The glow of the day’s eve was quickly vanishing, and throughout the woods, the voices of nocturnal animals were already echoing beyond the obscured silhouettes of the trees. Along the winding road where there should be naught but silence, the muffled sounds of hooves continued to softly drum against the frozen ground, slowly moving south through the evening chill.
Territorial cries of nesting dawnbeaks resounded loudly through the rising mist, and the rhythmic trots of the two horses immediately came to a standstill. Shuddering, both horses began whinnying nervously, having sensed the creature that had awoken from its slumber.
In the dim light, Zirus’ two silvery eyes were already glowing menacingly as it slithered out onto Kaidus’ shoulder. With a low-pitched shriek, it paralyzed both horses and silenced their anxious cries before opening its mouth to let out a lethargic yawn. “Ch-chi-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch…” The dawnbeak’s cries traveled through the air once more, and with one look at its master for permission, Zirus propped itself upward to stretch its glorious wings. With a single beat of its two forewings, it propelled itself into the air and catching an unnatural breeze that had suddenly twisted around them, its six pairs of transparent wings flared outward, shooting Zirus up into the sky.
“I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing that thing…” Narissa remarked from behind as she rubbed her horse’s neck to calm the frightened animal.
Watching the growing serpent leave to hunt and feed, “Let us find a spot for the night.” Kaidus proposed as his mare also began taking timorous steps backward.
It has been eight long days since they left the town of Garnikul, and although Narissa’s curiosity had revealed itself shortly after departing the town, two days of forcing her to keep up on the road had quickly simmered her down and made her less inquisitive. Whether it was due to the fatigue of arduous riding or the knowledge that further interrogation would not be welcomed, Kaidus was glad she had understood the subtleties and left his privacy to himself—for the most part. Fortunately for them both, the trip had been a relatively quiet one ever since.
Moving in front, a small orb of light materialized before Kaidus and began to slowly hover into the woods. Promptly dismounting his horse, he led the nervous beast into the trees. Narissa quickly dismounted and followed closely behind.
The warm blazes of a small campfire were burning brightly by the time the last of the day’s light disappeared. Having found a nice spot underneath a large overhanging tree, the both of them–exhausted after a long day’s ride–were sitting quietly across one another, just taking in the warmth of the fire. Tied to two trees a few good paces away, their two horses had already been watered and were left to feed on fallen leaves and small plants.
While waiting for the soup by the side of the flames to cook,
“My arms and legs feel like they’re about to fall off.” Narissa complained loudly while slowly massaging her aching legs. Sitting sideways, her head plates were reflecting the glow of the fire, giving them a soft shimmer every time she moved or twisted her body. Her traveling leathers were already off, and she was barefooted while wearing only her upper garments and a black long pants.
Paying no attention to Narissa’s complaints, Kaidus continued to stare at the fire as a smile made its way onto his face.
Having traveled with her in close company for the past eight days, he had learned that she was quite a puerile and impulsive person. Although only a few years younger than his own mother Adalina, where his mother would be more reserved with her words and quietly press forward, Narissa had been fairly vocal ever since their first night out. Long periods of silence appear to unsettle her and when it came to cooking, while he himself had learned how to cook from Adalina, Narissa on the other hand could barely boil water. The presence of an educated lady could be felt in the way she spoke along with how she composed herself, yet for some reason, Narissa herself was trying to keep the presence subdued.
“We passed by quite a lot of people today. Are you not curious why?” Narissa questioned while letting out another pained groan.
Kaidus quickly recalled the hundreds of strangers they had passed by the past few days. It was very different from when it was just Vick and himself. From when they first arrived and would walk for days without seeing a single face.
“Do you think what Shiar said is actually true?”
“It is possible.” He replied as the pot boiled over.
“Conscription orders… what in the world are they thinking? Why drag this half dead country into another pointless slaughter?” Narissa’s voice slowly trailed off into silent contemplation.
“Sometimes-…” Kaidus quickly paused as the conversation with the forlorn king played through his mind all those nights ago. “Sometimes when an arm or a leg gets infected, is it not the best option to amputate the infected limb to prevent it from festering and spreading?” He quietly replied, garnering a look of intrigue from Narissa as he reached over to take her bowl.
“What are you implying?”
“Although I may have just recently arrived, you and I both know that there is something severely wrong with the current state of Malpaars. As it stands, it is a putrefied cesspool, one afflicted with a potent disease that is spiraling this land into destruction. Unless that disease is expelled, beaten, Malpaars will only get worse. This slaughter as you call it may be the last chance that this dying land has of severing its infected limbs. A last push for survival, and possibly a new breath at life.” Carefully ladling a bowl of soup, he handed it back. “Narissa?” He questioned and turned around only to see her staring with her mouth slightly agape in incredulity, and her eyes filled with conflicting struggles.
