-Elsewhere in Malpaars-
Three days ride west of the capital Maverus. The town of Tirtha.
An industrial town prior to the war, it was captured and used as a central base of command for the revolutionary army. Through its proximity, they were able to surround and cut off supplies to the capital, ultimately bringing the war to an end.
Afterward, it became a thriving center of trade and a point of defense against those who would try and take the capital.
Through the busy streets of the slums, a man strolled alongside the numerous people who were busily going about their morning.
A longsword at his waist, the man was taller and had a larger build than the average man. Not only was his physique enviable, he would be considered handsome, if not for the scars on his face. The man’s long brown hair was skewed to the left side of his face, covering a large burn scar that ran from his left ear to his neck. A second series of scars came from a weapon that chipped the left side of his nose and mutilated his upper and bottom lips, giving him an almost deformed look. The last one ran from near the center of his forehead to the right side of his head, barely missing his right eye.
The man stopped before an old graying beggar who was kneeling and holding up cupped hands. Pulling out a few metal bits from his pocket, the man dropped them into the beggar’s hands, closing them with his own.
“Ethaer’s blessing to you! Ethaer’s blessings to you good sir!” The old man exclaimed graciously.
“I know these are hard times, but please do not give up.” The man replied, his voice filled with bittersweet sorrow and pity as he held onto the old man’s hands. “Better days will come. I am sure of it.” He comforted as he stepped back before continuing on his way.
After a few more stops to give handouts to orphans and beggars alike, he turned into an alley and continued until he reached a small stone house. Simple and run-down, it was very much like all those around it.
“Welcome home, dear.” A cheerful, almost elated voice greeted him as he entered.
A beautiful woman wearing a wavy grey skirt with a loosely buttoned white blouse was standing before him. She had a black shawl draped around her shoulders, but instead of covering her upper body with it, the shawl was wrapped around her arms.
“If you’re here, then I assume everything is ready?” Far from happiness or the sympathetic tone he had shown earlier, his voice was stern and cold.
The woman made an exaggerated motion, taking a few steps back and falling into the chair behind her. “Why?! Please! Does my body not satisfy you anymore?!” Putting the back of her left hand to her forehead, she took deep breaths, raising her chest and emphasizing the division of her plentiful bust.
“Enough with the theatrics. Answer me Kaval.” He shot her an unamused glare.
“Tch. You’re no fun.”
“I said I would help. Not play along with your nonsense. If you’ve nothing else, get out of here.”
“Fine, fine. We’ll do it your way. But might I say something first?” She got up and started pacing around the small living space. “It’s a great barrier you’ve got here, but you really do need a woman’s touch. This place is so drab and plain, I can barely call it a house fit for living.” She turned back to him as she stopped at the chair again. “Although I would never understand why you chose such a dilapidated hovel in the first place, considering all the other locations you could have taken for yourself.”
“Leave.” He replied with full on irritation, his left hand grabbing the hilt of his sword.
“Jeez, you’re so serious,” she replied with a mischievous smile. “I thought playing house would lighten your mood. Apparently I was wrong.”
“Well, I’ll get right to it then.” She sat down on the chair and crossed her legs seductively. Yet seeing no reaction, her smile quickly disappeared. “My spies have infiltrated the prisoners and are now being led back to their base. It is only a matter of time until they are ready.”
“And the targets?”
“Unconfirmed, but I am positive they are taking refuge within.”
“Very well,” The man responded, reaching into the inside of his coat and pulled out five rings. “Just make sure your men are ready when the time comes.”
“Of course.” A smile appeared on the woman’s face.
He picked out two of the metal rings and wore them on his fingers. With an incantation, he transferred his mana into the rings, activating both magical items.
“Yes master?” A man’s voice immediately came through from one of the two. A voice he knew too well.
“Rakkon. It is time. Prepare for my arrival.”
“Understood, Master Eril.” The voice obeyed, sounding very eager.
He was Eril. One of seven masters who ruled Tal’hrus under the old master. Although not his real name, the title was granted unto him after years of proving his worth to the organization, and he wore it with pride.
After his subordinate’s affirmation, the connection from the ring stopped and its faint glow faded.
He stood motionless, waiting for the second ring.
Kaval, also one of the seven masters, sat in her chair watching quietly. There were signs of curiosity on her face as she waited for the subordinate to answer.
There was an odd disturbance, then the connection merged.
“Ah, at last. I have been waiting.”
