B3 Chapter 21 – Honored One

Drawing her eyes away from Zirus who was whimpering and slithering anxiously around the dim room, Elamara quietly looked down at herself.
Unlike the restless serpent, she had not moved a single step from her place atop the small pile of fur hides within the back corner of the room.

“Shaaaaara!”
Zirus hissed loudly and she quickly looked up, only to see it following the frustrated hiss with a defeated whimper. Slithering around in circular motions somberly, the pitch-black serpent eventually gave up and slowly vanished into a corner of the room.

Looking at the pitiful beast all coiled up in its own corner away from her, as much as she wanted to comfort it, she could not. Angling her eyes upward to the ceiling, Elamara quietly threw herself back, burying her body into the softness of the thick fur beneath.

A cocoon of pure white flash before her eyes within the dull room, followed by an unending storm.
‘The Light of The First Dawns… The Undying Breath of The World.’
The mana within her core rippled throughout her body again as her memories recalled the two elementals.
“Honored one…” She quietly echoed Ulamara’s words, seeing that her worries and suspicions ever since coming into contact with the human was now nowhere to be found.

Closing her eyes, the two elemental’s orb forms began manifesting within her mind and just like when they were before her, she could feel her core expanding with exhilaration.
Standing before their presences, as a spirit herself, her own instincts had told her that they were no mere elementals.
Existing even above the world’s natural order, they were unfettered by the laws of nature.
Extraordinary entities, capable of reshaping the world to their own whims and desires. Parts of Lovis itself, made whole and given will.
And yet, as majestic as they were, both had lowered themselves to the human boy as if servants, taking on the human’s will instead.

Placing a hand above her core, “Rhultal Vox Treval AnDargus.” She curiously spoke the name aloud like she had done a few days ago, “Last of the An’Daralites and Heir to the Silver Plains of AnDarg.” Though still unable to understand what any of it meant, her core was now shuddering with each word.

‘Search the mountains.’ A voice slowly meandered into her thoughts, repeating itself to her mind, ‘Let me know immediately if you find anything of note.’ Though the simple command was laxed and unworthy of note, the proud wind had roared throughout the tent, soaring dutifully into the sky like that of an eager phraeling.

‘Just who are you?’ She wondered, envisioning the human’s face, “No… what are you?” She questioned with a whisper, as her thoughts moved onto that of her own sister.

The frail sister, who had been unable to even muster the lowest of magics and had always required aid in everything.
The helpless sister, whom she had been protecting all their life.
The insufferable twin, whom their parents had cherished more than anything or anyone else in the world.
That weak sister, had suddenly become one with magic itself, surpassing even her own abilities and that of their parents.

“Ulamara…” Opening her eyes to stare up at the ceiling, the events of that auspicious day and night returned to her. The reasons why her sister had been so willful, so adamant about staying beside the human, it had all become clear. It was like her sister had already known then, what she herself was only beginning to discover.
“How did you know?” She questioned.
Turning onto her side, she quietly ran her left arm along the softness of the fur bed, moving through the fine fibers as if her fingers were gliding through the air.
A smile emerged onto her face as the images of Ulamara flying freely and cheerfully beside her surged into her thoughts.
Yet as quickly as it came, she could feel that very same smile fading as a torrential and seemingly endless outpouring of mana obstructed her view, flowing alongside the visions of Ulamara’s enamored and joyful visage.

“Shaaakaaa!”

A piercing hiss instantly pulled her out of her uneasy thoughts, and she quickly sat up. Looking over to where the hissing came from, Zirus had already slithered out from its corner and was now growling, staring through the sheet of patched-up cloth that separated the room from the rest of the large tent.

“W-what is it?” She meekly questioned as the sensation of her thoughts continued to prevail within her mind.

“Krurraaa!” The black serpent yelped again, and began beating its wings as two sets of footsteps approached the tent.

“…it’s not wine, but it should help.”
Deep but not too low with a stringent and formal tone, a distinct voice came through from the outside.

“I was hoping, but judging by the circumstances, I guess it was asking for too much. That’ll have to do.” Sounding sharper and chipper than the previous, another distinct voice followed as the flap to the tent was lifted.

The black serpent instantly leapt upward and, “Shaaaaarak! Kruaaaa!” Sent a howling roar into the sheet of cloth before it, ripping the fabric off its wooden sidebar while at the same time, blowing away the shabby table and chairs in its path.

She saw as the blonde man who had opened the tent’s flap halted in curious alarm.
“Zirus, no!” Bracing his body for impact, the second man, the one who had been introduced as Vick shouted and quickly stepped in to block the entranceway.

Shooting through the air like a dark bolt, Zirus swerved aside and deftly evaded the man’s grasping hands before bursting through the door.

“Zirus!” The man named Vick shouted once more, while the blonde man who had been introduced as Biran stepped into the tent with a look of curious astonishment on his face. Picking up one of the chairs and holding it upright, the man turned and looked over in her direction. 

Surprised by the human’s gaze, she hurriedly stood up. Taking in a quick breath to calm herself down, she willed the mana within her core outward and swiftly wrapped herself with it before hastily following Zirus.

 

 

The tearful wails of a child entered his ears and slowing his steps, Kaidus turned, spotting a young boy around three years of age standing a few good paces behind them.
Hands and knees covered in mud as if he had just fallen onto the ground, the boy was crying loudly while a girl of no more than six or seven attempted to help console him. Those passing by glanced at the two, but troubled with their own struggles, none were stopping to help.
A smile slowly crept upon him as he watched the young girl begrudgingly brushing away the clumps of mud on the boy’s pants, while at the same, time scolding the boy for being reckless.

“Kaidus?”

Narissa called to him from a few steps ahead, but without taking heed of her voice, he found himself strolling back toward the two as Ulamara zipped curiously alongside him.

Without a care for her own cleanliness, the young girl quickly rubbed the mud on her hands away and tenderly patted the young boy’s head before taking one of his hands into her own.

It was an act of siblings lovingly caring for one another even amidst obvious frustrations, and he had missed it much. Though he was now the eldest, the affection of an older brother was something that he had never forgotten.
“Are you both alright?” He questioned as his steps brought him closer to them.

“Hn?” The young girl turned up to look at him as her brother continued to sob inconsolably.

“Is your brother hurt?” He queried, stopping before he got too close.

“Hurt?” She replied and gave him a curious stare, “Jaime was running and he fell down. Who are you?” She briefly explained before asking him for his own identity.

Hearing how similar her blunt reply was to that of Anise’s when she was younger, he could not help but smile. “I’m a friend.” Squatting down, he lowered himself to the boy’s eye level. “It’s alright. It’s just a little mud.”

“I told Jaime not to run, but he wouldn’t listen, and now mother is going to be mad.” The girl began, speaking quickly and harshly, “Mother yelled at him for getting his clothes dirty already. She just washed them yesterday, but Jaime got it all dirty again. Mother will be irate for sure.”

At his sister’s words, the boy’s cries only grew louder.

Looking at the young girl who was still holding onto her brother’s hand all the while reprimanding the boy, “Irate, huh?” He repeated, amused that she would even know such a word. “We can’t have that now, can we?”

“No, but Jaime is all dirty and I don’t know how to wash his clothes. I’m still small!” The young girl exclaimed, looking at him as if he was daft.

“Kahahahah!” Narissa’s boisterous laughter exploded from behind him.

Barely restraining his own, “He’ll be alright. Here, look.” Bringing both his hands to the little boy’s knees, he covered the top part where the mud stains began and slowly lowered his hands, willing the dirt down alongside them.

“Huh? Jaime, look! Look!” Words filled with surprise came from the girl as if she had never seen magic before.

Bringing his hands all the way down to the boy’s feet, he pressed his hands into the ground, pretending to push the mud that he had taken from the child’s pants into the earth. “There. All gone.” Lifting his hands up, he flipped them to reveal his empty palms, “See?”

“What!??” The girl cried out again. Taking a hold of his hands, she curiously flipped them over and over, searching for any traces of dirt. “But how?”

Returning a smile, he placed a finger up to his mouth as if it was a secret and stood up, “That should be good, right? Your mother will not be angry with him anymore?”

“Un! His pants are clean again!” There was a wide teething grin on the young girl’s face.

With tears still in his eyes, the young boy looked down at himself and slowly ceased his sniveling.

“Make sure to watch yours steps from now on, okay?” With another smile at the boy, Kaidus turned around, only to see Ulamara grinning at him.

“You’re pretty good with kids.” Narissa who had followed behind them remarked with one side of her mouth already curving upward into a teasing smile.

“I have a younger sister and a younger brother at home.” He replied, dismissing her childish look of amusement.

“Oh?” The Kovus woman’s half smile bloomed into a grin, “I see… so there are still two more little lords out there.”

“Little lords?” He repeated.

“No?” Narissa lifted one side of her brows, “It’s what some of the guards have been calling you. Well, some of the ones from the Esperen camp anyways.”

Recalling that morning after running into them along with how Biran has been addressing him, “How foolish…” He voiced and attempted to walk away.
‘It’s not foolish at all!’

Ulamara’s voice retorted cheerfully within his mind, yet it was something else that had prompted him to halt his steps.

“Hands! … Hands!”
A small voice came from behind, and he looked to see that the young boy had followed him and was holding up both arms.
“Dirty.” The child added, looking up with pleading eyes.

With another smile, he lowered his right hand toward the boy’s own.
*Snap!*
The dirt on the child’s arms immediately clumped together and rolled off like large grains of sands, revealing the boy’s bare and spotless hands beneath.
“Better?” He asked, putting his hand onto the boy’s head and rubbing it playfully.

“Hihihih!” His difficulties all but forgotten, “Alma, look!” The boy began waving his hands at his sister.

“Go on, now. Back to your mother.” Ushering the siblings away, the young girl took hold of her brother’s hand again and with another bright smile, carefully led the boy away.
Taking his eyes away from the two, he turned his attention toward the direction of the command tent and scanned the air.

“How old are your siblings anyways?” Narissa questioned, stepping up beside.

“My sister’s name day came toward the end of Fulta, so she should be nine now. My younger brother just recently turned one.”

“Nine and one? That… that’s a pretty big gap.” Having brusquely stated her thoughts, “Ah, sorry. That was inconsiderate of me.” Narissa quickly lowered herself apologetically.

“It’s fine. My parents are still young. It is what it is.” Without minding her comment or taking his eyes off the sky, he calmly stretched his left arm into the air.  

“Hm? What are you doing?” Another question.

“Zirus has decided to join us.”

“Eh?”

At Narissa’s confusion, “Shaaaaa!” A shrill hiss quickly silenced the throngs of indecipherable commotions around them.

Instantly strengthening his arm as the youngling homed in on his position, Zirus skillfully caught itself on his wrist and quickly wrapped its tail around his arm. Skillfully tucking its wings away as its momentum came to a halt, “Kaaasharra!” Zirus snarled, pouting aggrievedly back at him. 
“Haa… what am I going to do with you?” He grumbled back.

“Saaaahaaak!” The youngling replied sharply and swiftly lessened its grip as it slithered onto his shoulders.

“Where is Elamara?” He questioned, ignoring the dozens of eyes that were already looking in their direction.

“Kaaaruak!” Snapping loudly, the young hvaral arched its head back toward the direction of the command tent.
In the air, a cluster of mana wrapped in light was hurrying toward them as well.

“Elamara?”

Narissa’s troubled voice entered his ears and he turned to see her staring in the same direction. “What was that?” Kaidus replied back, pretending he didn’t hear her.

“N-no, nothing. Never mind.” Returning her eyes back onto the youngling, “… Did… did Zirus get bigger, or am I imagining it?”

Glancing aside at the serpent, it turned its head away and snapped at Narissa before slithering back to reposition and coil itself around his left arm.

“He… he looks bigger than the last time I saw him.”

“I would not be surprised. He has already grown a few handspans longer compared to when I first met him.” Lifting the beast, “Twice as heavy too.”

