Overflowing with a familiar warmth, ‘W-what is going on?’ Ulamara voicelessly questioned as her conscious slowly reassembled itself within a sea of nothingness.
‘Where am I?’ She wondered in silence, recalling the gaze of two silver eyes engulfing her with a fierce yet gentle tenderness.
“Was that the last of them?”
A man’s voice rang through her mind, coming in from just barely out of earshot.
Like a turbulent squall, it wrapped itself around her thoughts, evoking an endless array of emotions.
‘Who’s there? Who are you?’ She cried out, willing her eyes to open upon a blurred world like that of a transient mirage.
Through her newfound fears, she felt herself answering calmly as unknown desires reluctantly fought to hold themselves back.
“Then you know what to do.” The voice replied, and she could almost picture a smile upon the mysterious individual’s face.
‘What is this?’
“My lord…” She felt herself speak again and quickly realized that it was not her own voice, but that of someone else. Someone older, more mature, and much more capable. “I… I fear that this will be the last time we see each other. I just wanted to say that I am sorry…” She could feel a mountain of hesitation lodged within her throat as the words escaped.
“There’s no need.” An amused smile flashed within the intangible darkness, “Were I in your position, I would have made the same decision.” The man’s voice continued solemnly and nobly, “So whether it is you or me, there is nothing to apologize for. The safety of our people must come first and foremost.”
She had heard those words before. The upswelling of emotions now rising within her chest along with the tone of the man’s voice, it was all very familiar.
“Yes… you are right. Please pardon this one’s foolishness.” Another compliant answer came from within. Yet whoever it was, whoever she was, they were fighting with all their might to hold themselves back.
“Go on then. It is all up to you now.” The voice ushered in graceful tranquility.
Feeling the resolve within herself, within the body she was inhabiting waning, “Then I shall take my leave, my lord. I wish you well, and may the fortune of wars forever be in your favor.”
They were indeed words she had heard before.
Opening her own disembodied mouth, ‘And I pray that you and yours will continue to persevere…’ She quietly whispered within her mind.
“And I pray that you and yours will continue to persevere in what is to come, no matter the tribulations.”
Just as she had surmised, the voice spoke her thoughts.
‘A memory…’ Ulamara quickly calmed herself upon the realization.
She could not understand why it was happening again, but she was undoubtedly watching the final phase of her ancestor’s escape into Trasevenesae.
Experiencing the final divide of their kind from a world engulfed in chaos.
With a deep and gracious bow full of irredeemable regrets and admiration, the body of her host began to slowly float backwards.
She felt herself passing through a distortion that overwhelmed both her consciousness and core, and she quietly and calmly closed her eyes.
She had glimpsed them from the other side and the memories should have ended there, yet they did not.
As the emotions within her body continued to fester, she felt herself falling.
Opening her eyes again, instead of distorted darkness, a drab and dreary world expanded out in front of her as the light of a portal shattered into oblivion.
The resolve upon her host crumbled along with their stoic façade, and they both stumbled onto the ground as fear and guilt washed over everything.
She instinctively voiced, sensing the overflowing anguish.
“Please… please forgive me…”
Her predecessor wept and she could not help but tear up as the Veiled Mother’s unfulfilled desires spilled out onto the open, becoming one with her.
Keeping an eye out for the broken twigs and knotted plant markers as instructed by Slek, Vick easily made his way through the wilted underbrush of the dense forest.
Moving quickly, by noon and almost exactly as estimated, he found himself encroaching upon what could only be the outer borders of the new camp and settlement’s perimeters.
There were distinct signs of deforestation here and there, and before long, he spotted a forward sentry quietly idling beside a large tree.
With their focus looking inward upon what could only be the camp, “Hey!” He shouted, engaging the guard’s attention as he closed in on them.
The man frantically turned around, and he could see that it was an unfamiliar youth possibly only a few years older than Kaidus.
“I-Intruder!” Yelping in surprise, instead of running away, the guard hurriedly angled their wooden spear toward him.
Instantly closing the distance between himself and the youth, he easily knocked the weapon away with an unarmed parry.
“HELP!! Intru- Uguuhn?!” The young man instantly dropped to the ground, one hand clutching onto his forehead.
“Are you daft?” Vick questioned, having smacked the youth with his knuckles, “If I was an intruder, why in the world would I call out to you instead of silently slitting your throat while you were daydreaming?”
“I-I’m sorry!!” The young man yelped again in obvious shock and confusion.