A voice Eril has never heard before came through the glowing ring on his finger. An adolescent’s voice that sounded almost pleased to be connected through to him. “Who are you? Where is Linde?” He replied, puzzled by the unknown voice.
“Countess Belinde is no more. I have taken the liberty of releasing her from your commands, oh esteemed master of Tal’hrus.”
His finger twitched upon hearing the mocking statement. Whoever it was, they knew about him and about Tal’hrus. Even about the rings and their functions. Keeping a composed visage in front of Kaval, “Did you killed her?” He calmly questioned.
The woman—Linde, also known as Belinde—was not a powerful mage in terms of combat abilities, but her specialty in manipulation magic had earned her a place in his inner circle. She was quite valuable, and he had assigned some of his stronger mages as her guards. It was unthinkable for someone to have defeated them.
Yet, “Yes.” The voice calmly replied, giving no recourse for doubts.
His body tensed at the proclamation that Linde and his mages had fallen. A few paces before him, Kaval stood up from her seat. “Eri–” She attempted to say something, but he held up his hand to quiet her. “You said you were waiting… who are you?” He inquired in an attempt to get some sort of read on their opponent.
After a momentary pause, “I am Death.” the voice answered. “The cries of the fallen beckons, begging for justice from beyond the void. I have come to see their vengeance fulfilled and regrets put to rest.” As it spoke, the voice shifted into a deep commanding tone filled with an icy fury.
He easily understood what the voice meant, and a surprised smile crept onto his face. “Then you are a bigger fool than I thought. You will die, and that vengeance will be nothing but an illusion. We are Tal’hrus. We are absolute.” He responded, undeterred by such empty words.
“You are a false pretense, living on borrowed time. Gather your forces and bolster your defenses. For the winds of carnage are blowing, and I am coming to collect.”
“You-” will fall in the face of overwhelming might. He wanted to counter, but there was a burst of light from the ring and it faded back to normal. He felt that the connection had been forcefully severed.
Eril silently took off the ring, remaining calm as he stepped toward Kaval and sitting down on a chair across from her.
“I thought you said you had everything under control?” The woman reproached him.
They both understood the consequences of leaving alive someone who could possibly be a threat to Tal’hrus.
“I do.” He swiftly replied as if to rebuke her words.
It was impossible for the wretches that were left in Malpaars to stand against him.
Even the remnants of the old monarchy that now called itself the Liberation Army would fail, should they attempt to retake the country. The reasons why he even allowed such an insignificant group to run amok, was to help root out all the dissenters that are—even now—plotting against the new rule. Their existence was also beneficial, as it provides his subordinates with feasible cause to subjugate those they find uncooperative, in the name of hunting for radicals.
“Then explain what just happened. Whoever that was, they clearly knew about our organization and what you are.”
“I can see that, Kaval. I am neither blind nor deaf.” No matter how much he tried to keep himself composed, annoyance was seeping through.
“What are you going to do then?” The woman questioned as a smile appeared on her face.
He could see that she was enjoying harrying him for the unexpected situation.
“I must contact the old master and tell hi-”
“No!” She shouted. “We will not call for a meeting with that old monster yet!”
“You wish to remain silent even about this?” He held up the ring in his hand.
“I don’t care about the fucking rings!” Kaval exclaimed, standing up from her chair and closing in on him. “What I care about is my life! If you haven’t forgotten, I don’t have very much time left!” She exclaimed as her face openly displayed her anger and fear. “That monster made it quite clear that the next time we meet, if I am yet unsuccessful, I would be replaced!”
“You don’t have to come. I will let them know that you are preoccupied with our joint operation.”
“Oh yes, skip the meeting. That worked wonders for the previous Narshon didn’t it?” She replied sarcastically.
“Then what do you propose?” He enquired, understanding her fears all too well.
Eril quickly recalled their meeting with the old master barely half a turn ago.
Just as they were starting to reclaim their foothold within Darsus, the new Zavon had failed to show up to report his progress.
The only source of information they were able to put together, came from the few agents that fled to Rovtoss and Kulis after the loss of their command structure. Like a curse, all signs were starting to point towards the same fate that befell the previous Zavon five years ago.
It had infuriated the old master, and due to Kaval’s lack of development with her own assignment, she had taken the brunt of the old master’s anger.
It was no wonder she was being so adamant about it.
“I propose we proceed with our plans and kill that little fucker along with his shitty knight. We end this hunt once in for all so that I’m not constantly in danger whenever I’m standing before that old fuck. We finish that and you can tell him whatever you want.”