“Kruuuur!” The comment easily garnered a defiant growl.

“That’s what you get for feasting like a king while I was away. Soon I won’t be able to carry you anymore. Is that what you want?”

“Ka- hasss!” Zirus retorted and quickly unfolded its large translucent wings. Leaping off his arm, it caught the air and swirled upward, “Ksaaa! Kaasaahh!” Keeping itself afloat with powerful wingbeats, the young hvaral proudly hissed back down at them as if saying that it can carry itself.

All around, people had already ceased their endless toils and were watching the young drakall intently as even more gathered. His own guard was also frozen and gazing at Zirus like a statue.

“You’re making a scene. Come down right now.” Projecting his voice toward the youngling, he raised his left hand again and it slowly descended, settling back along his arm. “And this, is why I did not want to bring you along.”

Flicking its tongue toward the onlookers as if noticing them for the first time, “Kuuuruuruuur…” The young serpent purred meekly and lowered its head.

‘Hehehe.’ A jubilant laughter entered his thoughts, and he turned to see Ulamara giggling. ‘It doesn’t want to leave you either.’ She added, grinning brightly.

“The both of you…” Powerful as they are, at times they were no different than that of children. Troublesome, curious, and overwhelmingly endearing children.
Ulamara especially, had refused to stay behind in the command tent after hearing that they would have to wait for him again.
With Zirus having joined them as well, “Alright then. Let’s all go together.” He could not help but relent against their unified voices.
Giving Elamara who had caught up a nod of appreciation for having selflessly volunteered to stay behind with Zirus, he shouldered the youngling and continued trekking northward.

A few eyes turned in their direction as they entered the circle of tents and shelters that had been set up for the girls.
Upon spotting Zirus wrapped around his shoulders, two young boys who had been tossing rocks into a ring of sticks on the ground immediately stopped what they were doing and ran toward the tents.

“Come here!” Narissa’s playful voice erupted through the area, “Come look at it! I told you it was real!” She shouted, grinning at the two.

“Narissa? Can you-”
One of the older girls who was tending to the fire at the center of the camp curiously called out. Upon catching sight of him, she quickly stood up and brushed her skirt and blouse before curtsying modestly toward him.

With a gracious nod in return, he looked to the others who had taken notice of their arrival as well.

Two girls, perhaps around Saadra’s age or a little older had stopped washing the pile of dishes before them and were standing. Bowing politely in unison, they wordlessly welcomed him.
Hanging clothes to dry on a wooden rack near the back, Arleen, one of the elders within the group respectfully lowered her head before continuing her chores.
From the tents, a handful of the younger girls were curiously peeking out in their direction.

“Where is everyone?” He questioned as he looked around.
Along with the Ridales sisters, at least half of the group were nowhere to be seen.

“Probably fetching water. The little ones in there did firewood earlier. Come.” Narissa replied, walking ahead.

From where they were watching, the girls began coming out of the shelters one after another. Wearing mismatched and ragged clothes that were beginning to tear and fray, at a single glance, he could easily see the trouble and ordeals that they had overcome. With a smile, he nodded back to them and followed Narissa.

“Juliana. Ashlyn. Where’s Emila?” Narissa questioned, asking the two who were doing the dishes.

With fair dark brown hair, a comely appearance, and light gray eyes befitting her name, “She’s resting.” The girl called Ashlyn quickly answered.

“Is… is something the matter?” The other girl, Juliana, inquisitively interjected.
Another lovely young lady, she had covered the left side of her face with her long blonde hair as if hiding something.

“No, everything is fine.” With a reassuring smile, Narissa quickened her steps and hurried toward one of the tents.

Having been left behind with the guard whom Biran had assigned to him, “What was your name again?” He questioned, looking to the man. 

Clean shaven and appearing around Biran’s age, the guard was a head taller than the knight himself. Lanky with an awkwardly delicate frame, the man’s steps were quite light and judging by his posture and the way he moved, there was some skill within him.

The man lowered his head, “I am Koran, Sire.” A deep baritone unfitting for someone so slim came out of the man’s mouth.

Swallowing a bothersome sigh at hearing the man emulating Biran, “There’s no need for such formalities. Please raise your head.”  

“Yes, Sire.” Straightened himself out, “How may I be of service?” The man questioned, keeping upright and proper.

‘Hehehehe!’ An amused giggle came from Ulamara again.

Ignoring the pleased expression on the young phrae’s face, “Find a spot and keep an eye out. There’s no need to follow me around so closely in here.” He quickly instructed.

“Yessir.” With another deep bow, the man made his way back to the opening where they had entered the circle of tents.

Fixing his gaze, Kaidus turned to the two girls who were standing a few steps away and watching him.

““My lord.””
Both of the girls curtsied carefully upon meeting his eyes and hastily lowered their heads.

Stepping toward them, “I am no lord and you need not call me as such, so please raise your heads.”

“But- …” The girl named Juliana attempted to protest, but quickly held back her words.
As if she were in the same line of thoughts, “Many are saying you are. And even if you are not, you are our savior.” Ashlyn quickly complemented.

Seeing that they would not raise their heads, he stepped closer and lowered his hand toward Juliana’s face.
Her body trembled, but did not recoil as he brushed aside her hair, revealing a large bruise between her left ear and left eye. The swelling had receded somewhat, but a bump could still be seen even with the cover of the bruise.
He knew who they were. He had heard about their ordeals already and seeing it for himself, he could not help as a surge of anger began to tightly coiled itself around his chest. “You have both suffered much… please forgive me.” He solemnly apologized, seeing the girl continue to tremble as silent tears began to roll down her face.

“I- I was able to get away with minor scratches, but Emila and Juliana… they…” Ashlyn spoke, her voice growing quieter and more painful with each word.

“Rest assured… nothing will happen to you or any of your sisters while I’m here.” Cupping the blonde girl’s face with his hand, he gently raised Juliana’s head.
Sniffling in silent anguish, the girl was biting against her lips while trying to hold back her tears.
With his hand, he carefully wiped away a string of tears and forced a smile as the pitiful girl’s forlorn eyes lifted themselves to look up at him.
“Such loveliness has no need for tears of sadness, don’t you think?” He spoke, and her mouth quavered, “Can you close your eyes for me?” He beckoned, and she wordlessly complied.

Infusing his mana into the girl, the pain that had been covered up by her clothes easily revealed themselves before him.
There was a long abrasion along her right arm denoting a forceful fall, probably while she was running. An injury on her right shoulder from the fall. A second bruise on her forearm that could only have occurred from being grasped and handled too roughly. And lastly, numerous scrapes and scratches on her knees as if she had been begging while kneeling atop a layer of rocks.

“Do not be afraid, for the pain will last but an instant.” He warned, and willed the mana within her body to heal and rejuvenate her. 

“Uhgk!” A groan of pain came from the girl as soon as it began, and he calmly pulled his hand away as she gasped loudly before slowly falling to her knees.
“J-Juliana?!” Standing beside her, Ashlyn exclaimed fearfully and quickly took hold of her friend. “Juli? Juli?!”

“A-Ash?” *Cough!* *Cough!* “Wh-what happened to me?” With a confused voice, Juliana slowly opened her eyes as if having awoken from a deep slumber.

“You- I- I don’t-” Confused and lost for words, Ashlyn’s eyes looked up to him, seeking answers.

“There is nothing to fear.” He reassured the panicked girl before returning his focus to Juliana. “How do you feel?”

“I… I don’t know…” Touching her arms and face, Juliana’s eyes widened.
 
“Juli… you… your bruise.” Ashlyn voiced, and quickly swept aside her friend’s hair for a better look. The dark bruise was nowhere to be seen. “Did… did you do that?” She questioned, staring back up.

“Again, forgive me for not being there.” Kaidus replied and gave them both an apologetic bow before lifting his head and taking a step back. “I must see to Emila now, but if there is anything wrong or you feel anything out of place, please do not hesitate to come find me.” With another nod to the two, he turned toward the direction that Narissa had gone.

‘You… what are you?!’ A stunned yet extremely curious voice rang out through his thoughts and Elamara hurried before him, stopping in his path. ‘What was- what was that magic?!’ She exclaimed loudly within his mind as if mystified.

‘I told you already. He is our Honored One!’ Ulamara’s exultant voice resounded through his head after her sister’s, and the young phrae lightly descended to hover beside him. ‘Right?’ She questioned, unable to hide her overflowing emotions and the grin on her face.

 

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Thank you all for waiting, and I hope you all enjoyed the chapter!

Sorry if I droned on a little longer than expected for these past few chapters, but I felt this part of the story needed closure. With this, the reunions are over and with things already set in motion, I implore you all to please look forward to what comes next. 

To Everyone who randomly decided to search for my story again and found themselves here, Welcome Back!
Take your time to catch up, and thank you for giving FC another chance. 

As always, thank you for reading and thank you all for your support. 

Sincerely, 
Za1d3

B3 Chapter 20 – Of Mettle and Mind

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.

“Yes.”

“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.
“Wha-”

“Sorry, but we were told not to let anyone in.” Aemes swiftly apologized.

“Even me?”

“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.

“Inareh.”

“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.”

“Understood, Master.”

“And Inareh.”
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.

“Narissa?”

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?”  

B3 Chapter 19 – Mired Fates

Ulamara hurried forth to the center of the arena as the atmosphere became rife with shock and confusion.
With a proud grin on her face and wrapped in a coat of mana that seamlessly warped the light around her body, she descended silently beside her honored one. ‘Is it over?’ She curiously questioned, keeping her awe and glee from seeping through.

The honored one turned to look at her and with welcoming eyes, ‘It is.’ He answered, inserting his voice directly into her thoughts.

Turning her gaze downward to the human who was convulsing painfully on the ground, with an expression full of agony, the golden-haired man was lying on his side and clutching tightly onto his torso. She looked to the other, and the second man was curled up like a caterpillar with their face in the ground, and their hands pressing upward onto their chest like it was going to burst.

Though she did not know which foolish reason could have brought about such a heated confrontation between the two humans, she had understood why the honored one had intervened. And watching them squirm, ‘Will they be okay?’ She asked, tilting her head inquisitively as the two began howling, having finally caught their breaths.

‘They will be.’ The honored one warmly replied, appearing to be amused by her words.
And as the sound of his voice slowly and vigorously vibrated through her thoughts, a wave of mana instantly swelled upward around them.

Recognizing that his powerful will was taking form, Ulamara quickly stilled herself as a torrent of translucent mana surged together, coalescing into hundreds of invisible strands.
Not daring to look away lest she missed the spectacle, she continued to observe as the mana threads weaved through the air, fraying and vanishing into the two men like a gust of wind.

Immediately, the coarse gasps from the two humans lessened as their groans ceased. Their postures also became more laxed and within the span of a single breath after mellowing, the humans were both breathing normally again, having been relieved of their suffering.

Taking in the excess mana that was still permeating through the air, she shuddered at the majestic sight as an irrepressible grin made its course across her lips.
She had glimpsed it within the fragments of his memories and had felt it while in an unconscious state, but to witness the manifestation of the powerful rejuvenation magic with her own eyes, it had only proved to reinforce the sense of pride within herself, reaffirming her choices.

“Get up. Both of you.”
Sounding disappointed, the voice command came out like a serene wave and washed over her, flowing with the sole purpose of addressing the two who were now lying silently on the ground.

Suddenly soothed and flushed with pride once more, ‘Great Mother…’ Ulamara voiced in silence as she took in the glory of his presence. ‘Was this how you felt?’ She wondered, watching quietly as blurred visions that had been lying dormant within her mind slowly began to unravel. ‘Was this what you wanted?’ And she questioned, as memories filled with tears and regrets suddenly blossomed into life before her eyes.

