Drenched and shielding his face from the rain, Vick looked up to the sky.
It was his third time since the bland lunch that afternoon and just like before, there was nothing but dark clouds overhead. He sighed, thankful that his cloak had a hood.
Along with a handful of men, they were following behind the other refugees, making sure that none wandered away from the rest.
Numbering almost five hundred strong, they had been moving all day the previous day and most of the night and morning.
The forest’s dampness and cold had served to impede their path, but it was now the ongoing rain shower that ultimately succeeded in forcing their pace to a crawl.
With children in their ranks and the rain hindering their mobility, there were little options left but to move carefully while keeping alert.
A rustling came from his left side and Vick quickly turned to the shadows that were emerging. Seeing that it was but the swaying of a large tree branch in the wind, he resumed his task and began trudging forth again.
The mental shock of the previous day had yet to wear off, but as a mercenary with a duty, Kaidus’ situation was the least of his worries.
‘Wind?’ A sudden question probed at his mind.
Surveying the downpour and stillness of the trees, neither gave any indication of a gust.
Vick looked back at the branch, only to see that it had already stopped moving.
His skin began crawling and he quickly closed his eyes, listening closely to the sounds of the forest. Standing as still as possible, ‘What is that?’ He wondered, placing his hands on the azurite swords at his sides.
Muffled by the downpour, there was something traveling through the air and trees around them. A soft, barely audible swishing sound vastly different from the pitter patter of raindrops. The presence seem to shift from tree to tree, moving from person to person as if it had purpose.
‘T-there are no such things as gho-’
His body jerked as Narissa’s voice broke him out of his uneasiness. Up ahead, the group had already moved a considerable distance. “Gods, why do you torment me so?” Vick voiced out loud to calm himself, holding back the sense of unknown fear. Hurrying his steps, “Vick!” Narissa called out again, this time she was moving toward to him.
“Is it true you have a letter from Lord Shradech!?” Narissa questioned loudly over the sound of the rain as he approached. Although wet from head to toe, she looked quite comfortable in such weather.
“You know Lord Shradech?” He replied, trying to discard the odd feelings from earlier.
“What did the letter say? Where is the lord right now?” She continued without minding his question.
“Narissa.” Vick spoke over her, quieting Narissa instantly. “How do you know that old man?”
“Sorry.” Holding one hand over her head to shield the rain, Narissa quickly composed herself. “He’s an old family friend, and he might know where my parents are. You have to tell me if you know where he is.”
“Oh.” The knowledge that Narissa was searching for her family had been known to him. What he had not considered, was that she might be affiliated with the old lord.
“Yes.” Narissa replied, her voice torn between hope and distress. “Lord Shradech was also the one who helped us escape Imvera, and one of the last few people I spoke to before we fled Malpaars.”
“Huh… who would’ve thought?” Vick mused at the strange coincidence.
“Well? What did his letter say? Where is the lord now? Can I see the letter?” She queried again.
“Narissa… it’s pouring right now.” He held his hands out to the side, letting it get hammered by the rain. “Not to mention I already gave it to Captain Biran.”
“Well-” as if finally noticing the downpour, “what is going on here? Why’s it raining so hard back here?”
“Wait. What does that mean?” Vick quickly glanced around once more.
“Ah, never mind.” Forgoing her odd complaints, “About the letter. Do you remember the contents? Can you tell me?” Narissa repeated.
“If they really did come to the Eloniun woods, then we must have barely missed them on our way north.” Narissa uttered with disbelief, “I can’t believe it… we even stayed in the caves for three days after you and Kaidus left.”
“There were a lot of children and elders in their group. I doubt they would have been able to cut through the forest and make it that far even if given five days’ time.” Vick reminded, remembering the sizable group.
“Curses. I have to go talk to the captain then.” Narissa grumbled and began walking ahead, her powerful kovus legs making short work of the muddy ground.
“Now!?” Vick shouted after her.
“I must find Lord Shradech!” Narissa yelled from ahead, hurrying to catch up with the others.
Looking to the trees around him one more time, “Fuck this.” He spat and quickly followed behind.
Upon reaching the group, Vick turned his head to look up at the sky again. It was still covered in dark clouds.
Yet like Narissa had stated earlier, there was indeed only a light shower raining on the group instead of the downpour where he had been. ‘What is going on?’ He wondered to himself as shouting came from ahead.
“Road!!” “It’s the road!” The chorus of voices called out.
Surely enough, they were nearing the edge of the forest.
Spilling out of the tree lines, the road leading to–and from–Imvera broadened before their eyes.
“There is nothing to worry about, my lady. The Eloniun woods are also our destination.” Biran replied to the kovus woman beside him while walking around to get a final confirmation of their status.
Thankfully the rain shower had softened to a drizzle once they arrived at the roads, allowing for a short respite.
