Like the echoes of a mountainous beast, a proud screech reverberated loudly through the air, marking the day’s dawn.
With three pairs of wings unfurled majestically and soaring above the trees like a bolt of black lightning, “Kaaaryaaahhh!” Zirus howled sharply again, this time with irritation as it roused the sleeping forest.
At its command, throughout the thick and resilient undergrowth, a number of animals began scurrying out of their burrows and nests. Meeting the frozen world head on, many of them began thrashing through the leaflitters with confusion as they fled in all directions.
Without hesitation or fear of failure, the youngling instantly swooped into the sea of trees. Weaving through them skillfully, “Kuuuarrrraaa!” With a fierce roar, it quickly sought out the larger and more substantial preys, cutting off their frantic escapes and redirecting the paths of their flight.
Forming a crude wall formation with their three archers in the back, a terrified group of thirteen waited with wooden spears, clubs, and battered swords in hands.
Having woken up to a state of disarray and unwilling to flee into the gloom of the forest, they had cleared their camp and gathered for what was to come.
There it was again, the hissing that had awoken them, echoing from within the depths of the forest. Looking to one another, the group stilled themselves, hoping for whatever it was that was approaching their camp to ignore their presence.
Like there were multiple beasts, the shouts continued to grow louder and louder, until they were suddenly preceded by dozens of different noises, all rustling and rushing through the forest.
This time, a piercing roar swept across their camp, sounding just barely out of sight.
Shaken by the powerful gust that had stormed by, the formation began crumbling as guards and volunteers alike lost what little courage they still had left.
Yet, before anyone could break away and flee out of fear, “If you get lost in the woods, you are on your own! Stand together!” Jonns nervously shouted, hoping to solidify the faltering resolve of those around him. With an arrow already on his bow, he quickly drew as the icy and frozen ground beneath his feet rumbled.
A single amber ringed fox suddenly emerged from the rustling brushes toward the left side of their formation. In the dim light, it paid them no heed as it rushed past their shabby camp and disappeared into the forest behind them, fleeing like it was being chased.
Following the fox, the sound of hooves crushing frozen leaves and ice, along with a multitude of squeaking came through from the dense thickets directly ahead of them. Drawing closer, “Bueeeee!” A shrill cry ripped through the air as a large wild white-maned boar the height of a small child suddenly burst through.
Seeing that the charging boar was heading straight for their group, “F-fire!” Jonns shouted and let loose the arrow in his hand.
“Bhueeeee! Buheeee!” The boar shrieked in terror, almost like it was just as surprised to see them. In a sudden attempt to halt itself, the beast lost its footing as two arrows entered its right shoulders.
“Brace yourselves!” Voices shouted, and the guards at the front of the formation hurried and awkwardly huddled together as the stumbling boar tumbled toward them.
Even with the two arrows sticking out of its shoulder, after crashing into the group, the boar fought even harder with those around it, and stood back up. Breathing heavily with exhaustion, it shrieked twice more and then attempted to flee.
The purpose of their expedition immediately brought itself to mind, and, “Don’t let it get away!” Jonns hollered, fumbling to nock another arrow as the others quickly jumped onto the boar at his command. Swiftly drawing his bow once again, before he could even set his aim back onto the wild beast, the sight of a fitarin bursting through the brushes caught his eyes.
Unlike the boar, upon spotting their group, the hairy and elusive forest cat skillfully managed to halt its momentum and with a sharp and agile turn, swiftly darted away in a completely different direction.
On the ground, “BuuuEEEEE! HHUEEEEE” The boar’s cries continued to struggle through the air as half a dozen guards piled themselves on top of it, while others attempted to stab and hit it with whatever they had in hand.
Just like the forest cat before them, a handful of squirrels also emerged onto the clearing of their small camp. Coming through the opening of the thicket that had been opened by the boar, they too, ignored everything around them and frantically ran by.
Holding his fire, Jonns swiftly refocused his aim toward that of the forest as another pair of squirrels darted by, hurrying after the others.
Something was watching them from within the dim forest and keeping his bow drawn and at the ready, he felt himself trembling as the two hunters beside him mimicked his actions.