‘I’m so sorry! I-…’
Clear as day, words and emotions reverberated forth as the impossible memories began rooting themselves, melding into her thoughts like they were her own.
‘F-forgive me…’
She watched again as the vision discarded its own destiny and wishes, forsaking them in order to safeguard the fate of phrae kind.
‘Please… please stay safe…’
She listened as it begged in anguish, knowing the crushing magnitude of such a betrayal.
‘O’ Tranquiline one…”
And she shrunk into darkness as it wept, having understood the consequences of its own fickle and worthless resolve.

Whether an errant fabrication of the past or a frayed thread upon the unrelenting tapestry of time, the sense of loss and infinite pain of loneliness within the memories continued to cycle before her eyes.
And, “Forgive me…” She quietly echoed, softly voicing the vision’s sentiments as they overwhelmed her, “Please forgive me…”

‘Ulamara.’ A voice as clear as morning dew, its warmth called out to her. ‘Is something wrong?’ Inquisitive but gentle, in a single breath, it culled through the amalgam of intangible thoughts in her mind, dispersing them like smoke.

And suddenly clear of mind with her own sense of self once again, ‘H-huh?’ She wordlessly managed to eke out, unsure as to what it was that just happened.

‘You look troubled. Is something wrong?’ He repeated.

‘I…’ Staring into the honored one’s piercing gaze, ‘No… I’m fine.’ She calmly answered, feeling her core vibrating tensely as the silvery visage of a man wrought with indescribable guilt peered back at her.

‘You sure?’

Mustering her own resolve, the grin that had waned upon the odd memory’s abrupt intrusion instantly resurfaced upon her lips, ‘I- I was just thinking… how fortunate I am.’ She replied, returning an earnest smile.

‘Fortunate?’
A flash of confusion came through from the honored one.

‘Yes.’ And she gleefully answered, fortifying her words.

‘Is that so.’ The honored one stated and with an understanding smile, ceased his inquiry before turning his attention toward the two men who had sat up and were now examining themselves.

Unable to take her eyes of his sharp gentle gaze and kindly smile, she could do naught, but watch as a sense of elation began overtaking the intensity of her core.

‘Ulamara.’

‘Y-yes?’ She quickly responded, feeling her chest thrumming anxiously.

‘I will be done here soon. You should return to your sister and Zirus first.’

‘Ah? What about you?’ Taken aback by his words, she hastily thought back, unwilling to leave his side if only for a moment.

‘There’s no need to worry. I will join you all soon.’

‘But-’

‘Go on. Go and let Elamara know that I will be following behind with these two.’ A thoughtful smile veered itself briefly across his face before vanishing.

Glancing over to the aforementioned humans, ‘Then…’ The meaning of his words struck her and though the thought of leaving him tore at her core, ‘Then we will be waiting.’ She obediently nodded and without waiting for another word, hurried away.

Instead of leaving the area, she halted herself at a distance and turned to look back. And Just like what she had glimpsed within her transient hallucinations, her core began to ache.  

In the arena.
Though surrounded by dozens of his kind, the honored one was standing alone.
Even after the display of his strength, instead of celebrating his prowess, the circle of spectators had only grown wider and more distant.

It was something that she had been aware of ever since their meeting, but she had not expected it so soon.
The truth that had existed ever since the inception of time.
The fate of those who stood upon the precipice of the world, unparalleled and unchallenged.

Yet. Seeing his lonesome figure, the sense of anguish and helplessness that she had felt prior came crashing back like a tidal wave.
Clutching a fist to her chest, “Venerable ancestor…” She quietly grieved as the Great Mother’s regrets and desires became all too apparent.
“Your will and your wishes…” She solemnly spoke, feeling the pain within her chest solidifying, “I will fulfill them.” Ulamara vowed.

 

***

 

Uninterested in the stranglehold that had silenced the audience’s previous clamoring, Kaidus calmly strolled over to the blonde knight.
“How are you feeling?” He questioned as he approached the man.

“M-my Lord?” Still rubbing his side and back, Biran slowly and carefully turned to look up at him. “What- what happened to me?”
Face filled with a curious uncertainty, Biran continued to press at where he had been struck, as if unable to believe his body.

“What brought this on?” Not hiding his displeasure, Kaidus coldly glared down at the knight.

“My apologies, Sire.” Biran quickly lowered his head and hastily shifted himself into a kneeling position, “Due to my inadequacies, I had allowed Sir Vick’s provocations to get to me. It… it will not happen again.”

“…” Stepping before the knight, with a quick visual scan, he could see that the knight’s heightened senses which naturally came with the gift of Vox was indeed no longer flaring. Any sort of desire to fight had also been completely extinguished as well.
“… See to it that it does not.” He calmly ordered.

“Yes, Sire.” The knight quickly acknowledged once more and lowered his head even further onto the ground.

Turning away from Biran, he focused his attention to the second culprit who was standing up, “What were you thinking?”

“It’s… it’s not what you think.” A nervous answer, Vick too, was rubbing his chest as if still searching for the pain within, “It was just a… a friendly match.”

“A friendly match?” Echoing the excuse, he easily recalled the bloodthirsty anticipation that the mercenary had been exerting.
On one side, was a reckless sell-sword with too much pride in themself.
On the other, an unwary blade who did not understand his own sharpness.
“There will be no more ‘friendly’ matches between the two of you. Especially in the state you were both in.” He added, speaking clearly and firmly so that no misunderstandings could be made.

“S-state? What does that mean?” Though shaken, there was genuine curiosity within Vick’s words.

Returning an unwavering gaze to the mercenary, “It means you need to pick your fights better. Or be prepared to lose a limb.”

A glint of fear flashed within Vick’s eyes as their gazes met, and Vick quickly turned his head, “R-right…”

Hearing the disheartened but instantaneous concession. “Great. Now come. We’ve a few matters to discuss and this is not the place for such conversations.” Turning back around to Biran who had yet to lift their head, “Captain.”

“My Lord?” The knight answered, not moving a muscle.

“Have someone deliver a message to Lord Shradech for me. Tell him that I wish to impose upon his grace whenever possible, and that I bring good tidings. After you have done so, you will join Vick and myself within your quarters.”

Walking in silence with Vick trekking behind him, Kaidus carefully took in the familiar atmosphere.

Beyond the warm gusts that seem to be flowing listlessly from every direction toward him, it was very reminiscent of what he had seen before.
The disorderly situation of various families living closely alongside one another was still continuing in relative peace, even with the lack of privacy.
Boisterous children ran about as they tend to do, laughing and playing, having escaped the watchful eyes of their guardians.
Men and women, children and adults. Even without guards watching over them, many had understood their dire situation and were moving about, doing their own tasks while being mindful of one another.
Theirs was a true fight for survival. Yet the essence of civility that the group had garnered, had remained somewhat unchanged.

Stepping off the narrow dirt path to allow for an elderly man and his entourage to pass, he glanced back to Vick whose expression had been nothing but troubled ever since they left the training grounds.

“W-what?” A tense question came from the mercenary.

Returning a cordial smile, “You all did a great job at keeping the peace.” He calmly replied in an attempt to quell the man’s uneasiness.

“Wasn’t my doing.” And quickly shrugging off his compliment, Vick turned to survey those around them.

“I heard from Saadra.” He spoke, continuing forward after the group had passed, “Thank you for looking after everyone. And sorry if I went a little overboard back there.”

“S-sorry? You’re sorry?” Vick’s voice faltered for an instant, “I thought I was going to die!” Before snarling back anxiously.

“Like I said. I’ve been out of practice.”

“My ass you are!” A swift retort filled with an insurmountable quantity of doubt.

“Perhaps not, but be that as it may, someone needed to stop the two of you.” He coldly countered and ceased his steps, “Or was I mistaking your bloodlust for something else?” He questioned, glaring back at Vick.
Having halted as well, he caught the slightest twitch of defiance from the mercenary, but no voice came out to refute his words.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s all your fault. You might have been the one to instigate it, but the captain himself was ready and eager as well.”

“Then… why stop us?”

“Why?” Kaidus replied, resuming his steps, “Because you were about to lose more than your pride.”
Recalling their brief exchanges, whether a mage or a swordsman, one with the gift of Vox was not someone to be trifled with. And even though he is lacking, the knight was definitely becoming more aware of his newfound strength.

“S-sir! You’re back!”
Distraught and frightened, a guard rushed over to them as they appeared within sight of the command tent.
Being one of the few who had seen Zirus earlier, he had tasked the man to stand watch while he sought out the captain.

“Did something happen?” Kaidus asked, looking ahead.
The others were still waiting inside as he had bade them to do. Yet it was not just the twins or the youngling now, as Zion had joined them as well.

“No! Nothing happened! D-did you manage to find the captain, sir?” The guard replied and stammered upon catching sight of Vick.

“He should be returning soon. Thank you for your assistance.”

“No- no! It was my pleasure!” With a swift response, the man submissively and graciously lowered his head.

“Then you are free to return to your duties. Vick and I will wait inside for Captain Biran.” Walking past the guard, he could see that man’s face had turned a shade whiter.

“Yessir. S-Sir Vick.” With compliance and a courteous nod to the mercenary, the guard hurried away.

“What happened to the guards here?” Vick questioned dumbfoundedly as they approached the command tent.

“If you are talking about the two who were here before, I suggested for them to take a break.”

“And Tourel? That man?”

Not slowing his steps, “What about him?” Kaidus questioned in return.

“Why was he here? How do you know him?”

“I ran into him and the others earlier upon my return. He was nice enough to guide me here.” Looking down at himself, “These clothes also came from him.”

“Huh? That- that’s right. What happened to your clothes?”

“It’s a long story.” Dismissing the inquiry, “What about you? Why was he so afraid of you?”

“I…” Pausing in silent contemplation, “I might have threatened them a bit the other evening. And… and beaten a few of them black and blue yesterday.” Vick quickly replied.

“I see.”  
Having heard about what happened from Saadra and the gregarious woman who called herself Ms. Ebernny, he decided not to pursue to the topic.
Instead, he braced himself as he opened the flap to the captain’s tent.
*Wooossshhhhh!!!*
A powerful draft hastily swept by from inside the tent, followed by a dark and elongated shadow.

“Wh-what was that?!” Vick yelped in surprise, barely catching himself from falling.

Seeing what was happening, Kaidus promptly stepped into the room, “Stop it.” Willing forth his thoughts, the wind instantly vanished upon the command as Zirus frantically crashed into the side of the tent.
Quickly picking itself up, the young hvaral arched its head back and with an innocent look as if it had been slighted, slowly slithered over toward him. “Shrrrraaa! Sharaaaakrrrraaa!!” It hissed defensively, like a child caught doing something wrong.

“Kaidus?!? That-”

Ignoring Vick’s panicked voice, “Zion… what are you doing?” He tiredly questioned.

“Keheheheh! It Hasss Been Toooo Long. Thisssssss One Wassss Merely Greeting The Youngssster.” Spiraling endlessly within the center of the room, Zion’s laughter resonated around them, circulating itself throughout the tent.

“Wah?! Who!?” Another yelp from behind.

“Stop teasing him. You know he does not like it.” Admonishing the spirit, he looked over to the rectangular wooden table near the center of the room, “Elamara. Ulamara. Are you both alright?”

“Kaidus? W-who are you talking to?” Having entered no further than the tent’s entrance, the mercenary began to glance apprehensively around the room.

“Y-yes.” Completely different from her usual tone, Elamara brokenly stuttered back at his question.
In contrast to her sister, “Yes!” Ulamara was wide-eyed and grinning as usual.

“Who’s there??!” A sharp and frightened cry came from Vick once more. This time, procuring a giggle from Ulamara.

“Haa… can you stop that for one moment?” Sighing deeply, he gave Vick a dry and tiresome look before returning his gaze to the invisible tempest within the room. “Zion. What did you do?”

“Nothingggg Untoward Or Unscrupuloussss.” The spirit replied and swiftly swam over to him.

