Grasping tightly onto a thin sliver of hope, “They are fine…” Narissa silently voiced to herself as unsavory and anxious thoughts festered within her mind. ‘It has only been a half a year. They are okay.” She wordlessly reassured herself as she hurried through the camp.
The two guards who were standing outside the large command tent both turned to greet her and, “Lady Narissa?” One of them politely called out, seeing her approach.
“Yarald. Aemes.” She greeted back, stopping a few good paces away from the both of them. With a quick glance at the door, she slowly took in a deep breath to collect herself and her thoughts.
“Is there something wrong?” Aemes, the elder of the two guards questioned back.
“I heard that Kaidus had returned. Is he inside? If so, I wish to speak with him.”
The two looked to one another.
“Kaidus?” Aemes repeated, looking confused.
“I think she’s talking about that young man from earlier.” Yarald, the other guard stated, inducing a look of recognition from his older companion. “Though… at the moment, he should be in the middle of a meeting with Captain Biran, Sir Vick, Lord Shradech, and mister Pelwin.”
“The old man is in there too?” Narissa curiously probed.
“Hmmm… a meeting with just the five of them?” Wondering what it could be that would require the old man’s attendance, she stepped toward the tent.
From where they stood, the two guards quickly matched her steps and moved together, blocking her path.
“Sorry, but we were told not to let anyone in.” Aemes swiftly apologized.
“Anyone.” The man repeated.
“Please, I just need to-”
“Let her in.” A familiar voice decisively instructed from within the tent.
Interrupting her pleas, she quickly stilled herself.
Unlike the quiet and youthful tone that she had gotten to know during their travels, his voice coiled around her arms and legs, wrapping itself tightly around her body before entering her ears like a serpent.
“Lady Narissa?”, “Milady.”
The two guards’ voices called out to her, and taken aback, she found herself frozen and staring blankly ahead. The two had already moved aside, though she could not remember when.
“Milady, are you alright?” Another question came from Aemes.
Feeling her own legs refusing to move, “Y-yes.” She quickly answered, taking another look at the suddenly enormous tent before her. “I’m fine.” She added and slowly forced her legs forward.
Within the tent. At the center of the spacious room and sitting around a table, were the individuals who had been named by the guards.
With his eyes looking over to her as she entered, Kaidus was sitting on one side of the table.
Vick sat cross legged on the young man’s left side, while Biran was sitting upright and quietly to his right.
Across from Kaidus and closest to herself, was old man Shradech, the old Lord of Imvera. Sitting to the old man’s right side was Pelwin, the lord’s head guard.
“It’s good to see you again, Narissa.” There was a smile on Kaidus’ face as he greeted her. Yet looking at him now, the jovial smile was not the only unnatural thing about the young man’s appearance.
“Kaidus?” She replied, unsure if she should greet him or inquire about the abnormal atmosphere around him.
“You said you wish to speak with me. Might you give us a moment to finish up here first?”
There was definitely something different about the boy.
From the way he spoke, to how his words carried themselves throughout the very room in which they were occupying. His gaze looked like it could easily pierce through her thoughts, and standing before him, his overwhelming presence made her feel insignificant.
Whatever it was that had occurred since the last time she had seen him, the boy was undoubtedly no longer the same person as before.
Even the way upon which he held himself atop the shabby wooden chair could only be construed as majestic, if not extraordinary.
“I- yes, of course. My apologies for the sudden intrusion.” Unable to match his gaze, she quickly replied and averted her eyes.
Imposing and focused, his, was a disposition that she had only ever glimpsed from one other person before. Even then, the late Princess Vernera’s presence could only be classified as lackluster when compared to that of the youth before her.
Ashamed at herself for standing in front of the child in such a manner, she quietly shuffled herself to the side, hoping to disappear within the shadows.
“No need for apologies. Your presence will always be welcomed.” With words of enrichment, the boy stood up. Raising his left hand as if pushing something upward, the ground in front of her quickly rose into the air and molded itself into a large seat befitting her Kovus stature. “Please, come and join us.” He entreated.
