The voices of the forest had already vanished, leaving only the pained groans of those who were forced out of hiding by Zirus’ roar.
With Vick’s gaze locked onto his back, Kaidus slowed his steps one last time to reflect upon what was to come, and of consequences to follow.
‘This… cannot be all of them.’ He thought to himself, carefully watching the dozen men who were struggling to stand back up.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and steeled his mind.
There was no turning back.
Power swelled from within and he promptly pushed forth his indomitable will.
Like the raging tides, a flood of mana exploded outward.
An invisible storm of pure magic, he willed it, and the tempest surged through the trees and beyond, dominating all that would stand before his might.
The whole of the forest materialized in his mind as his mana washed through trees, expanding beyond the encampment. Men, women, and children, their presences manifested in his internal visualization of the forest. “…” As he had surmised, the refugees were not the only ones hiding within the trees. The magic had detected at least a hundred other presences, and all were surrounding the large camp.
Haaa… With another deep breath, he opened his lucent eyes to the silent realm. The silver of Andarg had once again overtaken his black hair and a thin veil of light had emerged to cover his body, radiating dimly and illuminating the air around him. The naked metals that had fallen haphazardly onto the ground were now glowing as if to light his path, and any form of movement from their assailants had ceased. Drowned out by his will, even the chill of Fulta had vanished as the world stilled itself.
Behind him, Vick’s previously curious gaze was now searing into his back.
Overflowing with power, he slowly resumed his steps toward the group. “How fortunate it is to be greeted with swords from the shadows.” Kaidus spoke, his voice shattering the silence. With each step he took, the darkness squirmed and fled from his path. With each breath, he could feel the air being sucked out of the forest as if the trees themselves were holding still in anticipation of what is to come.
A quick upward gesture with his right hand and the ground around the soldiers shifted, rising up to encircle them. With a thought, the circular wall of earth moved inward, molding over and binding the unknown assailants further into large earthen statues, restricting them from their legs up to their shoulders.
“But I fear your hunt has come to an end.” He added and a sword that had been dropped by one of the soldiers immediately lurched up from the ground and into his right hand.
“No… Let- me GO!!” A large man at the forefront of the group cried out, having snapped out of his dazed state. Bound and unable to move, the man began thrashing in an attempt to break free of the earthen prison.
Kaidus stepped forth toward the man.
Built like a bull, the assailant would probably be twice his own size and three heads taller had the man been standing up straight. An Aleithian man. Having recovered from the deafening shock, the man’s two dark eyes were already glaring up at him, defiant yet uncertain and terrified at the same time. What he had thought to be a thick head of hair, was in fact a short mane growing all the way down to, and around the man’s neck.
With a thought, the man’s futile struggling ceased alongside the multitude of others who were also trying to break free of his bindings. Their uncertainty and any inklings of resistance vanished immediately.
Ignoring the terrified stares, “Hm?” His eyes immediately latched onto a barely visible patch on the man’s exposed left shoulder. Though obscured by the shadows and partially hidden by his own immobilization magic, he could still make out parts of the distinct emblem.
Three tower shields on top of one another.
It was the shielded crest of the Southern Guards as he had come to learn these past few days.
Tearing his focus away from the emblem, he looked to the terror-stricken faces of those who were now at his mercy. Eighteen people all together. Even without questioning their purpose, the smell of blood that was permeating through the air told him everything he needed to know.
Turning his gaze once more to the aleithian man, “Are you the one in charge here?” He questioned, his voice rippling with hostility.
“Nhn-no.” The man stuttered, quickly averting his gaze. “I-I’ll lea- we’ll leave. W-we were just following orders.” The man’s enduring mask had shattered and, in his voice, was instinctual fear.
Kaidus clenched his teeth. No. The answer came to him as swiftly as the thoughts of releasing them arose in his mind.
They were killers. Each and every one of them were accustomed to the laws of blood as much as he himself, and they knew it. In their expressions he could see that they knew exactly where they stood. No longer the hunter, but captured preys at the mercy of someone else’s knife.
Disregarding his own enquiry, “No.” He voiced softly, willing the man to look him in the eyes. “I had thought to ignore your presences yet such bloodlust, such eagerness upon spotting the two of us. It would be a mistake to allow any of you further.” He added, glaring into the dozen pairs of eyes that were now fearfully staring back. “As you all have allowed one of ours to live, I too, shall grant one of you a small mercy.” With the sword he had picked up in hand, he extended it outward, sliding it into the chest of the aleithian man before anyone could say a word. With a thought, the earthen prisons tightened and screams of agony came pouring out from everyone else.