“Elamara. Did Zion tease you as well?” Asking the frightened looking youngster as he made his way over to them, all he got in reply was a timid shake of her head.

“K-K-Kaidus? Kaidus??? Kaidus!!”

Hearing Vick screaming his name, Kaidus quickly around, “What?” He questioned, before immediately suppressing the annoyance that was about to burst outward from his mouth.

In the air, the playful spirit had picked up a handful of dust and was projecting an image of a face at Vick. The mercenary on the other hand, was frozen in place and had already turned pale with terror.

“That’s enough, Zion.”

Upon his words, the projection quickly wilted as the dust that had been circulating in the air fell to the ground.
 
“W-who!? W-w-what was that?!” Vick frightfully cried out.

“Hah… forget it.” With another sigh, “I wanted to wait for Biran, but I guess we might as well start the introductions now.” Taking a seat at the table, “Well come on.” He beckoned, pushing a seat on the opposite side out for Vick.

“Kaidus, w-what’s happening right now?”

Terrified and unsure of himself, Vick’s eyes had completely reverted back to those he had seen upon their last parting.
And for what felt like an eternity, he stared at the mercenary before calmly taking a deep breath. “Do you remember what I said before leaving last time?”

“… Y-yes?”

“Then you might want to sit down.”

At his behest, Vick slowly and tentatively stepped forward into the room, sitting down opposite him.

“Like I said before. I value your friendship too much to keep lying to you.” Placing both hands on top of the table so as not to hide anything, “I know you have a lot of questions and I assure you that I will answer what I can and in time. But first, allow me to introduce you to everyone that’s present.”

With a thought, the room flickered brightly as Vishan flashed into being. Manifesting out of thin air, it hovered quietly above the table in its pure white orb form.
Following the light spirit, a torrential wind snaked throughout the tent, picking up a number of random objects as Zion made its grand entrance as well.

“I’m sure you remember Vishan.” Tilting his head up at the white orb that was pulsing silently, Kaidus lifted up his right arm and the wind serpent that had been coiling around them surged onto his palm, “And this is Zion, whom you’ve just met.”

From the opposite side of the table, Vick’s eyes were now staring intently at the two spirits.

“And these two precious ones, are Elamara and Ulamara.” Standing in between himself and Vick, the twins nervously glanced back at him. Yet with an encouraging nod, they both nodded in return and stepped toward the mercenary.

Like burning curtains away to welcome the morning’s dawn, the thick coat of mana around the twins slowly began to diffuse and dissipate, revealing their childlike appearances burning with a reddish glow.
“Elamara, Ulamara, meet Vick. My friend, and one of the few people that I know I can trust.” 

Lowering their heads politely toward Vick, “Nice to meet you!” Ulamara cheerfully greeted.
“H-hello.” And Elamara bashfully followed.

Eyes wide, Vick darted his gaze between the two.

From where it had been sulking on the ground, “KaaaaaRa!” The youngling snapped loudly and propelled itself up onto the table. “Haaaassss!” It hissed, hurrying over to join the twins.

“And of course, you already know Zirus.” Kaidus grinned, seeing the young serpent forcefully inserting itself into the greetings.

“I. I- uh- *gulp* …” Vick rigidly swallowed his words, “I think… I think I need some air.”

 

***

 

Slowing his steps, Biran looked down at his trembling hands and then ahead to his quarters. There was a sense of dread coming from within the tent, and the closer he got, the more the sense of fear within himself multiplied.
Overwhelming and unbearable, the fear was driving itself into his awareness, threatening to rip away flesh and bones.
Yet, compelled by its strength and unable to turn away, he pushed forward.

“Guh?! *Cough!*” The pressure within the room assaulted him as he entered the tent, forcing him to his knees before he could even see who was inside.

“Master…”
A disjointed voice unlike any he had ever heard before, it pierced him like a searing blade.

“Perfect timing, Captain. Come over here.”
Followed by the lord’s voice, the terrifying force was easily swept away.

A devastated city covered in ashes.
The impending threat of doom.
Pure white pillars descending from the sky.
The final breaths before death.
The existence of a being who could not possibly be.

It all rushed back into him, “I- I am unworthy…” Biran carefully replied, not lifting his head as the failure of keeping himself in order swarmed his mind.

“Biran…” A calm and weary tone danced itself along his ears.

Pulling himself together, “Yes, Sire?” Biran questioned, trying his utmost to keep composed.

“Stop kneeling and come join us.”

“I would not dare-”

“That is an order.” More callous than before, there was now a hint of irritation within the lord’s words.

“Y-yes, Sire.” Unable to defy his lord’s will, he trepidatiously stood up.
The horrifying pressure from before had somewhat subsided, but as his eyes fell upon the table where his lord sat, a terror-filled jolt instantly took hold of his thoughts.

There, floating in the air above the table, were two spheres brimming with immense amounts of power. So much so, that it was becoming harder and harder to breath as he stared at them.
While one of them was pulsing silently like a miniature sun, the other, was like that of a raging tempest, swirling and crackling within itself.
And slowly shuffling toward the table, he caught Vick’s pale face looking back at him.

“This is Biran Vox Naingart. A man who has pledged himself to me, and the first of my blades.” The lord spoke as he took a seat beside the mercenary. “Go on and introduce yourselves.”

““Okay!”” Two tiny and pitched voices spoke out in unison.

Blinking his eyes in disbelief, Biran carefully looked down at the table in front of him to where the voices were coming from. “W-who? What are you two?” He questioned, stiffening his posture upon spotting the two human-like creatures that were even smaller than his fingers.

“I am Elamara.” One of the creatures politely greeted, stepping forward and curtsying.
With beautiful deep black eyes and a tiny horn protruding from the center of her forehead, the small girl’s reddish body was glowing like that of smoldering coals. Her dark green hair was also flowing ceaselessly along her shoulders as if billowing in the wind.

“And I, am Ulamara.” The second added, performing a curtsy as well.
Identical to the first and possibly a twin, the only feature that set her apart were her eyes. Instead of black, the tiny girl’s eyes were a lustrous silver.

“Be Thrillllled, Coward…” A wisplike voice easily soared around the room.

His body suddenly locked up at the voice, and in an attempt to free himself, an unnatural breeze slowly began coiling about his chest.
‘He Issss But A Coward. A Fool Sssseeking Essscape.’
The words that had carved themselves into his mind that day swirled forth, joining the storm that was brewing. “You… you were there…”

“Yesssss.” The breeze soft whispered as it constricted him, “I Am The Ssssupreme And Endlesss Ssssky. The Undying Breathhhh Of The WORLD. I AM ZION… THE EVERSSSSTORM.”

Like the air was being sucked out of his lungs, he painfully clutched onto the sides of his seat, holding with all his might so as not to faint or lose himself in the gale’s presence.

“Such Theatrics…” Pulsing brightly from above the table, a continuous ray emerged from the white orb and slashed across the room, slicing the wind in half.

Severed by the light as well, he gasped in horror, only find himself still intact and no longer breathless.

“The Light of The First Dawns…” The orb shimmered, fading to a dim glow as it floated toward him, “Vishan At Your Service, O’ rusted blade of our master.”

And at the orb’s disjointed voice, even though he had been unable to taste the biting cold of the air due to the Lord’s gift, there was now a frozen chill running up his spine.

 

***

 

-Darsus-

Ferrent. 11th Ward.
Keeping to the lesser populated streets and moving with haste, a man dark of eyes with short brown hair skillfully navigated his way through the ward. Using the throngs of people who had been displaced from their homes as a cover, he anxiously made his way to the northeastern side of the ward.
To where a modest mansion stood.

Except for the few blemishes and broken walls that had undoubtedly been incurred during the attack, the place had remained the same from what he could remember.

Old and graying rooftops with crumbling tiles that had not been changed for years. Two circular towers that sat upon opposite ends of the mansion, overlooking nothing, for they had no lands. The once white stone walls he had heard about in his childhood were now a drab and disgusting brown color, and had been marred further with vines and burnt marks. Barely large enough to call itself a mansion, it was a glorified hovel when compared to the glory of the other manors within the 11th ward.
Yet, none of that mattered. It was home.

Hurrying to the front door, as usual, no one answered as the man knocked.
With an incantation, he allowed himself into the house.
“Father?!” The man shouted, hastily surveying the dark and lifeless foyer. “Mother!?” He screamed again, looking to the stairs that led to his parents’ chamber and his father’s study. “Anyone home?!” He roared.
Yet again, there was no answer.

“Where is everyone?” The man wondered, racing up the stairs.
Their family had indeed been declining and could barely pass off as a part of the aristocracy, yet it was still quite unusual for the house to be bereft of any servants.
“Is anyone home?!” The man continued shouting, frantically searching through the various vacant rooms in his path.
“Father?! Mother?!”
Shouting loudly as he neared the master bedroom, the sound of movements eventually arose from the end of the hall.

“M-Mirat?!” Deep but hoarse, a familiar voice filled with shock and wonder called out from his parent’s bedroom, followed by the sound of screeching and thumping of an opening door.

“Father?” He called back, seeing a silhouette sluggishly emerging into the dim hallway.

“M-m-my son…” The voice replied tearfully as it begun to shuffle toward him.

“F-father!” And hurrying forth, “Is it really you?!” He shouted, embracing the aging man tightly.
Appearing way older and more withered than what he could remember, his father’s usually round and hairless face was now gaunt and unshaven, like he had not slept for days. The patch of dark brown hair upon his father had also grayed considerably, and was disheveled and unwashed. “W-what happened to you? How did this happen, and where is my mother and everyone?”

“Your- your mother…” With tears flowing freely now, “S-she was on her way to the physicians when the city was attacked.”  

Mirat immediately froze in place at what such words meant, “W…what?”

“We burnt her r-remains five days ago…” His father continued weeping, “W-where were you? Where have you been all this time? How could you have left us like that without a single word?”
 
Such questions ripped at his heart, yet unable to answer them especially to the man before him, Mirat fell to his knees, “I’m so sorry, father. I’m so sorry…” He painfully apologized, prostrating himself.
Because of his failure, the city’s peace had been upturned and thousands of people along with his mother was gone.

“We all thought you were dead. Your… your poor mother. She- she prayed for you every day, hoping that you would return.” Sobbing in between his words, “How could you? H-how could you not send us any words that you were still alive?”

“Father…”

“J-just what were you doing? Why did you wait so long to return?”

Clinging onto his father’s pain-stricken words, “Please forgive me, father…”

“My son… w-what happened to you?”

The agony within his father’s words almost sliced his chest apart, and opening his mouth, “I… I-” He could only stumble upon his words as no answers dared to come out.

“No… never mind that.” Quickly composing himself, “You are back now. That’s all that matters. My- my son is finally back.”

Hearing the words of forgiveness, Mirat clenched his teeth as his own tears rushed outward. “I’m so sorry… It was all my fault. I should never have left. I’m so sorry!” And vehemently apologized, wrapping his arms around his father’s legs.

“Mirat… can you at least tell me what you have been doing?”
His father finally spoke as they sat in silence within the hallway after releasing their tears.

“I…” The urge to answer boiled upward from within his chest, but fighting to keep it from surfacing, “I’m sorry, I can’t…”

“I am your father. If there is any-”

“Which is why I can’t.” He painfully replied, lowering his head to his knees. “It… it is not safe to talk about.”

“Why not? What is not safe?”

“Father, please… please don’t ask anymore.” He begged, unwilling to look at his father’s face.

“Just look around us. What’s the worst that can possibly happen to me now?” His father cried out.

Death.
The word lurched forth from within the back of his mind.

“And if you didn’t want me prying, then what are you doing back here, showing yourself to me like this?”

He felt a sharp pang latch itself onto his chest, “I… you’re right.” Unable to see any way of escaping his fate and barely able to keep his calm, “I should not have come back, but I don’t have a choice anymore.”

“M-Mirat?”