“Show some respect. He is still our master.”
“Respect? I’ll start showing some when that fiend starts appreciating what we do for him! I’m sick and tired of losing people just because he deems them failures.” Kaval snapped back. “Old age must be getting to him and he’s scared you know? I’m willing to bet he knows that his reign is coming to an end, and that one of these days, one of us will be in his position.” She started laughing maniacally with a grin on her face.
“Big talk for someone that was begging for her life.” Eril replied blandly, not sharing in her delight.
“I might not have the strength to go against him myself, but you know my words to be true. If we can just-”
“Enough. Those efforts will only end with our deaths.” He stopped her before she could start with her plans again. “For now, I will refrain from notifying the master of our unknown assailant. Go prepare yourself and meet me by the western gate at sundown. I shall muster up what forces I can before then.”
“I’m serious, Eril. Another two or three more, and-”
“Kaval!” He shouted, halting her words. “We leave at sundown.” He repeated himself, making sure she understood that there were no room for further disputes or otherwise.
“Fine.” She brusquely stepped away from his vicinity and headed for the door. “Until then.” She gave him a devious smile and left, closing the door behind her.
Eril sat in silence, contemplating his decisions and Kaval’s words.
Ever since coming to Malpaars to finish her job, she had been trying to rope him into her conspiracy. To form an alliance with a few of the masters and overthrow the old man from his position of leadership. With the last meeting they held, her hatred for the old master had only grown deeper.
It might be possible if they teamed up as she professed, but none of them knew the extent of the old man’s abilities, thus none had ever dared to try.
Eril quickly brushed the suicidal thoughts out of his mind and focused onto something else.
He held up the ring that he took off earlier and stared at it. Whoever was on the other side was skilled enough to erase all traces of the synchronized magic within the rings, rendering the accessory inert and useless.
A part of him wanted to inform the old master of the unknown mage, but another part of him was fascinated, and desired to face the stranger that claimed to be “Death” in battle.
His lips curved into a smile as his fist closed around the metal ring.
Kaidus stood in the middle of the woods, grasping the metal communication ring in his hand.
Closing his eyes, he expanded his mana outward and traced the mana sealed within. A weak response came back, coming from a single direction. After another attempt with the same results, he placed the ring back in his pocket.
The first step was over. All that was left, was to wait for Tal’hrus to do their part.
From his attacks against the two Zavons, it was clearly more convenient for him to take out a large number of agents in a single assault, than to kill off the master and hunt down the stragglers. He had given his threat precisely to goad whoever was in charge of Malpaars into reacting in such a manner. It might be trivial and may not even work, but he was hoping that they would gather their forces and make his life easier—if only a little. Whether they take the bait or not, he would eventually find out.
Picking up the forest rat and five birds that he caught, he proceeded back to the road and to their campsite where they had spent the night.
Vick was already waiting for him when he arrived. The man was tending to a small fire.
“Took you a while. Any luck?”
“Got these.” Kaidus held up the bunch of small animals.
“Perfect.” Beside Vick, there was a small pile of mushrooms and wild plants.
It was five days ago since they left Esperen, and they had run out of food after the second night. Because of that, they were using their mornings to hunt and gather food for their travels.
With his magic, Kaidus was tasked with hunting while Vick gathered wild edible plants.
“There’s something else,” Kaidus added, and Vick’s smile turned into confusion. “I got in contact with them. Tal’hrus knows that Countess Belinde is no more.”
Vicks eyes widened at his words. “Then… do you know where they are?”
“Somewhere far to the north.”
“So I’m guessing this is where we part?” Vick questioned with a hesitant smile. He was worried, but his eyes did not betray what he had learned about the boy in the past half turn.
“Not yet. I was thinking I’d accompany you to the next town first. Not to mention a nice meal wouldn’t hurt.”
From his calculations, they were still three and a half days from the next town.
It would be fine leaving Vick by himself, but he wanted to see the man safely to the town first.
“Don’t want to leave me now? Maybe I should come with you?” Vick teased with a wide grin.
“I’m just worried you’d get lost without the map.” He countered, returning a smile and looking down the road that they had been following ever since leaving Esperen.
The next day, they met a traveling merchant who was headed to Esperen. From the merchant, they learned that their destination was half a day closer than their initial estimate, and after two more days, they reached the town of Karpes.
While Vick was busy trying to negotiate a price for their room at one of the inns, he was walking around the town, looking for a bookstore.
