The impending situation and its uncertainty haunted Biran as the call to arms echoed through the camp. He had expected the men to be confused after what happened the previous night, but seeing the lack of preparation in them, he could not help but feel apprehensive.
His order to gather south of the camp had been issued a while ago, yet barely twenty men were present—less than half their overall numbers. Two signal arrows indicated that something was happening already and should they fail to move soon, it might be too late.
“Where is Wes?!” Biran shouted as a handful of men arrived.
“Woke’m up before I came. Should be here soon.” One of the men, a hunter, promptly answered.
Clicking his tongue, “Kurne!”
“Yes, captain.” A stout bearded man with a longbow in his hand stepped forward.
“Take two others and join up with Elken and Laznar. Find out what is happening. The rest of us will follow as soon as possible.” Biran commanded, and the man gave a swift salute, then called out two names before rushing off.
Irvine’s voice came from the crowd and Biran turned his attention toward the old warrior who was approaching—along with two others. “My lord.” Surprised, he quickly addressed the youth that had arrived with Irvine and Vasco. Though he wanted to leave the boy out of it, a part of him was glad to see the young man.
“Captain. What is the situation?” The young man inquired, walking past the large group of armed men.
Biran hesitated briefly before opening his mouth. “I apologize, but I do not know.” He answered as the torrent of panic in him began to slowly dissipate. “I’ve dispatched a team ahead. The rest of us will march when everyone has gathered.” Biran added, keeping his eyes on the boy. Although he himself was almost two heads taller than the youth and twice as old, seeing the boy’s unusually calm demeanor, his impatience was quickly vanishing.
“How many people are with the other group?”
“I beg your pardon?” Biran replied, stunned by the unnerving calm that had suddenly infested him.
“I have been informed of the other refugees. How many of your people are with them?”
“Over thirty capable men, my lord. But for them to be calling for help… there can only be one reason why.”
“Then let us not waste any more time. We will make haste with those who are present.” With quick and decisive words, the young man turned his gaze to the south as the wind wisped around them.
Just like when he first laid eyes upon the boy, it was as if he was staring at someone or something else. Something far beyond his own comprehension. “Do you mean to-” Biran managed to voice out as the words clicked into his head.
“Time is of the essence, captain. Lead your men. I shall assist where I can.”
The words filled him with assurance and Biran’s hands trembled with an unfamiliar enthusiasm, a sense of calm excitement. “Forgive me. I ask too much of you even though you have just arrived.” He graciously lowered his head, unwilling to decline the offer of assistance.
“The fates have deemed it appropriate to grant someone like me a sword. It is only fitting that I bear witness to its sharpness.”
“Understood.” The meaning was quite clear, and Biran lifted his head. His could see some of the men staring, questioning his actions, yet it was only because they did not understand. “Vasco. You will stay here and wait for the rest of the men.” Biran quickly directed before turning to the group that was still awaiting his orders. “Form up and keep vigilant! We are moving!” He shouted.
“C’mon. We’ve got to keep moving.” A short and wiry man hurriedly whispered, trying to heft another man onto his shoulders.
“Ugh! I- I- Graahh!” Solio yelped as his legs gave out, sending him tumbling to the ground.
“Kuh- F-fuck! Alec… I can’t.” Twisting his body upright on the forest floor, “I can’t feel my leg anymore.” Solio cried out to the man who had been helping to shoulder him. There was an arrow in the back of his right leg, and try as he might, he could not will himself to keep going. “Leave me be. Get to the others.”
“Come on. Get up!” His companion replied, attempting to help him to his feet again.
“Leave!” Solio pushed the man away. “GO!” He screamed. Alec took one last look at him and with a troubled face, took off.
“Fuck me… if I’ll be the one to kill us all. Uuugggh!” Solio groaned as he pushed himself to sit up. His eyes quickly scanned the area for the bow that he had dropped upon his fall, and then turned to the arrow in his leg. The shaft had pierced his calf from the back and the tip of the broad arrowhead was poking through the front. “Haaa… Arrodin’s tits!” Solio cursed, thankful that it missed the bone. Exhausted and breathing heavily, the desire to lay down and quietly await death overwhelmed him, yet his mind would not let him rest. Forcing himself to crawl toward his weapon, he grabbed the bow and propped himself against the side of a tree.