Turning to look his father in the eyes, he steeled his nerves and stood up, “I’m sorry, father. I was. I was just so happy that I got to see this house again. To see you again… even if mother is no longer with us.”

“No, Mirat.” His father grabbed onto his sleeves, “I- I did not mean it. Please, please do not leave again.”

“It’s alright, father.” He quietly whispered, having reluctantly already accepted his situation. “I don’t have much time anyways. The person watching over me should have noticed by now and will be looking for me soon. But because of that, there is something I must ask of you.” Sliding a hand into his shirt, he unbuttoned a secret pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper. “We will be leaving the city tonight, and I have no one else who I can trust with this.” Mirat added, handing the piece of paper to his father and clasping it in his father’s shaking hands.

“What is this, and who is coming for you?” More questions, overflowing with worry.

“Father.” Forcing a smile for his father, “Please wait three days and then find a way to get this note to one of the masters at Zorin. They should know what to do from there. And please, tell them that the pegril will no longer return to its nest.”

“What does any of that mean?! What is in this note?!”

“I’m sorry, father.” Giving the agitated old man one last embrace, “Asiran. Enra va sinovae …”

“M-Mirat?” His father’s voice called his name one last time

Feeling the sleeping magic taking hold, ‘Forgive me.’ He wordlessly apologized once again.

B3 Chapter 18 – Cruel Lessons

Amongst the terrified expressions and blank stares of confusions, there, squeezing through the guards who had taken the full brunt of his will and presence, was a flushed and lovely red face.  
Staring toward him, her fair complexion had faltered somewhat and her smile was hidden, but he could still sense the warmth within her flowing beautifully alongside the excitement upon her face.
‘Saadra…’
The name rushed into his mind and Kaidus grinned back, seeing her astonishment.

“Is that you?” The young lady questioned and attempted to move around the guards, but was quickly held back by an older woman standing behind her.

And in spite of her fears, “D-don’t!” The woman had managed to voice an anxious warning.

Taking his eyes off the pair, he quickly flushed one of the rings on his fingers with mana. The tracking magic instantly revealed that Vick’s location had not changed much from where it was the past few days, yet it was still quite some distance away.
“What are all of you doing out here?” He calmly responded, quickly reeling in the outburst of mana that he had unleashed to enforce his will upon the guards.

“M-milord.” Instead of Saadra or an answer, one of the men spoke, their shaken voice drawing his attention back to the group of guards. Having taken off an outer vestment and an undershirt, one of them was cautiously walking forward into the icy stream as if in a frightened stupor. Stopping a few good paces away, the man hurriedly extended both arms out, presenting forth a worn tunic as he had implored.

From his left arm, “Grrrrrrrr…” Zirus growled warily and sniffed at the garment, forcing the frightened man to recoil a bit but made no further motions.

Kaidus looked to the shirt, then to the man who was beginning to shiver.
Whether it was out of fear or due to the cold, he could not tell, but with a courteous nod, “I am grateful.” He thanked, and quickly accepted.
Ignoring the stench and discomfort that came with the large tunic, the disgrace of revealing himself to the unwary maidens and ladies before him was worse and he quickly slipped it on. After doing so, he once again returned his attention back to the group of confused men and women, taking a silent moment to reassess them.
With the exception of Saadra, the dozen or so people present were mostly unfamiliar to him. “Forgive me if I have startled you all, but would it be alright if I accompanied you back to camp?” He questioned with a smile, trying to appear as cordial as possible.

The men before him wordlessly looked to one another, and as his gaze jumped from person to person for confirmation, it eventually settled upon the woman who was standing cautiously beside Saadra.

As if realizing something upon their eyes meeting, “You- you are-” The woman’s gaze widened.

“I assure you, I am not your enemy or anyone suspicious. Right, Saadra?” He quickly reassured, hearing the woman’s voice quivering.

“Ms. Ebernny, everyone, please. We know him.” And from where she stood, Saadra’s soft voice also eked out timorously to vouch for him.

“It- it was you…” The older woman continued, looking even more petrified, “The one who brought us the Countess.” She supplemented with shock. At her words, the others quickly turned to look at the woman in disbelief.

“Oh? You recognized me?”

“How can I forget?” The woman instantly replied, her voice shaking with an elated tone of gratefulness along with a bit of hidden anger. “I-I was there when you delivered us that murderous bitch. Just who are you, and how do you know our Saadra?”

Hearing those questions, his smile broadened. “I see. There were pressing matters to attend to at the time, so forgive me for not introducing myself then.” Fixing the large shirt and straightening his posture to be more presentable, “I am, but a simple wanderer. You may call me Kaidus. As to how I know the young lady there, I guess one can call it a fateful encounter.”

 

***

 

Bearing the responsibility of all those who had followed him, Biran Naingart stood up from his seat. Having been listening to the discourse amongst those who are present, the cascade of voices that had encircled the command tent slowly hushed as he did so.

Without touching upon the problems that had been pointed out by those around him, he turned to one of the men standing behind him, “Vasco.” Biran voiced, extending a hand toward the man, “Give me what you and the scouts have managed to put together.”

At his command, Vasco swiftly untied a scroll at his waist and handed it forth.
Made of animal hide but dry and flexible, Biran quickly unrolled it upon the modest wooden table between them all.

“A map?”

“Yes.” Biran answered, seeing the questioning look from those around him.
Though lacking finesse along with any sort of artistic touch, it was indeed a map of their surroundings with various minor details here and there.
“You are all right to be worried. What little we can forage is already dwindling and game is harder and harder to come by around here. Now that we have a sudden influx of mouths to feed, at this rate unless we do something, we will probably all starve before the end of Rinol.” He added, inserting their prior woes alongside his own. “Now I’m sure you are all aware that because of the increase in populace, we have had to increase the number of guards throughout and outside of the camp. Which in turn, has unfortunately impeded our ability to bring in more food.” Looking to the few hunters and representatives of the various groups who were present, “Which is why in this meeting, I wish to bring a different option to all of your attention.”

“Do you have a solution to our current dilemma, Captain?”
Sitting to his right, an elderly man with piercing gray eyes softly spoke up. Voice low but firm and unlike those who had arrived with him, the elder was calm and collected.

“I might.” Biran replied, answering respectfully to the old man, “Because we do not know how much longer this unusually warm spell that is upon us will persevere, I have troubled the scouts with searching for something these past few days.” Edging his gaze back, “Vasco, tell them what you and your team have found.”

Moving forward to address the room, “Adhering to the captain’s wishes and following Lady Narissa’s instructions, we were able to locate the smuggler’s cave system that she told us about. Though its surroundings are quite barren, we will have the sea at our back with its bounties, and the caverns should be large enough to accommodate half, if not most of our weaker members. Judging by the purpose of those who dug it, those caverns are also a better shelter than what we have here out in the open.” Vasco stepped before the table, “The only thing is, this is where we are,” He pointed to a small circular marking on the hide, “And the caves are down here,” Dragging a straight line with his finger, he ended upon a row of jagged markings. “As you can all see, they are located to the southwest of our position. Distance-wise, it is about a two day’s journey, perhaps three if we move at our usual pace.”

“No. The Evarac caves are a deathtrap at this time of the year.” A bearded man sitting to the right of the old lord stated assertively. Large and aggressive looking, the man was named Pelwin, and was also the head of the guards for the old man’s group.

“Would you care to elaborate?” Biran swiftly queried.

“I understand your desire to utilize the sea’s resources very well. Yet the lot of you are not local to this part of Malpaars so you might not know, but those waters will have no fish in them.” The bearded man, Pelwin, instantly replied, his statement even more confident. “The silver-finned marags that usually spawn along and dominate those coasts will have already devoured all they could before their migration around the Abyssal Maw. And as you already know, the cave’s surroundings are barren, so nothing edible will grow. If we are to survive, the forest here is our best chance.”

“Surely there are still some resources left within that part of the sea that we can use?” Biran questioned further upon hearing the new and damning information.

“A variety of mollusks, but even those will be rare to come by. Silver-fins are voracious eaters and would have cleaned out those waters, leaving the bare minimum to spawn and breed until they make their way around next season. Other types of fish would have also moved on to warmer waters and will not return until the end of Grunei.”

“Even if that is the case, the caves will still be a better source of shelter.” Vasco quickly chimed in, “At least it will give the elderly and children a chance. As for food, we can hopefully-”

“We, the people of Imvera and Vernigale have been surviving thus far.” The man interrupted, “It is the forest that has provided for us in these harsh times. If anything, we should be moving elsewhere within the forest and not to such a place like the Evarac caves.”

Though the supply of food that he was hoping for was now gone, “As Vasco pointed out, would it not be safer in those caverns?” Biran countered, looking down at the map, “If heated, they should be warmer than out here. And with the information from the scouts, only a few guards would be required to defend the tunnels once everyone is safely inside. That would mean less manpower required in fortifying our positions, and more out there hunting and searching for food. If we move south and establish a forward base to hunt and gather while the rest are safe, it would greatly benefit us and increase our efficiency.”

“Then we move south, but not to the caves.” The bearded man replied and reached forward, pointing to a different spot on the map, “At least in the forest, we have various avenues of escape should anything happen. If those tunnels are blocked off, we would be dooming most of our people. Not to mention the time required in transporting food back and forth.”

Hearing the swift and adroit answer, “That will not be an issue. Such was how the lot of us survived while in the safety of Vilute.” Biran contended, recalling the various expeditions he had been a part of while living within the floating city. For those, transporting food and water was the most basic of their jobs.

“I will have to say no as well…” The old lord’s voice slowly meandered through the room, drawing all eyes toward himself, “As Pelwin stated, our greatest chances are definitely within the forest.” There was a thoughtful pause in his words, one filled with sorrow and gloom, “But as you’ve surmised, it is definitely not without its own peril and losses. Pelwin, you should remember what happened last year.”

The bearded man quickly relaxed his contentious posture and a stern expression of doubt slowly manifested upon his face.

“We had an ample storage of food and even made various preparations, yet there were still plenty of deaths because of the harsh freeze.” The old lord continued, “And that was just with the few people of Imvera and Vernigale at the time.”

Hearing the horror of the old man’s words, “And now we have almost quadrupled in size… with a plummeting stockade of food, and not enough shelters or resources for everyone.” Biran quietly voiced his thoughts aloud.

And, “Yes…” Lord Shradech painfully but callously affirmed.

“Then… then what can we do? What do you propose?” Biran calmly relented, seeing that his idea had been rebuked.

“Like I’ve been saying, we split the camp.” The man named Pelwin answered, “Those who can, will relocate and rebuild elsewhere while those who can’t, stays here until the new camp can be settled.”

“Relocating would cost us manpower. And that, is a resource we are in dire need of.” Solio, who had been silent thus far calmly interjected.

From one side of the table, “Is there really a need to relocate?” One of the hunters, a man named Jonns, spoke up, “Out of fear for pursuers, so far we have only been hunting within our safe zone.” Placing a finger on the map, the man drew a large circle around the camp marker. “Which is approximately only about half a day’s venture from camp in all directions as we have been instructed.” Drawing a larger circle around the one he had just marked, “Yet if we continue beyond, these areas are relatively untouched and unexplored. If we issue an order and put all our resources into hunting and gathering parties to travel outside of our safe zone, we might possibly be able to sustain ourselves.”

“Expeditions like that will take days. It would also eat into what little food reserves we have left.” One of the attendees cautioned.

“We’ll all be venturing further into the forest, so that much is a given.” An instant reply, “Also, the camp will undoubtedly be more vulnerable since there will be less people guarding it if we are to do this. And for that, it’ll be up to those who are staying behind to defend and keep the peace until we get back.” Halting his words, the hunter Jonns took a quick look around the table, “I know it’s risky but if you think about it, as it is, we don’t have the luxury of waiting. We can either issue an order and use the last of our resources in this final endeavor, or wait until our resources run dry.”

Taking the man’s words in consideration, Biran lowered his gaze to the map on the table.