His runners have also delivered the final head counts and all that is left, was to wait for everyone to pack up from their break before they begin moving again.
“I guess Vick forgot to mention that to you.” Biran smiled, seeing the confounded expression on her face.
The woman was one of the few pure blooded kovus’ traveling with the group. She had joined them with the arrival of the young lord that night and though he had noticed her on many occasions, they never had the chance to talk until just earlier–when she came to ask him for a favor.
“I see… so that’s why we’ve been heading south.” She commented as if deep in thought.
“My apologies for not filling you in on the details earlier. Had I known that you knew the lord-”
“Captain. Do you know Lord Shradech as well?” She questioned, looking to him expectantly.
“Unfortunately I do not. But if you look around, my lady. You’ll see some of the people that Lord Shradech has saved by providing the Liberation Army his help.” Biran replied, recalling more of the unfortunate souls lost in Vilute.
“Captain!” One of his men called out as they walked by. “We are ready to go.”
Biran waved the man off before turning back to Narissa. “The Liberation Army is in the lord’s debt. If what the letter say is true, then I intend to find him.”
The woman suddenly stopped. “I see. No wonder…”
Biran slowed his steps. “Beg your-” Her solemn expression stilled his tongue.
“They’ve been fighting all this time.” She guiltily voiced underneath her breath.
“Sorry. I was just talking to myself.” She returned a sheepish smile. “Also, enough with the formalities. Please just call me Narissa.”
Seeing as she did not want to delve on her troubles, “Then you can call me Biran.” He quickly replied, hiding his admiration of her smile and ability to rebound so quickly.
“Doing a final check?” Vick’s voice came from the direction they had been walking.
“Oh, Vick.” Narissa turned to face the mercenary.
“Yes. Figured we should move before anyone catches sight of us.” Biran answered as Vick joined them. “Is your group all ready to go?” He added, inquiring about the group of young ladies and the people of Esperen.
“They are.” A terse reply from the mercenary. “I heard from Emmerick. Says you’re sending out a search party to look for those that we left behind in Esperen. I just came to let you know that I will be going with them.”
“What do you mean?” Biran voiced, curious at the mercenary’s sudden decision.
“Was I not clear enough?”
“Sorry. I just didn’t think you were willing to part from your group.” He quickly clarified.
“I’d rather not, but it looks like you’ve got things covered here.” Vick postured himself and looked around.
Everyone was packing and getting ready. Horses were being loaded and children were being corralled into the midst of the various groups that accounted for each other.
“I can’t say for sure, but I have a strange feeling that it will be okay from this point onward. That said, there is no need for me to stay here when there is dangerous work to be done elsewhere. If I go with the search party, you won’t need to send as many men and we’ll be able to move faster with a smaller group.”
“What about the girls? I thought you were supposed to look after them?” Narissa interjected.
“They’ll be fine. They’re smart and don’t need much looking after. Just have someone take my place behind the group while I’m gone.” Vick replied.
“Then I will tell Vasco to fill in for you.” Biran promptly held out a hand.
It was a sound offer. He had handpicked a dozen of his best men for the job but with Vick going as well, he could rest assured. For the mercenary to volunteer himself, he was grateful. “Thank you.”
“No need for thanks. Just keep everyone safe.” Vick retorted, taking the extended hand. “Now that I’ve delivered my intentions, I must go prepare and let the others know.”
“Vick.” He called out as the man turned away. “If you plan on taking only a few men, make sure you take Yoriig and Slek with you. They’re skilled trackers and I have already spoken to them about the path the others are taking. They should be useful.”
With a dismissive wave, the mercenary continued away.
“I should head back as well. Sorry to bother you, Captain.” Narissa gave him a curt nod.
“Biran.” He smiled back. “Just Biran. Remember?”
“Well then, Biran. Thank you for your hard work.” With a more feminine bow this time, she took off to catch up with Vick.
Biran watched as the odd duo disappeared into a mass of people further away. ‘Lady Narissa huh?’ He thought before proceeding with his rounds.
-Six days later. Esperen-
Kaidus knelt down and picked up a handful of dirt as he surveyed the decimated landscape.
While they had not stayed for long the last time he was there, the peacefulness of the quaint village and its sprawling farmlands had left an impression on him.
Seeing it now after having heard about what happened, a sense of anger was welling up from within him.
The lush fields of crops were gone and with them, the village itself.
In their places were scorched earth and dozens of blackened supports that struck out from the ground, occupying the foundations of what used to be Esperen.
Kaidus crushed the compacted ashen soil in his hand, allowing it to crumble through his fingers before making his way toward the only structure that was still standing.
Arriving at the stone establishment, he stepped through the broken entrance of the Prancing Myrtle.