He did not plan on buying any books, but the prospects of finding rare literary works that could only be found in Malpaars intrigued him—driving his search.
After walking a considerable distance away from the inn and not finding a single bookstore, he stopped and scanned his surroundings. The sun had already set, and the town’s patrols were out and about, making sure the street lamps stayed lit.
Around him, the town’s nocturnal activities were already underway. Bars were alight with bouts of laughter and music, along with the occasional shouts and brawls that would end up on the streets.
He spotted working ladies going about hand in hand with their patrons, along with the occasional thugs that made sure the flesh business was going well.
Wondering if he could ask for directions, he met the eyes of a young lady standing beside a well-lit establishment—she appeared to be waiting for someone. The girl had brown hair and was wearing an unadorned and simple gray outfit of a short-sleeved shirt, and a skirt that went down to her knees. She saw him staring and gave him a shy, but heartwarming smile. Without a second thought, Kaidus approached her.
“G-good evening.” He could see that the girl was nervous, but she greeted him pleasantly.
“Good evening. Sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a bookstore. Does this town have one?” He questioned.
“Oh, yes.” She quickly answered, almost as if surprised by his question. “It’s hard to see from this street, but if you follow that path and take a left when you come upon the Laughing Shingles tavern, you’ll see a large building ahead of you. The bookstore will be on its right side with a hanging sign in the shape of an open book.” She added, having found her nerves and pointed him in the aforementioned path.
“Sorry. How would I know when I’ve reached the Laughing Shingles tavern?”
“You’ll know it. It’s very hard to miss.” There was a dazzling smile on her face.
“I see. Thank you very much for your help.” He gave her a courteous nod and started walking toward a street that intersected with the one he had been searching.
Barely out of earshot, someone shriek from behind him. Turning around, he saw that the young lady was now on the ground and a woman, dressed in a flowing flashy dress stood over her. His stomach churned at the scene. He had suspected it, but seeing his suspicions confirmed, it was truly revolting. Kaidus quickly ran back.
“- useless little bitch!” He caught the tail end of the woman’s insults, followed by a slap.
“Please Myrna! He was only asking for directions!” He heard the girl’s plea as she attempted to protect her face.
“That’s why you are useless!” The woman grabbed the girl’s hair, pulling her up off the ground.
“Stop this.” Before the woman could hit the girl again, he had already moved beside them and caught her hand.
“What do you think you are doing!?” The older woman shouted, glaring back at him.
“This is going too far.”
“This, is none of your business. And get your hands off me!” The woman screamed, shaking her hand violently as people turned to look in their direction. A large man began walking toward them.
“If this is by any chance my fault, then please allow me to make amends.” He replied, locking eyes with the woman.
The older woman scowled at the girl—who was still in her hands—briefly, before releasing her. “Amends? Then pay up. Thirty erns for having disturbed her work.” She quickly answered. Turning around, she gave a quick wave of her hand and the large man turned away.
“Myrna! Please! He’s got nothing to do with this!” The girl begged again, grabbing onto the older woman’s legs.
“Shut up!” The woman kicked the girl away, and held out her hands to him.
“Are you deaf? I said thirty.”
“How much to buy her?” He clarified.
A smirk appeared on the older woman’s face. “She’s not for sale, little boy. She’s new on the market and we need her to work for a long time.”
From the corner of his eyes, he saw the young lady beside him lowering her head and wrap her arms around herself. Something tugged at his inside, and his free hand clenched into a fist.
“How much for the night?” He replied, knowing all too well what sort of business it was. An unfortunate vocation, made even more repulsive when it is against the person’s will. Yet for some people, it was their only way of life. It was not up to him to judge the girl for her misfortune, for there were tens of thousands just like her; victims of a rotten world that had degenerated into one ruled by greed. He could not save her, but for a single night, he would help protect and ease her pains.
“For you, eighty erns.”
“Quiet!” The older woman instantly silenced the girl’s protest. “Like I said. She’s new and barely used.” The woman smiled an insidious smile.
Kaidus reached into his pocket, feeling the two fers he had brought with him in case his plans go awry and a book caught his attention.
“80.” He handed her the two green fers, and saw the delighted grin on the woman’s face as she snatched them.
“If I don’t see her by midnight, you will regret it.” The woman threatened before turning away.
“Stop.” He called out. “I believe the price was eighty. You are forgetting something.”
