier, yet admitting to such claims would only hamper his glorious return. The Countess might even grant them her favor should she learn of their abilities. He looked at the four beside them then toward those who were watching. Right now, he was surrounded by his own people, like-minded individuals who would care naught for a corpse or two, and noticed that neither of the two had their swords on them. In the back, Abvae was holding onto three familiar swords. “Does it matter?” Delos retorted. “They were about to leave me to the mob that killed Vaiss and Hywel!”
His hand holding a sword, Luka looked at Delos and grinned. “Not at all.” He brought the sword against the young man’s neck, ready to slit it open.
“Wrong Choicccce.” Something hissed in his ears, and his body froze. The boy casually turned around, and two silver eyes stared up at him. Without warning, the boy’s right hand shot forth into his chest. Pain coursed through him, and Luka felt his strength drain as his life was expunged.
Their plan of a diplomatic investigation had failed.
The moment he saw the sword moving to cut him, Vick jerked his head backward and slammed it into the man behind him. His left arm pushed up against the flat of the blade, keeping it from going into his flesh. The man let out a painful grunt and Vick quickly twisted his body around, slamming his palm into the man’s sternum, catching the weapon as it was dropped.
“Luka!” There was a sharp cry from those around them. Someone gasped beside him and a strange gurgling noise came out.
“Kaidus!” Vick turned, only to see a horrific spectacle.
Beside him, Kaidus was standing calmly.
The tall man who had been talking was slumping over Kaidus and blood was coming out of the man’s mouth. In the fire light, he could see that Kaidus’ right arm had extended outward and into the man’s chest. As the man fell forward, Kaidus’ hand easily protruded through the man’s body and clothes. Just like a sharp sword through flesh.
-A young boy standing before three mangled bodies. Clothes bloodied, his face an emotionless mask-
A job almost two years ago flashed into his mind.
-A hunt for three men who were hiding in a cave system somewhere in the southern mountains of Darsus.
The three had kidnapped a young couple. They raped the young lady and mutilated the young man, before savagely killing them both and leaving them to rot at the foot of the mountain.
After only an evening of searching for the culprits, it was Kaidus who found them.-
Vick quickly recalled the fear that day.
The fear of a twelve-year-old boy standing before three bloody bodies without a shred of remorse in his eyes. He rarely saw the boy’s brutality, but it was a thing to be wary of, and to keep away from.
“Enemies in the camp!” Someone finally shouted as the shock wore off.
Vick turned his back to Kaidus, and they were quickly surrounded.
“Attack, and you will all die.” A low yet overpowering voice came from beside him and he could tell that it was Kaidus. Without remorse, the voice threatened all who heard it, even sending chills down his back.
Many of the soldiers stopped immediately. The icy tone and display of force they had all just witnessed, still fresh in their minds.
“What the fuck!? Luka?!” A man shouted as more people arrived.
Kaidus had already flung away the dead man and Luka’s lifeless body was on the ground, blood still oozing out of the hole in his chest and percolating into the grass.
Fuck. Vick thought. The steel sword he had taken from his opponent felt like an abomination compared his masterfully crafted azurite blades. He shot a glance at the man who was holding onto their weapons and thought about lunging at him.
“Give me my sword.” A commanding tone came from behind him. One filled with intense pressure that appeared to freeze the air. Vick shuddered, not daring to turn around.
The man holding his sword took a step back.
“I will not ask you again.” Kaidus commanded once more, taking steps toward the man. Vishan and Zion urged him to unleash them, and the tumultuous magic inside him begged to be given life—to be freed. Even his instincts screamed out for him to begin the slaughter, to paint the ground red with blood.
He had heard during the voyage that many of the local lords were exploiting their power and status to oppress the citizens. It was one of the reasons why people like Narissa and her team had turned to smuggling. The situation that evening had reminded him of the crew, and of their forlorn faces during the start of the voyage. Many of them had feared they would not make the trip, and that even if they did, they would not be going back to the country they once knew and loved. He had seen many of them praying for their loved ones. He had overheard grown men with tears in their eyes, begging the gods for providence.
Having heard about what would become of the people earlier, to confirm the truth of the matter and to see the “Countess” for himself, he had allowed the ungrateful man to live. The man easily led them back to the main forces, and through their little interaction, it was clear to him what sort of morality they held. He would welcome the chance to purge these lands of such pestilence.
With a calm mask and a casual stride, Kaidus stepped toward the man once again.
“The fuck are you all waiting for?!” Someone screamed, running toward him with an axe.
He turned. His fingers brimming with power, Kaidus sidestepped and easily dodged the overhead swing. He stepped forward, shooting his bloody arm out and catching the man’s neck. Empowering his arm with mana, he squeezed and easily crushed the man’s throat and neck. Like a doll, he threw the convulsing body aside. The others immediately pulled back after the display.
He stalked forward, stopping before the one holding onto his sword. Reaching out with the bloody hand, he grabbed the Xeberite sword and with a thought, sent both of Vick’s swords back to him.
