“I see…” Eril replied to the ring on his finger as he moved dexterously through the dark forest, guided only by a small light-stone infused with mana.
After his talk with the stranger nine days ago, he had instructed one of his lieutenants to investigate the curious matter of Countess Belinde. As it turned out, the woman was truly gone. Her men could only attest that they were attacked in the middle of the night by a boy and a man. That there was a bright light, and by the time they regained their visions, the countess was gone and their forces had been reduced considerably. Along with everything that occurred, they were also given a very conspicuous warning.
The assailant was undoubtedly the same person who spoke to him that day. It was why they were so arrogant in their threats.
“Master. What are your orders?” A woman’s voice enquired from the ring as Eril was lost in thoughts.
“… Oversee to Linde’s position and watch her territories for the time being. I will sort this out when I have time and appoint a new replacement to that area.”
“And Inareh. Let me know immediately if anything out of the ordinary occurs.”
“Of course, Master.”
Having given his orders, Eril severed the connection between the two rings.
“My condolences.” A voice spoke from beside him. Although it was supposed to be a sorry statement, in the darkness, he could tell that there was a grin on Kaval’s face as if reveling in his troubles.
Behind them was a sizable group of people all moving quietly through the darkness and following their leads. A handful were Tal’hrus agents, while most were loyal soldiers believing they would put an end to the disasters happening around Malpaars—an end to the Liberation Army.
“It does not matter. We both knew the results already.” Eril replied, not humoring the woman as he kept up his pace.
“Oh? Then why bother sending Inareh in the first place?”
“For confirmation.” He replied insipidly, disinterested in the subject.
“Well, aren’t you the wise one going out of your way to confirm such a trivial thing? They had Linde’s ring. How else would they have gotten it if nothing happened to her?”
“Just make sure your men are ready when this starts.” Ignoring the rhetorical questions, he gave her his own thoughts as they spotted faint traces of light coming from the forest’s end.
“Don’t worry about my team. They know what to do.” Kaval countered smugly.
“And your targets?”
“The prince has been located, but the knight’s whereabouts are unknown. They will wait for us to begin before apprehending the boy.”
As they burst through the forest, they were met by a wall of fog. It was nearing morning already, but the moon was shining dimly in the sky as clouds and mists obstructed its luminescence.
“Master.” A man cloaked in black from head to toe quickly bowed before Eril as they came upon the waterfront where an even larger group was waiting for them.
Dressed to blend in with the shadows, over two hundred men were waiting for his group. Equipped with spears, swords, axes, and bow and arrows, the only ones who did not have any weapons were the mages.
“Rakkon. Is everything set?” Eril questioned, staring past the crowd before him and into the fog that was covering the bay. It was incredibly thick and impossible to perceive, but he could tell that there was something off about the atmosphere.
“Yes master. All that is left, is to dispel this fog. I suspect it is some sort of barrier to hide their base within.”
“A barrier?” He queried with intrigue as Rakkon’s opinions coincided with his own thoughts.
The man was a loyal subject whom he had left in charge of western Malpaars. Rakkon’s official title was that of a count, and had been elevated to such a position after the revolution along with Linde, and another of his own men. The three of them were gifted with western, southern, and eastern Malpaars, leaving the north to the king, while Inareh acted as his liaison and outreaching arms.
“Yes. Many of the men had gone out to scout, only to end up back on the shore.”
“It is indeed a barrier.” Kaval spoke, joining their conversation. “Layna said it would disorient and misdirect unwary minds that wander into it. She spoke of a spell that would allow entry, but was too far away at the time to hear it.”
“A magic of this scale… Vernera still has a lot of mages at her disposal it seems.” Eril voiced out loud with astonishment as he observed the white wall before them.
It would have taken a lot of mages and time, combining their magic to construct something so elaborate and excessive. Even sustaining the barrier would require a constant flow of mana, and someone to watch it at all times, feeding and making sure it does not run out.