Having been occupied twice by the large army, the homely inn was in shamble. The eatery had been stripped of its furnishings and shards of broken dishes and wooden cups layered the dirt stained floor. It was as if children had gotten into the pantry and upon discovering the sound of a dish shattering, proceeded to break everything else within before scattering the refuse throughout the house.
Even the wooden counter separating the kitchen and dining room had been chopped up and pried off of its nails.
Kaidus walked over to the stairs, glad to see that they were still intact.
Poking his head into the many empty rooms on the second floor, he eventually settled into one of the cleaner ones that still had a bed, albeit broken.
Leaving his sword and cloak by the bedside, he pulled out a silver ring and moved to the window. It was still noon.
The last of the coalition that was using Esperen for the night had just recently departed not too long ago, and it was the perfect time to take a break.
Looking at the silver ring as he rolled it between his fingers, the face of a young girl emerged in his mind, followed by a red haired infant. The soft humming of a woman suddenly drifted through the room and he was back there in that house within the 3rd ward, standing by the window.
By the living room table, Anise was quietly rummaging through a stack of paper while Lance attempted to fit the corner of a book into his mouth. The humming had originated from the kitchen where Adalina was preparing lunch for them all.
Kaidus closed his eyes to shatter the memory and opened them again to find himself back in the room of the Prancing Myrtle. With a thought, he infused his mana into the ring as his mind wandered.
It has been seven days since his encounter with the army. Seven long days of slowly following behind them.
By using Inareh’s knowledge of the different forces and where they came from, he had been able to oversee the movements of the various groups by ways of her mages and the conscripted army under her command.
And as per the woman’s pleas, including Inareh herself, there were three other women and one man who had sworn their loyalty to him that day.
Ireese, a flaxen haired woman with deep set sky blue eyes and a thin face. In her late thirties and the eldest of the four, the woman was a water mage and apparently the first to denounce Tal’hrus after speaking with Inareh.
Aida, a young lady in her early twenties who had recently been recruited to Tal’hrus. With sleek brown hair and tantalizing hazel eyes, her alluring visage had not distracted him from noticing her trembling that day–as they knelt before him, covered in blood.
Bringing up the last of the ladies was a woman named Molrin. A half breed, she was gifted with powerful legs and the long arms of a kovus, but did not have the distinctive head plates. Instead, she wore a metal headband over her brown locks.
The last was a man in his forties named Morkte, or ‘rat’ in the Derzulian tongue.
With a spindly build, the man was small of stature and barely the size of a human adolescent. His dark skin, long dexterous fingers, and sleek hairless tail easily identified him as one of the Notiuns, an aleithian belonging to one of the six dominant Aleith clans. Nimble and sharp, they were a people who valued mind and wealth over power and ferocity.
Along with Inareh, he had sent the five of them to make sure that none of the lords decide to renege on their retreat.
“Kaidus!” Anise’s voice exploded through the ring in his hand.
“You seem to be in high spirit.” He replied, holding down a smile at the girl’s jubilant tone.
“Well that’s cause we haven’t talked in a while!”
“That’s true. But now you know what you have to do right?” Kaidus countered with a playful tone.
“Of course!” An enthusiastic giggle came through the ring.
“Anise. Report.” He ordered, failing to sound serious.
As usual, the girl began with a brief detail about the family and how they were doing, then proceeded to entertain to him about her days.
He awoke to the sound of wing beats, followed by something large hitting the floor before him.
Kaidus opened his eyes to see that he was sitting in a corner. The rays of sunlight shooting across the room easily indicated that he had been slumbering for quite some time.
“Ah, that’s right.”
After his talk with Anise and a short meditation to refocus himself and his exhausted body, he had dozed off.
“Looks like I needed that more than I thought…” He remarked, trying to recall exactly when he had fallen asleep.
“Shrraaa!” A hissing came from in front.
Covered in blood from head to tail, the youngling had returned.
“And I guess that is today’s dinner?” He mused, looking at the dark forest cat on the floor. A little longer than his forearm, the cat’s head had been completely crushed.
“Kuuruurrr!” The youngling growled affirmatively before slithering away.
Keeping his eyes on the beast, he watched as it propel itself onto the windowsill and began grooming itself.
“Zirus.” Kaidus called out and stood up.
It was growing stronger with each passing day and from the looks of it, strength was not the only thing. The youngling’s body had lengthened by almost a hand span, and a hvarian crystal had already begun to form on its three pronged tail. Were it to keep growing at such a rate, it would surely enter its juvenile stages in a few short years.
“Is it just me, or have you gotten bigger since we met?” He questioned, picking up the bloodstained cat on the floor
“Krraaaaaarr!” The young hvaral bellowed from the window, flaring its wings outward as if to further assert its size.
“Hmm… guess not.” Kaidus grinned and made his way out of the room.
Using the inn’s kitchen, it wasn’t long until he had a cat roast going in one of the ovens.
