Within his study, Zorin’s headmaster Nylen Gvius Das Jozion silently flipped through a large tome hovering above his desk. Beyond the wrinkles and aged spots on his bald and elderly face, there was something else in his expression, something of a calm and concentrated frustration. While his marble left hand dexterously flipped through the weathered pages of the leather-bound tome, his right hand was slowly and deftly jotting down thoughts and passages, recording them onto the papers that were spread out before him.
The time of day neither mattered nor entered his thoughts as he continued perusing through the leather bound tome. With the arrival of morning, the lightstones around his chamber began dimming as the infusion of mana within them disappeared. Yet with a swift incantation–as if to reject the encroaching morning’s limited light–his mana flared through the air and into the stones, filling the room with a soft white glow once again. Around him, the study that had been littered with broken magical apparatuses and crumpled notes from two turns ago, was now filled with piles of antiquated texts and aged documents.
‘Enuria… Rhultal… Silvazae… Silver King…’ Nylen cycled the words in his head while scanning through the ancient book. Ever since the meeting, he had instinctively understood that they were the final pieces of the puzzle in identifying the boy’s unnatural strength. Another part of the mystery that could not be explained by logic. No matter how he attempted to rationalize them, to attach them to the boy in some way or form, nothing made sense beyond the silver glow he glimpsed all those years ago.
Using those keywords, he had gone through hundreds of records pertaining to the current and old world, going as far as to open the sealed archives hidden and locked away underneath the academy’s library. Yet after countless days and nights spent slogging through stories and records of the past, any sort of solid evidence still eluded him. Not a single mention of the unknown titles or words, nor could he find a single indication that any such abnormality like the boy’s peculiar circumstance had ever occurred within the past thousand years.
The door to the chamber slowly opened, and a round faced man with short brown hair stepped inside. The man was in his late forties and was wearing a red master’s robe. “… You were up all night again.” The man stated after sighing deeply.
Nylen took a quick glance toward the door. “Keral. Is it morning already?”
“You were supposed to rest. Remember?” Carrying a handful of old books, Master Keral swiftly reproved as he carefully made his way toward the desk–in the center of the room. “Not to mention, Master Juvol is quite stressed that you are taking books from the Locked Library without returning them. She was very vocal about it when I picked these up.” Seeing that the desk was already full, Keral laid the new batch of old texts atop a small stack of papers.
“Book, books, books. I can’t even recall the last time she was this worried about someone.” The headmaster retorted as he turned back to the object of his focus. “Ever wonder why she never married?”
The sudden and completely extraneous question gave Keral pause. “That… is not a subject for discussion, nor is it the point of my words.”
“Sure, sure. Tell her I’ll return the books,” Nylen flipped another page and skimmed its contents. “… After I find what I’m looking for.”
“After? Look around you, headmaster. You can barely maneuver through this room with all these things lying about. I’m also certain Master Borus will agree with me in saying that this sort of environment is bad for your health. Why not just return the ones you’ve already gone through?”
“Absolutely not.” With a swift response, the old man firmly refused. “Not until I am done. If there are any clues that can correspond with others in these writings, I will need them here so that I can access them whenever I wish.”
“Sigh…That’s another problem in itself. What exactly are you looking for, and what is so important that we had to search the Locked Library?” Master Keral questioned, seeing that the headmaster would not budge on such decisions.
“Something to ease my nagging mind… perhaps some sort of truth?” Nylen grinned, catching the seething interest hidden by Keral’s mask of logic.
“… Master Juvol is not going to like that explanation.”
“Bah! Her trivial worries are nothing in comparison to what it is that I must ascertain.”
“And that is…?”
“It is not something that I can share just yet.” Nylen replied, his grin widening at the blatant enquiry for information.
“Ha… Fine. I will come up with some explanations to appease her for now.” Keral slowly remarked, unable to do anything. “At least allow the attendants help to lessen your burden. Surely you can use-”
“No. There is no need.” Nylen swiftly refused, his tone unwavering. In his sharp eyes, he knew. Such information would be too much for some people, and should word of it get out somehow, it could become quite the catastrophe for Darsus’ political structure itself. People flocked to those who are powerful, and more so, mages. It was how he and the others got their positions, and how an organization like Tal’hrus could exist. For now, only the six of them—the heads of magic within Ferrent–knowing was enough. “By the way, where are we on the request to Lord Knight Commander Ravon?”