Frozen in place, ‘Fuck!’ Vick screamed internally as his stomach churned in revulsion. The men before Kaidus began to struggle, screaming and begging while gasping for air as the dirt and rocks encasing them constricted and hardened. He watched in horror, as the last of the bodies went limp and their heads slumped to the sides of the unsightly amalgamation.
Yet like a cruel torturer, the rocks and dirt encasing their assailants fell apart like sand, releasing the bodies onto the ground.
Loud gasps eventually came out one after another as trembling soldiers unsteadily pushed themselves up in bursts of coughs and confusion.
Along with the man who had been impaled, two others did not rise up. Appearing to have been crushed, the bodies laid motionless on the ground as cries and grunts resonated through the forest.
Horrified and dazed but freed from their bondage, the soldiers who had woken up tried scattering into the trees, only to fall over as thick vines erupt from the ground to seize their legs.
Deathly screams tore through the forest as the struggling men were dragged into the ground. Their last acts, a cry for mercy that fell on deaf ears.
The forest’s atmosphere shifted once again and the shadows of the forest were ripped apart briefly.
His eyes wide, Vick stared as three distinct pillars of light raged down from the sky. Engulfing the three lifeless bodies that had not been consumed by the earth, he watched as flesh and bones disintegrated into nothingness.
Yet such horror was not the end.
With the three bodies vaporized, the pillars surged together, becoming one before receding and changing into that of a tall humanoid figure.
Pure white like a steel blade pulled from the hottest of forges, the figure neither radiated heat nor exuded light. Instead, an enormous amount of pressure could be felt coming from the entity.
Sensing an unrestrained danger, Vick reflexively felt for his swords with uncooperative hands.
“Kill them all.” A voice devoid of any hesitation or emotions and unlike that of a child.
The being of light lowered its head in a show of obedience, then splintered into thousands of strands and disappeared into the forest like a blinding mist.
Shocked by the ruthless command and seeing the creature leave, Vick’s unsteady legs collapsed, buckling him to the ground.
Kneeling in a stupor, his eyes dared not look away from the boy before him.
In the span of what felt like a single breath, the child had taken control of the precarious situation and forcefully denied anyone else a chance.
Ripping away any semblance of resistance, the brutality was unlike the boy’s usually calm and aloof self and try as he might, Vick could not get the sense of helplessness out of his body.
*Ug- Bleh!* the contents of his stomach came gushing out instead as the distorted faces of all those who had been buried alive flashed before his eyes.
Recalling his position, he quickly wiped away what few nerves he had left and warily turned back to look up at the boy. Two glowing eyes were staring back. He froze.
Though shining almost as brilliantly as the boy’s now silver hair, there was something else within those eyes. An emptiness that could not be known, shadows of horrors that should not be witnessed. Within them was something that he could not begin to describe.
“K-” Vick tried to speak but nothing came out. Voiceless and unable to move, he knelt apprehensively, terrified of the thing, the child before him.
A cruel knowing smile crept onto Kaidus’ face and his own body began shaking once more as he fought against his instincts to flee.
“Go back, Vick.”
His trembling body stiffened and Vick lowered his gaze to hide his fear.
“In a pocket of my rucksack is the letter from Lord Shradech. It is a bit late, but give it to Captain Biran and notify him of the lord and the people of Vernigale.”
Still voicelessly kneeling, the events that had just transpired flashed before his eyes. Had he not witnessed it firsthand, he would never have believed such things were possible. The bloodthirsty aura and lust for destruction that forced him to cower into the depths of his own mind, the impossible fear that suffocated the forest, and the vision of death standing before the child. Everything had felt like a nightmare, yet it was too vivid and all too real.
‘I hope that what you see next will not strain our friendship.’
He clutched his fist to resist the fear, to say something, but could not.
The boy had always fought with the sword. Even when the boy fought with magic, it had always been used to enhance his physical prowess much like how the captain fought. To see Kaidus using elemental magic, to see the child casually using such magic and burying a dozen men alive without invoking a single word of incantation,
he had severely mistaken Troyle’s words of a “skillful mage”.
As much as he wished to put on his usual foolish facade and berate the boy, to continue their friendly banters, he was terrified and they both knew it.
‘How? Who? Why?’ Questions manifested in his mind, yet only silence continued to prevail as the truth became all too clear.
“My apologies, but I must leave everyone in your care again.”
Hearing the words of departure, Vick forced himself to at least look up at the boy. “?!”
Kaidus was already rising into the air. “Wh-what are you going to do!?” He yelled in confusion, prompting the boy to stop and glance back. The two cold eyes caught him again and Vick’s tongue retreated into the back of his throat for a moment. “K-Kaidus.” He stuttered, having quickly found his voice. “W-what do you intend to do?” He questioned, fighting to sound normal.
