Emerging through the trail of the darkened forest, Inareh swiftly extinguished the orb of mage fire in front of her and reined her exhausted steed to a halt.
Fighting to hold back the fatigue within her own body, “We’ve finally caught up.” She voiced, swallowing the nerves in her throat as the sound of muddled hooves trotted tiredly to a standstill beside her.
In the distance and situated within the midst of what used to be farmlands, were hundreds of gray and brown tents alight with the glows of emerging bonfires. Littering the ashen fields, the army encampment was neither too far from the main road nor too close to the surrounding forests. Instead, they had shrewdly settled upon an easily defensible position with plenty of clearing around them.
Mobile barricades had even been pulled out to surround the perimeter of the camp, and a number of guards were already stationed and standing watch at all entry points.
Within the center of the massive encampment, was a large tent flying a gray banner with a black wheel and spokes.
“The Iron Wheel of Aravant… it’s Count Xaendis.” Aida spoke, voice filled with a tense sense of uneasiness.
Throwing a glance at the younger woman, Aida was staring intently at the army before them with fear visible in her eyes.
Not a fear of what they were about to do, but one of wariness in knowing what would happen should they fail to carry out their duty.
“They are more fortified than I thought… but I guess that’s to be expected from the Count.” Inareh tiredly replied, nudging for her horse to keep still as if it too knew about what was to come.
For two whole nights and two full days they had ridden with haste, stopping only to feed and rest their horses. Without so much as a conversation or a leisurely thought between the two of them, they had pushed themselves tirelessly in order to catch up with the slow-moving armies. And now, the value of their worth was finally upon them.
“Inareh.” Aida spoke, calling for her, “What now?”
“Now…” She felt her body shiver as her own exhaustion instantly vanished, replaced by the memories of a terrified man begging for a mercy that did not exist. “Now we do what we came here to do.” She answered, gently kicking her horse forward.
The sound of shouting and screaming within the night woke him from his slumber. Hot and drenched in sweat, Selbin Xaendis hurriedly push off the two thick blankets covering him and quickly sat up.
Even though it was the middle of Rinol, he could not feel the biting cold that should have latched onto his exposed body. Instead, the atmosphere within the room was quite warm, almost humid.
A string of unintelligible shouts entered his ears and, ‘What is happening?’ He wondered, glancing around the bedroom only to find that nothing was out of the ordinary.
The candles illuminating his lightly embellished chamber were still burning, signifying that he had not slept for long. Looking to the foot of his bed, the four chests filled with the bounties from the past three raids were still there, locked and untouched. The only thing that was odd, was the warmth that seem to pervade and settle upon everything.
“Kurtis! What is going on?!” He shouted, calling for his attendant as screams continued from the outside. “Kurtis?! Where are you?!”
But there were no answers.
Bitterly forcing himself out of bed, he quickly grabbed a robe from a pile of clothes and hurried out of the bedroom.
Exiting into the tent’s lounge where his attendant and two guards should have been resting, it was empty. Like his own room, the candles were still lit, but there was no one.
“Hurry!” “Over here!!” *BOOM!*
Clearer and more terrified yelling continued from the outside along with an explosion in the distance, and the temperature within the tent suddenly grew hotter.
The bloodcurdling gurgles of a dying man came from what could only be directly outside the tent, and he quickly turned toward the noise.
“Kurtis!” He shouted again within the well-lit room, yet all he could hear was the clamoring from the outside.
It was the sound of fighting, and a sense of dread suddenly befell his thoughts as he quickly hurried toward the exit.
Throwing the thick door made of animal hides open, he froze as his eyes fell upon the flames surrounding his tent. Rising high into the air and obstructing everything beyond, the wall of fire had completely encircled his tent, and only his.
“My lord! Run!”
A terrified cry came from his left side and he turned, spotting two bodies lying on the ground between him and the flames. One of them was wearing the armor of his two personal guards, while the other was undoubtedly his attendant.
With the towering flames at their back, “Ru- UgGGa!!” The silhouette of a man locked eyes with him briefly before falling to the ground, revealing a second slimmer and shorter shadow.
“W-who are you?! How- how dare you?!” Selbin screamed, not moving from where he stood in the doorway.
“You should have listened, my lord… should have returned to that wife of yours and continued to repress that greed.” An all too familiar woman’s voice, it was without malice or anger. On the contrary, it sounded almost sympathetic.
“L-Lady Inareh?” He questioned, seeing the figure moving from the brightness of the flames and approaching him. Protruding from her wrists, were thin blades barely visible in the flickering light.
“You’ve really fucked up… all three of you.”
“As one of the first to answer my summons, you should know that I have no choice in this matter.”
“W-what are you talking about!? What did I do? Why are you doing this!?” He somehow managed to scream out in confusion amidst the cacophony of fear around them.