“Krrrraaaaaaaa!” As if answering their caution, another shrill and piercing cry easily shook the trees around them, causing the rest of their group to suddenly halt what they were doing while.
“What in the world…” One of the hunters beside him voiced frightfully and Jonns tightened his grip.
Flying in place like it was swimming in the air, an elongated serpent had emerged from the shadows of the trees a good dozen or so strides away from them. At least the length of a man’s arm span, even in the dimness of the dawn, the beast’s pitch-black body was gleaming with a polished luster while its two pairs of large translucent wings alternated effortlessly. On its head, two pale silver eyes were quietly gazing down at them as a forked tongue the same blood-red color as that of the gemstone upon its forehead, flickered in and out.
Recalling his encounter with the young hvaral all those nights ago in the midst of the forest, Jonns shivered.
“W-Waaa! Whrraaaaa!!” One of the terrified men finally cried out upon spotting the youngling. Hysterically pointing their wooden spear at the serpent, “Don’t come any closer! RAAAA!!!” The man screamed, prompting another three to fearfully redirect their weapons at the beast as well.
It watched them for a silent moment, then, “Kaara!” The serpent suddenly snapped back.
The boar that had apparently been subdued unexpectedly began thrashing again as blood sprayed out of its wounds. Struggling defiantly, the large boar quickly dislodge itself from under the grasps of the men who were now warily watching the young serpent, and with a forceful kick, it managed to free and pull itself up once more.
In the air, the young serpent quickly raised its two large forewings. Narrowing its eyes, with a single powerful thrust it instantly closed the distance between itself and the boar.
Twisting in mid-air, it slammed its tail into the side of the bloody boar, sending the large beast back onto the ground.
As if acting on instinct, the young serpent swiftly wrapped itself around the boar’s body and ferociously ripped into the boar’s neck with its fangs. Tearing out a chunk of bloody flesh, a flood of blood gushed out of the opening as the serpent tightened its grip.
Within moments, a large and dark puddle had pooled around the boar, with the beast having ceased its convulsions.
Slithering atop the lifeless boar, the black serpent raised its head upward to face them yet again. “Shaa! Raaaa!” With an angry hiss and a vexatious glare, the youngling turned its eyes toward that of where some of the animals had fled. Without further words, it launched itself into the air, disappearing into the trees.
Stunned and terrified by what had just transpired, “W-what manner of beast was that?!” One of the younger men who had volunteered to join them exclaimed as the silence of the forest slowly returned to them.
“That…” Swallowing his own astonishment and unsure as to what it was doing so far away from its master, “That was the young lord’s drakall.” Jonns quietly replied.
As the others pelted him with curious looks, he lowered his gaze onto the lifeless boar on the ground.
In an instant, the young drakall had taken care of the beast that half a dozen grown men had struggled to hold down. Recalling how exhausted and frightened the boar had looked as it ran into them, he could not help but assume that the young drakall’s presence was anything, but a coincidence.
Northern outskirts of the forest encampment.
Sitting beside a small pile of logs that he had collected with Koran’s help earlier that morning, Kaidus quietly and rhythmically shaved away at the rough plank in his hand.
The thick knife that he had molded from a piece of iron easily leveled the burls on the board, and with practiced motions, he continued to skillfully flatten out both sides of the plank.
Eventually content with the elongated board’s smoothness and thickness, he placed it alongside the others, then picked up another piece.
Unable to withstand her curiosity any longer, “Wouldn’t that be faster with magic?” Elamara finally questioned from where she had been silently watching with her sister.
“It would,” Kaidus returned a smile to the inquisitive phrae, “But the day is still fresh and this will keep me from idling.”
The boards were to be used in the construction of a number of carts and although magic would have certainly expedited the process, there was plenty of time to spare. Instead of simply sitting around the camp, it was also something to do.
Fluttering down to the pile of timber that would eventually become the bed of a cart or two, Elamara began to curiously strut along their lengths before jumping from one to another. “So… this is a cart?” The young phrae questioned, tilting her head dumbfoundedly.
“Not yet.” He replied as his smile broadened.
From where she was floating in the air, Ulamara began giggling.
“Why are you laughing? Like you know what a cart looks like!” Elamara rebuked, looking up at her sister.
“I do! I’ve seen them before!” And Ulamara replied, proceeding to grin proudly.