This time, a pleasant grin carved itself out on the boy’s oddly mature face.
“I intend to end this war before it can begin.” Bereft of any doubts or unease, the words were filled with resolve and the knowledge that before the day is over, any thoughts of war will have been purged.
More bodies flashed into Vick’s mind. ‘No. No no no…’ “Kaidus please. N-not like this. You- you don’t have to do it alone.” He pleaded, his own principles warring with the terror that was abundantly present in his voice.
A pained smile flashed briefly upon the boy’s face before vanishing. “You are a good man, Vick.” Kaidus replied, still in the air. “I know that you have been looking out for me ever since the day I came to the Droxxon mercenaries. I’d even wager that you asked Captain Zikale for this job after hearing about my father’s request. I also know that you feel guilty, thinking you allowed me onto this path because of your negligence in watching over me.” Kaidus brought his fist up and a light exploded outward as flames engulfed the fist. “But this has always been who I am, long before I came to the mercenaries,” Kaidus shook his hand and the flames vanished, “which is why I cannot share these burdens with you. For they are mine to carry alone.”
“Kuuuuaa!” From where it was hiding on the ground, the black serpent screeched proudly and launched itself up to land on the boy’s shoulder.
“Do not fret, for I will return.” Kaidus added and quickly ascended beyond the treetops.
Staring into the empty sky for god knows how long, the chill of the forest slowly returned and Vick shivered, finally noticing that he was still kneeling on the cold ground.
“W-what just…” Recalling the two eyes that had so acutely immobilized him, he shivered once more. This time not because of the cold, but because of the truth.
Breathing heavily, Biran hastily looked to the people around him to be sure that he was not the only one. He wasn’t. Solio was staring back with eyes agape, while Vasco and Giaan shuddered in their seats like they had the shakes. Almost reminiscent of what they felt during the liberation of Vilute, he and Solio exchanged uncertain looks.
Yet, unlike the calm and controlled power they had felt that day, the deathly pressure was like they had all been submerged under a lake of ice.
“Go! See what is happening outside!” Biran quickly directed and the four of them rushed out of his tent.
Clothes, food items, and various equipment littered the campgrounds along with dozens of barely conscious bodies. Mostly women and children along with some elderly, many people had fallen over in the midst of their evacuation procedures and others were trying to help them up. Terrified cries came from all around them along with hasty questions and nervous reassurances.
‘My lord.’ Unsure as to what was happening, Biran gripped the cold translucent sword at his side and made a mad dash for the camp’s southern perimeters. Men shouted over to him but ignoring their cries and the mass of people in his path, he continued onward.
Arriving at the outskirts of the camp where the sentries were stationed, Biran drew his sword and ran to the two bodies lying on the ground. Breathing a sigh of relief upon seeing that they were still alive, “What happened here?” He questioned, trying to shuffle one awake.
“It’s alright. They should wake up soon enough.”
A familiar voice came over from the tree lines and Biran hedged his sword in the voice’s direction. “Vick?” The man looked considerably worse than when he left with their lord. Instead of the mercenary who always had a relaxed yet confident expression, Vick’s gait was shorter and uneven. There was a dour look on his face and the man’s usual poise was gone. “What happened to Charl and Emmerick?” He questioned, not looking away from Vick. “What happened to you?”
“A lot.” Vick replied tiredly. “You need to get the camp in order and ready for the move. Send words to the other sentries. Everyone should help.”
“Where is the lord?” He questioned, seeing Vick alone.
The mercenary hesitated for a second. “Kaidus is gone.”
“… Understood.” Refraining from asking about what happened, Biran glanced down at the two unconscious men. “You mind helping me shoulder them back?”
“You go back first,” Vick replied, plopping himself down next to the two unconscious bodies. “I will wait here until they wake up.”
Biran watched as the mercenary sat down and slowly–almost casually–place his left hand over his right. Upon closer inspection, he could see that Vick’s hands were trembling. Without saying anything, he turned to leave them.
“You didn’t ask where Kaidus is going.”
A statement from behind and Biran stopped.
“All this time, all these years with him and I never had the slightest clue beyond ‘a skillful mage’.” Vick laughed a short and unamused laugh. “You knew though, didn’t you? What he is capable of?”
“… Yes.” Biran answered, but capable was not what he would call the child. In the blink of an eye, Vilute was liberated after all had seemed lost that fateful day. He himself had been brought back from the brink of death, and even his newfound strength was from their lord. The child was a God and ‘capable’ might as well be an insult.
A harder laughter came from Vick. “Tell me about it next time. When I’m not in such a state.”
