The signal to begin reverberated throughout the trenches, and they sprang into action. One of the mages invoked a spell and the ground rose, pushing Biran and those beside him up through the concealed cover, onto the open road.
“Protect the prisoners!” He shouted, swiftly dispatching a surprised man.
Like that day so many turns ago when he and the prince both got rescued, he was now the one doing the rescuing. A handful of others ran alongside him, cutting down any within reach as another team did the same from the opposite side.
Everything was happening exactly how he remembered it that day. From the first slavers falling due to the ambush, to the horns alerting the group, and the bloodbath that followed. Yet unlike that day, instead of wearing rags and being chained to those around him, he was wearing a full set of plate armor and leading a group of men.
Whips cracked, and he heard the screams of the innocent. Without waiting for those beside him, he dashed forward, moving to protect the ones who were being slaughtered.
More crackling sounds resounded through the air and something struck him across the back of his plate, but he kept moving. Seething with anger at what was happening before him, he charged and beheaded a man who had already slain two unarmed hostages. Something coiled around his gauntlet and tried to pull him to the side. Instinctively, he brought his sword around and slashed at the whip that caught him.
“Run! Drag the dead if you have to!!” He yelled at the group of prisoners who were chained together. Not waiting for a response, he turned his attention down the line of prisoners and dashed after another slaver who was killing them.
A sword swung at him from his left side and Biran deftly parried it, countering by slamming an armored fist into the attacker’s extended arm. As the man pulled back, without bothering about the codes and honors of a knight, he twisted his body and lurched after, delivering a kick into the man’s groin and sending the slaver to his knees. He mercilessly swung his sword, cleaving the man’s head in half before charging into another slaver in his path.
He had two things on mind: to rescue as many people as he could, and to survive the rescue job. Fair play be damned, for he had seen first-hand what sort of people they were dealing with, and the codes would only hinder him.
Biran barreled toward the last of the slavers guarding the chain of prisoners, thrusting his sword as he closed in on the man. But before his blade could pierce flesh, there was a crackling noise as a whip caught his sword mid-thrust, and a powerful pull threatened to rip the weapon out of his grasp. Tunnel-visioned, he had failed to notice another enemy to his side. As he glanced at the second man, the one before him pulled out a dagger and jumped onto him. He tried to push back, but the weight of the man toppled him over and he fell on his back, dropping his sword in the process.
The slaver attempted to stab through the slits and folds of his armor, and Biran defended the attacks with his arms while admonishing himself for getting into such a situation. From the fact that they were able to disarm him and get him to the ground, he could tell that the slavers weren’t amateurs and had fought armored opponents before. Unfortunately for them, neither he nor the people with him were amateurs either.
As his attacker attempted a fourth stab, using the opening of the attack, his right arm shot forward and smashed into the slaver’s jaw, causing the man to howl in pain. Before he could hit the man again, an arrow zipped over him and embedded itself into the man’s neck.
Pushing himself up, he grabbed the dagger that his attacker dropped and turned toward the direction of the man who had disarmed him, only to see that the man was already dead. One of his own men ran over to him, trying to buy him time to recover. He noticed that his sword was lying where he dropped it, and picking up the weapon, Biran calmed himself before charging their enemies once more.
By the end of the skirmish, over twenty slavers laid dead, and a handful of those who were unable to flee, were in chains.
As they were trying to mend their wounds and free the prisoners of their shackles,
“How did it go this time, and how many people did we lose?” With a dispirited look, Biran questioned one of the men. He had survived once again, but the same could not be said about everyone else.
Ever since agreeing to Princess Vernera’s offer, being a knight from Unotus, he had been pulled away from doing supply runs and given a unit of fighters to help with freeing slaves.
This was his team’s third rescue mission, and they succeeded once more, yet the price for success never sat well with him.
“The ambush went well, but there were more of them than we initially thought.”
“How many did we lose?” He repeated himself. He knew the man was only trying to spare his feelings, but he had to know.
“Eight. Three from our group, and the other five from Daezal’s. There are also nine wounded, and three of them probably won’t to make the trip back to Vilute…” The man replied with a disheartened tone.
“Eight, with three more on the way… this is…”
“There were a lot of guards this time, and many of them were quite skillful. We should be thankful that we only lost eight so far.”
“That doesn’t make it any better, Solio. Good people are dead and dying.”
The man—Solio—was a short and potbellied man almost a decade older than himself, but also a skilled archer. The man’s resourcefulness and abilities had surprised him on their first job, and they had gotten to know each other quite well ever since.
“I understand, but look at all the people we saved today,” Solio turned to the people walking around the scarlet field, searching for their loved ones. “Many more would have died if not for you today, so you should be thankful for those who are still alive. Remember that each and every one of us once treaded in their paths, moving toward uncertainty with death strolling beside us. Yet here we are, alive and with purpose… It might be disrespectful to say that I am glad it was not me, but given the choice, I would gladly trade my life to see these people freed as we too were once freed.”
