The news of what transpired in the second camp along with what was coming, had spread amongst the men by morning. Whispers of fleeing were beginning to percolate through to the civilians, and a crippling tension had taken hold of the camp.
Kaidus and Vick made their way across the sullen atmosphere after an early lunch, passing by a number of nervous guards. Arriving at the captain’s tent, a group of men–armed with weapons and supplies–were already standing outside, talking with the captain. At the front was Irvine, and as he scanned the group, Kaidus could see that they were the volunteers who would soon be departing to search for, and reinforce the others—who were traveling through the southern forest.
Spotting them, Captain Biran dismissed the group and promptly invited Vick and Kaidus inside.
Larger than the others, the captain’s tent had been constructed for the sake of organized meetings and planning, much like that of a war camp’s command. A corner of the tent had been closed off with two dark sheets, dividing the large room into a war room, and a sleeping area. Located at the center, was a crude table made of trimmed branches and a piece of flat wood, surrounded by a number of wooden blocks as seats.
Three others were already in the tent as they entered.
Vasco and Giaan stood at attention beside the wooden table, while a short round man rested on a piece of wood near the back of the tent. It was Solio, the man from the previous day. Somewhere in his forties, the portly man quietly surveyed them, his face more surprised than cautious.
“Vasco. Give me a hand would you?” The round man stood up on his good leg and Vasco quickly went to assist him.
“Please sit.” Biran entreated, before moving to the table himself.
Sitting down beside Vick, the captain and Solio sat across from them while both Vasco and Giaan walked over to the tent’s entrance to stand guard.
“Allow me.” Biran stood up once more after they had all settled. “As we have much to discuss, I shall keep this simple.” Gesturing to Kaidus and Vick, “This young man is Lord Kaidus Paltos, whom we’ve been searching for. To his left is Master Vickus Laveranus, his companion.” Biran then motioned to his right. “My lord, this is Solio Sarvatas, master hunter, and the person I left in charge of the Esperen camp.” Solio chuckled and curtly lowered his head.
“Just Vick is fine.” Vick gave a curt nod.
“It is but a title of the captain’s own giving, please pay it no mind. Just Kaidus will suffice.” Kaidus supplemented, nodding in accordance with everyone else.
“And yet that is the very nature of a title. A name, given unto men by the voices of others.” Solio replied with a smile. Catching Kaidus’ eyes, “Forgive me my lord, but Biran has already informed me of the situation, and of his decisions. I too, wholeheartedly agree in this.”
“Master Solio, there is no need for-”
“Please, my lord.” Solio replied, stopping Kaidus short of his words. “You saved our lives when the fangs of death were upon us. What you did for Vilute, for those of us still alive right now, you have our utmost gratitude.” Solio lowered his head as far as his belly would allow him. “You may not remember all of us, but those of us who were there have not forgotten you.”
Listening attentively, Vick shot a curious look at Kaidus.
Hearing the sincerity in Solio’s words, he could do nothing but acquiesce to the selfish logic. “Please raise your head. Now is neither the time nor place for such things, and I believe we have other matters to discuss.” Kaidus replied, attempting to steer the conversation back toward its original purpose.
“Indeed.” Biran added and lowered his head. “I apologize for making you wait. I felt it appropriate to have Solio sit in with us, for I believe he knows much more about these affairs than I do myself.”
“There is no need for an apology, captain. I merely had some curious thoughts to inquire about.”
“Then please give voice and allow us to help slake that curiosity.” Solio urged from beside Biran.
Kaidus scanned them both. “Very well. To start with, how did you know to look for me in Esperen?”
“That was- while we were gathering information in Umoraok, we heard of a disturbance in Karpes.” Biran began. “Rumors of a young mage that had troubled a pleasure house, helping a number of young girls escape their bondage. Though we were uncertain, Umoraok was sacked shortly after, and we were forced to flee. Following the trail of uncertainty, it eventually lead us to Esperen, and then to you.”
“Please wait.” Vick unceremoniously interrupted. “I believe I’ve been patient enough. Will you finally tell me what happened after you left us in Karpes? I never did hear how you two know each other.”
He had promised Vick answers, and answers he would give. Kaidus reached into his pocket and pulled out the handful of metal rings. “This, is what I’ve been doing.” He replied, and could see that the older man knew what he meant.
“Tal’hrus…” Vick whispered, his tone growing serious.
“I met the captain and his people at the beginning of that trail, amidst ashes and death.”