“If you are sorry, then hurry up and point me in the direction of Captain Biran.”
Still holding his forehead, the young sentry looked up apprehensively, “Who- who are you?” There was uncertainty mixed within the youth’s muddled curiosity.
“Do I need to hit you again?” He retorted dryly, making a show of his knuckles.
“Sorry! I- I don’t know where the captain is!” A loud reply, it was very much like that of a new recruit.
“Pick up your weapon and get up. Stop slacking off and keep focus or else it might not be the only thing you lose next time.” He swiftly admonished as the sound of footsteps came storming from the direction of the camp. Lifting his head, he spotted a group of armed men rushing toward them.
“Yessir…” Still frightened but a more understanding affirmation this time, the youth slowly stood up.
“Vick, is that you?” A voice called out from the group of approaching men.
Seeking out the voice, he spotted Diller, the unruly but tolerable man whom he had come to rely on since Esperen.
With wooden spears and makeshift weapons in hand, the group was ready for battle.
“In the flesh.” He replied, giving the man a dismissive wave.
“What happened?” One of the men questioned, seeing the expression on the young sentry.
“Just teaching our young friend here a lesson in vigilance.”
Calmly scanning the crowd, most of them he could recognize but like the young man beside him, the others were unfamiliar. An educated guess would definitely put them as a part of Lord Shradech’s group, but now was neither the time for introductions or pleasantries.
“You know this one?” One of the unfamiliar faces queried.
“Yes, he’s one of ours.” Diller answered, quickly dispelling the suspicion before turning back to him, “Where’s everyone else?” The man questioned, looking into the forest over his shoulders.
“There are matters to attend to, so I came ahead. The others should arrive before evening.”
“What happened the other night, Diller?” He shot back, cutting directly to the chase.
“The other-” The man’s eyes widened, undoubtedly upon recognizing his inquiry.
Narrowing his own, “What happened? How many people were involved?” Vick repeated, adding on a tone of anger to deliver the weight of his words.
“I… I don’t know the details,” Diller paused briefly before opening his mouth again, “But it was two of the guards and three others from the Lord’s group.”
“Of course there were guards involved…” The strenuous words escaped his mouth and he could see the faces of those before him twisting nervously, “Fucking idiots.” He cursed under his breath as the news from the previous evening continued to salt his thoughts.
“Vick?” Diller spoke, face as confused as the others.
“Take me to the girls. I’ll hear what happened from them myself.” He instructed.
Having dismissed the rest of the men, he followed Diller through the camp, eventually coming upon a number of familiar faces.
Their Esperen group as a whole appear to have settled on the northern side of the camp, and he could see a number of simple wooden shacks and tents propped up haphazardly around the area.
Like their last site, there were a number of openings snuggled within the disorderly placement of living quarters, allowing for firepits to smolder and people to gather.
“Luce!” He called out, spotting a young girl carrying a bundle of twigs in her arms.
Turning back to them, the girl took a moment before her lips curved upward into a teething smile, “Vick! You’re back!” She cried out, rushing over to him and dropping some of her sticks in the process.
“I am. Getting firewood?” He cordially replied, stooping down to pick them up for her.
“Yes, and thanks.” The girl grinned, “You’re just in time for lunch! Come on, the others will be glad to know that you’re back!” She said excitedly before turning and walking ahead.
Passing a few more clusters of people, they soon reached the spot where their group was staying.
Consisting of around a dozen small tents to house their group of nearly thirty, the shelters were positioned in a circular manner to allow for plenty of spaces in between.
At the center and deftly moving around two flames, the elders Arleen and Darla were already in the midst of meal preparations with a few others. Some of the younger girls sat around a smaller fire to the side, while the boys ran about and played as usual.
Sensing an anxious gaze, he turned his head to catch Narissa watching his approach from the opening of one of the tents.
The Kovus woman’s eyes were telling him that she wanted to talk, and eager to oblige, he gave the girls a curt greeting before drifting toward her.
With an exhausted smile upon her lips, “You’re back. And good afternoon, Diller.” The woman greeted them both.
Ignoring their exchanges, “What exactly happened?” He questioned, making it clear that he knew about what took place.
“So you’ve heard…” Narissa’s smile slowly vanished.
“I need the details. Where are the girls who were involved?”
Stepping aside, “I think it’s best if we talk inside.” Narissa quickly invited them to enter.