“I will contact Layna and tell her to let the others know. Those fools won’t even know what hit them once we start.” Kaval stepped away and pulled out a ring.
“Rakkon. Gather the men and have those skilled with water magic ready to bring everyone into the fog.” Eril ordered the man before him.
“Into the barrier?”
“Yes. Dispelling it would only warn them of our presence. Get everyone and have them follow me. I shall cut a path and we will take them by surprise.” Eril unsheathed the sword at his waist and all eyes turned to him, watching him attentively. Walking over to the water’s edge, he dipped the tip of the blade into the water. After a quick incantation, the surface began freezing and within moments, a thick layer of ice was bobbing before him.
He then turned to Kaval. “You may join in at your leisure or retreat after completing your job. Either way, I will see this to the end.”
Malpaars was already his.
The king was nothing but a puppet, and one of his trusted lieutenants was watching the man at all times. The assignment of raising the unwitting fool to the throne was over, and all that was left, was to slowly build their resources and amass their forces in preparation for war. The former princess and her army was but a means to keep his men content and busy, while he sorted out the bulk of his new empire. Insignificant, the Liberation Army amounted to little more than an itch upon his back that he could scratch anytime he wanted. Yet it seems their little game of chase has finally come to an end. Before the day is over, the Avarthias bloodline that has ruled Malpaars for the past two centuries would come to an end.
Eril jumped onto the ice and with an ice spell, his legs frosted and bound him atop the unstable platform.
Rakkon’s voice resounded throughout the shore and the men began assembling. Row boats that had been constructed prior to their master’s arrival were being pushed into the water, and mages began invoking spells.
As his forces gathered around him, “Let us begin.” Eril invoked his own magic.
With a wave of his sword, he parted the fog before him and willed the waves to carry him out.
With a thrilled grin on her face, Kaval summoned a large pillar of water that quickly transformed into a serpent. Submerging her body into the familiar, she ordered the monstrosity to follow.
As morning dawned, they easily broke through the barrier into calm water and clear sky. In the distance, floating serenely was the dark silhouette of the floating city Vilute.
“Well then, I’ll be going ahead to meet up with my team.” Kaval’s cheerful voice carried over the water’s surface. With a quick incantation, she ducked into her familiar and it dove into the water, swimming ahead.
“Give the orders. Capture those you can, and kill anyone who dares to resist.” Eril commanded, not looking to the men around him.
“Yes, master.” His agents simultaneously complied.
The orders were swiftly relayed to the others, and with two dozen mages and over two hundred soldiers, the small army quickly split into three forces. Taking the lead, Eril increased his speed, sailing for the gates of the floating city as the others split off to surround it.
An ominous dread overwhelmed her, and Vernera Yufin V. Avarthias awoke from her slumber to the sound of unadulterated silence. In her own private chamber within the city’s barracks, she was sweating profusely. The single horn protruding from her forehead felt as if it had been ripped from her skull, her metallic right arm was freezing, and a sense of fear gripped her body and mind.
A very distinct feeling.
The last time she was overcome by such terror was right before she fled her manor, barely escaping the massacre that eventually followed. Like a horrifying nightmare, she felt sick to her stomach and her legs and arms refused to move upon recalling the calamity that befell everyone. The baseless revolution had cost her everything: her family, her husband, the lives of countless loyal subjects, and the faith of Malpaars’ citizens. Yet with the assistance of the trusted few who had sworn their undying loyalty to her, she had been able to preserve her life, and with it, the hopes of one day reclaiming her Queendom.
Vernera looked to her windows and saw that they were closed. Mustering the strength to sit up, “Asiran. Vaedass vithar, nuitis invatie sairan, Raiut.” She muttered a simple light spell, and a small circular object affixed to the ceiling flashed brilliantly before settling down into a warm glow. With unsteady legs, she left her bed and moved to the windows. An icy chill wafted into the room as she pried them open. It was barely dawn, and being on the fourth floor of the fortress-like barrack, she could see that the city was as calm as ever. Yet the sense of unease continued to fester within her.