“Captain.” Jonns quickly called out to him, “Let the people know what is happening and tell them of our situation. I am certain that even those who are without capabilities will forgo their safety and help us.”

It was risky for sure, but the hunter was right and there were indeed no better options. Their stores of food were practically empty now, and they were bringing in less and less with each passing day. Yet within the camp, as incapable as they are, there were still hundreds of people who could help. Even at the risk of being found by their pursuers, it was still a better option than splitting everyone up again and waiting to starve. “It could work… Solio, how’s your leg?” Biran questioned, turning to the portly man sitting to his left.

“If you are asking if I’m well enough to lead a hunting party, I am.” The round ranger instantly replied.

“Alright.” With confirmation from his most skillful archer, Biran then turned his focus back to the old man, “My lord. It is with certainty that it was your group who staked these grounds first, along with your kindness that we have been able to come this far. I myself did not wish to further impose but now that we are at such a point, I humbly ask that you continue to help us.” Lowering his head, “You know of our plight, but I know naught if our pursuers are still vigilantly hunting for us. Even so, I ask that you and yours cooperate with me and my people in this risk so that we may overcome this ordeal. All of us. ”

A solemnness dawned upon the old lord’s face and, “Please raise your head, Captain.” Lord Shradech entreated, taking a silent moment to pause in consideration of the knight’s position. Yet seeing that Biran would not look up, “Whether yours or mine, these fears and woes weigh equally upon us all. Having come this far, if this is the only way for us to continue surviving, then so be it.” Lord Shradech calmly added with a compliant smile.

Upon the old man’s agreeable words, “Thank you…” Biran quickly voiced before raising his head again. Looking to those around the table, “If we are in agreement, then I will be depending on all of you as well.” He pleaded.

“The people of Umoraok would have all been slain if it were not for what you all did. We might not have any hunters, but those within our group are healthy and able. We will assist in whatever we can.” A tall and gaunt looking man with his left arm missing nodded back in approval.

“It is not ideal, but it’s better than starving… I will notify those in my group as well. I’m sure we can help in some ways.” Another of the representatives added.

“Well then… since we have settled upon a course of action, let us adjourn for now.” Lord Shradech slowly stood up and the bearded man at his side quickly held onto him, “We will go and relay this decision to our people. Our hunters and those who are willing, shall join you and yours by evening tonight so that we may get this going as soon as possible.”

Also standing up from his seat, “Of course, and thank you again.” With a final thankful nod, Biran quietly watched as the old man hobbled out of the command tent with a small entourage in tow.
With the representatives of the Imvera and Vernigale groups gone, he turned to face the proxies within his own group, “Please go and let those under your charges know as well.” He instructed, and a number of men nodded obediently.

As the tent began emptying, “Then we will gather the others and notify them of what is to come. With how urgent this is, the sooner we begin planning, the better.” One of the two remaining hunters voiced as they both proceeded toward the exit.

“Jonns, Giaan, wait.” Biran quickly called out, stopping them both, “Beyond the both of you and Solio, do either of you have any idea how many of our hunters can head their own parties?” He inquired, looking to the two.

Taking a moment, “I believe Silas, Truah, and Genn are proficient enough now that they should be able to. With a few men helping them, there shouldn’t be much problems with their abilities. Other than those three, I’d have to say Cordavin and Ruther can as well, but they are still lacking in some regard when it comes to certain aspects of the hunt. With Yoriig and Slek back, if we can pair them up with those two, I believe Cordavin and Ruther will be able to benefit greatly from their knowledge. As for the others, it would be better if we were to have three or four of them together per party along with a few volunteers to help them.” Jonns thoughtfully replied.

“And you, Giaan?”

“Hmmm… the evaluation is pretty spot on, but I’d like to add Alakan and his younger brother Jurad to the mix. Though those siblings are young, they are quite skillful and I believe that if we allocate them some help, they will not disappoint us.”

“Extolling your protégés?” Biran latched onto the praise with an amused smile.

“Of course not. They are simply capable.” And Giaan hastily refuted, baring a proud grin. “Especially Alakan, that boy can split an arrow as long as it is within range of his bow.”

“Well. That’s quite the compliment from one such as yourself. If that’s the case, have Irvine watch over them to see how they fare for this first excursion. As for the rest of the others, team them up as you both see fit.”

““Yessir.”” The two hunters both answered in unison before swiftly exiting the tent.

“Then… that leaves Vasco and I with notifying the guards.” Solio remarked and tiredly stood up from where he had been sitting, “We’ll tell them to pass along the orders for volunteers as well. In the meantime, you should probably head over to the storeroom and see what we have left.”

“I will.” Picking up the map on the now vacant table, Biran rolled it up and handed it back to Vasco. “It’s about time I made my rounds as well. I’ll take a look on the way.”

“Then we’ll be heading off.” “Captain.” Excusing themselves, the pair left him to himself.

Alone with his own worries and fears, Biran promptly made his way to the back of the tent. To where his sleeping quarters were located.
There, out of its sheathe and laying across a wooden chair, was the enchanted frost sword that his lord had bequeathed onto him.
“My lord… what am I to do?” He somberly questioned as the naked blade began frosting over as if it knew he was nearby.

“Where to, Captain?” A guard who had been standing watch questioned as he exited the tent.

Without stopping or slowing his steps, “There’s someone I have to talk to. Come.” Biran ordered, and made his way toward the north side of the camp.

As they walked, as if picking up on his purpose, “Captain. If you are looking for Vick, that man should be in the training grounds right now. Apparently has been there all afternoon.”

“Again?”

“Yessir. Few of the boys came by earlier while you were all having your meeting.”

“That man… doing as he pleases…” Holding down his frustration, “Let us make haste then.” He calmly turned around, this time moving toward the southern grounds, to where they had established an area for the purpose of training their guards.  

 

***

 

“Bunch of-” Easily evading an overhead strike, “weaklings,” Vick spouted the word out loud and twisted his wooden sword sideways, slamming it into the left side of a guard. “You wish to defeat me like that?!? Pathetic!” He snarled, easily parrying against a spear thrust from a second man and then striking the man’s outstretched arms.
“Is this all you guys amount to? Where is your bravado from earlier?” Lowering his sword to stare down the two men who had painfully drew away, he glanced over to the side, to where a handful of guards were still recuperating from the instructions he had given. “You should all be grateful that I am here to teach you this lesson in humility.”

“W-what lesson?” One of the younger guards, a dirty-blonde haired man with deep-set eyes and a nose too large for his face groaned, “You’ve just been beating us, and we-we haven’t done anything!”

“Haven’t done anything ‘yet’.” Vick shot back, returning a contemptuous glare to instill a necessary fear within them, “So let’s keep it that way. Now, who’s next? Come!”

“You’ve already made your point yesterday. Haven’t you had enough? Is this fun for you?” Another of the guards whined angrily. This time, it was an older guard a few years his senior. Perhaps a miner or quarryman prior to becoming a refugee, the man was quite sturdy and in pretty good shape.

“Enough is when I say so. And yes, turning you all black and blue is surprisingly quite fun.” He sneered back, throwing in more provocations, “Now pick up your weapons and be thankful.”

“For what?! You’re insane, you know that? It was Caleb and Zhul who did what they did. Why are you still taking your anger out on us!?” The man retorted angrily.

“Anger? I have no anger toward you all.” Vick quickly calmed himself down with a deep breath, “See? I could not care less about being angry. But it looks like you are all lacking in discipline. And seeing that I have nothing better to do, I have merely taken it upon myself to engage with everyone for their betterment. Now are you going to pick up your sword, or are you all just going to continue whining like you did when your villages were attacked?”

“Kuh! You fuckin bastard.” The man clicked his tongue in defiance, but grabbed a weapon and reluctantly stood up.

“Good man. My lessons are not cheap. You should make use of these opportunities and get some learning done.” Vick grinned.

“Fuck you!” The man cursed and rushed angrily toward him.

The man’s wooden practice sword vibrated horizontally through the air, and with a quick back step, he easily dodged the attack. Instantly stepping in as the weapon passed by his torso, he extended his own sword forward and in a sudden thrust, sent its point solidly into the man’s chest, forcing the guard backward.
“You’re dead.”

“Ughn?! It- it’s you, who’s fucking dead!” Barely able to brace himself, the man painfully screamed again and lunged forward once more with an overhead strike.

Bringing his sword forward, with an upward slice, he parried the diagonal slash that was coming down for his neck and body. Having repelled the attack, he twisted his weapon around and with a forceful right step forward, like tenderizing meat, drove the butt of his sword into the guard’s right shoulder, forcing the man to release his weapon. Quickly following the attack, he delivered a low kick and swept the man off balance and onto the ground.
“Dead again.”

Rolling where he had fallen, “GauuUUUuugh!!!” The guard began grunting in frustration and agony.

“Who’s next?!” Vick hollered again, looking over to those who had been spectating.

“That’s enough…” A familiar voice came from his left and Vick turned, spotting the blonde captain walking toward them. Unlike his usual passive self, the captain’s tone was filled with an unnerving calm. “Why are you doing this?”

“These men are too lax. I fear you’ve been too soft on them.”

“Is that so?” The captain replied, staring sternly back at him. “I will personally see to it that they take their duties seriously from now on, so please stop this.”

“Ho…” Seeing the look in the captain’s eyes, he could not help as a grin erupted across his face. “You look better with those eyes. More capable… domineering almost.” He remarked, spotting the subdued anger and annoyance within the man.

With a look of confusion, “What are you on about?” Captain Biran questioned back.

“I’m sure you’re dying to find out as well.” Turning around, he easily spotted the sword that his opponent had just dropped.

“I’ve no time for riddles. If you’ve nothing better to do, there’s something we have to talk about. It’s important.”

“I’m sure it is,” Picking up the wooden sword that had fallen nearby, “Here.” Vick quickly tossed it over to the blonde man. Seeing the look of confusion on the knight’s face, “Surely you’ve been wondering about this yourself.”

“About what? What are you-”

“Let’s be honest here, ‘Captain’. You and I, we’re not friends. That much is clear.” He interrupted and firmly stood his grounds, “You and I… we have simply tolerated each other because of Kaidus.”

“Is that why you’re tormenting these men?” The captain quickly reasoned, “Because you don’t like me?”

“Don’t be daft. You’re smarter than that.” Vick dryly mocked and swung the sword in his hand twice, exerting his strength to get a better grasp on the weapon, “I can see it in your eyes, you know? In spite of my insubordination, what you’re really curious about is which one of us is stronger. Am I right?” 

“… All this because you want to see who can piss the furthest?”

“Call it whatever you want, but let’s not pretend that I’m the only one curious about this. Sooner or later, this was going to happen and we were bound to continue our dispute from Esperen. I am willing to bet that you’ve been dying for this opportunity as well, so why hesitate?”

Beyond the two of them, the training grounds had gone dead silent, and those who had been nearby were now distancing themselves.

“You… you’re not wrong.” The captain reluctantly admitted, “Ever since Esperen, I have been wondering about it. Your skills… those fluid yet inconceivable movements. Like a ghost without shadow. Every time I thought about how you dispatched that knight and those men; I see myself incapable of ever overcoming you.”

“Your praises are duly noted… but why do I get the feeling that there is a ‘but’ in there somewhere?” He smiled, seeing the dormant hunger in the man’s cold blue eyes.

As if to reciprocate him, a smile crept onto the captain’s lips.
But… with my lord’s blessing, I’ve been having this weird feeling these days that I might not lose. You know?” A poised reply.

“Oh? Aren’t you the confident one?”

“Confident? Perhaps.” The captain looked to the wooden sword in his hand, then calmly strolled forward toward him, “Truth is, I have no wish to quarrel with you. You are well acquainted with my lord and for that, I… as you have so aptly put, have also ‘tolerated’ your ‘insubordination’, affording you plenty of freedom thus far. In a sense, I guess I did so because I was afraid of you to some extent. Yet it appears my gestures are pointless. If this is what you require to get past our differences, then I can only oblige.”