Biting onto his bow, he took a few quick breaths before forcefully yanking out the arrow through his leg. “Nnnngggh!!” Pain shot through him and his body jolted violently as the initial shock struck.
Taking coarse breaths, Solio clenched his teeth as his body began shaking after the harsh pain subsided and an aggravating throbbing took over. With unsteady hands, he held up his bow and nocked the bloody arrow. “If- If I’m going to die here… I’m taking one of you bastards with- Nnnn!” Another jolt of pain, and he almost dropped the bow. “Haaah…” A sense of disgust and regret swelled up from within as he felt his lifeblood escaping from the open wound. “… It’s all up to you now, Biran… Y-you’ll have to make it count. Ha…Hahaha…” He gave one last farewell. One last regret that his signal arrows had yet to be answered, and one last laugh before consigning himself to his doom.
After what felt like an eternity, the sound of movements and voices eventually came from the direction he was facing. Mustering the last of his strength, Solio drew the bow one last time.
A number of figures emerged through the trees and he could see a dozen men stalking toward him. Men whose faces were filled with angry frustration, sick joy, and dogged triumph as they glared at him. The glint of metal caught his eyes as the group drew closer and Solio let loose the arrow, hoping that it would connect.
“Solio!” Instead of a cry from those before him, his pained body jerked in surprise as Alec’s voice shouted from behind. A rain of arrows followed the voice, mowing down half of those who were coming after him.
Charging the surprised group of soldiers, Biran rushed forward with one hand on the transparent sword. He could feel power flowing into his body from the weapon and with each stride he took, his men who were running beside him fell further and further behind.
Unleashing the weapon, he slashed forward with a single horizontal arc. The blade sheared through his target’s leather armor and stomach like slicing through water. His eyes widened at how easy it had been. The sound of metal and panic rang through the air and he quickly stepped toward his right side. His left hand shot forth and caught the arm of an attacker who was swinging down at him. “Urraaaa!!!” Biran rammed his weapon into the man’s belly as the bulk of his men slammed into the others.
As quickly as it began, five men laid dead by arrows, while another eight had been mercilessly cut down by swords.
Holding the bloodstained weapon in his hand, Biran cast a silent glance back to the young man who had been watching them from the rear. His whole body shuddered as he turned to look down at those on the ground, and he brought the sword up to his face. Speed, strength, and senses he had never dreamt of. The enchantment on the weapon had empowered him. Had enhanced his body to an astounding degree and it horrified him, seeing that five of the eight had fallen to his sword alone.
“Solio. Are you alright?”
Someone questioned from behind him, and Biran looked over to where the group was crowding. Seeing that the portly man was still alive, he breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded toward them.
“C-captain…” Solio voiced tiredly with a pained smile on his face.
“I am sorry, my friend.”
“Men… there were too many of them. We. We had to split up.” Solio spoke as his face twisted in agony.
“Alec ran into us. Are there any others?”
“Rodan is dead, captain. He stayed behind to buy us time after Solio got injured.”
Alec answered from the side, and Biran looked to the pool of blood that was seeping into the ground by Solio’s leg.
“Gendryl, Darrv and Jadaes headed north. While Tarque, Jems, Roderick, and Falknur went southeast toward the roads. Rodan and I were the only two that came with Solio.” Alec added.
“Only ten of you? What of the villagers? Where is the rest of your team?”
“The others are taking a different route through the southern forest with the villagers. We left the camp three days after you all, but with the soldiers on our trails, the ten of us splintered from the main group to lure them away.”
“Three… I should have seen this coming. I should have never split us up like that.” Biran lamented, seeing that his decision to err on the safe side had instead, cost them.
“I-It’s not your fault… those- the scouts I sent out were followed. We were lucky to have evacuated be-before they found us.” Solio stammered between breaths.