“… Is that how you truly feel?” She inquired as she reached out and held onto the bowl, not taking it. “Your words, the conviction within them as if you truly believe them… as if annihilation and reestablishment are the only options left.” She quietly stared back. “How can you even say something like that after what you’ve witnessed? Will destruction bring about better days for people in Garnikul? How many more people must die before stability is achieved?”
Kaidus stopped his mindless words. She was right to be troubled, and it was not his place to speak of her world in such a way. “I may have said too much, please accept my apology.” He quickly lowered his head. “I am but an ignorant child. My views are merely extrapolations of what I have discovered through texts and through my limited experiences. If my words have offended in any way, please disregard them.”
“You- you’re lying.” Narissa quickly contested. “The solemnness in your voice, the way you justified Malpaar’s circumstances as if substituting it in place of something else entirely.” Her face twisted into one of alarmed curiosity. “What exactly are you hiding? What have you seen?”
‘It is not for you to know.’ His mind echoed, but instead, “I must confess, I did not stay with the Droxxon mercenaries for three years without seeing a thing or two about the world’s truth. The vile domains outside of Ferrent, of things and people that are better off absent from this world. From this plane. My time with them has shown me that my life within the city has been one of selfish peace and joviality, and it seems to have given me a harsher opinion on such truths.”
“Kaidus…” Narissa said with a hushed voice.
“But who am I to express how the world should be, right? I’m sorry for spouting such thoughtless words without taking your stance into account. Let us eat.” He added and quickly went back to his seat, careful not to drop the bowl of hot soup in his hand.
“…” After a silent moment of staring into her bowl, Narissa quietly dug into her dinner, her mind lost in thought.
Two days later.
Hovering in the air, Zirus silently surveyed the trees beneath for movements. It was evening, and like it had done ever since choosing to follow its master, it was out hunting again. Circling above the trees, the light of the setting sun illuminated its silver underbelly, giving it a reddish hue to match the burn of the horizon.
Jerking its head to the side, the fleeting movements of a scavenging rat moving along the high branches caught its eyes. Angling its wings to descend, Zirus began gliding closer to the prey.
Mindlessly occupied with a small hole in the tree, the rat failed to notice as a pitch-black line swooped down from above.
With a single swipe of its three-pronged tail, Zirus slammed the rodent against the side of the tree before swiftly grabbing onto a protruding branch.
It watched as the stunned rat fell down the tree and it quickly followed after, latching onto various branches as it made its silent descent.
As the rodent landed on the forest floor, instead of going to claim its prize Zirus quietly descended onto one of the lower branches and waited.
Eventually, the rustling of leaves came from around the tree where it was hiding and a small wolf emerged from a thicket.
An iron tailed kavak, exactly what it had been waiting for.
Watching as the kavak slowly approached the convulsing rodent, Zirus quietly released its hold on the branch and allowed itself to drop toward the wolf. Its wings immediately extended outward to catch its fall and, “Kraaauu!” with a devastating roar, it instantly immobilized the wolf.
A cry came from the darkness and Zirus twisted its head to catch the shape of a man screaming loudly in the dark. Focusing its two silver eyes, the screams intensified as the man spotted them. “Shhrrrraaaa!!!” It hissed back threateningly while guarding its prize, not taking its eyes off the man.
“YAaaaaahhhh! Help me!!!” The shadow screamed out and began stumbling away with haste.
Watching to make sure that the man was gone, Zirus quickly swallowed the rat and began ripping into the kavak.
“Kaidus! Did you hear that!?” Narissa shouted, returning to their camp in sopping wet clothes. She had been bathing in the nearby stream and from the looks of it, she had yet to dry off.
“Hear what?” Kaidus questioned while in the midst of stacking their firewood into a small pile.
“Screaming from further down the stream. It sounded like someone’s in trouble.”
“Hm?” He looked in the direction she pointed to. There was nothing but darkness and no sign of anyone else nearby. “I wonder if there are others out here.” ‘Zion?’
‘By Your Willl…’ The spirit replied and a breeze gathered around them. Yet just as it began, “Help! Help me!!!” a barely audible cry came from further down the river exactly as Narissa had said. This time, they both heard it.
“Stay here.” Kaidus quickly instructed and grabbed his sword.
“And be separated in this forest? No thanks.” With a swift refusal, Narissa hastily slid on her traveling boots and grabbed some dried clothes from her bag.