Both Biran and Solio’s expressions darkened.
“You could have told me. Why was there a need to wait until now?”
“Like I said. That was the beginning of the trail.” Kaidus resumed. “You remember what Lord Shradech said? About an unknown man becoming the king’s advisor?”
“The king’s advisor? You can’t be serious.”
“Then-” Vick shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “The news of an assassin, the murder in the capital…”
“Yes, that would be me.” Kaidus calmly answered.
Vick’s eyes widened. “You- have you no regard for yourself?! What if you had been captured? Killed?!” He exclaimed as if scolding a child playing with fire.
“I was careful.”
“You should have told me! Did anyone see your face? Do they know who you are?”
“It was quite dark. I doubt anyone would recognize me.”
“Doubt? Dammit Kaidus, do you know how worried I was? What am I supposed to tell your father if something happened to you?”
“Nothing is going to happen to me.”
“Gu- Fuck. You are not leaving my sight again.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m being ridiculous? Who’s the one going around assassinating members of Tal’hrus?” Vick snapped.
“Excuse me, but what is this ‘Tal’hrus’ you speak of?” Solio inquired curiously.
Ignoring Vick’s protest, “They are an organization of mages, using the people to further their goals. You have already met them yourselves. They are the ones who orchestrated the attack on your floating city.” Kaidus replied, and Solio’s curious expression twisted into that of horror.
“Well? What else are you not telling me?” Vick scowled.
“Well to start with, what is happening right now in the south is probably- no, most definitely linked with what I did in the capital.”
Vick’s mouth drew ajar. “Because of what you did?”
“Perhaps?” Vick echoed incredulously. “Do you understand what you’ve done? Do you even know what is happening?”
“My lord.” Biran quickly cut in. “Would you mind explaining?”
“Not at all.” Kaidus turned his gaze from Vick to Solio and Biran. “The king and I had a mutual agreement. He gave me some information and in return, I opened a new path for him.”
“The king? You met with King Laugrith?” Solio questioned with a look of bewilderment.
“Indeed. And judging by how everything has developed, it appears my actions have been pinned onto him, by those affiliated with the deceased.”
“Are you saying that the king-”
“I am. The crown is not the enemy.” Kaidus affirmed. “The man was in quite the dilemma himself. Now that his watcher is dead, Tal’hrus probably believes that he had ordered the assassination himself to escape their grasp. It would explain why such drastic actions have been taken. Why lords and ladies are marching their armies.”
“You’ve… you’ve effectively started a war…” Vick added vacantly, his voice troubled and uncertain.
“No, master Vick. You are mistaken, because this country’s war never ended in the first place.” Solio corrected with a somber look on his face.
“An illusionary recess. A much needed opportunity for schemers and conspirators to prepare. Am I wrong?”
“No…” Solio quietly answered.
“Last we heard, there were nine standing armies.” Kaidus stared at Biran and Solio, scrutinizing the subtle nuances of their expressions and postures. “But you both already knew that, don’t you?” He continued. “A country does not amass and train almost a dozen independent armies like this, because it means to protect itself from outside forces. Why don’t you tell me what was going on?”
Solio lowered his gaze onto the table top. “As you may have surmised, this country’s internal strife runs quite deep.” Solio paused for a brief instant to collect his thoughts. “After the Royal Avarthias line was deposed, the scavengers who had stayed out of the war emerged to pick at the flesh and bones of his majesty’s territories. We may have had a new king for these past few years, but everyone has been waiting for an opportunity to strike, to further their own ambitions.”
“And what of your Liberation Army. Where did they fit in?”
“Of course our side was embroiled in the struggle.” Solio paused and looked up. “Princess Vernera was in the process of forming an alliance with many of the other houses, hoping to win them to her cause. Had she succeeded, we would have struck back in an attempt to restore her onto the throne.”
“Yet with the princess and her liberation army no more, the rightful claim to the crown has vanished, nullifying any such alliance and hopes.”
“Yes.” A whisper of an answer from Solio.
The right side of Kaidus’ mouth tipped upward. “Is that why you all sought me out? A surrogate to helm that cause?” He queried.
“No, of course not!” Biran exclaimed before shamefully lowering his head. “Any such reasons have already perished alongside the princess. I beg of you, please do not say such things.” Biran begged.
“Apologies. I assumed too much.” Kaidus quickly apologized.
“Sorry, Biran.” Solio glanced at the captain before returning to face Kaidus. With a hesitant voice, “I would be lying if I said that there was no ulterior motive. When Biran spoke to me of his plans to search for you, to serve you, I saw an opportunity.”