“Laznar. Jordine. Bind Solio’s injury and escort him and Alec back. If you see Vasco’s group, tell them to go back and prepare to vacate the camp. Those of us here will look for the others.”
“Enough. Rest for now and we’ll talk later.”
“Wait.” Solio reached out to stop Biran. “The bann- guh- the banners of Lord Cromontes and Lady Onarald… they are flying behind the shielded crest of the Southern Guards. They- they are the ones hunting us.”
Biran’s face darkened at the information. Gritting his teeth, he ushered his contingent of men onward.
As the others left and Jordine began wrapping his leg, Solio caught the eyes of a young man walking amongst the group. He thought he saw the boy’s two dark eyes flash silver for an instant, and as he was about to open his mouth, his leg began burning as if it was on fire.
“Acquaintance of yours?” Kaidus questioned as they marched, inquiring about what they had just heard. He did not want to intrude on the conversation and opted to simply listen, but curiosity had gotten the best of him.
“I’ve had some dealings with them before.” Biran quietly answered, biting down his frustration. “Lady Esmera Onarald of House Onarald, a wealthy widow with an ambition to match. The late Princess Vernera was trying to win her over before the princess’ untimely death. Then there’s Lord Hyvanus Cromontes… a reclusive lord with a bountiful territory to the western shores. He too had been called upon by the Liberation army, yet never moved to answer their pleas. For them both to ally themselves with the Southern Guards, things have just gotten more desperate for those like us.”
“I see. So the lords and ladies have begun to take sides.” Kaidus hid a smile. “You mentioned a princess and the Liberation Army. What affiliations do you have with them?”
Biran glanced at Kaidus, uncertain how to answer. “None anymore, my lord.” He finally spoke after a brief pause. “Apart from for the few dozen who had been out of the city, those you protected in Vilute are all that is left of the Liberation army. As you’ve seen for yourself, they are nothing more than women and children, people without home or allegiance.”
“Then…” Kaidus looked around them.
“Yes. These men are the last remnants of Princess Vernera’s Liberation Army. Former slaves, thieves, men bound for the gallows because of petty crimes. Men who were oppressed to the point of rebellion. Defiant fathers who would not allow their family’s to be robbed and starved.”
“And you? Which one are you?”
“The Liberation Army saved me when I was bound for the slave markets, but my purpose in aiding them was for something else. That purpose went up in flames when Vilute burned.”
Sensing the troubled guilt in Biran’s voice, Kaidus stopped the inquiries. “That was insensitive. Forgive me.”
“No, my lord. Please pardon my tone.” Biran quickly implored.
“If I may, how did you come to leading this band?”
A smile emerged on Biran’s face. “You are one with the ability to protect.” He quoted and looked at Kaidus. “Those words have stuck with me ever since, and I have done my utmost to not disappoint them. The others simply attached themselves to me, as I would myself to you, my lord.”
“… Such foolishness.” Kaidus voiced as the wind’s laughter echoed in his ears.
Evening would be upon them soon, but they had found the last of those wandering the forest and battle had begun once again.
Standing behind the line of archers, Kaidus watched as his sword of flesh lurched backward, dodging an incoming blow from the left. He stood motionless, as the man struggled to find footing after landing a killing blow and he did not allow himself to intervene, as the man was surrounded by three enemies.
Seeing that he was at a disadvantage, Biran quickly dashed to the side, forcing two of the three to come after him. Using the flat of his blade, he parried the spear that was coming at his chest and swiftly delivered a cross cut toward the spearman’s neck. His sword sliced into the man’s left shoulder instead, and Biran charged forward with his own shoulder, slamming the spearman onto the ground.
Kaidus watched, as Biran broke the formation and proceeded to defend against a thrust.
The man did a large diagonal swing after deflecting the thrust, leaving his sides completely open before stepping forward to cover the weakness.