“The price is what I say it is. And unfortunately for you, it’s just been raised to one hundred.” The woman replied. “Oh, and Saadra. Keep in mind what would happened if you fail to return.” She added, walking away.
The girl beside him fell to her knees and began sobbing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She apologized, crying into her hands.
“It is I who should be apologizing.” He knelt down beside her. “I was not thinking. I am sorry for getting you in trouble.”
Upon his words her sniffling lessened, and she raised her head up to look at him. With their close proximity, he noticed that that her eyes were light blue and beautiful, visible even in the darkening night.
“You… you are weird.” She told him amidst her sniffling, and her smile from before slowly made its way back onto her lips. He could see the embarrassment in her eyes, as she covered the left side of her face with one hand.
“So I’ve been told.” He stood up and held out a hand. He saw her reluctance, but she took it and he pulled her up. “Well, shall we go then?”
Her face twisted back into one of shame and fear. “… t-to an inn? O-or do you mean to use an alley?” Her voice was shaky and tense.
“I was hoping you can show me the way to the bookstore, and perhaps accompany me in perusing their selections.” He answered with a smile, disregarding her misunderstanding.
He saw the girl breathe a sigh of relief and her smile returned. “But I don’t know how to read.”
“There are picture books that do not require knowing how to read.”
Her eyes lit up upon hearing his words. With a smile and a nod, she took his hand and began walking down the path she had pointed toward earlier.
Unfortunately for them, the bookstore was already closed by the time they arrived. With no other reasons to be outside, he eventually persuaded her to go back with him to the Inn for dinner.
Although she did not talk much about her problems, he was able to learn a few things about her.
Her full name was Saadra Ridales, and she was a year older than him. She had lost her parents even before Malpaars’ revolution, and was living on the streets when she was picked up by Lady Myrna, the woman he met earlier. She did not elaborate on her relationship with the woman or why she was in such an unsavory business, and he did not press her.
Instead, they talked about the upcoming Rinol, and the cold that would blanket the land with a white veil. He shared stories about hunting and sleeping in the woods. About the plants and animals he’d seen, and she listened eagerly, having known no other life than the one within Karpes.
There was a grin on Vick’s face when they returned to the Inn. “I look away for one moment, and you’re bringing a girl back with you. How you’ve grown.” Vick teased and stood up from his seat, almost knocking over his drink on the table. “Good evening, lovely one. I am Vick, Kaidus’ older brother. I know he’s a brat, but please take care of him.” He made a curt bow.
“Sit down. It’s not what you think.” Kaidus replied, reprimanding Vick with a hard glare. Yet it only seemed to have encouraged the man’s insolence.
“Oh? And what am I thinking?” Vick smiled from ear to ear.
“I will not humor that with an answer.” Kaidus replied, moving to sit down. “Saadra. Please.” He gestured to the empty seats across from them.
“I… I’m sorry. I think I should go.” She bolted for the door.
Kaidus quickly followed her outside. “What do you mean you have to go? It’s not yet time.”
“I can’t be in here Kaidus. I don’t belong here.” She replied, moving toward the darkness and away from the lamp posts.
“It’s an inn. Anyone is allowed to be in there.”
“I’m sorry for getting you into all this. You even wasted your money on someone like me.” She lowered her head.
“That doesn’t matter. Won’t you come inside and have dinner with us?”
“I- I have to go.” She turned and tried to run.
“Saadra.” He caught her hand. “What’s wrong?” He questioned sternly, not releasing his grip.
“Please don’t…” She replied with a muffled voice.
“Where do you have to go?”
“Please… let me go…”
“Then please tell me what is wrong with having dinner with us.”
“Why?” She immediately crouched down and hid her face.
“Saadra…” He caught his tongue, hearing the silent sobs. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Why…” She repeated. Only this time it was not a question, and she was crying. “Why are you so nice to someone like me? Why couldn’t you just be like all the others and hit me or yell at me?” She looked up and tears were streaming out of her eyes. “Why didn’t you just leave me alone… why did you have to make me feel like this.”
“I…” In his attempt to help her, he had failed to realize what he was doing. His sympathy was probably hurting her even more than he could imagine, and in his ignorance, had failed to consider it. “I am sorry…”
“Please leave me alone.” She sobbed, standing up and walking away.
There was nothing he could do. He understood too well, her sufferings. Kindness itself was a double-edged blade, and he had impaled her with it.
‘You are an idiot…’ He admonished himself for being so blind to her pain.
Ashamed of himself, he could only watch as her figure disappeared into the darkness.