Elamara’s lips curved into a snicker as if knowing that such a thing was impossible, and, “Liar.” She shot back; her voice effused with undeniable doubt.
“I’m not lying!”
“This is the first time we’ve been out like this. Where could you have seen a cart, huh?”
“In- …” Ulamara quickly closed her mouth and turned to look over in his direction. “I’m not-”
“Now, you two. There’s no need to argue over this.” He interjected, stopping what he was doing. Cycling his gaze between the siblings, he could not help but be amused at seeing how similar they were to that of human children.
“But Ela called me a liar.” Ulamara aggrievedly voiced as if pained by the accusation.
“You laughed at me first!” Elamara swiftly countered.
“I-!” Realizing her own fault, Ulamara silenced herself once more.
“Your sister’s not lying, Elamara. It’s complicated, but I’m sure she’s telling the truth.”
Through their resonance, Ulamara had undoubtedly witnessed many things that she should not have known about. Yet, at his words, he caught Elamara’s eyes faltering with misunderstanding, “And Ulamara.” He chided, looking at the floating figure before him. “There is nothing wrong with being curious. To laugh at someone else when they are sincerely trying to broaden their horizons, it is unbecoming of one’s self and character.”
“H-huh?” Elamara’s eyes lit up, the bitter look on her face slowly dissipating like a cloud of smoke.
Ulamara on the other hand, meekly lowered her head. “Yes, sir.” The young phrae replied and without a second thought, flew down to Elamara. “I’m sorry, Ela.”
“I-…” With a quick and stunned glance up at him, “Me too.” Elamara quickly replied, taking her sister’s hands into her own. “I’m sorry for calling you a liar.”
“Nhhn. It’s okay.” Almost like their little spat never even happened, a wide grin suddenly ruptured across Ulamara’s lips. “You’re going to love the cart! You can ride on it, can put things on it, can even sleep on it, and…”
As Ulamara’s tiny voice exploded off into a string of excitable yet completely mundane uses for a cart, he turned back to his task and continued what he was doing.
“Yes, I’d say most cities are like that.” Kaidus voiced, putting down the last of the boards that he was working on.
Noon had passed by uneventfully, and he could already sense a familiar presence coming to retrieve him.
“So… the splintered ancestors were right.” Elamara remarked, her eyes glistening with fascination. “Mother and father always said that the ancestors had all lost their sparks and with it their minds, but I’ve always felt there was more to their stories.”
Seeing the young phrae’s elated expression, “Some cities are even larger and grander.” He added, fueling her excitement. “It is after all, a place where tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people gather. Ferrent, the city where I came from for example. If you were to walk from one side of the city to the other, it would probably take you all afternoon. To explore the whole of the city, that would take days.”
He grinned, seeing the amazement on Elamara’s face. “Yes, which is why many people prefer to travel by horses or carriages within the city.”
“Oh! We’ve seen horses before! In the forest!” Elamara exclaimed ecstatically at the word.
“Have you now?”
“Of course! Ulamara, do you remember?”
A sheepish grin already on her face, “I remember.” Ulamara quickly nodded from where she was sitting patiently. “Father didn’t let us out of his sight for days after he found out that we had gone outside, and that we had even seen some humans and their beasts.”
“That’s because you told him.” Elamara grumbled back cheerfully.
“I didn’t say anything to father. I asked the Shii about what we saw, and the Shii told father. It was the Shii’s fault.” Though denying the blame, Ulamara’s large silver eyes were laughing deviously.
Smiling at the exchange and seeing as they were going to be interrupted soon, “How about next time we get to a city, we all go exploring?” He offered, standing up to stretch his arms and legs.
““Really?!”” Both twins shouted together and like they were of one mind, simultaneously and suddenly shot upward to eye level with him.
“Of course.” He quickly reaffirmed.
“Nn!” Again, the twins both nodded in unison.
“Did you hear that, Ula?! Exploring a human city! I can’t wait!” Her usually silent and cautious demeanor nowhere to be seen, Elamara began cheering happily as if they were already standing before the grandeur of a city.
And, “With thousands of humans!” Ulamara supplemented with awe.