“Our master demands your head along with all those who followed you into your raids. I am here to fulfill his will.” The woman, Inareh, replied.
Behind her, her footsteps were now bursting into roaring flames and with each stepped she took, waves of smokes expanded outward from her feet.
“I- I marched upon your commands, and now you would deny me of what has been promised?!” Selbin swiftly retorted, almost choking on his own words, “How dare you?!”
“This is not what was promised… nor does it matter anymore.” Upon her words, the smoke surrounding Inareh suddenly lurched forward toward him.
“Hiiii!” Recoiling in fear, he stumbled backward into the tent. “No! no no no no!” Trying with all his might to crawl away, the sound of his own frantic breathing seemed to grow louder as the strength within his arms and legs waned. “Y-y-y-you can’t do this! I wasn’t the only one! I-” Whimpering and with no viable recourse in sight, he painstakingly reached out and grabbed one of the cast iron candlestands by the door. “AaaaGaaHHHHHH!”
A burning pain instantly surged into his left, forcing him to drop the candlestand.
Inareh quickly retracted her blade and, “NnnnnGGRAAAHH!!” The spindly Count screamed even louder as the deep puncture she had inflicted burst into life.
Instead of blood, a stream of crimson flames erupted forth from the wound like a geyser. Searing and scorching flesh, it wrapped itself around Count Xaendis’ legs, quickly immobilizing him.
Taking two steps forward to stand beside the man, a horrified face distorted by pain and agony twisted itself to look up at her. Mouth huffing and groaning painfully, the Count’s two arms had come together as if to plea for his life, while his eyes tearfully begged for mercy.
“We were all given a second chance, and you have squandered yours.” She spoke, voice calm and apathetic, “I do not wish to make that same mistake.”
The Count’s eyes widened and, “Please…” He begged between breaths as his arms shook in fear.
In a final act of mercy, she knelt down and thrust her hands one after another into the man’s neck, impaling him with the blades strapped onto her wrists.
His body convulsed as she did so, and she pulled her blades out, repeating it once more to end his suffering.
Bloodied but having accomplished the first part of their tasks, with a deep breath, she drew her arms and slowly stood up. Taking one last look at the Count, “Siridas En Firas.” She commanded and the flames that had been coiled around his legs instantly snaked upward along his body, devouring flesh and clothes alike.
The sound of panicked shouting and combat was still coming from beyond the circle of flames as she exited the Count’s tent. And with a thought, the scorching wall abruptly weakened as she restricted her mana flow, revealing dozens of people standing on the other side in confusion.
In the distance and past the baffled mass of soldiers, the stone walls they had erected to imprison the whole army was still standing. Aida’s mana as well, continued to surge throughout the camp as instructed.
Taking a good look at those on the other side, Inareh took a deep breath and willed forth her mana.
Power quickly began coalescing into her right foot and, “Inferno.” She invoked, forcibly stamping her foot into the ground.
From it, a gust of smoke blasted outward. Traveling forward and converging with the weakened flames, the two collided together and by her will, exploded into a sea of rolling flames, storming over all those in its path.
“Hya-!” Elamara yelped out loud, tossing the morsel of meat that she was lugging into the air.
From where it was waiting, Zirus swiftly shot upward and effortlessly caught the piece of meat, swallowing it whole before landing back onto the ground. “Kaaararaaaa!” It snapped jubilantly, then quickly slithered back to the base of a tree that they had designated for their little game.
“You’re so fast!!” With a delightful shout, Elamara zipped back to a small pile of leftover meat that had been allocated for the young hvaral. Picking up another piece, she flew upward and, “Catch this too!” Shouted again before tossing it into the air.
Once again, Zirus sprung forth from the base of the tree and swiftly shot toward the snack like an arrow. Snagging it out of the air, it garnered another bout of joyful applause from Elamara.
Watching from beside the smoldering ashes of their campfire, a smile carved itself on his lips and Kaidus turned downward to the young spirit by his side. “You don’t have to wait with me. Go and play.” He suggested, seeing that her eyes were glued onto the game of catch.
“I- I’ll wait here with you.” Ulamara hastily replied, turning away from Zirus and Elamara as if caught in the act with a guilty conscience.
“Is that so?” He smiled, seeing her forcing her focus onto the pile of ash.
From where they were playing, “Watch this!” Elamara yelled with delight and began glowing as she flew upward with another morsel.
With a burst of mana, she launched it straight up into the air and Zirus quickly followed.
“Go on.” Kaidus encouraged, catching the young spirit glancing toward the noise.
Ulamara’s silver eyes turned to look up at him and with a bashful nod, “Then I’ll be back.” With a modest grin, she stood up and swiftly flew off.
