A bright sea of flames, it roared fiercely through the forest like a rampant beast before flickering into nothingness.
Vanishing into the hundreds of people that had required it, with a thought, he slowly drew in his breath once more and instantly absorbed any excess mana that Vishan had failed to take in.
“Haaa…” Exhaling deeply, Kaidus closed his mind and opened his eyes to the inside of his tent.
It had worked. The spell had manifested just as he had conceptualized.
Through his mind’s eye, he had previously scoured the camp with his mana senses and marked those who were sick or injured. Breaking his mind into hundreds of fragments, he had infused those fragments into the people that were marked, willing the fragments to restore and recover the bodies to a perfect state of being.
Having already had plenty of practice with the human body, the spell had successfully been deployed without any problems.
“Are… are you okay?” Ulamara worriedly voiced as he took another deep breath.
“I’m alright.” He answered, presenting the young phrae with a thankful smile. “The spell had required more finesse than expected, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Thank goodness.” A grin veered itself on her face and Ulamara zipped upward to hover beside him. Flying closer than usual, she carefully touched the side of his face with her tiny hands, “An awful lot of water was coming out of you. I thought you were going to shrivel up.” She quipped gleefully.
“Only a little sweat. Nothing to worry about.” With another deep breath, he slowly pushed himself up from his seated position and stretched.
Meticulously splitting his mind and healing hundreds of injuries at once, the toll upon him had been greater than expected. Yet, it was still well within the margin of error that he had calculated after fortifying himself.
“Um…” Filled with curiosity, Elamara’s voice came from a short distance beside them. “Is this supposed to be glowing?” She asked.
He turned to look at what she was talking about, and he could not help but grin.
On his bedroll beside Elamara, the rabbit hide pouch was open and inside it, the small crowned seed was shining. Not with its usual dim glow, but a bright green radiance.
Picking the seed up, it was faint, but he could sense something within it now.
An almost ethereal presence, one that is subtly perceivable and may even be tangible. Something akin to that of the green feline he had fought against before, and Zeeke, Zorin Academy’s guardian.
It had stolen some of his mana while he was conducting his spell, and was now obscuring and trying to hide itself amidst the mana while absorbing it.
“What are you?” He wondered again, rolling the seed in between his fingers.
It was like that of a spirit, yet there seemed to be an incredible amount of intelligence within it. Especially in the way that it had quietly siphoned off his mana without his notice, or the fact that it was now trying to hide itself from his senses.
Carefully watching it as its glow dimmed to a luster, he could not get the thought of the circular and lush field that he had woken upon out of his mind. The more he stared at it, the more it felt like he was staring into a silent forest, one that was gushing with life.
“It can’t be…” Kaidus whispered to himself.
Thinking back, Hasen had been born of his own shadow, and their trials had evolved it to what it is now.
Feziel had offered its strength to him after obtaining the trust of the Phraes.
Zion on the other hand, was already a force to be reckoned with and had to be subdued.
As for Vishan, the light spirit had pledged itself upon the fields of carnage, having been apparently persuaded by his indomitable spirit.
The object before him now could not claim any such grandeur, but he could not get the thought that it would definitely become another powerful ally out of his mind.
“What is it?”
“Yes, what is it?”
Both twins curiously queried one after another as they hovered around the seed. Deftly landing on his hand, Ulamara pressed both her hands against it. “It… it’s warm.” She voiced in astonishment.
“I’m not sure, but it’s probably a spirit…”
Recalling the last time he saw Zeeke, the feline had gone out of its way to bring it to him after meeting Feziel and Zion.
““A spirit?”” Both younglings questioned at the same time.
It was definitely not a simple coincidence that the object in his hand right now, was giving off such an unusual presence. With a curious thought, he willed a surge of mana into the seed and the seed suddenly burst with light once again, even brighter than before.
“Ahh!” Ulamara cried out and hastily turned away. “Kyaa!” And Elamara yelped, covering her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think it would light up like that.” He quickly apologized, holding down a chuckle at their reactions.
Turning the seed around in between his fingers, instead of just one, like roots, four more tails had emerged to wrap themselves around the glowing seed. The small circle of crowns itself, was also growing longer and more pronounced right before his eyes.
“Look, Elamara! It’s- It’s moving!” Ulamara cried out enthusiastically, having distanced herself a little.
Instead of waiting for it to stop glowing, he quickly infused a steady stream of mana into the seed, faintly recalling what it had done the last time he did so. ‘What are you going to do now?’ He wondered, watching as it began pulsing brightly.
And… just as it had done before, like a voracious glutton, it began devouring his mana even faster.
“Oh? Still not enough for you?” Unable to hide his intrigue, he carefully wrapped his fingers around the seed and clenched it within his fist. Pouring even more mana into it, he held firmly as the tiny thorns pierced his hand. Squeezing it, he felt it squirming, changing and shifting as rays of green light burst through the gaps of his fingers.