As if it were a part of the ground, the earthen seat slid fluidly along the floor, moving toward an empty spot on the table.
With the exception of the old lord, everyone had also stood up as well. Unable to deny their invitation, “Then… please pardon me.” She awkwardly voiced before quietly taking her seat.
“Now. What were you saying, my lord?” Having sat back down, Kaidus promptly questioned the old man across from him.
“What you said before.” The old lord spoke, and his voice was trembling, “About speaking with King Laugrith. About the war, about everything that’s happening…”
Locking onto the old man’s two gray eyes, Kaidus calmly sat forward, “You heard correctly.” He replied, calmly pulling off one of the silver rings upon his fingers and placing it onto the table between them all. “There will be no further troubles for you and yours. Should you wish to do so, you may all return to your homes.”
‘What?’ Her eyes pried themselves open at his words.
The old lord glanced down at the ring on the table, then back toward Kaidus again. “Are… are you certain? How is it possible?”
The questions incited another smile from the youth. It was as if he was staring directly through the old lord. “Because I have already taken the liberty of ensuring that no further conflicts will arise within the foreseeable future.” Kaidus solemnly answered.
At his proclamation, the silver ring between them all instantly burst into light before settling into a mellow glow.
Unable to look away as the enthralling light captivated her, she turned as the sound of a wooden chair hitting the floor abruptly came from beside the old lord. Catching Pelwin’s terror-stricken surprise, she quickly looked over to the others around the table.
Vick and Biran were quietly staring at the ring as if both were in a trance. The old lord on the other hand, had a look of confused astonishment on his face.
Kaidus, the one who had brought the ring out was sitting silently as if waiting for something.
As expected, within the span of a handful of breaths, the glow that was being emitted was instantly sucked back into the ring. A thin layer of light flashed around the object as if to encircle it, and then, “Master?” A woman’s voice slowly resounded forth from the circular accessory.
She felt her body tensing up at the spectacle and glancing at the others, their expressions were exactly like that of her own. Eyes unblinking, mouth slightly agape, and body frozen in place.
“Inareh.” Kaidus callously called out.
Upon hearing the name, a tinge of white-hot anger boiled upward from within her chest.
Lady Inareh. It was a name they had all become quite aware of.
Most of the refugees within their camp were the product of the vile woman’s agenda, and many had lost sons and husbands to her conscription orders. Others, had been robbed and driven out of their homes due to the war that she had unceremoniously restarted.
“It’s been three days. What of your tasks?” A question devoid of tone or emotions sliced through the tense atmosphere of the room.
Turning her gaze toward Kaidus, she dared not voice her own dissent and instead, continued to listened to the exchanges.
“A- apologies, but we are still working on it.” From the ring, completely different from the domineering and terrifying image that she had conceived of the woman within her mind, came a subdued and almost panicked reply. “Currently, only Count Xaendis, the Lord of Aravant has been dealt with. Aida and I are in the process of pursuing the widow of Onarald at this moment.”
“So… only Count Xaendis so far.”
“Y-yes. Please, Master.” Voice shaking, “Give us a little more time. Just a few more-”
“Stop. I did not contact you with the hopes of your success.” The young man brusquely interrupted, halting the terrified voice that was resounding from the ring.
“Then- how may I be of service?” This time, a calmer reply came back. Filled with relief, it was like that of a slave having been spared the whip.
“You said you are in pursuit of Lady Onarald…”
“Yes, Master.” The voice quickly confirmed.
With a momentary pause, Kaidus turned to face Biran. “If memory serves, I believe the Lady of House Onarald had a hand in hunting you down, did she not?”
“She did, Sire.” And the knight hastily answered, lowering his head faithfully. “It was Lady Onarald and Lord Cromontes that day when you assisted us.”
‘Wh-what is happening?’