Watching Ulamara joining Zirus and Elamara, the image of a young girl with fierce red hair along with an infant who was constantly in tears manifested within the depths of his mind. He felt his smile broaden and, “Siblings huh?” Looking at the three before him, it was almost like he had obtained another set of siblings. Albeit, a very different trio of them.
But much like Anise who tried to follow him everywhere and imitated his mannerism, Ulamara too, had taken a keen interest in everything he did. From sleeping next to him, to asking about everything he was doing, to what he was eating, and never straying far from his vicinity.
Elamara on the other hand, was still quite reserved about what was happening and had taken to Zirus instead. Yet over the past two days, he had caught her watching him on more than one occasion with curious intrigue.
More laughter followed from the twins and without minding them further, he returned his attention to the pile of ashes.
The young hvaral had managed to bring back a forest rabbit earlier that morning and they had all eaten breakfast already, but what he was really waiting for, was the furuce tuber that was roasting under the ashes. Having had nothing but meat because of the season, it had been a fortuitous event to have found the bulbous wild vegetable.
Scooping a tiny dollop of the roasted root for the twins to share, he held back his amusement as Elamara lost all enthusiasm upon inserting some into her mouth.
Ulamara too, appear to be equally as disappointed but forced herself to swallow what she was chewing.
“Hahahaha.” Laughing upon seeing their reactions, he proceeded to take a large bite of his own portion. “It tastes a lot better when you can flavor it with various condiments.” Kaidus quickly explained as flashes of the days spent feeding upon the tasteless root from Adalina’s fingers washed over his memories. Grinning, he wolfed it down as the two young phraes wordlessly stared at one another, undoubtedly wondering about whether to try more or not.
“It’s alright. You don’t have to force yourselves.”
“Is this really better with condimins?” Ulamara questioned, tilting her head curiously while looking at the mashed furuce in her hand.
“Condiments, and yes.”
“What is condiments?” Elamara added from her sister’s side as if they were both thinking the same thing.
“Flavoring. To give it taste-” A thought suddenly struck him. Seeing that this was the first time the two had wanted to try what he was eating, “Have you both ever eaten anything before?” He questioned, taking a good look at the two.
Though a form of spirits, it could be said that the phraes had the strongest bonds and relations with humans at one point. So much so, that their very forms and even parts of their way of life had altered to imitate that of humans.
Recalling how the two youngsters before him had been sheltered and raised within Trasevenesae, it was a wonder if they even had a baseline about the different tastes of the world.
Yet surprisingly, without even thinking about it, the twins both nodded back.
“I’ve eaten leaves,” Elamara was the first to answer, “But those are awful and bitter. They leave a weird taste in your mouth. I prefer fresh sprouts, flowers, nuts, and fruits. Seeds too.” She listed.
“Not as much as Ela, but mother- mother once had me chew on some bark from the ancestral tree. And… and a stick…” Ulamara supplemented dryly, “They were supposed to help me with my-” ending her words, she summarily gestured at herself, obviously indicating whatever it was that had afflicted her.
“I see.” Kaidus grinned, holding down another chuckle at the despondent expression on Ulamara’s face. “I can guarantee that it will taste better next time. We just need some sauce or salt and a pinch of spice.”
“Well what are we waiting for?!” An excited exclamation from Elamara, “You said that we were getting close to wherever we are going, right? I can’t wait!”
“We are.” Kaidus answered, cordially taking in her excitement, “It’s not too far now.”
“Do you think your human friends will like us? Do you think they’ll want to see us?”
Hearing the eagerness in Ela’s voice, “Of course.” He replied with a confident but curious anticipation, “But just to be safe, we’ll have you both stay hidden until I am certain. The tales that humans tell about the phraes are less than congenial and there are prone to be misunderstandings.”
“Like with you and our father?” Ulamara interjected.
“Yes. Until then, please conceal yourselves and do not venture away from me.”
A solemnness befell the two and, ““Okay!”” they both answered in unison before grinning at each other.
Cleaning the dried rabbit skin pouch that he had sewn together using two pelts and a handful of long thin sinews, Kaidus carefully placed his three mirror shards along with the crowned seed inside. Tying the mouth of the pouch so that its contents would not fall out, he made sure that it was securely tied to his waist and then looked upward to where Zirus, Elamara, and Ulamara were playing catch and go–an aerial game of tag– between the trees.
“Come!” He shouted to draw their attention and began rising upward himself as all three zoomed over to his side.
Breaking through the tree tops, he turned his gaze toward the eastern horizon as he climbed higher into the air.
In the distance and hidden within the sea of trees, was where the others were waiting for him. It was where he would finally have to explain himself to Vick, and where those he had abandoned had come together.
The camp as well, was also where he had decided to plan his next moves.
“Let’s not keep them waiting.” He whispered, surging forth into the sky.