“A letter arrived last evening.” Master Keral answered, keeping himself in calm check instead of pushing his curiosity. “Lord Ravon stated in the reply that he will try and gather a compilation of accounts pertaining to your requests from his personal collection. The delivery is to be expected within the next few days.”
“Next few days, huh? Thank you, that will be all.”
“Headmaster. Will you not take a break before breakfast?” Master Keral questioned, watching the tireless old man.
Raising his brows toward the subjugations master, “Don’t you have class to attend to?” Nylen probed back. It was not yet the rjus, and the bell for morning class should be tolling soon. “Go see to the students. Needlessly worrying about me will do nothing for the both of us. As for a break, I shall take it when I deem it time.”
“Then I will take my leave.” Master Keral nodded dutifully and retreated the same way he came in.
“Hmph. Each and every one of them.” The old man huffed after Keral had left. With a renewed focus, he continued to skim through the pages before him.
He awoke to the presence of people standing outside his tent. Without opening his eyes, he could smell the mellowed scent of old oiled leather and steel that the men had on their person. Listening in silence, he could hear a plethora of voices coming from outside, along with some curious whispers.
With a tired yawn, Kaidus sat up. A large black coil was resting peacefully by his side, and inside the cramped dwelling, Zion flowed about openly, while remaining invisible to the naked eyes.
He calmly looked around the unfamiliar tent. It was a squared soldier’s tent with a sloping design and was barely enough to accommodate two people. One side of the shelter had two large spots of brown where animal hides were used to patch up large holes in the thick fabric, while the other side was an entirely different color. The floor was layered with thinly woven straw blankets to keep him off the ground, and although he did not need them, he had also been given two small wolf pelts to use as blankets.
“That’s right…” Kaidus quietly voiced to himself.
They had reached the camp around the break of dawn that morning. Too tired for anything, he had declined Biran’s invitation to use the captain’s tent and returned with Vick to where Vick and the others were residing—along with Narissa. The captain had ordered the tent to be erected for him, and even though he refused it, a few men had been placed on guard outside.
Something stirred and Kaidus glanced down at Zirus. It was uncurling. It was shortly before they left their camp the previous night when the youngling returned. Just like he thought, it was indeed the monster that had frightened the hunter. Fortunately, the misunderstanding was easily laid to rest, and had even resulted in an odd fortuitous twist of luck.
He could not help but be amused at how things turned out.
The original plan was to travel south to Imvera before heading west to the farming village of Esperen, but now, there was no need to go any further. Vick had explained a little bit about what happened in Esperen, and from the sound of it, what he himself had put into motion in Maverus was starting to gain traction. By killing the King’s watcher, there was no doubt that the members of Tal’hrus still lurking in Malpaars were moving. All that was left, was to assess the incoming situations and see what his new friend Roln could snag him.
“Zirus.” Kaidus spoke, and two sets of wings expanded outward. “Let’s go.” He beckoned, and Zirus hastily stretched itself before folding its wings and slithered over to him. Beyond the hunter who had been spooked, the others in camp did not know about the youngling. Donning his gray cloak, he opened the flap of the shelter and stepped out into the cold.
From the three who were tasked to stand guard to a number of curious bystanders, dozens of eyes immediately turned toward him. Locking eyes with the three sentries, they nervously nodded back. “You all must be tired. Go ahead and get some rest.” The three men looked at each other and one of them nodded before swiftly departing. “All of you.” Kaidus repeated, seeing that two of them were still there.
“The- Captain Biran’s words were that we are not to let you out of our sight.” One of them, a skinny man with a flat face and sharp slanted eyes answered. There was something in his voice, a hint of anxiety.
“Surely this place is safe enough that I do not require guards?” He questioned, and the man quickly glanced at the other.
Scanning them, they were both wearing old and worn equipment.
The skinny man was dressed in a mismatching blue and black attire with a leather vest that was cracking on its left side. There was a strap of throwing knives tied around his waist, along with a small one-handed crossbow and a short tube of crudely made bolts. Wearing a leather bracer on his left hand, the man was also carrying an ashen longbow and a quiver of arrows on his back.
