The sky shook for an instant, and the unknown figure fell like a bolt of lightning.
“Run!” Inareh hastily shouted, aggravating the pain in her chest while at the same time, invoking all her mana to form another shield.
A shockwave slammed into the barrier, forcing her back a step as the ground rumbled angrily beneath her unsteady feet.
Hastily bracing herself, she instinctively focused her mind to keep the shield from shattering and began a second incantation.
“-!?” Her tongue stilled itself at the command and an unnerving pressure overwhelmed her body. The last of her shield quickly dissipated, consumed by the explosion of mana that was now coursing through the air.
‘W-who? Who is it?’ The question resounded in her head as the world itself came to a halt.
The dust quickly vanished and standing amidst hundreds of her unconscious soldiers, was a young man draped in a gray cloak.
The boy turned toward her and Inareh’s body became motionless.
A head shorter than herself, the young man’s face had the beginnings of an angular jaw and strong cheekbones not uncommon in the maturing process. Yet beyond his youthful countenance and ordinary stature, the boy’s silvery eyes were now aglow with an otherworldly fire that threatened to burn everything within his sights. His unnatural silver hair rippled radiantly with streaks of light, illuminating the thick sheen of mana that covered him like a suit of armor.
Mesmerized, Inareh could not look away.
“I had not planned for this today.” The young man spoke with a calm but apathetic voice, one that diffused through the air like the calm midday surf. “Yet circumstances have dictated otherwise so I shall oblige.” Not stepping over the fallen soldiers, he glided over them as he moved.
‘W-what is going on?’ Her insides questioned in terror as the child’s approach became all too apparent. From the corner of her eyes she could see some of her soldiers struggling to get up, but similar to her own situation, none dared to approach the child.
“Tell me. Who commands this army?” The boy questioned; his composure unfazed by the hundreds of soldiers around them.
Memories of their master in all his fury came to mind as the stifling pressure closed in on her. ‘No…’ It was nothing like standing before the ice mage that she called master.
The sheer amount of mana that was flowing out of the boy was something the man could only dream of, and the boy’s ungodly presence was leagues beyond Eril’s own splendor.
“Speak.” The young man ordered, his eyes flashing darkly.
Inareh quivered as the command coiled about her body like a serpent, tightly constricting her stomach and slowly slithering up to her neck. In his cold eyes, she saw herself ripped to shreds and lying in a puddle of her own blood. “I-I do.” The nervous answer stammered out of her mouth and a knowing smile appeared on the boy’s face. An unassuming one, yet behind it lurked an air of malice unfitting for someone so young. “Who are y-you?” She quickly followed up, trying to hold onto her pride.
“I am the death of those you have sent into the forest. I am the end of this perversion upon these lands.” The child answered, his eyes growing dimmer and darker.
‘Men? Forest?’ She had given no such orders.
Ever since passing Esperen, they had kept to the roads. Their destination was the slave town of Garnikul and time was of the essence. To send men into the surrounding forests had not been a part off her plans.
“No? Not yours?” The child scrutinized, stepping forth to stand two arm’s length in front of her.
“N-No.” Inareh uttered, and the smile upon his face vanished. *COUGH!* the pain in her chest immediately flared up as her lungs imploded. Gasping for air and clutching at her chest, she fell to the ground.
“They wore the emblem of this army.” No longer indifferent, the boy’s voice was coarse and filled with venom. “Pity that such enthusiasm and anticipation had only served to see them to an early grave.”
‘Guh! How? WHO?!’ Her mind cried out as the faces of everyone who could have ordered men into the forest manifested before her. Her mouth opened but unable to breathe and her own vision darkening, she willed her lungs to take in air instead. They refused.
Suffocating and losing her consciousness, “UhK! Pl- Please!” She begged, reaching out with her hand as her vision clouded.
The boy remarked and the smothering pain instantly lessened. Feeling an opportunity, she greedily filled her lungs, almost choking on the breath of life as sharp pain shot through her body.
Alive but powerless and on the ground, her heart continued racing as all manners of scenarios cycled through her head. Yet, there were none in which escape was possible.
Even with thousands of soldiers at her fingertips, any notion of engaging the child and winning could not prevail in her mind. The endless outpouring of his mana had rendered her incapable of invoking any incantations and his overpowering presence alone, had destroyed her will to retaliate. As a powerful Malgin herself with little to fear, all of her instincts were now telling her that the child before them, was one that must be feared.