Then with a final burst of golden light, everything ceased completely.
“Ha… hahahha… selfish little thing, aren’t you?”
Just like before, it had completely sealed itself off after taking its fill of mana.
“What happened?” Elamara questioned, hurrying closer to his fist.
“It has had enough from the looks of it.” He replied with a grin and unwrapped his hand.
““Whaaao!”” Ulamara and Elamara both suddenly lit up as he did so.
Once again, the seed had transformed itself.
No longer a dull green, it now had a brass, almost golden sheen over its metallic body.
Also more elongated than spherical, instead of only the five tails that he had seen before, another seven had sprouted alongside them.
The small circular crown of thorns on the other hand, had fused together into a single curved horn that was half the length of the seed itself.
Like the beginnings of limbs, little nubs had also appeared on four distinct parts of the seed with a number of hardened ridges in between them.
Starting from the base of the horn and running down the side opposite the nubs, numerous tiny spikes now divided the seed like a vertebra.
It was evolving. No, it was more fitting to say that it was undergoing metamorphosis. Just by looking at its hardened form, its appearance was more like that of a chrysalis than a seed now.
“It’s so pretty…” Ulamara breathtakingly stated, descending upon the seed in his hand like a pollinating insect to a flower.
“It grew longer. And that… a horn?” Elamara questioned, settling down beside her sister.
Picking the seed up with his free hand, he willed another surge of mana into it, but as expected, nothing happened. It had gone dormant again.
Feeling the armored ridges along the seed’s side, he turned it and ran his thumb over the line of spikes. “Hmm… interesting.” It was truly and completely different from what it had been before. “Are spirits born from seeds?” He pondered aloud, placing the seed back down on its nubs. Reassessing its appearance, the seed was now like that of a horned creature laying down on four legs. Something similar to that of a prowling predator.
Zeeke’s small form along with the other feline’s appearance quickly came to mind, but neither of them had horns, and the seed was too small in comparison to them.
“Do they?” Ulamara questioned, wrapping her arms around the seed like she was measuring it.
“I’ve never heard of such.” Elamara supplemented, looking puzzled.
“Neither have I…”
As far as he knew, it was believed that elemental spirits were entities that had either existed since the dawn of time, or were born via the undying will of Lagus in order to help maintain the world’s natural order. That they were reflections of Lovis itself, made whole and given life by the pure and primordial mana of the spirit realm.
It was largely the reason why summoners could use their familiars as a catalyst to tap into the primal energy, for the spirits were a part of Lagus itself.
Yet in his hand, was something else entirely unknown to him. It had possibly been born of the spirit world, but it was his mana and not the primal energy of Lagus that was inducing its mutations.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out.” Closing his fist around the seed once again, from it, he could feel something faint like a pulse, calmly beating in tandem with his own heartbeat.
A cheerful, almost festive atmosphere overwhelmed them as they returned from their trip to the stream.
Taking careful steps so as not to spill the two buckets filled with water in her hands, Narissa curiously threw her attention about, listening in on the various conversations that were happening around them.
Passing by a nearby trio, she caught one of the women talking about how the woman’s son had suddenly recovered from his illness, while another claimed that their husband’s limp from a farming accident years ago had completely vanished.
It was an unusual topic for discussion and though the three were trying to keep quiet as if wary of something, she could see the joy upon their faces.
“What is going on?” Darla’s voice curiously questioned from her right.
Without turning to the younger woman, “I don’t know. Did we miss something?” She wondered back as the others behind her began taking notice of the odd atmosphere as well.
Passing even more people while making their way back to their encampment, a few notable individuals caught her eyes. Notable not because of their status or extraordinaire, but because many of them had been indisposed or bedridden.
A young boy whom she had seen on multiple occasions to have required the aid of a walking stick, was now running amok like it was natural.
A farmhand who had twisted their arm from a terrible fall just a few days prior, was now using that very arm and deftly chopping up a pile of fire wood while hollering joyfully to his wife.
Even more incredible, was a young lady who had lost an eye due to a particularly bad ambush while trying to flee her village. The young lady was no longer wearing a cloth around her head, and her two violet eyes were sparkling beautifully as she talked with her peers.
Something had definitely occurred while they were gone, and though a few people were up in alarm with curiosity and skepticism, many more were praising and giving thanks to the gods.
Yet, she could not picture the gods. Instead, “Kaidus… what did you do?” She whispered the boy’s name aloud, knowing that it could only be his doing. She had seen what he did to Juliana and Emila, but she had not expected that such a thing was even possible, and with so many people.
“Narissa, look,” Darla called out to her and she turned her head, “Isn’t that Lania from the old lord’s group?”