The second man, a bearded man, was wearing an iron bowl helmet that appeared to have taken a few good blows, along with a battered chest plate that had already lost its shine ages ago. Supplementing the metal pieces, the man wore fraying leather armguards along with leather knees and shin guards. There was a broadsword and a dagger sheathed on his left side, indicating the man to be right-handed.
The skinny man appeared to be in his late twenties, while the second man could be in his mid-forties.
“Beg your pardon my lord, but the captain said to stay with you.” The older man replied. Though of an average build and shorter than his younger companion, there was strength in the man’s deep voice. “Vasco just left to notify him of your wake, so if you need anything, please allow us.”
“Actually, there are a few things I’ve been wondering about.” Kaidus replied as questions came to mind. “And please, there is no need for formalities as I have no such titles to my name.” He quickly clarified, garnering odd looks from the two. “I am Kaidus Paltos. You may call me Kaidus. Might I inquire as to who you both are?”
“O-of course.” The armored man replied, taken aback at the sudden introduction. Taking off the helmet, the man revealed a set of washed out green eyes and short green hair that were in the midst of graying. His short beard though, were an emerald green in contrast to his hair and eyes. “I am Irvine Warnant.” The man bowed at the waist awkwardly and lowered his head as far as it can go. “I never got to thank you for what you did in Vilute. I cannot bear to imagine what would have happened to my daughter and wife, had you not intervened. It is an honor, Lord Paltos.” The man added cordially and reverently, as if he had been practicing.
The man had called him ‘lord’ again, and Kaidus’ lips jerked sideways for an instant. “So, you were there too…” The words almost choked him as he recalled the memories of that day, of the countless lives that were extinguished.
“Yes.” The older man spoke in affirmation, the strength in his voice slowly waning.
“Forgive me, my lord.” The second man quickly followed, calling him lord as well. The man then bowed awkwardly. “I am Giaan Oriaus. I- I regret not being there that day but, Princess Vernera, Lord Komor and the Black Knights, along with all those who were lost. I heard you avenged them all. You have my gratitude. Thank you.” The man lifted his head and held out a nervous hand.
Gratitude. There was nothing he could say. The decision to mercilessly slaughter Eril’s men had been his to make, and the burden would be his to carry. Being thanked for it was unnecessary. Keeping his inner thoughts from surfacing, Kaidus reached out and shook the man’s hand.
“What would you like to know my lord?”
The man named Irvine asked after the introductions were over. From the sound of it, they were not going to drop the title.
Without wasting any time on the trifling matter, “You are both from that floating city. Why are you here now? What happened?” He got right to the heart of his curiosity.
“We abandoned the city, my lord.” The older man instantly answered. “The gates had been burned down, and the walls were crumbling after the attack. We all came to a decision that we could no longer stay there, seeing that the barrier was also gone.”
“And how did you all end up here?” He questioned. It was too much of a coincidence.
“We followed the captain, my lord. After burning our dead and making the decision to leave, a group of us came south with him. Some of the others stayed behind in the lake’s surrounding forests, in case more of our people returned. Giaan here-”
“I was with a team of six others who had been sent out to gather information and food.” The man named Giaan quickly supplemented. “We came back to find the barrier gone, and the city empty. Luckily, using the whistling arrows, the others found us and filled us in on what happened. We caught up to the captain’s group north of the village of Umoraok.”
He had spotted many villages during his flight toward the floating city, but could not recall which one the man was talking about. “So the one in charge right now is Captain Biran?”
“Yes. The Black Knights, Princess Vernera’s order of knights were all killed during the attack along with the princess herself. They were the highest chain of command, and with them gone, it was the captain who took charge. He was the one who began the evacuation process after- well, after you came through. We were already a part of his unit before all that, so it just made sense to follow him.”
“I see. I would like to talk with him then. Please take me to the captain.”
“There is no need, my lord. The captain will be coming here.” Giaan chipped in, and turned to look in a different direction of the camp.
“Kaidus!” Yet it was Vick’s voice that called out. They turned to see the older mercenary. “Where are you going?” Vick questioned, quickly running over to them.
“Nowhere. I was merely getting acquainted with Irvine and Giaan here.”
“Oh,” Vick gave a weak response, then after a puzzled look at the two men standing beside him, “did you just wake up?”
“Yes. It appeared I was more fatigued than I thought.”