Something was burning in the knight’s eyes now and he could feel his own blood boiling. “Why the sophistry? If you wish to test your strength, then just say so. Why do it in such a roundabout manner? What are you, some sheltered noble?” Vick swiftly retorted, unable to hide his own excitement.

“Noble? No. My father was an ordinary carpenter.” The captain replied, stopping a few good paces away, “But where I’m from, we hold ourselves to some regard. Then again, it’s not like some boorish brute spawned in a backwater village would understand.”

“Oooh, an insult! I didn’t think with how much of a pushover you are, that you knew how to insult people!” Vick hollered, adding an exaggerated applause to his words, “But you’re wrong about the village part. I was actually spawned in a boorish water logged port town.” And quipped before lowering his stance into a one-handed sword form, “Now then, I hope your swordplay is deadlier than your mouth, ‘Captain’.”

“I was being respectful, but I guess one must know what respect is before one can understand its nuances. And for that, I apologize to you. As for my swordplay, we shall find out.” The captain countered and immediately took a defensive stance.

As they both stared down one another, “If you two are so inclined to beat each other up, why don’t I join you?” A cold and chilling voice instantly coiled around the training grounds, snaking through the air like a translucent serpent. “After all, I could use a little exercise myself.”

He shivered upon hearing the familiar voice and frozen in place, Vick hurriedly turned his head to look for the owner of said voice. Catching movements behind the captain and across from himself, he watched as a dark-haired youth broke through the circle of spectators and casually walked toward them.

Lightly dressed in a pair of brown trousers and an overly large tunic which were very different from his usual attires, there was nothing else on the boy’s person.
No cloak, no rucksack, and even the xeberite sword that was always at his side was missing.

Yet, upon seeing the look of amusement on Kaidus’ face, his stomach began churning in horror.
Something inconceivable and unfathomable had happened, and the child was even more frightening than he could remember.
Just by staring directly at the boy, it was like he was looking into an empty space without presence or form. And try as he might, even his senses could not distinguish if the child was truly there or not.
“Kaidus…”
The name was all he could mutter as the fighting spirit that had been burning within his body quickly cowered, extinguishing itself into oblivion.

“My Lord!”
No longer staring him down either, the blonde knight had already turned and knelt toward the boy. Amongst the audience and those who had gathered, a few had also done the same.

 

***

 

“Is that kid someone important? Why is the captain kneeling to him?”
“It’s not just the captain. Look.”

The whispers from the audience had begun to cycle, but disregarding them, Kaidus kept his attention onto Vick and the kneeling knight before him, “How about a two on one? I’ll let you both make the first moves.” He playfully suggested, displaying a curious smile.

“I- I would never dare.”
A swift answer from the captain.

“What about you, Vick?”
He mindfully queried, staring at the mercenary.

“I… why?”

Catching the man’s unwillingness, “It’s just a light spar. Nothing serious. I’ve been idling for far too long these days anyways so you’d both be doing me a huge favor.” Without waiting for a reply, he looked over to the spectators and they all visibly shrunk as he quickly made his way toward one of them. “Would you mind letting me borrow your sword for a moment?”
And without a shred of objection or refusal, the guard blankly nodded and handed him the wooden sword.
Returning a thankful nod of his own, he strolled back to the two who had been the focus of everyone around them.

“My Lord. When did you-”

“Not too long ago.” Kaidus answered, taking a second glance at the crudely carved weapon.

“Wh-where have you been?” Though his voice was nervous, Vick had managed to ask a question.

“We can talk about that later. For now, you should both prepare yourselves.” Placing a hand over the practice sword, he dragged his palm along its length, reshaping the weapon into a sleek and finely crafted wooden blade. “You too, Biran.”

“Sire?” The knight voiced, his tone rife with distress and doubt.

“If you are indeed my sword, then you will not hold back on my account.” With a swing of his arm, the sword in his hand thrummed beautifully through the air. Content with how it felt in his hand, he quickly lowered it. “A good blade is one that can be pointed at anyone, be them a King or an Emperor. Even at one’s owner. Remember that.”

“I… understood.” Slowly standing up, the captain retreated a few modest paces away and lowered himself into a defensive two-handed stance once more.

“Wait, I thought the Captain was going to fight Vick. What’s happening here? Who is that kid?” An unsuspecting spectator questioned from the audience.
“Did anyone else just see what he did?” Another of the guards remarked with amazement.
“That’s the young lord. You guys weren’t there for it, but that’s definitely him.” Someone else answered.
“That kid is? Is he strong?”

Voices continued to clamor around them but ignoring the distractions, “Reminds you of the Sword Trials doesn’t it? Mister 19th chair of the Droxxon Mercenaries.” Kaidus questioned, looking to his pale friend.

“… It’s not even close.” And though somewhat subdued, Vick quietly answered.

“Pretend it is and come after me with everything you’ve got. We can use the mercenary rules as well, in that we will all keep going until the two of you can no longer fight, or you both admit defeat. As for me, if either of you can land a single strike anywhere on my body, it is your win. Since it-”

“Did you all hear that?!”
“Wait, what?”
“The captain and Vick against him? Is that boy crazy?”
A plethora of voices exploded from the audience in disbelief.

Turning his gaze toward the spectators to silence them, “As I was saying, since it is a bit unfair seeing as this is a two against one, the both of you may cooperate and work together.” Watching Vick’s hopeless face suddenly distort in prideful fury, Kaidus grinned.

“You… you are going to regret that.”
His spirits undoubtedly rekindled; the mercenary hastily fell into blade form.

“As I’ve said before. You can both make the first moves.” Lowering his own sword to his side, Kaidus calmly relaxed his body. “Now then. Whenever you are ready.”

“Don’t you dare get in my way.” Vick hissed toward the captain, and then suddenly vanished.

Easily reading the surprise attack, Kaidus quickly turned his body sideways and brought his sword down to the ground before him, halting Vick’s rising slash before it could build any sort of upward momentum.

Upon seeing that the attack had been sealed at its lowest and most vulnerable point of attack, Vick quickly twisted his body and drew the weapon back, covering the retreat with a spinning round kick.

Arching his whole body sideways to evade the kick that was aiming for the left side of his torso, Kaidus quickly pushed upward with his sword, forcing and lifting Vick’s leg higher into the air. 

Undaunted, the mercenary had somehow managed to balance himself by planting his sword into the ground. Pushing himself upward and utilizing his nimble body, Vick instantly drew his sword and spun in the air, slashing upward during the aerial maneuver.

Matching Vick’s slash with his own downward strike, both of their swords collided violently for an instant, before glancing apart, sending Vick rebounding backward.
Out of each other’s attack range, “You should have known that such attacks won’t work on me.” Kaidus commented, slowly tightened his grip on the sword in his hand.

“Then allow me, Sire.”
From where the man had been watching and no longer in a defensive stance, Biran dashed toward him.

Though much slower than Vick, the knight closed the distance between them instantly, following the mad rush with a two-handed thrust.

Kaidus swiftly stepped forward with his left foot and bracing himself, with all his might, delivered a rising slash, slicing diagonally into the knight’s sword and altering its trajectory upward, while forcing the knight to his left.

Instinctively allowing the weight of the attack to swing his sword backward, instead of going for another slash, Biran barreled forth with his shoulders, having had his thrust broken.

Spinning with the force of his own attack, Kaidus swiftly rotated his body toward the knight’s left side, barely evading the charge. Utilizing his left hand that was still twisting with his body’s sudden rotation, he deftly hammered a clenched fist into Biran’s back as he pivoted around.
There was a grunt followed by the sound of stumbling, but without looking to make sure that the knight had fallen to the ground, he quickly raised his sword upward once more, deftly blocking a hasty attack to his left arm from Vick.
A look of surprise flashed upon the mercenary’s face, and he handily pushed the attack away with his sword. Instantly aligning his left side toward Vick, before the mercenary could react, he drove a solid fist into Vick’s chest, shooting Vick backwards along the ground. 
“…” Looking down at himself, he slowly opened his fist and clenched it again, taking in the strength that was now overflowing within even without magic.
“Argh- Guh…Ug!”
Groans came from behind him, and Kaidus turned to see that the blonde captain had already stood up.

Looking to be in pain, the knight was stretching his arms out and trying to rub the part of his back where he had been punched.

“I’ve upheld my words and allowed you both to each deliver the first strike.” Speaking clearly so that both could hear him, he waited as Vick also agonizingly stood up. “Now, let us see what the two of you can really do.”
Tossing his sword directly upward into the air, Third form, ‘Hing’.

Vanishing from his position, “Kuh-? Gaaaaaah!” He did not hold back as an exasperated scream erupted from Vick.
Having driven his right knee into Vick’s stomach, he quickly thrusted forth both arms that he had cocked back prior, and shot them both into Vick’s chest, forcing Vick to tumble backward again onto the ground.
Without wasting a single breath, he snatched up Vick’s sword and vanished once more. ‘Rising Talon.’

Reappearing before the knight, the back of his sword curved upward, smashing into Biran’s left side and throwing Biran off balance. Rotating with the attack, he swiftly spun and delivered his left elbow directly into the spot where his sword had just crashed into, forcing Biran to the ground as well.

“Have you both calmed down?” He questioned as his mask of amused playfulness dissipated into one of disappointment.

Around him, the sound of two warriors gasping desperately for air slowly filled the atmosphere, followed by the clanking of a wooden sword finally hitting the ground.

B3 Chapter 17 – Saadra Ridales

-Forest Encampment-

The supple soft inner bark of the koyolin tree began to peel off into long thick strips as she pulled on them, and using the knife that had been borrowed to her, Saadra carefully sliced off the edible cords.
Placing them into a wooden pail by her side, she proceeded to do the same to another tree, chipping away its outer bark to get at the white innards, then making long slices into the cambium before peeling it back.
Making sure to take just enough so as to not damage the tree too much, she continued for another handful of trees until there was a good bountiful amount of soft edible bark within her bucket.

“Are you almost done there, Saadra?”

A voice inquired from her side and she quickly turned to see an older woman smiling at her. “Just about. How about yourself, Ms. Ebernny?”

“I have enough.” The woman gently held up a wooden bucket of her own, “A few of the others have already gone to wash. I was wondering if you would like to accompany me?”

“Oh, yes please.” She readily replied, seeing that the group of women around them had dwindled. A few were still searching for unharvested koyolin trees, but just like the Ms. before her and herself, many were already pairing up and leaving.
Quickly placing whatever she had in her hands into the bucket, she picked it up and hurried to the woman’s side.

Neither a villager of Esperen nor from the group of refugees led by Captain Biran, the woman was a widow from the village of Vernigale. Ms. Ebernny, as she had wished to be called, had been introduced to their group upon their arrival to the camp, and had been assisting them with how to survive in the forest ever since.
The woman was only in her early-forties, but had lost both her husband and a son to the Countess that used to terrorize the area. Without a husband or the desire to seek one, she was currently living with her second son, who had just become of age.
Beyond being a member of the old lord’s group who all managed to evade the Countess’ constant pursuits, she was also an extremely knowledgeable forager and had been imparting her skills onto them.

“So where is Sarah today? I don’t usually see one of you without the other.” The woman questioned as they made their way through the downtrodden path they had taken to get there.

“She stayed behind to help gather firewood. We were running low after this morning’s breakfast.”

“Oh, did she?”

“Yes. Lady Narissa also volunteered to go with them, so hopefully they’ll have gathered enough to last a couple of days this time.”

“That’s good. With someone like her around, I doubt anything would happen to them.”

The thought of another possible assault against their group flooded her mind, but quickly discarding it, Saadra instead turned her gaze upward beyond the bare and branching trees.
The sky was cloudless again, just like all the other days ever since they settled within the forest. Slowing her steps, “Ms. Ebernny.” She spoke, drawing away from the unsavory thoughts prior and settling onto something else, “How much longer do you think we’ll be living here like this?”