“At least hold your excitement until we get to one first.” He replied, lowering himself and picking up an armful of the finished boards. “Also, I believe we’ve got company, so let’s end our questions and answers here for now.”
At the mention of company, both girls nodded gleefully at one another and immediately began weaving the light around them. Within the span of a single breath, both had vanished like mirages, having concealed themselves from mortal eyes.
“Were you talking to someone, milord?” Koran, his personal guard questioned upon arriving with a cat-like approach.
“Just to myself, Koran. How are the preparations coming along?” He questioned, turning to greet the man.
“Most haven’t stopped grumbling since hearing about it yesterday, but everyone has been following the orders.” Koran answered.
Noticing what he was doing, the guard tactfully hurried over to take hold of what was in his arms before continuing the report.
“Many have already packed. They are simply waiting for the orders to move out before tearing down their tents and fires. As for the carpenters and help that you wanted to recruit, they are… less than enthusiastic. Many are arguing that carts would only serve to hinder our pace out of these woods.”
Having stacked a little over a dozen boards onto Koran’s arms, “If that is it, then reassure them that there is nothing to worry about.” Kaidus voiced as he picked up the last couple for himself. “Because if everything goes as planned, one or two carts will not be enough. We’re going to need at least half a dozen or even more.” He added, and began the short trek back toward the camp.
“Yessir. I will revisit the carpenters again when we get back.”
Hearing the guard’s blind acquiescence as usual, “I’ve said it before, Koran, but I’d appreciate it if you would stop being so formal with me all the time. And you should know that I am grateful for your diligence, so if you are ever curious about something, you are always free to inquire.”
“Thank you sire, but my task is to guard you and to do as you command. Questioning you is not a part of it.” Koran studiously replied.
“Is that because of the captain?” He probed, imagining the blonde knight giving a stern lecture about the chains of command, and how he was not to be challenged.
“Two men in two breaths.” The guard succinctly replied, voice tense but subdued and filling with admiration. “I have seen sword master’s incapable of doing what you have demonstrated. As a man of the sword myself and someone who’s been chasing after Captain Biran and Vick, it is only right that I afford you the proper respect.”
“Hah… so that’s what it was.” He somberly sighed at the truth, “Looks like I may have gone a little overboard there with them.”
“Milord diffused a situation before it could spiral out of control. I am sure they understood.”
“Perhaps, but I’m not sure everyone saw it that way.” He replied, recalling the look of terror on some of the guards.
He had suddenly shown up out of nowhere and mercilessly beaten down both Biran and Vick, before usurping command. There was no way a few people were not wary or confused about what was happening.
And then… there was the stunt he had pulled the previous morning.
The large-scale rejuvenation and regeneration spells had created quite the stir around camp, and many of those who had been affected were already asking questions.
The atmosphere within their own camp had gotten quite tense as well, and was partly the reason why he had excused himself to the outskirts for a breather.
“Actually…” Koran spoke up from behind, ending the sudden awkward silence and pulling him out of his own thoughts, “There is something I’ve been wondering about. If milord does not mind me asking, where did you learn how to do all this?”
“Hmm? All what?” He questioned, giving the man a quick glance.
“Woodworking.” Koran replied, “The way you split the logs, how you slice along the grain so naturally, even polishing and levelling out the wood. It was almost like I was watching an artisan at work earlier.”
“Hah. I am nowhere near the skills of an artisan, but thank you.” Pausing his words briefly to collect his thoughts, “Before my travels, I lived with a company of mercenaries for three years, learning swordplay and whatever I could. These carving skills were simply picked up while I was learning how to use the bow.” A mustached face flashed before his eyes and, “Well… that, and my teacher was quite adamant about being able to carve my own bows and make my own arrows.” A fond smile crept onto his face as he recalled the days of simply sitting within the courtyard of the Droxxon headquarters and whittling away, crafting his own arrows for the practice range.
“Milord is an archer?” The guard queried, sounding more upbeat than the usual reserved tone of formality.
“I dabble in the arts but with my poor skills, I’m uncertain if I can call myself a true archer.” He replied, recalling how dexterous the large and burly mercenary who had taught him the ways of the bow was.
The 8th chair of the Droxxon company, he had seen the man do things with a bow that should be impossible without magic.