“It is almost as if you are speaking true…”
The words gave Inareh some measure of comfort and she quickly tried to calm her trembling body, doing her best to hide the terror that was eating her insides.
“Stand up.” A sharp command.
Clutching her chest with her left hand and keeping her head down, Inareh painfully pulled herself up to her feet as if her life depended on it.
“Have your men erect a command tent and send words to those in charge. This march ends here.”
Standing in silence, dozens of questions and thoughts sprang up but her mouth refused to give voice to such madness.
“Or should I have someone else give the orders?”
The same dreadful feeling as before began coiling itself around her stomach, snaking its way up to her neck. “U-understood.” She swiftly complied, not wanting to see what might come next.
As if waiting upon her complete compliance, the world that had stilled itself upon the boy’s arrival began to move once more, snapping back into reality.
Sensing the unusual shift, she slowly lifted her head to look up.
Before her was a young man with pitch black hair and sharp black eyes. The immense pressure was gone. The boy’s unrelenting bloodlust had also disappeared and no longer did he have a suit of mana covering him like armor.
She was now staring at an ordinary young man. One whose appearance was that of a powerless and magicless commoner, someone whom she could easily overpower on her own or with a simple command to her soldiers.
The boy’s dark eyes caught her own and she quickly averted her gaze.
“Go on. Test yourself.” The boy urged, as if knowing exactly what she was thinking.
“N-no. I…” Inareh lowered her head again.
Isolated by her own emotions, all she could hear was the sound of her heart roaring frantically.
“Then what are you waiting for?”
The question ripped her out of the silence and without looking at the young man, Inareh quickly turned around to her mages and soldiers.
The look in their eyes spoke volumes about the type of situation they were in.
Sitting in a corner of the large command tent, Kaidus quietly observed as a number of individuals eventually arrived to join them. Consisting of lords and ladies, many of the arrivals were in pristine looking attires and each were accompanied by their own personal guard. Though many spotted him upon entering, none gave him a second glance after seeing his mundane appearance and position in the back corner of the room.
In the center of the tent was a large stone slab with accommodating seats and those in command each took a spot at the table while their guards naturally moved to stand behind them.
Holding his head high, a man in a decorated armor of black and green entered the large command tent. Unlike the others who were in traveling garbs, the man was in full plate armor. Scanning the spacious room, he handed his sword to his guard and moved to one of the empty seats, “What happened here and why have we been summoned?” The man inquired as he sat down. Emblazoned upon the man’s black chest plate, was a golden hawk.
“That is indeed the question isn’t it, Lady Inareh?” An older and pompous looking woman, one of the few within the room added. “We have been patient enough and everyone is here now. I believe an explanation is due.”
Kaidus looked to the group who had gathered. Nine altogether, their ranks consisted of two women and seven men. Traces of mana could be detected exuding from a few of them, but none powerful enough to warrant his attention.
Turning his gaze to the woman who had called herself Inareh, he waited, and she slowly turned to look in his direction. “Is that all of them?” He questioned from his seat, arousing all eyes within the tent onto himself.
“Y-yes…” The woman hesitantly answered, garnering a few suspicious looks from the others. “Shall I introduce every-”
“There is no need.” Kaidus stood up from his spot, slowly moving away from the corner and toward the group.
Curious eyes began darting around the room with many of them aimed at Inareh.
“Who is this child and why is he here?” A hulking bearded man questioned, looking around inquisitively for an answer.
Ignoring the man, Kaidus stepped forth toward the group and reached into his cloak, prompting some of the guards to go for their weapons. Taking out a small white pouch, he tossed it onto the stone slab. “In that bag there you will find a sum of money. Split it amongst the eight of you and go home with your troops. Your presence here my lords, is no longer required.”
Stunned silence prevailed in the room for an awkward moment, before the hulking man motioned for his guard to investigate the pouch. Dumping its contents onto the stone table, the guard revealed a red and black gemstone the size of a man’s thumb, nine green metallic stones, and a handful of ern bits. Overall, it contained a lustrous rae, nine green fers, sixteen double bits, and eleven metallic erns for a total of nine hundred and ninety-three erns.
“What is the meaning of this?” A graying man in an impeccable attire of red and gray spoke as the room erupted into a number of voices.