“We shall have to exchange stories over a drink one of these days.”
“I’d like one right now.” Vick snorted.
The sound of a body hitting the ground came from behind and Biran glanced back to see that the man was laying down with Emmerick and Charl. Leaving the three of them, he continued his way back to the camp.
Vick’s expression resurfaced in his thoughts as the wind swept him through the air.
In one fell swoop he had shown his hand, his true nature, and the reaction from the older mercenary could only be taken as the expected outcome. The look of fear and uncertainty was all too obvious, yet he could not fault the man.
Zirus screeched happily as it glided swiftly ahead of him without worry.
Seeing the youngling’s joy, Kaidus quickly discarded his thoughts. He had already made his choice. To linger on whether it was the right decision or not, was a foolish sentiment and a luxury that he could not and would not afford.
Focusing his mind instead, the mana that he had dispersed through the forest earlier came rushing back, revealing his destination.
‘They’re further than I thought.’ He mused to himself.
Encountering the party of soldiers and hearing Roderick’s warning, he had assumed the bulk of their forces to be much closer.
‘Let us not keep them waiting.’
With an ocean of mana still coursing through his body, “Zirus.” Speaking the name into the wind, the youngling ahead immediately stopped accelerating and made a swift turn back toward him.
Kaidus extended his left arm out and the youngling latched onto it, tightly coiling itself around the arm.
With the youngling safely tucked away, he willed it, and a beam of light manifest in his right hand. Gripping firmly, he channeled mana into the arm. “Surrak.” He invoked, slashing out in front.
*BOOM!* the roar of thunder echoed through the sky, extending into the southwestern horizon and beyond.
Having cleft apart the air like cutting a path through the ocean, the sword of light dissipated.
With layers of mana swirling around Zirus and himself, he quickly surged into the airless void that he had created, flying without resistance or limit.
Half a day’s march to the southwest.
Blanketing the road and weaving itself into the edge of the forest like thick colorful threads, a large army numbering in the thousands diligently marched eastward. Shoulder to shoulder, soldiers spanned the width of the roads and trailed into the distance as far as the eyes can see.
Having passed Esperen days ago, it would not be long before they reach the forking roads leading north to Garnikul.
Hoisted on war carriages and pulled by powerful stallions, hundreds of banners were undulating high in the air carrying the emblems of dozens of different houses. At the forefront of the army and flying high above the others, was a large mast carrying the unified symbol of the army: the Shielded Crest.
*BOOM!* the sound of thunder shattered the air, echoing through the mass of soldiers like a vicious quake.
Unprepared for the sudden disturbance, soldiers stumbled in confusion while horses threw riders to the ground before fleeing in frantic panic.
Alongside the thousands of others who were moving at her command, a woman with dull crimson hair and sharp blue eyes quickly reined in her horse, then turned to look toward the origin of the unknown phenomena.
“Mistress Inareh!” Her guards shouted, clamoring over to her side.
“What in the world…” The words were out of her mouth before she had time to think. Overhead where thick clouds had overshadowed their march all morning, there was a path of clear blue sky like something had split the clouds apart.
She quickly blinked twice, so as to confirm that her eyes were not deceiving her.
Screams of alarm came from around them as horses and mules thrashed about, throwing provisions and equipment all over the ground while trampling soldiers.
“Order!” Inareh commanded, infusing mana into her voice to amplify it. “Ord-?!” She stopped.
All the hairs on her body were now standing and though she was wearing a coat of mana to suppress the coldness, there was an undeniable chill erupting throughout her body. “Gu-!?!”
A wind the likes of which she had never felt before smashed into her chest, blowing away her mana barrier and ripping her off the horse.
Colliding onto the ground, her mind attempted to give life to a protective spell but all she could do was gasp for air.
The sound of her mare crushing others in its flight path came from her left, and Inareh painfully pushed herself off the ground.
Her two dozen guards had also been blown down along with hundreds of others in her vicinity.
“Kuh!” She held onto her chest, biting down the pain. *Cough!* *Cough!* “I-Ireese!” She shouted, calling for one of her mage guards. “Molrin!” She tried another, but there was no reply as well.
Speechless, “Ughk!” Her body tensed as a different wind swept through. One of death and destruction, a wind that carried an unquenchable lust for blood.
She immediately turned her gaze toward the northeastern skies again and held her breath.
In the air where there should be naught but clouds and drakalls accompanied by songbirds and whispers, there existed something else, something unfathomable.
Like a piece of the sky itself, a figure was now quietly hovering high above them. Shrouded in a dark cloak and oozing of death, the figure’s two silvery eyes were staring down at her.