Exorcising her fears and wide awake due to the freezing cold, Vernera moved to put on a warm robe and exited her chambers.
Galefore Rvanius, first of her knights was standing outside the door and gave her a tired but surprised greeting.
The man stood a head taller than herself, and had fine brown hair that went down to his fiery red eyes. Also a gveril, Galefore was one of her oldest friends and they had known each other since their younger days. In the light of the torches, she could see his curved horn—protruding from his left temple—flaring up in a reddish color to match his eyes. Although not wearing his usual dark armor, she could tell that he was carrying his sword and shield underneath the thick fur cloak that he had donned to protect himself from the cold.
“Gale? Was it your turn to watch over me tonight?”
She knew he fancied her, but being four years older than him, she had only ever seen him as a younger brother.
“No, but Igariah looked exhausted, so I told him to take the night off and to take my shift later.” Galefore replied cordially, but his voice carried a curious tone. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not sure. It might just be the pressure of having to deal with those hypocrites at such a crucial point in our plans.”
“If something is troubling you, I can always lend an ear if you’d like.” He gave her a wry smile.
“That would be very much appreciated. How about an early morning stroll?” She smiled back to the loyal and zealous knight as she began walking down the barrack’s corridor.
Although the uncomfortable feeling was subsiding a bit thanks to Gale, she could not help but feel anxious. With the help of twelve mages and the sacrifice of three others who were on the brink of death, they were able to construct an enormous barrier which had kept them all safe for the past two and a half years. In all that time, none had ever breached their defenses or intruded upon Vilute without their consent. She was sure her fear was unfounded, yet it was sitting there in the back of her mind, reminding her of what occurred the last time such a thing happened.
“Lord Buerinsly would like a few more turns to think about his decision, and Madam Onarald is as indecisive as ever.” Vernera spoke, trying to dissuade her thoughts from the unpleasant memories all those years ago. “The woman just won’t stop increasing her demands and frankly at this point, I’m starting to consider other options.”
“What does she want this time? Besides Livunis I mean.” Galefore questioned curiously.
“Apparently a mining city without tax to the throne for ten years is too little. In her opinion, the village should be property of the Onarald house if we succeed, and exempt from the throne’s authority.”
“Hah. And here I thought ten years tax free was too much for such a profitable mining village.”
“To make matters worse, we’ve been unable to reach the Uthiran house for the past turn, and I’m not even sure if they’re still willing to support us anymore.” Vernera sighed as she walked over to an opening in the wall of the corridor to look outside.
Two years of planning. Of recruiting and reconnecting with families who had once sworn fealty to her father. Lords and ladies who spoke and assured with smiles and gifts when asking for favors, but stood and watched with unabated breaths as her family crumbled. She loathed them, yet they were her only possible allies considering her situation.
“What of Lord and Lady Esbullin?”
“I have sent our friend Biran to confirm the agreements. He should be back any day now.” Vernera replied, gazing at the city. There was smoke rising from a few of the buildings near the city walls, but she thought nothing of it.
“That man huh? Are you sure he’s to be trusted with such vital information and so soon?” Galefore questioned, following behind her.
“I am. A voyage back to Unotus is extremely dangerous, and it would be impossible with just the two of them. He has no other alternative than to help us if he wishes to return safely.”
She had promised a fleet of ships with enough men to help the knight and his prince return to Unotus. In return, the man would assist with her plans for two years, as one of her knights.
She abhorred using those who are uninvolved, but soldiers were hard to come by in their situation, much less a trained warrior who could ride and wield a sword. She could not allow such an opportunity to go to waste.
Vernera gazed out at the peaceful city, and her eyes were quickly drawn to the smoke once again. Then she saw it. One of the larger buildings constructed for the people taking refuge in the city burst into flames. Her heart sunk.
“Princess!” Gale exclaimed as he saw the same thing.