Aida’s heart sunk in accordance with the setting sun as the inn came into view over the blackened fields. Smoke was rising from one of its two chimneys, signifying that she had arrived at her destination.
Urging her horse forward, the animal eventually stopped a distance from the stone building and would not proceed any further. After a bit of goading only to see that the stubborn beast would not move, she tied it to one of the burnt pillars sticking out of the ground and proceeded forth on foot.
Treading carefully, her legs began slowing and her pace lessened as she approached the inn.
Aida shivered, recalling the pair of eyes that scorched through her body like molten blades. Unfeeling and disconnected from any forms of emotions, they had ripped into her very being and one look was all she needed to understand how insignificant she was.
Seeing Inareh so terrified and then seeing the youth for herself, she could not deny that Inareh was right. Had they attempted to fight like those who are now deceased wanted, they would have all perished.
She suddenly stopped upon arriving at the inn’s gaping entrance. Situated on the stairs and staring from across the room at her, were two silvery eyes glowing dimly in the darkness of the stairwell.
Her body instinctively froze.
“SHRRAAAA!” The eyes hissed, rising slowly into the air.
“Zirus.” A voice came from the kitchen, immediately silencing and drawing the two silver eyes away from her.
Aida quickly got her on knees, “Master?” She called out, keeping her head low.
“What are you doing? Come inside already.” Unlike the callous tone from that evening in the command tent, the voice was mellow and bereft of any malicious intent.
She looked up to see the pair of silver eyes disappearing into the kitchen. A warm light was coming from the room, and she finally noticed the succulent smell of cooked meat wafting through the air seductively. Unable to disobey, she stood up and moved with trepidation into the kitchen.
“Aida wasn’t it?” The young man spoke as she entered.
“Y-yes, master.” She quickly lowered herself again.
“Do you know why you are here?”
“To receive something from you.” She replied, not looking up at him.
“Indeed.” There was movement, and then the sound of footsteps approached her. “Here.”
She looked up to see his extended hand before her. Cupping her hands together, she reached out and he dropped five silver rings into her hands. “These are…”
“I will be destroying Eril’s rings. Those there are of my own makings, take them and see to it that the others each get one.”
“Yes, master.” Closing her hands around the rings, she could feel surges of power emanating from within them. Looking closer, on one of the boy’s finger was an identical silver ring to the ones now in her possession. “M-master?” She stuttered, seeing that he was not moving.
“You said you acted on Inareh’s orders when I last inquired about your betrayals to Tal’hrus.” The boy began, “Tell me, Aida. Why did you really betray your fellow mages?” He questioned, his voice swarming around her head.
“I was afraid and I didn’t want to die.” The words had left her mouth before she could think about them. Recoiling back a step, her body was already trembling.
“How very interesting.” The young man mocked, finally moving back to whatever he was doing.
That evening. Out of fear for her own life, she had unwittingly assisted in slaughtering the other seven members of their group.
Though she had not believed what Inareh was saying at the time, when she saw that Molrin and Ireese had already joined Inareh’s side, she could not help but align herself with them. Inareh was the strongest out of their group, and Molrin along with Ireese had been with the woman for years. The three of them together were a formidable team and she had not wanted to chance her life away.
Lifting her head, she watched as the boy proceeded to pull something out of the glowing oven. “Master. If this is all, then I-”
“Aida.” He stopped her. “How about joining me for dinner?”
She stilled herself, uncertain as to what was happening.
The monster that was standing before her just moments ago was gone. In its place was a young man carefully slicing apart a roast, and even offering her one of the legs.
Cloaked in a thin veil of mana and wearing black traveling garbs, an old man sauntered onto the open farmlands of Ferrent. With a head of short white hair and the wisdom of age and experience, his steps were a firm and steady rhythm against the paved road.
Like the other relic who had deigned to live a life of mediocrity within the city’s delicate walls, this old man too, was someone from an age long past.
Moving through the foot paths dividing the farmlands, the old man stopped to gaze fondly at the glorious city before him. “I am home…” He smiled, his voice low and melancholic as if holding tightly onto a sense of longing.
The last time he was there, he had been hunted by his own people and betrayed by those whom he had sworn an undying brotherhood.
The blood on his–then–fine green hair, the excruciating pain all throughout his body, and his battered image at the mercy of a lesser mage.
The shame and humiliation at having been shown mercy, in having to turn tail and run like a beaten dog.
Although such events had occurred a lifetime ago, he could still remember it as clear as day, slowly eating into the back of his mind.
The old man’s smile slowly dissipated, once again replaced by the emotionless mask that he had been wearing for the better portion of his life. “Come, Nylen.” The thin layer of mana around him instantly solidified, gleaming beautifully in the sunlight before dispersing.
Holding his head high, the old man continued strolling forth toward the gates of the walled city.