Vick’s puzzled face instantly turned into a smile. “Perfect. You must be hungry right? Arleen and some of the others are preparing lunch right now. Narissa is also awake and has been regaling the girls about your trip from Garnikul.”
“That so?” I will need to speak with her about the change of plans. Kaidus thought to himself, seeing that their journey had come to an abrupt end. “And who’s Arleen?” He asked, unable to remember anyone by such a name.
“Right, you never got to know most of them.” Vick paused in silent thought for a moment. “She’s one of the five older women, the tall one with short brown hair and a plentiful bust. You should know who I’m talking about.” A grin immediately crept onto Vick’s face.
Sifting through his memories, he vaguely recalled the five woman who were older than the rest. In their early twenties, there was one who had short brown curls, and was wearing green and black clothes the last time he saw her. He could picture her slender face, but could not recall the proportions that Vick had mentioned.
“By the way, Sarah and Saadra came to see you earlier after hearing that you were back. Did you see them?”
“I did not.” He looked to the two guards.
“Two young ladies stopped by earlier, but you were still sleeping.” The older man—Irvine–answered.
“Well then that settles it. Let’s go see everyone.” Vick exclaimed energetically. “A few of the younger ones have asked about you, you know? I’m sure they’ve been wanting to thank you.”
Kaidus hesitated and considered the faces of those he had so readily abandoned in Karpes. He was uncertain about meeting them but, “You’re right. I should go see how everyone’s doing.” He readily agreed. Turning to the two guards, “It looks like I will have to trouble the two of you.”
“No, not at all. If they are people you know, then feel free.” Irvine replied with a broad smile.
“I will stay here.” Giaan spoke up. “Vasco will be returning with the captain. I will let them know where you went.”
“These people are…” Kaidus uttered as they walked past countless others.
“They’re from other villages. Esperen was not the only village that came under scrutiny of the Southern Guards.” Vick answered while leading the way though a number of civilian tents.
“Southern Guards?” He questioned, hearing the name for the first time.
Having arrived while it was still quite dark, he had underestimated the sheer size of the camp. Looking around now, there were hundreds of people, unfamiliar men, women, and children, all huddling around dozens of fires. It was as if a large village, or a small town had been stripped of their housings and forced to live in such conditions. It was very reminiscent of the situation that Lord Shradech and the people of Vernigale had found themselves in.
“They are fanatics who declared themselves protectors of the south, or something crazy like that. The group I told you about last night, the ones who attacked Esperen, they were an advance party for the Southern Guards. It was why we had to leave the village.” Vick answered, his tone calm and clear.
“They have attacked eight other villages that we know of so far. This is but a fraction of those who have been displaced from their homes.” Irvine added from behind. “It began in Jarnlan, around the time the rumors of the King’s Advisor’s death began circulating. Umoraok, the village where we were hiding in at the time was one of the first to be hit after the conscription orders.”
“So they’re building up manpower and gathering supplies by attacking uncooperative settlements…” Kaidus voiced with intrigue as they continued walking.
“Garis wait for me!” A young girl’s voice cried out as a boy of four or five ran across their path. Following behind, the girl was carrying a small straw sandal that had unraveled, and was half hopping, half running as she tried to catch up.
An old man stared at them oddly as they passed by, while others just flat out ignored them. Along with the vast majority of unfamiliar faces, he eventually caught some familiar ones, one of them being the man who had almost fought them in Esperen.
As they arrived, more and more familiar faces began popping up and he soon spotted Arleen, the woman Vick had mentioned earlier. She was watching a large pot while chatting away with a man. Beside them, the other girls were talking amongst themselves. A small old woman with long white hair sat amongst them and across from her, another woman with a boisterous voice–Narissa seemed to be enjoying herself.
“Vick you big bastard! You were supposed to help us carry water!”
A sharp voice caught them off guard, causing many of the people around them to turn in their direction.
“Sarah!” Another familiar voice came through the air.
“Shit.” Vick remarked wryly while wearing an innocent grin.
Kaidus turned to his left and saw a girl two to three years younger than himself rushing toward them. She had cut her hair since the last time he saw her, but her mannerism and tone of voice was still quite the same. Carrying a small bucket of water and equipped with a disgruntled face, it was the younger of the Ridales sisters, Sarah. Upon catching his eyes, she immediately slowed down, causing her bucket to splash a good amount of water onto the ground. He looked beyond her and caught her older sister Saadra following behind. Wearing a patched up brown cloak, she was also carrying a bucket of water. Holding it before her with both hands, the older sister saw him and made a polite bow. Kaidus nodded back.