“Solio. What are you talking about?” Biran questioned, his face puzzled and unsure of what was happening.
“You’ve seen them out there for yourself, my lord. Men, women, and children, living in fear and trying their best to survive. After what happened in Vilute, I thought that with you, we all might have a second chance at a normal life. That with your protection, we would no longer need to flee at the first sign of danger. That there would be no need to hide like wounded animals, waiting to be tracked down and put out of our misery.”
“My protection? And what makes you think I can protect you all?”
“You already have, my lord. Should you abandon us now, you would have saved us all only to cast us into a life worse than death.”
Laughter resounded in his head and Kaidus immediately closed his eyes to shut them out. ‘It Isssss Futile, Massssster. You Can Ssssee It In Hissss Eyessss. Eveen If You Refussse, They WILLLLL Follow Youuu As Otherssss Have Before.’ Zion joyfully expressed its amusement from within. ‘Accept It Massssterrrr… Retake Your Placccccce Upon The Precipiccccce Of The Worl-’
“My lord, Are you alright?” Biran questioned the odd silence and Kaidus immediately opened his eyes as someone else began shouting from the outside.
“Where is the captain?!”
They all turned around toward the entrance of the tent and Giaan quickly stepped out to see what was wrong. Instead of bringing back news, he brought a man inside.
Stout and broad shouldered, the man had a prominent round jaw and thick angry brows upon his battered face. His clothes were dirty and torn, and there were bloody abrasions on his fists, indicating that he had been fighting barehanded. His left arm drooped down to his waist, and a shallow cut ran along the side of the arm, bleeding down his fingertips.
““Roderick?!”” Solio and Biran both called out and got up.
It was one of the men who had volunteered alongside Solio and the others. One of the eight that they had assumed dead.
“Solio… Captain…” Roderick blinked, and his furrowed brows mellowed into torment. “I didn’t have a choice. Please… y-you’ve got to get everyone away from here!” He cried out.
“What are you saying Roderick? What happened to Jems? Where is Tarque and Falknur?” Biran asked.
“You have to get everyone out of here now. They’re coming!” Roderick howled, letting go of Giaan and falling to the ground.
“Roderick. Look at me. What happened?!”
“P-please forgive me! I didn’t want to die!” Roderick broke into tears. “They killed everyone. Tarque, Jems, Falknur, they’re all dead. I was only spared so that- gods, what have I-” Roderick buried his face into his right hand.
“Roderick… what did you do?” Biran warily questioned. His tone uneasy.
“They- guh- they spared me… so that- so that they could follow me back here.”
They all froze at the news. “You led your pursuers back to us?” Solio replied, his shock masking his anger.
Biran knelt down to eye level with Roderick. “Tell me. When was this, and how much time do we have?”
“W-we were caught y-yesterday evening. There- there are hundreds of them coming. I’m so sorry captain, I didn’t want to die.” Roderick began wailing pathetically.
“Giaan. Sound the alarm. We’re abandoning camp.” Biran quickly directed.
Instead of leaving, Giaan stared at Kaidus, seeing that the boy had gotten up from the table where he had been listening and was walking over to them.
“From which direction did this man come from?” Kaidus questioned.
“The guards said that patrols spotted him coming from the south.” Giaan immediately answered with a curious look.
“My lord?” Biran called out as Kaidus moved toward the exit.
“You will stay here and see to the evacuation.” Without turning to look at the captain, he walked out of the tent.
“Wait!” Vick shouted, quickly following behind. “And where exactly are you going?”
“To see what is coming.”
“You’re going to engage them by yourself?” Vick questioned knowingly.
“Will you stay here and help the others?”
“No way!” An instant refusal. “I already told you. You’re not leaving my sight again.”
“This is not the-”
“You are not leaving my sight again.” Vick sternly repeated. “If you’re going, then I’m coming with you.”
“Vic-” Kaidus stopped. “… Fine.” By his will, a breeze swirled around them briefly, then vanished into the air. Having felt the odd change, Vick opened his mouth to comment but, “Come on.” Kaidus urged, and quickened his pace.
By the time they reached the south side of the camp, preparations to vacate the base was already resounding loudly behind them. Passing by the few sentries’ on the outskirts, they entered the forest.
As they traversed further away from the camp, “What is on your mind?” Kaidus questioned, sensing numerous glances from Vick
“You have that curious look on your face. What are you thinking? Out with it.”