Spotting a woman quietly taking in the afternoon sun while tearfully rocking a newborn in her arms, “That… that IS Lania…” She softly replied.
They have all heard that the young mother had been having difficulties after giving birth eight days ago, and was supposedly bedridden and could barely sit up. That she was getting weaker by the day, and even her family was not sure if she was going to make it to the end of the year. But looking at her now, Lania was the picture of health.
“It’s not just Lania. Look over there. That’s Ulfreth the cobbler.” Hannah, one of the young ladies following behind them pointed out.
Turning her gaze, Narissa easily picked out the skinny, almost stick-like figure of the cobbler. The man was grinning maniacally and flashing his yellow teeth while regaling and gesturing to his left hand. A hand, that had apparently been lopped off during the attack on Esperen.
“Let us not dawdle. We can find out what happened after we get back to our camp.” She urged and without minding the buckets in her hands, broadened her steps.
Unlike what she had expected, a different scene from that of the morning or the camp’s atmosphere was playing itself out around the fires of their encampment.
Instead of screaming and running around like usual, the three boys who did not join them for a wash were now carrying pieces of sticks and twines back and forth upon order. Being directed by Kaidus, they appeared to be helping with the assembly of something.
“Orphe! I was going to get that!” One of the boys cried out, seeing that another had already brought over what appears to be a long stick from the pile of firewood.
“You were too slow!” The boy named Orphe exclaimed proudly.
“But Kaidus asked me to-”
“It’s alright. We’re going to need a few more so can you find me some that’s around the same length?” Kaidus quickly interrupted.
“Length?” The small boy puzzled.
“Another one that’s just as long.” With a smile, Kaidus took the stick from the one named Orphe and began measuring it against the ground as both boys hurried back to the firewood.
Taking her eyes away from what Kaidus and the boys were doing, she spotted the group of young ladies who had opted to stay behind.
Tasked with cleaning the camp and lunch preparations, they had swept the area, washed the pot and tended to the fires, but instead of seeing to the ingredients in front of them, they were keenly watching Kaidus.
“You girls see something you like?” Arleen’s playful teasing came from behind, and instantly drew the attention of the group. Seeing them frantically trying to resume their duties as their faces flushed with colors, “Can I have a look too?” Arleen chuckled and hurried over to them with her bucket that was filled with wet clothes.
Doing the same, she quickly followed and set her buckets of water down behind the group. “What happened while we were gone? Everyone is so… so oddly cheerful.” Narissa questioned, moving out of the way as others came to unload their own water.
“We don’t know.” Juliana, one of those who had stayed behind answered while continuing to mash up a bowl of roots. “Not long after you all left, a light started coming from his tent and then… it- it was like a gentle wind suddenly swept through us.”
“It was very warm.” Another of the girls interjected while beaming nostalgically.
“Yes. Almost like a breath even…” Juliana added.
Her own experience within the command tent the evening prior easily came to mind.
“Yes, but… it was all throughout your body. It felt like it was inside of me.”
“Me too.” The others quickly affirmed.
“Hmm…” Taking another look at Kaidus, the young man was pulling something up off the ground. “I see… please excuse me.” Breaking away from the group, she quickly made her way over to him.
“What is that?” She questioned as she approached.
In front of Kaidus, was a wide and crisscrossing structure made of sticks, vines, and twine, rising up to about half of Kaidus’ height. The long sticks she saw the boys bringing him had been placed horizontally along the structure and tightly bound in place by long pieces of twines. The vines had been used to bind the cross sections of the shorter sticks, interlocking them diagonally in place to keep the structure from folding in on itself. With a wide base, the structure was standing upright.
“Wait… is that a drying rack?” She marveled, seeing the crude craftsmanship.
“It takes a lot of time for wet clothes to dry if you just place it by the fire. I figured I would make myself useful.”
“But-” Looking at the flimsy rack made of uneven sticks and twigs, it looked like it would break if a few pieces of clothes were placed on it, not to mention wet clothes. “Is that going to hold? The structural integrity looks lacking at best.” She replied, not trying to diminish his good intentions.
“It’ll hold.” Kaidus grinned back at her. “It wouldn’t even break of ten grown men were to climb atop it.”
“Did you… do something to it?” She quietly inquired, seeing the confidence on his face.
“I did.” And without hiding it, Kaidus calmly admitted. “Reinforced it with my mana so there’s nothing to worry about. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Looking at the rack, her hands urged for her to reach out and break it, but with a smile, “I believe you.” She quickly conceded. “I think the others will be glad to have something like this.”
“We won’t be here for much longer, but it should offer a modicum of convenience.” Picking the rack up with one hand, Kaidus moved it closer to the fire.