She knew exactly what he was thinking. “We have to wake the others!” Vernera shouted, bolting down the hall back to her room.
The purging flames of Tal’hrus exploded around him, followed by deathly screams. Eril calmly walked the streets, heading toward an extravagant looking building he had spotted before starting the purge.
As people scrambled out of the burning buildings into the streets, his men quickly apprehended them. Those who fought back were given no mercy, and those who submitted were quickly corralled together. Using fire to force them out while at the same time creating panic and confusion, it was an effective approach as usual. Those fortunate enough to perish in the flames would find their salvation, while the unfortunate ones would be used for other purposes.
“Jarko, Routhis, and Lemer, with me!” He shouted and three of his agents who were casting fire magic swiftly ran to his side. Leaving the others to do their work, he began moving and the three trailed behind him like shadows.
Ignoring everything else, they quickly made it to the large structure at the center of the city.
“Halt! Who are you?!” A woman’s voice shouted, and he immediately recognized her.
“Well, you’re as beautiful as ever, Princess. Or should I say, former Princess Vernera Yufin V. Avarthias?” There was a smile on his face, and Eril could not help but laugh at how well everything was coming together. For the princess herself to come greet him, it was like some sort of silly joke.
“Princess, please stand back.” A man wearing black plate armor quickly overstepped the princess, blocking her and unsheathing a black longsword.
“Komor?” Princess Vernera questioned.
“Ah, the famed black knights of Vernera. I’ve heard much about you all from those putrid slavers.” Eril shoved back his cloak and revealed his own sheathed sword. With a standard cross guard and hilt, it looked ordinary, but its magnificence came into view as he unsheathed it. A slim longsword that was light enough to be wielded with one hand. Both sides of the blade were inscribed with runes that glowed hypnotically with a bluish light. “A band of cowards who can do nothing but hide and strike against unsuspecting foes. It is a shame we did not meet three years ago, but it looks like your luck has finally ran out.”
“I am Komor, and we are the Knights of Vernera. State your name, intruders.” The knight replied as four more fanned out around him. “All of you, protect the princess at all cost.” The man added.
“Komor… where have I heard that name before? Were you there when Maverus fell?” Eril enquired, curious about the man before him.
“I was fending off the raiders in the Plemara mountains when the capital fell. Who are you to be asking such things?”
“Ah, that’s right.” He smiled, remembering where he had heard the name. “I am Eril, the one who finished off that weakling of a crowned prince. So… you were his sword instructor? Such a pitiful man, unable to even scratch me. I hope you can do better.” He added, trying to goad the knight into making the first move.
“… You will pay for insulting his memory.” Komor stepped forward, and the four knights behind him closed around the princess.
“He cursed me you know? Said that his master Komor would be the one to avenge him. Like a fool, he did not understand who he was up against. Will you make the same mistake?” Eril replied, stepping toward the knight. “I’ve always wanted to see if his master was as skilled as he claimed.”
Seeing the distance between them shrinking, Komor took two fleeting steps forward. With a two-handed overhead swing of his longsword, he slashed as his third step hit the ground, putting all his weight into the attack.
*TANG!* with one hand, his opponent easily caught the attack.
Having defended in a backhand grip, “You are weak.” Eril mouthed off as he pushed the man back. With a quick twist of his wrist, he changed his grip to a forehand and slashed forward horizontally in one smooth motion. The knight stepped back and his sword grazed the man’s chest plate, frosting over it.
“Komor!” Princess Vernera exclaimed, seeing the attack from behind.
“I am fine, Princess. But this might be more difficult than I thought. All of you, take the Princess and retreat into the barracks.” Komor instructed and the others quickly obliged, moving her away.
“Slaughter anyone in your path and bring me the princess. Alive.” Eril commanded, and the three who had been standing behind him—motionlessly—dashed into the building, following the knights. “How admirable, allowing my men to pass like that.” He commended after they disappeared.
“If I had moved, you would have killed me in the instant I tried to stop them.”