“Hah…” Vick sighed. “Well I didn’t want to say anything with everyone there, but Kaidus… what you said, what you started, thousands of innocents will suffer for it.”
“People are already suffering, Vick. Suffering because of men emboldened by the backing of Tal’hrus and encouraged by an absence of consequences for their actions. Men whose greed and ambitions overflow, just because they hold some semblance of power.”
“I know!” Vick retorted and quickly looked around before opening his mouth again. “I know that. I can see that. But this… inciting war in a country that has no relations to you? What you’ve done will condemn thousands to their death, not just those who are deserving of it.”
“What I’ve done, is uproot the seeds of corruption and forced their hands into the open.”
“It’s not that simple. Those seeds as you called them, have armies.”
“And I have an overburdened mercenary.”
“I’m not kidding here.” Vick replied, his voice troubled.
Halting his steps, Kaidus turned to the older man. “Vick.” His tone was anything, but playful. “I know you are bothered with what is happening, but I have no intentions of waiting to see thousands of innocent people die. It is as you said. I started this, and I plan to end it.”
“Kuuuurrrr…” A low growl came from inside Kaidus’ cloak and Zirus sprung out onto the ground. “Shrraaa!” It hissed, staring into the shadows of the forest.
Warily taking a step away from the serpent, “And what do you mean by that?” Vick continued.
“I will end this war before it can begin.” Kaidus softly answered, turning in the same direction as Zirus.
“E-end the war?” Vick stuttered with disbelief.
Kaidus turned back to Vick. “I’m sorry, but I must confess something to you.”
Raising his brows, Vick stared back as if bracing himself for something horrible.
Kaidus lowered his head respectfully to the older man. “I want you to know that your friendship means a lot to me. Thank you for watching my back, and always going along with my selfish whims.”
“Oi, Kaidus. What are you doing?” Vick probed, perturbed by the formal display before him.
“I hope that what you see next will not strain our friendship.” Kaidus slowly raised his head.
“I don’t know what you mean by that, but this is weirding me out.”
“You might want to cover your ears.” He warned. “Do it, Zirus.”
“KRUAAA!!” Upon his command, the serpent unleashed a deafening shockwave outward.
““Aaaaaghuu!!”” Voices screamed out from around them. Half a dozen men fell out of the trees, while others collapsed from behind thick trunks.
“Wha-?!” Vick quickly drew his swords and fell into a defensive stance. Before he could move, Kaidus stepped out in front of him. “Kaidus?” Vick questioned.
“I value your friendship too much to keep lying to you. It is also time you stopped worrying about me.” Kaidus flashed a grim smile and stalked forward.
“What are you doing?” Vick uttered, only to hear his own voice come out as a silent whisper.
The forest had gone dead silent and there was something else in the air.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he tried to take a step back, but could not.
Having been in countless life and death situations, he had witnessed the passion and carnage of all those who tread upon the bloody fields of battle. There were times when he had lost himself in the crimson dance, striking fear into those who would stand against him. Yet around him now, was a presence the likes of which he had never seen or felt before.
A thirst so powerful, that his heart threatened to cease beating and his arms and legs refused to move, lest he found himself on the opposite end of such bloodlust.
Vick stared in shock, as the youth’s pitch black hair began streaking with light before radiating with a silver glow. His body shook, as something emerged to wrap itself around the boy like a transparent coat. ‘Kaidus… what are you?’ He questioned silently, afraid to give life to the words.
A blinding light that sheared through men like the sharpest swords. Flying magic which he had never even heard mention of before.
He instantly recalled the night when they abducted the countess.
Wordlessly staring at the small back walking away from him, it felt like he was looking at someone else, someone entirely different from the young boy he thought he knew.
Vivid memories easily overtook his thoughts.
–Two callous eyes, staring coldly at the mangled bodies of three grown men. Clothes bloodied and hands dripping with fresh blood–
Such an event was the first time he had been afraid of the boy. He had never forgotten the crushing panic he felt then when those cold eyes turned to look in his direction that day so long ago. Yet even then, the fear was nothing he couldn’t overcome. Least of all, it was nothing in comparison to the terror he was feeling now.
He had always known that the boy was skilled in the ways of the sword. It was also no secret that the boy was a gifted mage. But being the elder, he had always seen the boy as a younger brother, someone to be protected. Only now, did he understand that the boy had never required his protection. That his worries were groundless and his being there, nothing but a burden upon the boy’s true agenda.