She wondered, unable to believe what she was hearing. Beyond addressing the youth as ‘Master’, Inareh, the woman who had been sowing turmoil within Malpaars for the past turn was now in the process of dealing with the prominent lords and ladies who had been marching on her orders.
“What is your will?” A more resolute reply came from the ring this time.
“Make an example out of her.” A ruthless and unfeeling command emerged from Kaidus’ mouth, taking even her by surprise. “Let the lady’s actions and her fate be known throughout all of Malpaars for any who would dare to follow in her misguided ambitions.”
“A-and Lord Zyphere?”
“You may deal with him at your leisure afterward.”
A cold breath suddenly swept through the room alongside the boy’s words.
As if she too had felt the chill, “Y-yes?” The voice from the ring quavered uncomfortably.
“I trust you will not fail such a simple task?”
“I will not, Master. Please leave it to me.” A swift and shaken reply once more, “All of Malpaars shall know of her fate once we are done. I will also personally see to it that anyone harboring such foolish designs come to understand their place as well.”
“Very well. Then I shall await the good news.”
Having given his commands, the layer of light around the ring instantly shattered into nothingness and any traces of its previous radiance vanished. Kaidus reached out and picked up the ring, placing it back onto his finger once more. “Did that quell your worries, my lord?” He calmly questioned, having reverted back to his solemn self.
“Ye-yes… that is more than enough.” Voice quivering with disbelief and shock, the old lord’s frozen expression was no further from that of her own.
Sitting as a silent observer, she keenly kept her attention upon the surreal meeting as it continued.
Consisting of a capable mercenary, a knight who had proven himself to be a competent leader, an unassuming young man who was barely of age, and an elderly Lord with dozens of years behind him as a wise ruler, it was unlike any other meetings that she had had the displeasure of sitting through.
Even with the vast disparity between their age and statuses, neither Lord Shradech nor Biran were doing much to curb the flow of their discussions. Vick too, had been silent, leaving Kaidus to dictate the pace of their dialogues.
Having inquired about various aspects of the camp along with the health of those within, Kaidus was already making plans to leave the forests in favor of the Imvera ruins.
Watching Kaidus and listening to the confidence within his voice, she could not help but recall that day upon the waters of Aristolk.
“I can.” He had answered, when questioned about whether he could guarantee their safety or not.
She had been uncertain at the time, but with everything that had happened thus far, there was no longer any doubts that he was the sole reason they were able to arrive safely upon the shores of Malpaars.
“Then we will proceed as planned.” Kaidus continued firmly, his voice resonating clearly throughout the room, “Remember to have the hunters prepare a number of traps tonight and bring it with them. I will see to it that their efforts do not end in vain.”
“Understood. I will issue a notice to those who are participating in the expedition after this meeting.” Captain Biran voiced compliantly.
“While you’re at it, make sure that…”
As she continued to listen, she could feel the sliver of hope within herself growing as all her previous anxiety and worries pertaining to her missing parents slowly began disappearing.
“Then I must apologize for burdening you with this troublesome matter after all you have done already.” The old lord cordially and graciously thanked after agreeing to the revised plans and hearing of their newfound options. Motioning to the man at his side for assistance, Lord Shradech carefully stood up. “Thank you again for delivering such fortuitous news. I wish to share it with my people as soon as possible, so Pelwin and I will be taking our leave first.”
“It is I who should be thanking you for coming on such short notice.” Standing up from his sea, Kaidus returned a polite nod, “Please take care on your way back.”
With a wide grin unlike any she had seen ever since catching up to them, Lord Shradech lowered his head in turn, “Nonsense. If you have further need of anything else, just send words.” The old lord replied before hobbling out of the tent.
“You wanted to talk?” Kaidus finally turned to face her after seeing that Lord Shradech and the man named Pelwin were gone.
“Yes, I was-” She quickly replied, before pulling back in hesitation.
“Narissa.” Vick’s troubled voice finally caught her ears for the first time ever since she joined them, and she turned to see him looking back at her. “Is this about-”
“It is.” She answered, hastily cutting him off.