Kaidus stopped his frown from showing. After observing their previous three engagements, he could see that the knight had already begun to rely on the sword. Yet even with the power within the weapon, seeing it being swung around so crudely, the man still had a long way to go. Should dependency on the weapon overtake the knight’s own abilities, the full power of the weapon would go to waste. It was something he would have to correct, and soon.
Someone cried out, and Kaidus turned to see that one of their own men had fallen to the ground. A soldier stepped over the man, ready to plunge a sword into the downed man’s chest. By his will, one of the arrows that were in the air jerked sideways, planting itself into the soldier’s collar, forcing him back a few steps.
A chorus of screams followed as the archer’s volley of arrows connected, and the surviving enemies began fleeing into the forest.
“Grrraaaa!!” Biran screamed, slicing a men’s leg off before delivering a killing blow amidst a stream of blood.
Victory cries followed, and just like the fleeting skirmishes before, it was over.
The group began looking around for friends who had fallen, and just like before, not a single one of their own had been lost. A few were injured here and there, but everyone had survived yet again. Many of the men started looking in Kaidus’ direction, having witnessed some of the unexplainable and fortuitous happenings during the engagements.
“My lord.” Biran slowly approached Kaidus, his eyes questioning about their next course of action.
“There is no need to give chase, captain. Let us return.” Kaidus answered, keeping his eyes on the bodies that were scattered about.
With Zion’s aid, he had steered them toward a number of corpses belonging to men they were searching for, as well as to small groups of armed soldiers–who were combing the forest. The knight had understood after they found the first man, Alec, and had been following his directions since.
“Yes, my lord.” Biran bowed, then turned around and began calling out orders to retreat.
Back at the camp.
“What does he think I am? A baby sitter?” Vick complained loudly as he paced back and forth near the outskirts of the civilian’s area. He was far enough from the others that they could not hear him, yet close enough for them to think that he was patrolling.
“Uugh… I hate this…” He groaned, quickly remembering how he had jokingly told Kaidus that he had been hired to babysit the boy. “I should never had said that… could that be why?” He questioned, unable to determine if such a vindictive thing was even possible.
Patting the two azurite swords at his sides, Vick turned toward the camp. Preparations to evacuate was already finished and all that was left, was to take down the tents and shelters. A number of carts and horses were also waiting on the eastern side of the camp, ready to load up anything that were too cumbersome to carry for long durations. Should the signal to evacuate come, the tents would be quickly disassembled while the shelters abandoned, and they would escape to the main roads via a path that had been decided and prepared a few days prior.
“Vick!” Sarah called out as she spotted him and he waved back. “I brought you some soup!” She yelled and hurried over to him, carrying a bowl in her hands.
“Soup, huh. Why thank you.”
“Yep.” She smiled and continued to watch him after he took the bowl from her.
Vick brought the soup this his mouth and Sarah’s grin widened. “On second thought…”
“What? It’s good. Darla said to drink it while it’s hot.”
“Oh yea? Then why does it feel like you’ve put something in here?” He gave her an inquisitive look.
“I didn’t! Promise!”
“Then why are you smiling from ear to ear?”
“I-I’m not smiling.” Sarah quickly covered her mouth.
“Hmmm… I don’t know if I can trust you.” Raising an eyebrow at Sarah, he slowly slurped down the bowl of soup. “Hmm?” To his surprise, there were some morsels of meat at the bottom.
“I think Darla fancies you.” The girl stated, and he almost choked on the soup.
“*Cough! Cough*! You fiendish little… you couldn’t have waited until I was done?”
“Hehe.” Sarah jumped back and returned an innocent smile. “Do you like Darla?”
“That is not something I need to tell you. Here.” He held the bowl out to her. “Tell Darla thank you.”
“Fine. Then… as a favor for bringing you soup, tell me. Does Kaidus have someone he likes?” The girl nonchalantly enquired as she took the bowl, acting as if it was the normal course of the conversation.
“Don’t play stupid. Answer me.” She snapped back.