“Go home? What is this child talking about?” Another voice boomed through the room.
Voices called out, demanding answers.
“Explain it to them. Let them know their options.” Kaidus directed, moving deftly to stand behind the woman.
“Who are you to-” The older woman who had chimed in earlier spoke up, but was quickly interrupted.
“I-it is as you’ve all heard. Your forces are no longer necessary…” Inareh tentatively repeated, not looking up at the group. “More pressing matters have come up and in lieu of the situation, this meeting has been called with the singular purpose of letting you all know that I will be withdrawing from this expedition.”
“But you control the bulk of the unified forces. Without your two thousand, what are we-” Someone reasoned, but, “What madness is this?! I did not march my men for days and nights with the promise of glory for such paltry excuses!” Another voice cut in.
The deep and disgruntled voice prompted Inareh to look at the man. “Y-you are free to do as you will, my lord.” She snarled back. “Should you choose to continue onward, do not blame me for whatever befalls you and your men.”
“Are you threatening us?” Another of the lords questioned, his tone irate and hostile.
“No.” Kaidus answered instead, drawing all eyes to himself once more. “I am the one who is threatening you, my lords.” He paused, allowing his words to sink in and a few of them scoffed at his remark. “On the table is all the money I have. Take it as payment for having come this far and as a token of my appreciation for-”
*Plap!* someone slammed the flat of their hand against the stone table. “Varil!” As if fed up with his presence, the older lady shouted and her guard immediately stepped forth. “Drag that child out of here!”
Hahhh… Taking a deep breath, “Of course it comes to this.” Kaidus grumbled, turning to his left to face the approaching guard.
“Now boy. Come quietly if you don’t wish to get hurt.” The man warned and pulled out a small dagger from his side.
Before the man could reach him, Kaidus lunged forward. Cocking his right arm, he slammed his fist into the man’s jaw, dropping the man instantly. The sound of bones breaking swept through the spacious room that had gone silent in anticipation of his removal.
“Certainly, diplomacy was the flawed and failed construct of a fool.” He complained, shaking his hand in the air as the sound of weapons being drawn echoed around him. “Regardless, I would prefer we talk this out instead.” With a final glance at the unconscious guard on the ground, he turned his attention to the old woman who had ordered his dismissal. “As I was saying, take the money as a token of my appreciation for withdrawing. Discard this notion of glory and return to your peaceful lives because one way or another, this very noble cause of yours ends here today. Isn’t that right, Inareh?” Shooting a quick glance at Inareh, the woman neither answered nor made any movements.
“And if we refuse?” A man’s voice queried.
Kaidus turned to the armored man. There was a curious but collected look on the man’s face. “Then you will die along with anyone else who dares to stand beside you.”
“Hoh…” A smile crept onto the man’s face. “So, you’re saying all five hundred of my men will die should I choose to keep marching onward?”
“I will allow anyone who does not wish to fight the option of withdrawing. I am sure there are many here who are tired of this pointless conflict.” He answered, locking eyes with the man. “But should you decide to challenge me, do not expect any mercy.”
“And yet your actions have betrayed such alarming threats.” The man gestured to the guard who had merely been rendered unconscious. “You should know that bluffs will not work here. What can you possibly do against us if we all choose to decline your generous proposal? What can you possibly do against the thousands of soldiers outside?”
The desire to laugh struck him from the inside, but Kaidus quickly opted for a smile instead. Stepping back behind Inareh, “So he says. What about you, Lady Inareh. What do you think?” He questioned and the woman visibly cowered in her seat.
“That it is none of my business as I have already voiced my decision. If anyone wishes to throw their life away, that is their prerogative.” She swiftly answered.
“Fair enough.” Turning his focus to the guards who had drawn their weapons, “From this moment forth, anyone who threatens to come at me shall be considered an enemy. I will not hold back again.” Reaching into his cloak, Kaidus drew the xeberite sword.
“Daanyl.” The armored man called out and his guard immediately stepped up behind him. Picking up two of the green fers off the stone table, the man stood up. “We are leaving.”
“What do you think you are doing?” One of the lords questioned.