Things, such as curving arrows around obstacles and nailing fleeing preys or enemies, all while during the rush of the chase or heat of battle.
Things, like smiting a band of brigands with multiple arrows before the first of said unfortunate individuals can even hit the ground.
Or simply splitting a man’s skull with a single iron tipped arrow, sniping from afar.
The force of the man’s draws and his speed as well as ability with the bow was definitely a thing of wonder.
“Surely milord jests. Anyone who so passionately involves themselves in their craft as milord was doing, must be someone of considerable skills.”
“You flatter me, but in truth I am just barely competent. For me, the bow was only a means to help supplement my own inadequacies.” He replied, catching sight of a guard approaching them from the camp. “One can’t very well fill their stomach if one does not know how to hunt, and hunting for your meal is just easier done with a bow, than it is with a sword.”
“That- is true.” Koran’s voice followed, sounding chipper and less rigid. “I must say though… to consider such things at your age, milord is quite wise. I wish I had been as proactive and diligent when I was younger.”
“Wise, huh?” He affably retorted, pushing a few of the foolish decisions he had already made into the forefront of his thoughts.
There was the decision to leave Zorin’s and all its resources and connections behind. Discarding Lord Gelrin’s favor, while incurring conflict with the Vatengers and allowing it to devolve into something he would have to personally address again, once he returned. Then leaving his family behind for his own selfish pursuits without even considering that Tal’hrus might attack Ferrent. Finally, there was also everything else that he did not want to remember.
“There is no doubt about it.” Koran’s voice declared from behind, completely oblivious to his thoughts. “Not to mention, the air about milord is also very different from that of others. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you before.”
“Different? How so?” He wondered.
“It- it comes and goes, but sometimes… sometimes it feels like milord is a completely different person.” Koran spoke, his voice sounding unsure like it was second-guessing itself, “Looking at milord right now, it is not as apparent, but for the past few days, there were times where milord felt completely unapproachable. Like- like a… ah-” As if catching onto his own tone and manners, Koran quickly ceased his words as the other guard drew closer, “My apologies, sire. I forget myself sometimes.”
With a wry smile on his face, Kaidus looked back at the man. “Like a monster?” He voiced, calmly finishing the man’s sentence.
“Like someone of actual status.” Koran swiftly amended, “One with such prestigious pedigree, that you would never expect to find them in such a place as this. The way you carry yourself, your mannerism, the odd tranquility that seem to always surround you…” Taken aback by his own words, “My apologies. I did not intend to compare milord with the likes of us.”
“That… is quite the pedestal you have placed me upon. But fortunately for all of us, you’re quite mistaken about a few things. You spoke of my pedigree. Well, my father was a mere mercenary who became a guard. My mother on the other hand, was simply… for lack of a better term, a good loving wife and mother. A place like this… one filled with those who are struggling to survive is exactly where I belong, so please do me a favor and continue as you were.” He corrected, hoping to dispel the man’s uneasiness.
“I- yes, milord. If that is your wish, then I shall try.” Koran replied, returning an embarrassed smile as footsteps rushed toward them.
“Sir! Please let me help you with that!”
Maneuvering before him, the guard who had just arrived quickly took the boards off his hands before he could protest.
“Thank you?” Looking at the guard, he had seen the blonde youth before. Appearing to be barely a year or two older than himself, the boy was the messenger from the previous morning. “You are…”
“Doyle at your service, milord!” The young guard jovially replied, before leading them into the camp.
“I am Kaidus. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.” The youth grinned back, slowing down to walk beside him. “Captain’s told me about you. Also, I don’t know if you remember, but we’ve actually seen each other before!”
“Oh?” Giving the youth a curious glance, “I must apologize then, for I do not recall your face.” He awkwardly replied, unsure what to make of the sudden situation.
“It’s fine. I was merely a part of the crowd back then.” Like a dog with his bone, the youth continued to grin widely.
“On the road that day. When you helped the Countess’ man escape.”
Remembering the group of terrified villagers surrounding a lone man, “You were there too?”
“Sure was. Got a scolding from me ma for joining the chase, but- right! You should have also met me ma the other day!”
“Your mother is…” He said in confusion, taking a moment to reassess the youth’s overly friendly attitude.