“Heheee.” With an embarrassed grin on her face, Sarah approached them slowly instead of her previous rush. With a quick and sloppy curtsy to the three of them, she walked up to Vick and shot her right leg out at his left feet.
“Too slow!” Vick laughed, easily moving out of the way.
“Stop! Stop moving!!” Sarah cried out as she went for a second and third kick, splashing more water.
“Sarah stop it. You’re going to waste the water.” Saadra protested from behind, and the younger girl slowly came to a halt. Turning her attention to Kaidus, “We heard you were back. Have you been well?” Saadra bowed again before asking.
“I have. What about you all? Has it been hard outside of Karpes?”
From the side, Irvine raised an eyebrow at the unusual greeting while Vick continued teasing Sarah.
“Yes. But we are still here, and living.” Saadra replied with a bright smile.
“I see.” Kaidus’ mouth also curved upward. To see that the brilliance inside of her had not dissipated, he was glad.
“Come, let us not stand around. The others are watching.” Vick interrupted, gesturing toward the group of eyes staring at them.
“Sarah, come on.” Saadra ushered, and the younger girl perked up.
“You two young ladies must be tired. Please, allow me.” Like a gentleman, Irvine extended his hands out for the buckets.
With a quick look at the bearded man, Sarah quickly pulled back and raced off toward the fire. “Thank you, but it’s alright. It is not much further.” Saadra politely declined and followed after her sister.
The group stared at Kaidus as he approached them. Though theirs eyes toward him were much different from how they were that day in Karpes, he could still see some sort of uneasiness within a few of them.
Like the others that he had seen along the way, they were sitting together around two fires. Three of the younger boys were clutching tightly onto their older sisters for warmth, while three others were playing some sort of game with sticks and leaves next to the flames. The girls shuddered and shivered as they tried to warm themselves with pelts and blankets, and from where she sat, Narissa was grinning nefariously. Of the twenty-five who had joined them in Karpes, most of them were still present along with a few additions.
Reaching the group, some of the more courageous girls tensely stood up and gave him short but practiced curtsies. Seeing them trying so hard to greet him in their own way, Kaidus smiled and nodded courteously. The greeting seemed to have relaxed them a bit, and he took a deep breath. “I am sorry for leaving you all in Karpes. I had other matters to attend to, and could not join you at the time. I hope your journey was a pleasant one.” He calmly apologized.
The girls looked at each other briefly before blushing in embarrassment. A few of them nodded timidly as if to say yes, while others opened their mouth to speak, but stopped and quietly sat back down.
“So, you’re the culprit who attacked Karpes. Who would have thought?” The old woman spoke with an amused tone.
“It’s good to see you again, madam.” Kaidus lowered his head respectfully to her.
“Daehn, right? Didn’t you have something you want to ask Kaidus?” With a playful grin on her face, Narissa called out to the one of the three boys that were sitting together.
With all eyes looking at him, the boy quickly got up and ran over to his older sister.
“What is it?” Kaidus inquired curiously toward the boy.
“Is- is it true?” A meek voice came from one of the other boys, a smaller boy with a missing tooth and a red nose–one of the old lady’s grandchildren.
“Is what true?” Kaidus queried, turning his attention to the new speaker.
“S-she,” the boy pointed to Narissa. “She said that if we are bad, you will f-feed us to a monster. She said that it is scary, and has long black wings, and sharp teeth, and eats l-little boys.”
Kaidus glanced at Narissa then back to the boy. “Would you like to find out?” The small boy shook his head fervently upon the question and quickly moved to hide behind his grandmother. “It is not true. I do not have a monster to feed you to.” Kaidus gave the gullible child a smile, and Narissa chuckled from her seat.
A few of the girls giggled upon seeing the boy being teased, but quickly hid their joy as someone else approached.
A voice came from behind them. He turned around to see that the captain had caught up, along with the man named Giaan and the guard who left them earlier. The blond-haired captain was carrying the transparent sword at his side, and appeared to have even trimmed his unkempt beard. In the light, the man’s eyes were a sky blue, quite different from the hollow eyes he had seen that day under the ash covered city.