“What’s a mage doing out here?!” “He’s a mage!” Screams of panic erupted from those who had been watching.
Many of them fell backwards and a few were beginning to pale.
“What is with all the fussing?” From the stone building nearby, a voice penetrated the excitement. A woman came out of the structure and everyone turned to her. Three frightened women who had been standing near the front quickly ran to her side.
“Countess!” Many of those standing around immediately calmed down and began lowering their heads.
The new woman sauntered toward them and from the light of the fires and torches, he saw that she was dressed in a dark outfit. She wore a loose robe that dangled on her arms with the front open. The woman’s eyes seemed to flare a reddish color as she moved past the torches, and her long dark hair swayed with each step she took. “Why are the tents still up? Why are you all not in formation? Must I—”
There was something in her voice. An alluring pitch of soft sweetness that charmed those who heard it. A mage. Kaidus immediately understood as she stopped and looked in their direction. He saw the woman frown as she beheld the two bodies on the ground. The small gesture seemed to take years off her flawless face, and he saw a hint of anger in her eyes.
“Someone tell me why two of my men are dead.” She demanded with a cold calmness.
“Countess. It was him.” One of the women beside her quickly pointed in Kaidus’ direction. “Luka and Neasun didn’t know that he was a mage. He killed them both.”
“A mage you say?” The woman stepped closer.
“You must be Countess Belinde.” Kaidus spoke, making a curt bow before staring at the woman. She was comely and looked to be a few years younger than Adalina. As she walked toward him, he could see the jewels and gems ornamenting her attire. There were two golden chains around her neck, and her fingers were adorned with rings. Three of the rings were embedded with gemstones, while the last looked to be a plain metal ring—one that looked very familiar. ‘Here too…’ Anger flared inside him and he wanted to interrogate the woman, but held onto his composure, not allowing his thoughts to show.
“You know of me?” She questioned with a tilt of her head.
Her enthralling voice threatened to captivate him, and he smiled. It was quite the cunning attack. Each word she spoke contained magic that beckoned him, trying to seduce and alter his perception of her. “Only by word of mouth. Your man here-” He gestured to a man behind him—the man they had followed. “Spoke very highly of you. Of your merciful inclinations. Of your beauty and magnificence. I see now that he was not exaggerating.”
“Is that so?” The false flattery attained a cynical smile from her. “Tell me, boy. Who are you? And what grievances do you have against us, that you would slay two of my men?”
“I am no one, and I have no grievances against you.” He calmly replied. “I was merely offering my services when they attempted to take my life.”
“Hmmm… and you killed them both?” The woman glanced to the others for confirmation, then looked to his bloody hand and the sword he was holding. “Impressive. I don’t dislike capable people. How much for your services?” She enquired, circling him.
“Before that, I have something I would like to ask.” Kaidus replied, following her with his eyes.
Someone objected from the crowd, but the Countess quickly silenced them with a wave of her hand. “A question? Go ahead. Hmmm… Is this your friend?” She strolled over to Vick and examined him with a big smile on her face.
“I hear you are hunting wanted criminals.”
“Indeed I am. How did you come by that information?” Taking her eyes off Vick, she turned back to face him.
“He told us.” Kaidus gestured to the man behind him again. “What do you plan to do with them?”
“What am I planning to do with them? Hmmm… They’re my people, so I plan to bring them back and stop this pointless chase. Of course one or two will be made to serve a point, but that’s all.” She smiled a beautiful smile.
“Is it true that after creating a situation where they cannot pay their taxes, you sentenced them all to death?”
“You’re an inquisitive one aren’t you? You should know that women hate men who ask too many questions.” She stared back at him, her eyes almost glowing in the dim light. “So you’ve heard what happened… Well, it is not true. The fugitives they were sheltering were the ones who razed the fields. Those peasants used that as an excuse to avoid paying their taxes.”
“I see.” Kaidus replied, affixing his sword to his waist.
“Now then, how about both of you join me? You can have anything you want, provided you are as talented as my soldiers seem to think.” The woman offered with an enticing smile.
“After what’s happened, I must politely refuse.” Kaidus replied, staring into the woman’s eyes. He sensed Vick stirring behind him.
“Don’t play coy now, little man. It’ll be fine and I’ll make sure of it. Also, if you are indeed a mage, then I can teach you all about magic. I bet you’ve just awoken to your powers right?”
“My lady!” “Countess!” Shouts of objections circled them once more.
“It is quite the tempting offer.” Kaidus made a show of considering the proposal and falling to her seductions. “I will reconsider if you answer another one of my questions.”
“Another? I guess I can amuse you with one more answer.” There was a wide grin on her face.
“Tal’hrus. Have you heard of them?” His voice was flat and devoid of any pleasantry. He wasn’t positive, but he had to be sure.
“Ta- Tal’hrus? No. I can’t say I have.” The woman replied, staring back at him. He could hear her muttering an incantation under her breath, strengthening her magic.