“Stay here and look after our camp and the horses.” He specified before rushing toward the river without waiting for another word from her.
Running toward the screams, the wind whispered to him and Kaidus quickened his pace. “Where?”
Following Zion’s breeze, the cries became louder and louder until he arrived at a man who was crawling on the ground and screaming hysterically. The pitiful man appeared to have lost all his strength and had been crawling for some time, as his clothes were dirtied and caked with fresh and old mud alike.
“Who are you? What happened?” Kaidus questioned, stopping before the man.
The man looked up with a terrified face.
“A m-monster as large as a man! G-glowing eyes, and fangs longer than fingers!” The man hollered loudly and grabbed onto Kaidus’ legs. “Please y-you have to help! It’s coming after me!”
“Monster?” With glowing eyes… Zirus’ peculiar feature quickly popped into his head.
“That horrible s-shriek! It was going to eat me!” Another bout of hysteria came from the man.
“Where did you come from? What are you doing out here this late?”
“I don’t- I don’t know what happened. I lost my way after fleeing from the monster. P-please, you have to-” As if realizing something, the man stopped and attempted to calm himself down. “My little boy- my boy is still waiting for me. Oh, Izal!”
“Is your camp around here?”
“I don’t know. Please, I’m so tired. My boy… he will worry.”
“Which direction did you come from? Tell me.” Kaidus demanded as he lowered himself to help the man up.
“I- I must… I must get back to my…” The man slurred his last breath as he fell out of consciousness.
“Vishan. Search the surrounding forests, see if you can find any other camps.” Kaidus ordered before hefting the man onto his shoulders and returning to their camp.
Hidden within the forests a day’s ride north of Imvera, was a large encampment consisting of hundreds of people. Made up entirely of those who wished to escape the new orders and commands of the Southern Guards, it was a growing community with a small force of men and woman who were fighting for their freedom. After assisting the village of Esperen, they had moved the majority of their forces from the forests surrounding Esperen in an attempt to outpace the growing southern army, and to consolidate their strength.
A number of patched up tents lined a large opening and though it was the dead of night, numerous patrols were vigilantly walking about, keeping their eyes on anything that may spell trouble.
A tall bearded man with an unassuming face and a broken nose sat anxiously by one of the many fires that were burning endlessly around the camp. Surrounded by a few of his men he looked quite calm, yet his body language and the constant glances toward the shadows denoted otherwise.
“Captain, you should get some rest. We’ll keep our eyes out for Jonns.” One of the patrols voiced as they came to sit beside him.
“I will. Just let me warm up a little longer.” The man replied, looking into the flames restlessly.
He had sent out two dozen hunters in an attempt to add to their inevitable food shortage, and now someone was missing. The others had all returned shortly after dusk, yet it was already nearing morning, and the missing hunter still could not be accounted for. Unsure if they had been discovered or not, he could do nothing but sit and wait. ‘I should have sent a search party. He could not have gone far.’ He silently admonished himself, knowing that it was now too late for such wishful thinking.
“Captain! Wake up! … Captain Biran!”
Watching the fire his tired eyes had drowsed off and by the time he realized it, someone was shouting his name. Jolting into wakefulness, “What is it?” Biran promptly questioned the patrol that was shouting in between breaths.
“There are movements from the north. Yazar said he spotted a light heading our way. It could be trouble.”
Great, just what we needed. Biran scowled and tiredly stood up. In hindsight, it had not been a good idea to stay up all night worrying. “Go alert the others and go wake the mercenary who joined us in Esperen. If there is going to be a fight, I wish to have him alongside us.” Though the skirmish in Esperen had been brief, the skills he had glimpsed from the man–as they stormed the surprised group of thieves–had been enough to keep his attention from dismissing the man as ordinary.
With his instructions, those who had been sitting with him sluggishly got up and began arming themselves.
“Captain.” A voice came from beside him and Biran turned to see one of the patrols holding up a full faced iron helmet.
“Thank you.” The helmet along with a full suit of armor had been won from the knight that they killed in Esperen. And although it was the mercenary who had killed the knight, with no one else willing to use it–and his own set destroyed in the destruction of Vilute–after a little negotiation, the set had become his.
Taking the helmet from the patrol, the image of the mercenary’s fleeting footwork and skillful execution surfaced vividly in Biran’s mind.
With Solio’s impeccable shots to free the hostages and the surprise of their ambush, the mercenary had lunged forward toward the knight. With a sweeping blow, he had easily disarmed the startled man and without mercy, slipped half of his slim swords into the gap under the armored man’s left arm. The attack had been so fast, that the knight barely had time to struggle before blood began gushing out of the openings in his armor.