“I am sorry for taking so long. I was still mediating a dispute when Vasco arrived.” The Captian quickly apologized.
“There’s no need for such things, captain.” Kaidus swiftly dismissed the apology.
“Giaan told me about your inquiries. If I can, I will answer them to the best of my abilities.”
“There are indeed a few matters that I wish to discuss with you. Would it be possible for a private conversation after lunch?” He asked, making it quite clear that they would need to talk, but not in front of everyone.
“Of course.” Biran promptly answered in complete compliance.
“Will you be joining us, captain?” Vick questioned from the side with a stiff smile.
Captain Biran turned to Vick, then looked around at the group of young ladies. “So, I was right. This was the group that we were looking for.”
“Yea, what of it?” Vick replied, his tone quite antagonistic.
“You lied to me. You said you didn’t know anything.” Biran fired back.
“What is this?” Kaidus interjected, seeing that there seemed to be something going on between the two.
“Nothing, my lord. It does not matter anymore.”
“No. It does not.” Vick quickly agreed.
Biran looked to his three men. “Vasco. Giaan. Irvine. You all will stay with his lordship.” He then turned to Kaidus. “Please call on me when you are done. I shall not impose on your reunion any longer.” Biran bowed and withdrew.
The three men looked at each other, then stepped back so as not to intrude.
Kaidus turned around to the group of girls and once again, they watched him with nervous curiosity. Narissa too, was staring back curiously and the man who had been talking with Arleen looked quite troubled.
“Please be at ease.” He reassured and the girls tensed up.
“C’mon you all. Quit staring so much. You’re going to make Kaidus blush.” Vick jested from the side. “Arleen. How’s the stew coming?”
“Ah!” Arleen yelped in surprise and quickly stirred the large pot. “My lord. Please take a seat.” She hastily gestured to a spot by the fire.
Before Kaidus could step toward it, Sarah rushed over and grabbed his arm. “Come on.” She grinned, pulling him to join them.
“They helped us, but started asking about the incident in Karpes. I told them that we didn’t know what happened and wouldn’t let them question the others.” Vick spoke from beside him as they ate. “We got into a little disagreement because of it and almost got into a fight.”
From behind, one of the three guards started coughing.
“Sounds like it’s been rough for you. Sorry.” Kaidus apologized as he slurped a spoonful of broth. He had asked about what happened earlier with the captain, and from the sound of it, it was only a misunderstanding.
“What happened anyways? How did you even meet that man? Where did you find Narissa?” Vick replied.
“It’s a long story. Join us later and I will tell you.”
“Fine. I’d want to listen in on your discussion anyways.” Though discontent was still prevalent in his voice, Vick stopped pressing the matter.
“Hey. Hey Kaidus.” Sarah called out from behind her sister and next to him, to his left, Saadra quickly sat up. The older girl’s face had become flushed after he was dragged over to sit by her and even now, she was quietly sipping away at her stew just listening to them.
“Are you going to stay here too?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.” He replied with uncertainty. Too busy with Tal’hrus, his true purpose had been put on hold and there was no telling when his search for Karugas would once again begin. Though he had kept alert while crossing through Malpaars, the mountains and plains upon which he flew over held nothing of interest nor any presence of power.
“My sister worried about you, you know.” The young girl spoke loudly.
“Sarah!” Saadra quickly cried out to silence her sister. Her face was bright red. “O-of course I’m worried. You helped us…” She hastily exclaimed as she turned to apologize.
“Thank you.” Kaidus cordially replied. “But there is no need to worry about me. Please take care of yourselves.”
*Whiiiiiuuuuuu!* the sound of a whistle shrieked through the air in the distance, cutting Saadra off.
Kaidus immediately turned around to the three guards behind him. All three were already watching the sky. “What is it?” He asked.
“One whistling arrow. It means there’s a messenger looking for the camp.” Irvine answered.
“No…” Giaan immediately refuted. “That was unmistakably one of Solio’s arrows. The pitch was too long.”
“Solio? That can’t be. The move is not for another two days.” The man named Vasco replied with a troubled voice.
*Whiiiiiiiiiiuuuuuu!* another arrow ripped through the air in the distance.
“Two arrows. They’re in trouble!!” Giaan exclaimed.