“As per my father’s instructions, I have answered your call to arms and lead our troops here. Since Lady Inareh has decided to relinquish her hold on our forces, my men and I shall be taking our leave.” The armored man continued toward the exit but stopped and turned around. “Boy!” The man shouted, “I am Declann, son of Lord Edestone and heir to the Rellkye House. My peers call me the Golden Hawk of Rellkye. If you somehow survive this ordeal and are ever in the blue vales of Rellvas, pay me a visit.” With those parting words and a smile, he stepped out of the tent.
Seeing the stunned look on everyone’s faces, “What about the lot of you?” Kaidus questioned.
Without a word, the older lady brusquely stood up and left, leaving her unconscious guard behind. Her actions were quickly followed by four of the lords and their guards.
“Lady Inareh.” One of the two remaining commanders spoke up. “Does this mean that we-”
“Yes. Leave. Get out of here.” Inareh voiced, her tone hiding a hint of frustration.
“Then I too will be taking my leave, my lady.” The man made a curt bow and left.
“Apologies, Lady Inareh. But if you have already decided so, then there is no reason in my being here any longer. Please excuse me.” With a bow, the last of the lords stood up.
“Inareh!” A voice shouted from the outside, followed by the sound of someone frantically rushing toward the tent.
A man stormed inside as the last of the lords was about to leave.
Covered in an ashen black cloak, the intruder’s long brown hair was disheveled and he had the beginnings of a full-faced beard. His previously confident face from his time in Garnikul was nowhere to be seen, and the wears on his traveling clothes showed that the man had not changed or washed for days.
“Inareh! Inareh!!” The man cried out, finally spotting the person he was looking for. “Turus and Agria are dead. You must not go to Garnikul. We need to-” The man froze as beads of sweat ran down the side of his forehead.
“Why hello there, Roln. Small world isn’t it?”
‘No. You can’t be here. This isn’t real!’ His mind screamed and Roln looked to Inareh. “?!” The look on the woman’s face was one of defeat. Her eyes met his, but her face was one of surprise and fear, one with an expression that seem to be asking why he was there. “W-Why are you here?” He questioned the boy instead, his voice shaking as it left his mouth.
“Why am I here? I should be asking the same of you.” The boy’s smile widened. “I gave you an order. To see my trust woefully wasted, I am utterly disappointed.” The boy replied, stepping out from behind Inareh to stand beside her.
“Why are you here?!” Roln repeated, his voice louder than he had wanted it to be.
Hidden within the cloak, the child flicked his left arm forward and a pitch-black rod soared across the room. Before he could evade the attack, the rod slammed into Roln’s neck, “HiSSSSS!” A pitch-black serpent quickly wrapped itself around Roln’s throat, poising itself to rip it apart. “You would do well to understand your position.” The boy’s voice seemed to shake the grounds upon which they stood.
His neck throbbing, “*Cough!* I did not- Ugk!” The serpent tightened its coils, cutting his excuses short. “Please.” Roln pleaded, raising his shaking arms into the air.
“Let him go Zirus.”
The serpent quickly uncoiled and two sets of translucent wings flared out as it shot back across the room to the child. Situating itself on the boy’s left shoulder, it gave a tired and disinterested yawn.
Roln’s eyes widened.
What he had assumed to be an ordinary serpent was anything but, ordinary. Although still young and barely longer than the length of his arms, the beast was a Hvaral, one of the great serpents that dominates the skies.
Pitch black and glistening oddly, he could feel traces of mana circulating around the youngling. There was also an unnatural blood-red gemstone upon the serpent’s forehead and its silver underbelly seem to be glowing faintly. The beast’s distinct three-pronged tail was waving slowly in the air as well and within the center prong, was the beginnings of a crystal.
He caught Inareh’s eyes and saw that she was now sitting to the side of her chair, having also been surprised by the serpent’s emergence.
“So Roln… why are you here?”
The boy’s dark eyes pierced him and Roln shuddered. “I… I came to look for her,” he gestured to Inareh, “as per your orders. I was going to send you a sig- GuuuuAAA!!!” Pain flared through his body and he fell to his knees. Clutching his own shoulders, it felt like he was being burned alive from the inside.
“You dare lie to me?”
“Hah! Haaa…. Haaaa…” Breathing heavily, “Kughhh- P-please! I beg of- GuuuuAhhh!” Darkness washed over his mind for a brief moment and by the time he came to, his face was on the ground. The burning sensation was still seared into his body, yet the pain had disappeared.
Beside him, the man whom he had almost bumped into upon entering the tent was already gone.