“That’s just it, Solio. Why does someone have to die, just to correct the wrongs of this godless world? Why is it that the helpless and weak are always the first to suffer, whilst those with power kill and rob their fellow men in the name of petty greed? Life has so much more to offer everyone…”
“I have pondered that myself multiple times, but I’m afraid I cannot give you an answer that would ease your mind. Perhaps this might just be the natural order of the world? If not, then why else would this be happening?”
“… The natural order of the world, huh?” Biran replied, looking to those around him. They were able to save a lot of the prisoners, but a large number had been murdered during the attack, and many others had been wounded in the frenzy. Most of them were in rags as he and his companions had once been, with their skins sunbaked and layered with filth. Each and every one of them were crying or yelling, with some doing both as they searched the battlefield.
He could never get used to those horrible sounds of anguish. No matter how apathetic and emotionless he tried to be, whenever the battle was over and the mourning began, it was always like a sharpened blade cutting through him.
‘There are more orphans…’ He thought to himself, seeing the number of children without anyone beside them to hold their hands.
Looking away, he steeled himself, for his job had only begun. “Help me with these plates.” He instructed Solio as he began undoing his armor—dropping the parts he could take off onto the ground. “I need to go talk to Daezel about the usual speech and head off before it is too late.”
“You’re not returning with us?” Solio replied, moving in to undo the breastplate.
“No. The princess has asked me to do something else. I am to ride for Ostus after this.”
“And your armor?”
“Take it back with you all. I won’t be requiring it.”
“I see. Will you be needing anyone to come along with you?”
“It would be great if only to shorten the road, but not this time. Let the others know and tell them to go back without me. I will see you all in Vilute within a fortnight.” Biran answered as he undid the leggings.
“Well then, good fortune to you, Captain.” Solio replied from behind, removing his back plate.
Captain. The rank bestowed upon him after being given his own unit. He had tried to tell the others not to call him such and just call him Biran but unfortunately for him, his identity as a knight had been thrown into the open during his introduction. The men all declined to call him by his name, saying it would be rude to address a knight as such while they were out on the field.
Soon enough, he was out of the armor and making sure that everything which should be on his person was there. With a sack containing some rations, his sword, and a letter, he set off to talk to the other group’s captain.
After a brief discussion about the usual process and what to do with the slavers, he saddled up one of the few horses they brought with them and was on his way, heading towards his real destination. Towards the mining village of Ostus.
The night was dark, but along the roadside, a small fire burned radiantly. Its light pushed back the darkness and revealed an area around it, along with a small earthen shelter.
Skewers of meat were roasting nicely on the open flame, and two people sat around the fire, talking quietly and casting great shadows.
“So, you’re saying… this little thing is connected to another exactly like it, and can be used as a form of verbal communication?” Vick questioned, examining the metal ring that is in his hand.
“Yes. That’s what I just said.” Kaidus replied, tired of the endless questions.
It had been four days since they left the forest village and he had explained much to Vick already.
He had divulged a bit of what he knew about Tal’hrus to quell the man’s curiosity, telling Vick how he knew about them, and why he was after them. He spoke about the situation within Darsus, and about the possibility of everything occurring in Malpaars stemming from the influence of Tal’hrus—as Headmaster Nylen had once told him.
He also tried explaining some concepts of magic to clarify his position, but such explanations fell on deaf ears, as the man hadn’t a clue about the intricacies of magic. He was questioned about why he never used such magic before while with the mercenaries, and in the end, he gave up and lied. To stop Vick’s constant inquiries, he used the academy as an excuse, saying they taught him what he knew, but restricted him to only healing magic while he was with the mercenaries to increase his proficiency.
“And you’re saying you cannot activate it without the proper spell, but if whoever is on the other side- this person they call “Master” activates it, then you can, and can even use it to find them?”
Ignoring Kaidus’ patronizing remark, Vick held the ring up to his face, trying to see if he could discern anything from the metallic object. Yet it felt like nothing more than a normal iron ring. “How exactly?”
“A simple tracing magic, and a more complex sealing spell.” Kaidus replied, taking one of the skewers and blowing onto it before taking a bite.
“Ah! That was mine!”
“I know. It’s the price for making me repeat myself endlessly.” He replied with a grin.
“I had to make sure! Man, I get zero respect from you.” Vick flicked the ring back to him and grabbed a skewer for himself.
“I do respect you. But I’m also quite certain that I was the one who caught this forest cat.”
“Yea, but- mmm… with magic. Which is essentially cheating. Mmm… and might I remind you- that I was the one who prepared these?” Vick replied while chewing.
“That’s because you told me to make the shelter and ready the fire. Or did you already forget that?”
“And you did it with magic, which is again cheating and relegates your deeds to nothing more than getting water.” There was a wide grin on Vick’s face.
“If you didn’t flavor these so well, I’d be inclined to say your statement was unfair and biased.” He took another of the skewers.