“Enough. Your cheap tricks won’t work on me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That ring is used to communicate with your master. That makes you the leader of your unit. Where is the rest of your team?”
The woman slowly stepped backwards. He had her now. “Kill him!” She screamed as she tried to put some distance between them while starting a new incantation.
Wind swirled around him and Kaidus launched himself forward after the woman. He clasped her mouth before she could finish the spell, pushing her toward the stone building. He slammed her head against the structure, knocking her unconscious as bolts of lightning rained down on him. Deflected by Zion, the lightning scorched the grass nearby.
The three women from earlier ran toward him, each invoking a spell of their own. He could hear swords clashing and screams coming from behind, indicative that Vick had also begun.
“Clear them.” He commanded, and three beams of light shot forth from his body.
Zigzagging through the air, the lights went straight for the three women.
One of them tried to jump to the side, but the beam of light curved and tore out a side of her face before circling around to finish her off.
The second woman attempted to block the attack with her hands. The beam of light pierced through them as it vaporized her heart.
The last had a look of shock as the light easily tore through her mana barrier before engulfing her head.
Kaidus grabbed the unconscious woman. He looked back to where Vick was still fighting. Power surged from within him, and a sword of light emerged in his hand. “Vick! Get down!” He screamed, carrying his voice with mana. He saw Vick dropping to the ground along with some of the enemies. He swung in a horizontal arc, and for an instant, night turned into day. Within the discord of screams, there was the sound of bodies dropping, blood spraying, and of people gurgling as the last vestige of life left them.
Those who had dropped to the ground were in a state of confusion, screaming and trying to clear their eyes of the blinding light. Carrying the unconscious woman in one arm, Kaidus walked over to where Vick had been fighting. “To those of you who are still alive, you live today not because of your luck, but because of my mercy. Go back and do not squander this chance you have been granted. Go back and let the others know of this. Tell them that Death has come to Malpaars.”
“Guh! Kaidus?! What’s going on?!” Vick screamed.
He grabbed Vick’s arm, then looked beside him to a man grumbling on the ground. It was the wounded man whom they had followed to get to the camp. “For your services, thank you.”
Along with the unconscious woman over his shoulder, he grabbed Vick’s arm once more. With a silent command, Zion picked them up and whisked them into the air.
An old man limped out of the hovel he had called home for the past half turn.
His daughter stood beside him, supporting him as they looked to the simple shed one last time.
All around them, others were doing the same. Families were evacuating and bringing whatever they could with them. Four small carts—hastily put together—sat on the edge of the hidden forest-village, holding many of the village’s belongings. Crude and pathetic, the wagons would require two men to pull them, and another two to help push.
There were many voices scattered about. Voices teeming with anger, regret, remorse, sadness, misery, and hopelessness.
“We have to move now!” A man bellowed, urging people to begin their pilgrimage once more. A pilgrimage with an unknown destination.
A babe began crying, and the sound of the mother trying to quell its cry pervaded through the dreary atmosphere.
Children were questioning what they were doing in the middle of the night while the adults were reprimanding them.
“I have doomed us all…” The old man spoke, low enough so that only his daughter could hear.
“Father. Please don’t say that.” The girl reproved him.
“I am sorry, Fera. But I want you to go with the others. At least then, you’ll have a chance.”
“I’m not leaving you, father.”
“I cannot walk, and the Countess is after my head. A few of us old men will stay behind to see if we can buy you all some time. If you stay with me you will surely die, and if I go, I will only slow you down.” He explained, making sure she understood his reasons.
There were tears in her eyes, and the old man’s heart sunk. His wife had been taken. His two sons had been taken. She was his youngest, and all he had left. He would not allow her to perish before him or because of him. “Fera. Go. Go now. Stay with Nikai and his family. They are good people, they will treat you right.”
“Listen to me Fera. Go and live for your brothers. It is high time I joined your mother and them in the afterlife. We will—”
“Kyah!!” The girl screamed as a powerful gust blew past them, swaying trees and almost knocking many people to the ground.
A few began screaming at the abnormal wind, and someone asked if their pursuers had arrived. Instead of disappearing, the wind swirled around as if to corral them. Whispers filled with fear began going around, and a few people ran into the woods.
The old man pushed his daughter away. “Run!” She refused. “Do it! Run!!” He yelled.
Suddenly, something descended from the sky into the midst of everyone. The wind immediately vanished, and before them was a young man. His sharp eyes and long hair were glowing dimly, yet it made the half-moon look dull in comparison. The young man carried two people on his shoulders. One of them was struggling angrily, and another looked to be unconscious. Many of them quickly recognized him as the glow on his hair and eyes diminished.
“I apologize for my actions earlier. It was a necessity.” The young man spoke softly, but his voice resounded through the air like a shout. “I have brought you the bane of your existence.” The boy threw the struggling person down to the ground, and they all saw who it was.