“Would you like to rectify your words?”
A burning pain shot up his back and Roln quickly lowered his head. “Haaa… I… hah…” The only thing that was clear was to continue breathing. “Escape… Ha… haaaa…” He answered in between breaths.
It was six days ago while fleeing toward Jarnlan that he got wind of Inareh’s approximate position and path. He had sought to warn her of the child and to link up with her so that she might help him flee Malpaars, but he had been too late.
Upon seeing the sky split into two earlier, his guts had advised for him to flee, to head elsewhere. Yet the conclusion that it couldn’t be the child, along the thought of regrouping with someone who could help had overwhelmed his fears.
“Escape huh? Sounds like my faith in you was greatly misplaced.” The boy’s eyes lit up into the eerie silver that he had seen in Garnikul. “Tell me. Why shouldn’t I bury you right here?”
He recoiled, hearing the tone of the boy’s words. “I- I will not do it again. You have my w-words. I will pledge myself to you.”
“Your words ring hollow, Roln. Do you remember what I said to you upon our parting?”
The boy had advised him to make himself useful, and he had shirked such duties. For his negligence to find him so fast, it was truly unfortunate. ‘There must be a way. I cannot die here. I must…’ his thoughts quieted and he slowly raised his hand, quickly pointing a shaking finger forward. “S-she has what you are looking for. She knows the incantation to the rings!” He revealed.
“Rooooln!!!” Inareh’s eyes flared up with anger and she lurched out of her seat. A sword immediately kept her in place from rushing at him.
“I see.” The boy smiled and looked to the side at Inareh. “I figured you were different seeing how you fended against my winds. How fortuitous that I had opted to talk instead of killing you.”
“I don’t know what that traitor is talking about!”
“Then you will pardon my insolence.” The boy sheathed his sword and stepped up to Inareh.
“What are-” Inareh tried resisting as the boy reached out toward her, but suddenly stopped. Feeling her through her clothes, the boy eventually found and pulled out a metallic ring from one of the hidden pockets on the inside of her shirt. “Y-you!” She shouted, her expression furious and speechless.
“And here I assumed you to be an ordinary mage of Tal’hrus. I guess diplomacy really does come in handy sometimes.” A grin was on the boy’s face.
“You… who are you!?” Inareh angrily questioned.
“Would you like to know?” The boy flicked the ring into the air and the hvaral upon his shoulder jumped upward, snagging the piece of metal with its mouth before landing upon the stone table. “But… telling you would not serve any purpose, for you and those mages outside will not be living past today.”
The anger on Inareh’s face was quickly replaced by a deathly white and Roln swiftly looked away, having ousted her.
“What?” The boy questioned, his innocuous tone holding down a cruel laughter. “Don’t tell me you thought my words earlier applied to you and your mages too?” The boy’s eyes started glowing and strands of his black hair began shining as mana flooded the tent. “Surely you cannot be that foolish after all you’ve done. After all the villages and towns you have razed, the people that have died in your path, going so far as to send assassins after those who have already given up.”
“No… I did as you c-commanded. I broke up the-” Inareh’s voice deteriorated into silence as the boy’s right hand shot forth and took hold of her neck.
“And you think that is enough to balance all the things Tal’hrus has done to this land?” The boy lifted Inareh into the air as she clawed at his arm. “Because I personally know hundreds of others who would disagree.”
“Kuk- Augh!” Struggling, Inareh tried desperately to pry the hand off.
“Fear not, my lady. For you are neither the first nor will you be the last.”
“I-Inc- Incanta- Augh! *cough* Tel- you!” The tightening hold stopped and Inareh crumbled to her seat. Not getting up to sit on the chair, she sat on the ground and gently caressed her neck like a beaten animal.
“Do not test my patience, for I have very little left to give.”
Roln trembled at the words even though they had not been directed at him. Already groveling on the ground, he recoiled and shrunk his body even further so as to keep his presence as small as possible. Inareh’s heavy breathing and coughing continued throughout the room and within those coarse gasps, he thought he could hear the shameful sound of a Tal’hrus agent sobbing.
“I can- haah… I can be of use to you like him. Please… please don’t kill me.” Inareh finally answered, her tone was one of complete defeat and resignation.
Keeping his head down, Roln did not dare to intervene. Her current position was one that he too was all too familiar with.