“Vick Laveranus…” Biran quietly voiced the name that the mercenary had given them. Whoever he was, the younger man was more skillful than—Biran–himself, and he would need such skills if they were to continue evading and keeping ahead of their enemies.
By the time he donned his armor and got to the northern side of their encampment, a line of warriors were already there with torches in hand and quietly waiting for the incoming unknowns. Amongst them, the mercenary Vick was leaning wearily against the side of a tree.
Though dawn had yet to greet them, the flickering torchlights bounced off his armor as he moved through the small force that had gathered. Biran stepped out into the dark to address them, “I will not have the fighting be done here in our camp,” he spoke, “if it is indeed the enemy, then we will meet them out there in the woods, and we will cut them down before they can get near this refuge. Keep to the shadows and await my commands. Let today’s dawn be illuminated with our victory!” The sound of silent understanding resonated through the group. Biran turned to march into the trees. With practiced motions, the others swiftly extinguished their torches and fell in behind him in the darkness.
A wisp emerged in the distance–showering the surrounding trees with light–and Biran quickly motioned for his men to stop. Standing at the front with his eyes on the single visible area, he warily scanned around it for signs of enemies. As it got closer, his body began tightening up at the realization that it was not torchlight, but a ball of pure white hovering through the air.
“Captain?” One of the men questioned apprehensively as the ball approached in the distance, and Biran gripped onto the cold transparent sword that was sheathed at his side. To run or keep on with the ambush, one wrong call and he would doom the rest of his forces along with everyone who were still back at camp.
Biran stilled his hands and his mouth opened, but no words came out. He had already seen the devastation a single mage could cause against a trained unit of Imperial guards and save for a dozen capable fighters, most of those currently with him were farmers and slaves until recently. “Tell Ulyn’s group to withdraw and notify those at the camp. If it is the enemy, I will send someone back with escape orders. We will try to buy you all as much time as we can.” He solemnly replied, touching the hilt of the enchanted blade that had slain so many of their own in Vilute. The coolness of the metal hilt calmed his hand and as he unsheathed the sword, a thin layer of frost began forming on the transparent blade’s edge as it came into contact with the cold air. It was the weapon of their enemies and he hated it, but it was the best he had and something he still needed to return.
Biran gripped the weapon and strode forth as the sound of rustling came through the trees and the orb got closer.
“Hello? Who’s there?” A faint voice called out through the shadows of the trees and everyone stopped. They all watched as the brightness of the orb dimmed and the shadows of two travelers emerged into visibility behind the light. Following the two travelers were also two horses, with one of them carrying someone across its back.
“Show yourselves.” The voice slithered through the air once more and Biran’s arms began shaking with a hesitation that was unknown to himself. “Kuh-Hahahah!” From somewhere to his left, someone began laughing loudly. The mercenary.
“What in the four god’s names are you doing out here?!” Vick questioned with disbelief, his tone filled with surprised laughter. “Everyone! Hold!” The mercenary shouted and stepped out of his hiding spot.
As Biran watched Vick moving toward the newcomers, the small ball of light exploded, and for an instant, night turned into day as the forest was bathed in white. His eyes burned as the sudden burst took him by surprise, and he quickly shielded his eyes. “Vick?” The unknown voice questioned, and Biran struggled to look forward as groans of discomfort came from around him. As his eyes recovered, his whole body began trembling at the sight before them. “By the gods…” The words escaped his mouth and he dropped the enchanted sword onto the ground. With limp arms and heavy feet, he dragged himself forward as the plate armor began weighing down on him. “It can’t be…”
The soft yellowish glow of warm mage flames hovered in the air where the light orb had been, and standing beside Vick, was a familiar youth. The beginnings of an angular chin were forming on the young man’s face, while his cheekbones were obscured by his long black hair that seemed to blend in with the surrounding shadows. Catching them, the boy’s two sharp eyes looked like they were glowing with a golden light, perhaps a reflection of the flames before him.
“How did you find us?” Vick was already asking questions but as Biran approached, the mercenary quickly stopped and gave him a curious look.
Moving through the bushes and outstretched branches, nothing stood in his way as he trudged forward to stand before the young man. The boy turned toward him, and Biran shuddered.
With unsteady hands he hastily took off his helmet. Without looking back to his men, he knelt down toward the entity before him. “My Lord…” Biran spoke, his voice filled with uncertainty and reverence.
“So fate has decreed for our paths to intertwine once more… Biran Naingart, wasn’t it?” It was the very voice he had been hearing in his mind, the voice from that day when he had cursed the gods and given up on life itself.