“Short curly brown hair, built like a stump but fierce as a bear, and twice as ferocious. Ring any bells?” The young guard snarked.
“Don’t mock your mother, Doyle. She’s a good woman.” Koran loudly reprimanded from behind. “This boy’s mother is Ms. Ebernny, sire. She was the one who took care of your group when we first got here.”
“Ah, so it’s her.” He quickly recalled the woman who had been worried for Saadra upon their encounter at the stream.
“Yep. That’s her. Nosy and a busybody.” Doyle stated proudly.
“Looks like I owe your mother my gratitude then.”
With another hearty grin on his face, “You don’t owe anyone anything. You’ve already done more than enough!” The young guard exclaimed.
“Milord.” Doyle stopped walking, “That was you yesterday, wasn’t it? That odd feeling. Like an invisible wind burning throughout everyone in camp.” Doyle stated, his tone solemn but overflowing with curious sincerity.
Seeing the look in the young man’s eyes, “Yes. It was.” He replied, unable to hide a smile.
“Thank you!” Doyle instantly lowered his head. “Thank you…”
“Raise your head. There is no need to-”
“There is.” With a swift rebuttal and keeping his head down, “My ma… she’s been having coughing fits. She tries to hide it, but there were a few times where it got so bad that she even threw up blood.” The youth somberly continued, keeping his body bent as the joy in his voice fluctuated.
“Doyle… if that’s the case, why didn’t you or your ma tell anyone?” Koran interjected.
“Ma doesn’t want people to worry. Said everyone is already struggling, so she’s been acting like her usual and strong self. But… deep down, I knew she was hurting an’ scared.” The boy paused painfully, “It was why I fought so hard to join the guards. I was hoping she’d get better with my rations, but she wasn’t.”
“That…” Koran attempted to say something, yet at a loss for words, quickly quieted himself.
“But it’s not a problem no more. The fits completely disappeared yesterday along with everyone else’s ailments. Thank you, milord!” As quickly as it came, the sullenness in Doyle’s voice had already disappeared, replaced by a jubilant tone.
Kaidus quietly watched young man before him.
He had not done what he did for the sake of appreciation, but hearing the relief in those words and the joy within them, it had been worth the time and energy expended.
“I am glad that your mother is feeling better.” He calmly replied, feeling his smile widening.
The spells, while a small gesture of kindness, was more a chance to test his own abilities. In that, they had been gifts freely given without any expectations. A simple boon, for those who had been through so much with so little.
Whether the people affected knew who had helped them or not, such things had been irrelevant.
Straightening himself up, “Milord.” Doyle spoke, eyes filled with conviction and determination, “I heard from the captain that he had pledged himself to you. To follow you as your arms and legs.”
His smile and positive assessment of the filial boy instantly disappeared alongside a sigh. “No.”
Proceeding to kneel down in the mud, “I am unlearned, but- hah?” Face twisting in confusion, Doyle looked up. “W-what did you say?”
Seeing the boy’s foolish action, “I said no.” He repeated.
“Wait, but I- you didn’t even—”
“Nope. Not happening.” Not wanting to bother, he quickly stepped past the boy.
Ignoring the pointless pleading, “Koran.” He called out, addressing the guard behind him. “Bring our friend with you and deliver those boards to the carpenters. While you’re at it, relay my earlier message to them. I will be returning first.” He instructed without giving them a second glance.
“Yessir.” A compliant affirmation came from the guard.
“Wait, Koran. Gah- wha- what’re you doing! Ah!? Wait! Milord, please! Just hear me out!” The youth protested as Koran proceeded to shuffle them both away.
Waving dismissively without looking back, “Get that foolish notion out of your mind, and take care of your mother.” He replied before hurrying away.
Muffled laughter exploded beside him as they were out of earshot of everyone.
“What an amusing human.” Ulamara remarked, whispering softly as her joyful presence flickered before him.
“What does he mean by pledge? Humans can’t bind other humans, right? How silly.” Elamara pondered curiously from his left. After a silent moment, “Right?” She echoed.
Did everyone have a good Christmas and New Year?
Well, here’s to hoping that 2021 will be even better!
As always, thank you for reading, and please leave any comments or corrections down below. Have a good day, everyone!