That day upon Vick’s return, she had request him for the same favor that she was about to ask of the youth. But with the issue of the untimely assault and the situation within camp, Vick had refused her then, and she had reluctantly conceded her selfishness.
“What is it?” Kaidus questioned curiously.
In his voice, she could feel consciousness being pulled forth. Compelled, by an unknown force to answer.
Yet, as if they were alive, a number of gruesome thoughts began squirming within her mind, whispering to her of the futility that was to come. Of her pointless struggles, and the certainty of her parent’s unfortunate demise.
Seeing his dark eyes staring back, even though she had steeled herself, she could no longer give voice to her words.
The boy owed her nothing. Their relationship was merely that of acquaintances, and she was nothing more than a porter who had been paid to deliver him to Malpaars.
Yet with no other options, “Kaidus.” She painfully spoke his name, pausing sharply to prepare herself.
“What is on your mind?” Kaidus replied, staring back intently.
“I…” Looking at his inquisitive eyes, she reluctantly discarded her pride and lowered herself toward him. “Please help me find my parents.” She pleaded.
It was inconsiderate, but he was her last hope.
“Help you find your parents?” Kaidus remarked back in confusion, “Why now?”
“The old man- Lord Shradech had been in contact with my father before Imvera was attacked. He said that in my father’s final letter, my father was thinking about fleeing east toward the Shadow Peak Mountains. I need to know if they’re still there or not. Please, I beg of you. Help me.”
“Lady Narissa.” Captain Biran silently voiced, his tone filling with sympathy.
“So that is what ails you…” The boy replied thoughtfully from across the table.
Keeping her head down, “I know that it is unreasonable of me to ask for such a thing, especially when there are so many others out there with the same problem. But I’ve waited over two years, praying and hoping every day that they are still alive. To learn that they had to hide in such a place, I cannot bear the thought of it. Please. As it is, I don’t have anyone else that I can turn to. You- you are the only one who can help me now.”
“What about your crew? Have you given up on regrouping with them?”
Looking up, his was a calm and collected question, reminding her of her previous plans to find her crewmates in Karpes. “I have not…” She quietly replied, “But the mountains and roads are especially harsh at this time of the year. If I were to set out and regroup with my men, the earliest we could start searching would be the beginning of Grunei… after the frost has melted. I don’t know if I can wait that long, and I fear it could be too late.”
“Could? Have you not considered the possibility that it is already too late?”
Her heart sunk. She had considered it countless times before, but hearing someone else stating such an obvious thing, she could only bite her lips. “I have…”
“I don’t mean to trample upon your hopes but if it has already been over half a year, what are the chances that they will still be up there in those mountains?”
“I… I don’t know.” Trying her hardest to keep her voice from trembling at the thoughts of never seeing her parents alive again, “But I don’t have a choice. Ever since returning to Malpaars, this has been the only clue with any tangible direction.” She painfully added.
“Hmmm… say I were to help you. Just how do you propose we go about this? It’s already the middle of Rinol. If it is half as bad as you’ve made it sound, then the mountains will be quite treacherous. Are you willing to throw our lives away for such uncertainty?” The boy reasoned.
Feeling her entire body stiffening at his words, “Can- can’t you do something about it?” She shamelessly answered, completely disregarding the vast differences in both their positions.
“And why would you say that?”
She looked to the two others within the room, and their expressions were telling her that they already knew everything she knew. Settling her gaze back onto Kaidus, “Have… have you forgotten that I saw what you did in Garnikul?” She pointedly stated.
“Right…” A tired sigh as if he had been hoping that she herself had forgotten about it.
“And I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am also certain that you have something to do with this warmth, which has been keeping us all from freezing to death.” She swiftly added, “You’ve been doing this ever since we joined up with everyone all those days ago, haven’t you?”
A smile resurfaced upon Kaidus’ face. “You’re quite astute, aren’t you?”