‘Can’t you… can’t you just dry their clothes for them with magic?’ The question caught itself in the back of her throat and quickly discarding it, “Kaidus. You remember what you said this morning? That you needed to tell me something?” She queried, changing up the subject.
“Of course. If you’ve no more tasks, how about discussing it in private before lunch?” The youth suggested.
With a quick glance over to the edge of their camp, to where a small two-person shelter had been set up, “I’ll wait for you in your tent.” She replied, excusing herself.
Situating herself atop a piece of log opposite the boy’s sleeping area, it was not long before Kaidus joined her.
Just like the day before, the youth’s eyes flashed silver for an instant as he entered, and the air inside the tent suddenly grew heavier.
A sense of foreboding immediately began creeping under her skin and the thought of standing up and leaving for air tugged at her mind, but with a controlled breath, she quickly calmed herself down.
As if he had noticed, “It’s just a simple barrier. One that will keep our conversation from being overheard.” Kaidus nonchalantly explained and sat down on a bedroll opposite her.
Checking around the tent, “Where… where’s that lizard anyways? I don’t see him.” She questioned, trying to keep herself from losing her nerves.
“I’ve sent Zirus out on a task. He’ll be back tomorrow.” A curt reply as Kaidus settled.
“I see. So…” She could feel herself wavering as they sat before one another. “What was so important that you couldn’t discuss it outside?”
She looked into his eyes, and, “I’m sorry, Narissa.” The youth quickly apologized, his tone dark and solemn.
“Sorry?” She repeated, “Sorry for what?”
The sense of foreboding was growing more overbearing as she continued staring at him.
“I know you were hoping, but there is no one living on or around the Shadow Peak Mountains… not anymore.”
“What? What do you mean?” She questioned, unable to understand what he was talking about.
They had only discussed it the previous day. There was no way he could have found the mountain already or knew what awaits them.
“Your family, Narissa. I’m afraid that they have long since departed the mountains.”
“H-how do you know? How can you possibly know that?” Hearing her own voice fluctuating, she quietly turned her eyes toward the ground, unwilling to accept his words.
“My familiar has already searched the mountain multiple times. I assure you. There is no one up there anymore.”
“Then… are you saying there were people there before?” She questioned, looking back up at him.
“A small settlement was found a day’s march up the mountain’s northern slopes. But from what I can gather, it looks like it was attacked, and recently at that.”
“Attacked? By what? What would attack such a remote settlement in such a place?” She could feel the blood in her arms slowly waning, dripping away like condensation upon a leaf in the morning’s mist.
“Let me ask you one thing first.” The youth interrupted, halting her bombardment, “Does anyone in your family or those around them know magic?”
“I’m asking if there is a possibility that a mage might be working with your family.”
“I… I don’t believe so.” She sullenly replied, “Most if not all of the mages had been forced to join the war. I doubt anyone would be working for a blacksmith like my father when lords and ladies are fighting over them.”
Kaidus’ face suddenly darkened. “If that’s the case, then this was probably a drakall attack.”
“H-how can you tell?” She stuttered, seeing him narrowing his eyes contemplatively.
“My familiar tells me that there are various claw marks and bite marks on the remaining bodies along with signs of magic throughout the small area of the settlement.”
“UuuhhK!” Just imagining her family and friend’s dead or torn to pieces, she felt her body tensing up.
“My guess is that the beasts probably ate what they could, and left the rest to the elements. As for what type of drakall, I’m putting my money on Kalligors. Only a pair of Kalligors would be brazen and vicious enough to attack and kill humans in such a place.”
“No… that can’t be right. You must be lying.” The words came flowing out even before she could think about them.
“Narissa.” Hearing her name, she quickly focused in on him again as if an unknown force had compelled her to do so. “I promised you that I would search the Shadow Peak Mountains for your parents, and I have done so. Dead or alive, it is clear now that there will be no one waiting for us there even if we were to make the trip. Tell me. What do you want to do now?”
Seeing his inquiring gaze, she could not help but shiver.
The boy before her, a child on the cusp of manhood, was talking about death like it was a natural thing to him. As if it was but another small part in his short life thus far.
“Narissa.” He called her name again, and she quickly snapped out of her thoughts.
“I… I want to see it…” She quietly answered, fighting down her fears. “I want to confirm it with my own eyes. To see if they are indeed my family or not.”
“The bodies were all kovus’, but very well. As per our agreement, I shall accompany you so that you may see this through.”
Unable to submit to the loss, “Kaidus…” She whispered, “They- my family… they could still be alive, right?” And pointedly questioned, hoping that it was possible.
“I’m sorry Narissa, but I don’t know the answer to that.” The boy replied, and the heaviness within the tent instantly dissolved. “We will escort everyone to Imvera first, and then you and I shall make our way east.” Kaidus added and stood up to leave. “I know it’s hard, but it is best that you prepare yourself for the worst.”