“And I am grateful that they had deemed it so.” Biran replied, keeping his head down. “On our parting, you instructed me to carve my own path… to think about my decisions so as not to be led by my words and feelings at the time.” He spoke carefully, as if invoking an oath long since forgotten. “I have done so, and I have been searching ever since. Searching, waiting for the day we would meet again.”
“So that is your decision…” A quiet and curt reply, almost like a whisper yet resounding clearly in his ears.
“Yes.” Biran answered, his own voice filled with determination and unfamiliar pride. “My words are who I am. This chance that you have bestowed upon me… use it as you will. My life is forever yours to command.” He placed his forehead against the ground.
“Wait, what is going on here? How do you-” Vick interjected from the side, but quickly stopped upon seeing the significance of what was happening.
“You carry yourself like a true knight, a protector of the people. As for me, I am not a lord nor do I have any such claims.” The boy calmly retorted.
“Say the words and I shall relinquish all that I am, so long as you allow me to serve.” Biran swiftly countered.
“You do not hear me. I will not be able to employ you as others can. Your own men will shun you for working below your station.”
“My loyalty does not demand gifts or payments, and I have seen with my own eyes what you are. In time, others will come to understand why I am kneeling before you, why I have chosen this path. Please, do not turn me away again.” Biran begged.
“What you chose is death. Serve me, and you will die a thankless death. More often than naught, it will be by my hands.”
The boy’s icy voice gripped him like a deadly shade, and this time, the memories of a frozen Vilute flashed through Biran’s mind. “This life is yours. If you ever wish to take it back, I shall gladly oblige.” He steadily replied without a shred of hesitation.
After a long period of silence, “I see you are unwavering in this…” the boy finally spoke.
“I beg of you… name me your kin, make me your sword, your arms, your legs. Give me purpose once more.”
“… Very well.”
Words of consent came through, and Biran lifted his head to look at the boy. In the light of the mage flames, he thought he caught the boy’s eyes flash silver for an instant as voices of concern came from behind. The enchanted sword he had dropped earlier came flying over, only to stop before the young man.
“So you kept it.” A smile appeared on the youth’s face and without words, the boy grabbed the sword out of the air.
Instantly, ice began forming around the blade exactly like it did so long ago in Vilute. The boy then drove the weapon into the ground, also exactly like how he had done it before.
A chilling mist began rising from the hilt and Biran could almost feel the newly imbued power within the weapon. “It is yours now. Take it, and become my kin.” The boy’s words beckoned him, and he slowly stretched out his right arm toward the sword. He could feel something pulsing outward. Power. More power than he had ever held in his hand, more power than he could ever imagine possible within a weapon. His right hand edged forth, and he grabbed onto the frozen hilt. “AaaRRRHGAAAAHHHH!”
Pain he had never known before rushed from the point of contact through his gauntleted arm and into his body. A cold chilling touch that was turning his insides into ice, freezing while impaling him at the same time. The sound of his own men rushed toward him, screaming and yelling, but Biran kept his grip on the sword. With pain running through his body and unsteady legs, he staggered to stand up while reaching for the weapon with his left hand. With both hands, he held tightly onto the frozen weapon and pulled.
Icicles exploded around him and his gauntlet, with his plate armor suddenly freezing before shattering into thousands of pieces. As the weapon came into contact with bare skin, his hands began throbbing with concentrated pain as if they had been dipped in lava. Screaming to pull the weapon out, the frozen heat vanished as soon as the sword slipped out of the ground. Breathing heavily, “… This… this is…” He remarked with shock as power flowed from the weapon into his arms, and throughout his body. Biran looked to the youth.
“A gift, and a test of your resolve.” The boy spoke, his voice calm yet containing a hint of astonishment. “Leagues beyond its previous enchantment, the power within that weapon will allow you to repel ice magic and any forms of cold. So long as I live, its enchantment shall never wane.”
An unknown power coursed through him and holding the weapon, Biran quickly understood what his Lord meant. Even though most of his armor and clothes had shattered from being frozen, he could no longer feel the forest’s chill or the freezing breeze around him. “My Lord.” He lowered himself and knelt once more.
Behind Biran, the dozen warriors who had been there that day in Vilute–those who had fought alongside Biran and bore witness to the boy’s descent–all fell to their knees.
Seeing their companions kneeling and sensing that something extraordinary had just been established before their eyes, the other warriors–although confused–lowered their weapons and knelt.
“You shall be the first of my blades. Rise, Biran Vox Naingart.”
Around them, the trees shook as the lost name was once more birthed into the world, uttered by its progenitor.