“Does Kaidus have someone he likes… uh…” Thinking back on the three years the boy spent with them, he could not recall a single moment where Kaidus had shown any interest in those of the opposite sex. “Beats me. That’s something you’ll have to ask him yourself.” A grin slowly crept onto Vick’s face. “Why do you ask? Could it be that you like Kaidus?”
“What?! No! Stupid Vick!” She shouted and ran off.
“Oh boy…” Vick smiled as he watched the girl leave. He knew that the purpose of the inquiry was for the older sister, but there was a tinge of red upon Sarah’s cheeks that had betrayed her coyness.
In complete and utter loss about the heart of a maiden, he continued his pacing.
Reaching the tree lines he turned to walk back, but a pair of silver elliptical eyes were staring up at him. “Ahh-!” Vick tightly clenched his mouth shut. “F-fuck!” He voiced under his breath, trying to keep himself from screaming again.
“Shrraaa!!” The pitch black serpent hissed back angrily, and proceeded to flick its forked tongue out.
The small beast was the reason why he had stayed behind, instead of going with the others. It was also the reason why he could not sit still. “Gods, that is terrifying.” Vick remarked as he noticed the thick layer of blood covering the serpent’s snout. The serpent had probably taken breaks in between gorging itself, and was now licking at the dried blood, trying to get it off. “H-here… let me-” He slowly reached out with his right hand.
“Grrrrr!” It snarled, baring four white fangs.
“I got it! It’s okay! Look!” Vick held up his hand and quickly pulled back a step. The small monster instantly went back to licking its mouth without taking its eyes off of him. “How in the world am I supposed to look after you?” He questioned nervously, remembering Kaidus’ words about keeping it away from the others.
Suddenly the serpent lifted its head up and began looking around. It flicked its tongue a few times, then extended its wings and propelled itself into the air. Instead of flying into the forest as it had done earlier, it skirted above the trees and began moving along the edge of the camp.
“Oh no…” Vick voiced out loud and took off after the serpent. Following it to the south side of the encampment, he quickly saw why.
A group of haggard men were returning. Some of the men’s faces and clothes were dirtied to an almost unrecognizable extent, while others looked completely unscathed. Walking at the back beside the captain, was Kaidus.
The black serpent immediately dove.
“Kaidus!” Vick shouted, and the group turned to stare in his direction. He caught Kaidus’ eyes for a split second, before the boy turned to look up at the sky and smile. Kaidus opened the side of his cloak and the beast vanished inside before the others even noticed what had occurred.
Dumbfounded, Vick sighed and walked over to them.
“Thank you.” Kaidus thanked with a smile on his face.
“I’m not doing that again.” Vick grumbled.
“I mean it.”
“Shut up.” Vick retorted. “Come on. Darla made some soup earlier. Let’s go see if there’s any left.”
An old man stood upon the edge of a great plateau, quietly gazing at a number of villages in the distance. Decades of harsh reality and stringent control had molded his elderly face into one without emotions, yet his two pale green eyes were filled with fire and destruction as he surveyed the landscape below. A coat of mana swirled about the old man as if it were alive, and around his immediate vicinity, the ground had been scorched black.
“Master. Everything is set. We await your orders.” A cloaked man spoke from behind the line of scorched earth.
“Then begin. Let us cleanse this land of insects and drag out the usurpers who would stand in our path.”
“Yes, master.” With a quick incantation, the cloaked man unleashed a ball of fire high into the air.
From one of the villages, a pillar of fire stormed upward, rising like a ravaging beast. Terror began to echo in the winds and a second village went up in flames, followed by a third, and a fourth.
“You know what needs to be done. Get to it.” The old master ordered, and the cloaked man bowed before making a hasty retreating.
A hulky armored man with two curved horns stepped up behind the old man. “Master. Let us too, head for our destination.”
“… Very well.” Taking one last gander at the message that was being sent, the ground underneath his feet opened up and swallowed the old man.
The large dvuron looked behind him, then lowered the faceplate on his helmet. Unsheathing the enormous two-handed cleaver on his back, he walked to the edge of the plateau and stepped off.
Behind the dvuron, a winged man quickly followed after—launching himself down the side of the mountain.