“Keen of eyes too. Maybe this might actually be fun. It’s been too long since I had a good opponent.”
“Fun? You think this is a game?”
“No. This is a long overdue execution.” Without warning, Eril shot forward.
With a thrust, he aimed for the opening in the knight’s helmet, only to have his sword parried. Ducking as his speed threw him at the armored man, Eril planted his left foot into the ground and pivoted his body, turning in a circle back around for a second slash at the man’s chest.
Komor saw the attack and bent down, blocking the horizontal slash with his left gauntlet while throwing an elbow into the man’s face at the same time. It was easily evaded, but with his sword still in a two handed grip above his chest, he forcibly twisted his body and brought the sword down upon the man’s right shoulder as a follow up.
Eril kicked off to the side and the black longsword missed, digging into the ground. Using the opening, he brought his sword across the knight’s body, cutting a frosting gash into the side of the man’s dark breastplate. As the sound of metal slicing through wind followed, he quickly flipped backward and avoided a spin attack that was aimed at his head. “Not bad. I underestimated your ability to swing that sword so fluidly.”
“RAH!” Komor shouted, as he continued his spin, using the momentum to go for another overhead strike.
Eril caught the sword with his own again. “Too weak. Is this all you’ve got?” He taunted, pushing the knight back once more.
Komor looked at the man before him. He was outclassed, and there was something very wrong. With such a thin sword, it was impossible for the man to be catching his attacks like they were nothing. Not just that, he was starting to feel numb with each attack he incurred even though they were to his armor. He was being toyed with, and had not expected his own physique and skills to be so underwhelming. It was a fight he could not win, and the results were quite clear to him.
“I am a knight. Though I have failed in my duty, I will not die in vain!” He screamed, rushing forward once again.
Eril grinned widely. The man knew it was futile, and their dance was coming to an end. “You will die in vain.” He corrected, hitting away the sword that was trying to pierce his chest.
Yet instead of following up with another attack, Komor threw away his sword as it was parried and slammed onto Eril, grabbing the man’s body—with the slim sword between them.
Even as he was being pushed to the ground, “Useless.” Eril uttered the words calmly. With a thought, the runes on his sword flared up, and with a forceful push, he easily escaped the hold. The knight looked at him in shock and fell back onto the ground. Two large ice spikes were protruding out of the man’s body–and armor–where his sword had come into contact with earlier, and another on the man’s left arm.
Eril stepped to the knight’s head and took off the helmet to reveal an older man.
“You too did not understand what you were up against. But you did manage to scratch me, so I shall put you out of your misery.”
With a quick incantation, the runes on his sword flared up once more, and the dying knight’s face distorted with pain as his body froze and expanded, shattering under the armor.
Eril stepped over the body and entered the barracks.
“This can’t be happening!” Biran shouted as he ran through the forest, keeping to a less cumbersome pathing.
In the distance, instead of the great shroud of mist that rose to the heavens and concealed the city, he could see the clear skies of Vilute and with it, an ominous black cloud of smoke.
The barrier hiding the city was no more, and a single thought ran through his mind.
He had already finished his job, and was almost home when he saw the fog barrier dissipating.
Reaching the shores by early noon, he could see Vilute sitting out there in the water, smoke pouring out of her like some cataclysmic event.
‘Lyal.’ The prince’s name came to mind, and he couldn’t care less about anyone else. Rushing back into the forest, he found the concealed stash of whistling arrows and a bow within the hollowed trunks of a dead tree. The items were how they signaled for the mages to open the water bridges for them, and running back to the shore, Biran began firing one arrow after another. Yet nothing happened, and he soon exhausted the supply of arrows.
Like a crazed man, he ran along the shore, looking for anything that might take him to Vilute. And unlike the gods, they answered his prayers. He found four unusually large pieces of wood a distance from where he had exited the forest. It looked like someone had been logging around the area, and building something. Not caring to look around, he grabbed one of them and began paddling out towards the floating city that was smoldering in the distance.