Foregoing lunch and storming ahead of Diller, he made his way through the camp once more, this time heading for the southeastern perimeter. Arriving at his destination, he easily spotted the mud hut that stood isolated from the rest.
Five armed guards were stationed around it with one standing on each side of the building, and two beside the lone entrance.
He could not see inside as there were no windows or gaps, but the crudeness of the structure along with the location and guards told him that he was in the right place.
Stopping a few good paces before the men, “Do you recognize me?” He questioned, imposing upon the two in front of the door.
“Y-yes sir,” One of the guards, a familiar balding man at least a decade his senior quickly acknowledged. “What can we do for you?”
Eyes melting through the door, “Bring those bastards out for me.” He ordered.
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
“The Captain said to-”
“Are you going to bring them out, or will I have to go through you all and go in there myself?” Taking on an irate tone of authority, he stood steadfast before the guards.
“Yes sir… bring them out.”
The balding man reluctantly conceded and the other guard hastily began untangling the knot on the door.
Within moments, the other three had also joined in with each going inside to retrieve a prisoner from the hut.
With scratches and scuff marks on some of their faces, two of the offenders were indeed guards he had seen before while the other three were unknown to him.
As they were pushed to kneel before him, he caught the grimed and dirt stained expressions of the two guards crumbling in humiliation. He had never spoken to them before, but knew one of them to be a laborer around his own age, while the other was an adept weaver in their early thirties.
Looking to the other three prisoners, they consisted of three young men, perhaps not even in their twenties.
None of them dared look him in the eyes as he stood before them.
“How dare you two abuse your positions?” He snarled, looking to the guardsmen before turning to the others, “How dare you all, when everyone’s safety is still so uncertain?”
“I’m sorry! I- I didn’t know!” One of the three young men cried out, “Please, I- I didn’t-”
In one swift motion, he lodged his right foot deep into the youth’s stomach.
The young man unleashed a deathly gasp and toppled to the ground, coughing and convulsing in pain as he pulled his foot back.
“I saw the bruises… I know about what happened. None of you are blameless.”
The other four visibly shuddered at his words along with the five guards.
Coldly lifting the side of his cloak, he drew one of his azurite swords.
A commanding tone came from behind him, and he turned his head to see Captain Biran rushing toward him with Diller in tow.
“What are you doing?!” The blonde man shouted.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” He calmly answered, lowering his weapon before the five men while continuing to stare down the captain.
“What happened was an oversight on my part. For that, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“An oversight?” He stepped in front of the two guards, and the image of three young ladies bruised and sobbing as they recounted the ordeal entered his thoughts.
“Using their trust and the guise of assistance to take advantage of them while they were fetching water…”
With an upward flick of his sword, the sound of something wet plopped onto the ground beside him.
“GaaaAA!! My- My ear!!! F-Fuu-!! UGgghaaaa!”
“Roughing them up to silence them…” With another swift motion, the second guard clutched onto their right ear as well and began screaming as he towered over them, “None of you are getting away from this unscathed.”
“Vick please, let us wait for his lordship!”
Captain Biran entreated from his side, but paying no heed to the man, “There is an old saying that you get accustomed to as a mercenary. Zilas rahn ul’ nirafas famael.” He paused, allowing the words to sink in amidst the cries and groans of agony, “It roughly translates to: ‘Those who share my misfortune, are my family’.” Lowering the bloodstained tip of his sword before the group, “And yet in these trying times… instead of alleviating their woes, you all conspired and broke the trust bestowed upon you by those who have walked alongside you. By those who have shared your pain and your difficulties, piling even more onto theirs.”
“W-we… we are not mercenaries…” One of the two guards managed to eke out, their voice quivering painfully with each breath, “nor- nor are we soldiers! We are but… but simple men!”
“No… you are animals.” He retorted, glaring down at the man, “And as animals, there are only two options left for you.”
Four pairs of terrified eyes glanced up to him.
“Now, which one of you is Arnold?” He questioned, having gained their attention.
“P-please… *cough! *, please let me go.” A breathless plea came from the boy who was still gasping on the ground. The one that he had kicked.
“Is it you?” He coldly snapped back, ignoring the plea.
“Vick, please,” The captain interrupted, thrusting an arm between him and the five, “I know you’re angry and justifiably so, but isn’t this going too far?”
“Too far?” He spat the words out, making sure that the man understood his position when it came to such betrayal, “It was your negligence that led to this. If you wish to save them, step aside. Otherwise, draw your sword and slay them yourself, for I will not have Kaidus carry on this burden for you.” He growled back.