Not ready to back down just yet, “Those light showers when it should have been pouring. That breeze that is always weaving through this camp. This warmth that has prevented even the frost from setting. The constantly clear blue sky above… none of those phenomena are natural, and would be impossible were it not for the interference of a powerful mage.”
“Oh? And what exactly do you know of powerful mages?”
The question sent a shiver down her spine, but she did not look away from the boy. “I- I don’t know much, but I’d be willing to wager everything I have that a powerful mage could keep hundreds, if not thousands of people warm in the midst of a freezing forest. That he would be capable of sinking dozens of pirate ships without the knowledge of those around him, playing it off as if it were nothing more than mere coincidences. That such a mage would be able end a pointless war by himself.”
“Fine.” A defeated reply. Casually leaning back on his seat, “You are right. I can certainly do something about your request. But if I were to help you, what’s in it for me?”
Hearing his acquiescence, she hurriedly sat up, “As long as you can help find them, I am willing to offer anything.”
For a single instant, the boy’s eyes appeared to flash a bright silver before quickly reverting to its usually dark tone. “I remember you mentioning that you were a member of Malpaars’ Trader’s Union before becoming a smuggler. Yes?”
“Yes… why?” She echoed, unsure as to where he was going with such a question.
“Is the Union still active? I am in need of a skilled craftsman. Preferably one who is trustworthy and capable of working with any kind of metal.”
“The… the Union was dissolved shortly after the war started and most of my affiliates are gone now, but my father and brother, they-” She quickly stopped herself, hearing how it must sound. “Just so you know, I’m not saying this so that you will help me. You can even ask the old man if you don’t believe me, but please trust me when I say that my father is a blacksmith of some renown. My young brother too, is quite competent in the craft. If they are still alive, I am sure they can help you in whatever you need.” She hastily explained, having expected something more along the line of impossible.
“Is that so?”
Seeing that Kaidus was carefully considering her words, “If- if I may, just what do you need such a craftsman for?” She interjected, hoping to keep his mind on the request.
The boy smiled. “To help with the construction of a mirror frame.”
“A mirror frame?” He was hiding something else, but it did not matter. “I’m sure that can be done. Please, will you help me?” She begged once again.
“How about we set some terms first?”
Instead of thinking she had imagined it, the boy’s dark eyes flashed silver once again. Barely catching herself from flinching, “What- what sort of terms?” She nervously replied, trying to keep her composure.
“I will do everything in my power to help you search the Shadow Peak Mountains for your parents. In return, whether they are found or not, dead or alive, you will help me find a craftsman capable of assisting me in what I need. Do we have a deal?”
Hearing his terms, she painfully swallowed the fear that was stuck in her throat, “Deal.” And accepted.
“Great. Then let us begin.”
“B-begin?” Reflexively echoing his word, “Now?”
With a knowing grin, “Zion.” A single word came out of the young man’s mouth, and a tempest suddenly manifested within the room.
Thrashing through the air like an invisible beast without form, she could feel the warmth of its breath moving along her exposed skin. “This is…” Her eyes widened as the cold of Rinol slowly vanished from around her and a breeze settled atop her body like a protective cloak.
“SSSHRRAAA!” From the captain’s quarters in the back of the tent, came a familiar shriek.
Taking a deep breath, Vick quietly watched as Kaidus and Narissa continued ahead toward the Esperen group’s camp. Halting his steps, he allowed the guard who had been appointed to stay beside Kaidus to pass, then turned his gaze back to the large command tent.
Taking another deep breath, “Dammit.” He cursed, before reluctantly making his way back toward the tent.
As studious as ever, the knight was already busy issuing orders to a handful of guards. Upon hearing his approach, their conversation ceased and the group quickly dispersed.
“You still need something?” The blonde captain irately called out after everyone had left. His tone filled with palpable indifference.
Scratching his head awkwardly, ‘Fuck it.’ Vick thought to himself and stepped before the man. “Remember that drink you were talking about a while ago? I could use one right now. Got any on ya?”