“Bias? Never.” Vick burst into laughter.
As they ate,
“Do you remember how long until we get to the next village? Was it two days? Three?” Vick questioned, flicking his cleaned stick into the fire.
“I think two? Would be a lot faster if we flew, but…”
“No. I’m done with that. We’ll find some horses in the next place to hasten our travels. That’s what we’ll do.”
“Then yes. I’d say probably two days.” He couldn’t help but laugh.
For the past few days, they had been trying to keep Vick from going unconscious while flying through the air at a reasonable speed. The one time that Vick was able to stay conscious, the man had thrown up his dinner and begged to be lowered, shouting that he understands and prefers the comfort of the solid ground better.
“You’re not gonna just take off without me now, are you?”
“Not yet. The circumstances surrounding everything happening here is quite broad, and has caught a bit of my interest. I can make all the conjectures I want, but it would still be good to understand what is going on. I’m particularly curious about why there are nine standing armies but only two distinct sides, and why this “Liberation Army” is even still around, even though it’s the only faction by itself. There’s also the fact that I still have no directions or information about Tal’hrus.”
“So… when you do, you might leave me behind?”
“That’s a possibility, but I wouldn’t just up and leave. I’d let you know and leave you somewhere where you can use your charm and guile to help obtain information for us.” He gave Vick a dark smile.
“Wha? Wait a- that’s not how this works. I can’t pro- watch your back and keep you from being the reprobate we both know you are if you’re flying off by yourself. And what if I get killed or something bad happens? Remember that? Malpaars is dangerous. Those were your words.”
“I’ll let that little insult you threw in there slide, but for someone of your caliber to be in trouble? Surely you jest.”
“What if- What if Tal’hrus comes after me? I wouldn’t be able to take them on. Or one of the nine armies. Did you think about that?”
“Were you planning to fight Tal’hrus or an army?” Kaidus raised a brow at the statement.
“Okay, so I might have exaggerated a little. And no, I wouldn’t want to fight an army if I don’t have to, even if it was a small one, but-”
“Trust me. I’ve already told you everything to catch you up, and it’ll be better if we move independently so that they didn’t know that we are collaborating. It’ll be a lot easier that way. They won’t know what’s happening yet, but I’m sure they’ll find out soon enough, as I am planning to make my hunt known to Tal’hrus. Which in turn, makes the most dangerous place, right here beside me.”
“… Hah… fine. I don’t know what you’re really playing at and I’m quite positive you’re not giving me the whole story, but even I can see the advantages to that.” Vick relented, scanning him once more. “But on one condition. You get me one of those communication rings, and make sure to check in with me every day whenever we’re apart. You don’t, and I come looking for you. Understood?”
“You might die.” He quipped.
“Dammit Kaidus, I’m being serious here. If you’re gonna be flying off on your own, then I need some way to know that you are safe. Everyday. That’s the only way you’re going to be rid of me if you still want my help, and for me to not run back to Darsus and bring the guild.”
“You can be one serious asshole sometimes. You know that?”
“Only to brats who think they’re adults.” Vick smiled.
“…” He didn’t know what to say to that.
Technically, he was ancient compared to Vick. On the other hand, the man’s demands were quite reasonable and favorable.
He would be able to move alone, doing what he needs to, while keeping Vick out of harm’s way. The scuffle a few nights ago had shown him what sort of dangers Vick could be in if he was ever distracted, and in contrast to what he said earlier, it wasn’t that being beside him was the most dangerous place, as he was the danger.
A slip of his will, and the man would be caught in his magic. It might just be an immobilization spell to stop people here and there, but there’s always the chance that his anger boils through in such a place as this, and he does something unforgivable. It was not a risk he was willing to take, no matter how small.
“Fine, you will get your ring. But I must let you know that not being a mage, you will be unable to release the enchantment. It will only glow unless mana is infused into it, so keep that in mind.”
“Hmm… can’t I just ask a mage to do that for me? Would that work?”
“It would, but I’d rather you not go around showing what I give you to unknown mages. It is something of a secret.”
“If that’s the case, then you’re going to have to show me that it works as you claimed.”
Before they retired for the night, he left Vick to tend to the fire and disappeared into the woods.
Having found a secluded spot with few wild animals, he held his hand over the ground. A moment of silent stillness, then something emerged from the earth, flying up to him. A small piece of unrefined ore. He began pouring mana into the ore, heating it, bending and shaping it to his will. Before long, he had two simple unadorned rings hovering before him. Looking at them, with a thought, two glowing lines appeared on them both before fading away.
Reaching into his shirt, he pulled out one of the two translucent shards that he always kept with him. “Valathiirvanux.” The word of unbinding resounded through the air, and a torrent of power burst forth from the shard, toppling trees and shaking the area around him.
Before the shard even solidified into a reflective mirror, he was already drawing on the excess magic that it was expelling, infusing it with his own mana and binding them to the two rings.