Glaring into the captain’s eyes, he could see the man’s defiance faltering.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Please… h-he… he is Arnold,” The young man who was still groveling on the ground timidly pointed out, “It was his idea. Please, it was all his idea…”
Pushing the speechless captain aside, “You?” He looked down at the youth kneeling on the outside, and the boy quickly looked away. “You’re the little shit that lured them out there in the first place?” Vick leaned closer, taking a better look at the dark-haired youth before him.
Along with what appear to be a fist sized bruise, there were two long scratches running down the left side of the boy’s face, barely missing his eye.
“Just what the fuck were you thinking?” He groaned, clenching his sword even tighter.
The boy neither acknowledge nor gave a reply to his words, opting to stare mutely at the ground instead.
Straightening himself back up, he extended his sword forward and tapped upward on the youth’s chin with the back of his blade. “Look at me…” There was no reaction, but he could see the boy trembling, “Look at me!” He shouted, and the silent youth almost jumped as their frightened gazed turned to look up at him. “Open your hands and place them flat onto the ground before you.”
Shaking in fear, the young man slowly acquiesced and extended both hands out onto the ground.
“The betrayal of family is a serious crime.” Twisting his azurite sword into a reverse grip, he plunged it down into the center of the boy’s left hand.
And sharp cries of agony tore through the area as he twisted his sword before pulling it out.
“Depending on how treacherous, it is customary within the mercenaries to take an arm… so that it may remind the fool of what they have done. A sentence, that shall forever deprive them of their livelihood and abilities.”
Lifting his sword once more, he plunged it back into the boy’s other hand and twisted.
“UGhnnNNNNN! A-hh… Aaaak- GAhhh!”
With a forceful tug, he easily withdrew the sword once more. “You may not be mercenaries, but your betrayals are paramount in the eyes of those you should have protected.” Stepping toward the other two youngsters, his sword flicked outward two more times, taking an ear from each as well.
“May this be a reminder for you all.” Pointing his sword into the forest, he stood firm before the five. “Now get the fuck out of my sight and don’t even think about coming back.”
“You… you can’t! We’ll die out there!” One of the two guards cried out.
“That is no longer any of our concerns,” He replied, gritting his teeth and holding back the desire to make an example out of one of them, “You can either take your chances with the wolves and whatever is out there, or I will bury you all right here. The choice is yours.”
Unable to do anything, Biran watched as the five men stumbled amongst themselves into the woods. Tripping and whimpering into the distance, as the last of them disappeared into the shadows, the mercenary turned and began walking back toward the camp.
“Vick.” He called out, stopping the man.
“What the fuck were you doing?”
“Huh?” Taken aback at the aggression, he quietly stared back at Vick.
“Don’t fool yourself. Just what exactly did you think was going to happen to them once Kaidus gets back?” Vick drew closer, “A slap on the wrist? A stern scolding maybe?”
“Whatever the lord does, it is not my role to question.” He calmly answered, keeping his thoughts from wandering.
“How very astute…” at the snide remark, a sullenness quickly drew itself over Vick’s face, “Then allow me, to tell you about what would happen had I not exiled those bastards.” The mercenary took another step to stand beside him, “For what was said to those girls, for what they did… if those idiots were lucky, they would be crippled for the rest of their lives. If they were unlucky though, you and I would be digging five graves for them.”
“Surely you don’t mean that the lord would-”
“I am not willing to find out, nor am I willing to burden him further because some idiots can’t keep their dicks in their pants.” Vick swiftly replied, the hostility within his voice mellowing slightly. With a resigned sigh, “Since you have already pledged yourself to him, let me tell you something that I have come to realize over the years and these past few turns.”
“What is it?” He cautiously questioned, not taking his eyes off the mercenary’s troubling expression.
“You may see him as a child, may even treat him as one at times… but don’t ever dare to think that he is a child. Make no mistake about that.” Vick warned, his voice rolling to a whisper, “Countless unfortunate men have already perished by his hands alone, and more so, fools who think they can take advantage of others. Injustice, is something that he has a very low tolerance of.”
Watching Vick leave, Biran quietly swallowed his pride.
The man was right. He knew very little about his new lord.
Looking down at himself, he calmly rested a hand onto the sword at his side as the liberation of Vilute flashed into the forefront of his thoughts.