“Hm?” The woman turned to look at her, slowing down to match her pace.

“Hiding in these woods.” Saadra quietly replied, “Scavenging this empty forest for roots and barks while praying for the hunters to bring in meat.”

Joining her in observing the trees, “To be honest, I don’t know either.” The older woman calmly answered, her voice hiding a sense of melancholy.

“Ah, I’m sorry!” She quickly lowered her head apologetically, “You all have been living like this for over a year, and here I am saying such thoughtless things.”

“Heh.” Instead of sorrow, a smile bloomed across the woman’s lips, “There’s no need to apologize. You know, I used to wonder about that myself, but what’s the use? What’s another year or two when it comes to survival? We’ll all continue doing what we must in order to survive. Isn’t that what you have all been doing as well?”

Hearing the optimistic tone of the older woman, “Yes…” She voiced, suppressing her own bitter memories, “It’s just that… until recently we- our group, excluding those from Esperen, were essentially captives living in Karpes. But due to certain fortunate circumstances, we were able to leave that town and move to Esperen. They took us in when we needed a place to stay, and just when we all thought we had found a place to live and learn, the village was attacked. Now with everything that’s happened, I was simply wondering if this is our fate. To continue suffering like this…” She added, staring contemplatively into the distance.

“Of course it isn’t, you silly girl!” A swift declaration of denial, “What that is, is a blessing!”

“A blessing?”

“I don’t dare to imagine what you and your sisterhood has been through nor can I claim to understand your feelings while making this journey, but what I do know, is that you all arriving here was definitely a blessing.”

“I-…” The hardened and unyielding visage of a young man manifested itself within her thoughts. Standing before Sarah and herself, he had forced opened a different path from the one that had been set in stone for her and her sister.
Alongside him, her thoughts glimpsed the gentle expression of an elderly grandmother who had taken them in, along with the villagers of Esperen. She pictured Vick, who had been nothing but nice and helpful to them. And she saw the faces of those they had met thus far, taking in the trials they had endured together. “A blessing…”

“Of course.” The woman’s smile widened into a grin, “You know… I grew up in a logging village up north where we were surrounded by trees year-round. At this time of the year, the forest would usually be covered in a thick blanket of frost and ice would seal many a home, keeping everyone inside. But here in this forest, ever since you all arrived, it has completely stopped frosting. I daresay it has actually gotten even warmer than when we first got here as well. If that’s not a blessing, then I don’t know what it is.”

“R-really?” She stuttered in confusion upon hearing those words.
Thinking back, ever since they left the Esperen camp, even though there was always a chill or breeze with them, the cold had never gotten to a point where they were freezing. As long as they had a fire going, it was always enough to keep warm. Even the rain during their journey barely ever bothered them and when it did rain, it was never more than a drizzle.

“Really. It has even gotten to the point where people are gossiping about something supernatural being afoot.”

A chill slowly made its way up her back, and Saadra turned to look at the woman. “Supernatural?” She asked, recalling the stories from the other refugees who had joined them not too long ago. Of claims about voices whispering in the darkness, and faces from the trees. Rumors of screaming monsters beckoning children and adult alike into the doom of the forest. Even Vick himself had conveyed to them of a most precarious situation while they were making their way back.

“Folks and their mindless superstitions.”

“Like what?”

“Well, some are saying that you were all followed by a Maadrahln, an ancient wood spirit who protects the forest from decay and death. Others believe that we have settled atop the grave of a Suncaster, whose corpse has been buried somewhere in this forest and is still burning to this day, heating the ground from beneath us.” Two very concise answers, “But if you ask me, that’s all bogus. The only truth, is that it got warmer when you all arrived. Which is why I say it’s a blessing.”

“I see… so we’re a blessing.” Taking the woman’s words into consideration, Saadra quickly glanced down at the ground before returning her attention upward, “Thank you.” She added, returning a bright smile.

“There it is.” The older woman suddenly stated with a joyful grin on her face. “The others will be delighted to hear that you have not lost your smile.”

“Eh? What do you mean?” Saadra hastily queried, sensing a tinge of embarrassment rising from within herself.

“You’ve been looking quite down these past few days. You keep that up, and soon those boys you’re so keen to avoid will come knocking. Even Doyle has been pestering me at home, asking if you are unwell.”

“I…” Recalling the amber haired youth who had recently joined the guards and would always greet them whenever they went out foraging, “I’m sorry. There’s just been a lot on my mind lately. Especially with what happened to Kayla and Emerlin.”

“I know. And I’m not telling you to ignore it, but if such a pretty young thing like yourself starts getting all gloomy, the young men here are bound to take notice and will worry. Many of them have been eyeing you, you know?”

“Eyeing m-me?”

The older woman’s joyful grin twisted and, “Pfft- Hahahah!” Ms. Ebernny began chortling giddily.

“…”

“Hehehe! That look on your face! Tehehehe!”

“I can’t believe you…” Embarrassed at how flustered she had been upon being complimented, Saadra quickly lowered her eyes to the ground again.

“Sor- sorry, I was just teasing you. Hihihihihe.”

Hearing the infectious laughter, “Hehe… hehehehehe.” She could not help but giggle along, seeing how foolish she probably looked.

“There you go.”

“Yes, yes. There I go, getting teased again.”

“Don’t be mad.” Ms. Ebernny ushered in between breaths, “A woman can only truly be beautiful when she smiles, and yours is a very beautiful smile.”

“Eh?” Taken aback at the sudden statement, she lowered her head again, “Thank you…”

“It’s such a shame though.” Ms. Ebernny softly voiced, coyly snuggling up next to her. “Especially with such a stalwart man in your group. If you don’t do anything, the other girls will steal him for sure.”

“Steal Vick?” She looked up and tilted her brows in confusion.

“Who else? Setting everything straight as soon as he got back. What a reliable man. I heard that the boys and guards who did that to your two sisters got what they deserved, and not even the parents of those boys could go against him. That even the old Lord of Imvera himself did not stand up for the families, and that golden-haired Captain Biran didn’t dare to oppose what was done either. With such a man behind you all, you and those girls are essentially untouchable now.”

“Vick. He was really angry…”

“I heard from Doyle yesterday, but apparently the guards are so terrified of what he might do that they’re all keeping an especially keen eye on your group. If anything happens to any of you, they will surely come running.”

“I… I don’t even know what to make of that. Should I be happy? Because that just sounds troublesome.”
Everyone within their camp had heard about what Vick did, but she had not expected it to have escalated to such a state.

“Hehe. That’s the kind of situation you girls are in now. Savor it. Live like princesses for a bit, and if anyone dares to bother you or yours, just scream.”

Playing with the idea in her head, “I guess that’s true.” Saadra replied, smiling as the reassurance that help would only be a scream away settled within her mind.

“Now if only such a man would back me up too. Then I’d be able to live like a princess as well.”

Hearing the underlying tone within the woman’s words, “… don’t you mean like a ‘Queen’?” Saadra corrected, trying her best to hold herself from chuckling.

“No. I want to be a princess, and he would be my prince consort.” Setting her pail of cambium on her hip, Ms. Ebernny extended a hand outward and began strutting forward.

Unable to contain herself, “Kehehehe… Hahaha!” Saadra burst into laughter.

Stopping to glance back, “Come, my prince. Let us adjourn to the bed-”

Yet as if to disrupt their fun, “KyaaaaaHHH!”, “Help!” Terrified shrieking erupted from the stream ahead, forcing them both to stop in their tracks.

Ms. Ebernny’s previously silly face had shifted into one of worry and, “Call the guards!” The older woman screamed, quickly dropping her bucket onto the side of the path before rushing off.

Setting her own bucket aside, “HELP!! Someone HELP!!” Saadra screamed, hurrying after.

In no time at all, the small stream opened up before her eyes as she hastily stumbled to a halt behind the others.
Without even searching, she quickly spotted what everyone had been shouting about. Her body instantly seized up and from behind her, the voices of the guards slowly began to fade.

In the air and hovering above the shallow stream, was a black beast with three pairs of translucent wings. Weaving and bobbing gracefully in place, its mesmerizing movements made it look as if it was swimming within the air.
Sleek black scales upon its body appear as if they were sucking in sunlight, while a small red gemstone on the center of its forehead glimmered beautifully.
Catching the beast’s two silver eyes, instead of fear, she felt an unexpected sense of familiarity as their dim glows captivated her.

“Shrraaaahhhh!” The beast hissed, and she felt herself stepping back alongside the others as it dove into the deeper part of the stream.
Submerging for the span of two breaths, it quickly emerged back up, hissing happily while snaking against the current.

“Get back!”

The voices of the guards finally shook her awake and before she could even move, six men had already rushed forward and formed a wall before them.

“W-what is that thing?!” A woman’s voice exclaimed loudly.

Saadra looked to her side, and saw that Ms. Ebernny was locked in fear with a rock the size of a fist in hand. A few of the women who were there first and had been washing their forage were all wet, with two having fled to the trees.

“Don’t lower your weapons!” One of the guards shouted as they all took turns shaking.
“Shooo! Go away!” Another thrusted their spear forward in an attempt to scare the beast, but without even turning to look at them, the black serpent just continued frolicking in the stream.

“It… it’s bathing…”
Someone else voiced, and they all held their positions as the beast continued its thing.

Dipping one of its wings into the cold water, the serpent quickly raised it back up and shook it before doing the same to another. After doing so to its two pairs of forewings, it then lowered its head and began drinking without a care in the world.

“Hey!” A guard hollered in an attempt to draw the beast’s attention, but it simply continued lapping at the water and completely ignored everything else.

“Zirus.”
Coming from within the trees on the other side of the stream, a voice like the cooling breeze of Alivai swept along the ground and made its way toward them and beyond. Unlike what it did with the guards, the black beast immediately turned its head to look back at the trees.

Her body trembled as it regained itself and having heard the familiar voice, Saadra quickly hurried forward.

“Saadra?”
Ms. Ebernny’s voice came from behind, but she did not stop. Instead, she pushed through the curious guards to get a better look at the figure that was coming out of the woods across from them.

With a head of deep black hair even darker than the shadows in which he had emerged from, a young man stopped before the stream and held out an extended arm. Without a single word, the serpent lurched back up into the air and soared over to the youth, coiling around the arm.

Very different from the last time she had seen him, he was no longer wearing any clothes beyond a dried grass skirt covering his lower half. The sword that was always at his side was no longer there either and all that was on his waist, was a pouch made of animal skin.

“My apologies for this unsightly appearance. Might I borrow a shirt from one of you gentlemen?” The youth spoke, and her heart skipped as his voice reverberated through the air with an unshaken dominance.

There was something different about him now. She could not tell what, but his presence itself was vastly overwhelming in comparison to before.

“Y-yessir.” Without question, one of the frozen guards quickly complied and began to undo their outer shirt while trembling. 

Taking the chance, “Kaidus?” She called out, and his gaze instantly turned toward her. Catching his eyes, a grin suddenly rippled into life upon the youth’s face.

B3 Chapter 16 – Second Chance

-Western Malpaars-

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.
“Guards?!”
Again, nothing.
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.
“Garahhhh- aaagggaaaurrgg!”
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.”

“Wha- what?”

“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.

 

***

 

Southern forest.
“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.
“Oh? What?”

“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.

B3 Chapter 15 – Glory of Kings

-Darsus-

Ferrent. 13th Ward. Royal Audience Hall.
“Is this all?” Sharpening his gaze, Sarjace J. Roulus Dalzon looked up from the report in his hand, “All these days, all the men under you, and this is everything your investigation has amounted to?” He questioned, carefully analyzing those kneeling before him.

“My apologies if your majesty has found my findings unsatisfactory.” With his head down submissively, a man wearing the red and white of the Mystiks guild relented, his voice flowing like still water.
Behind the man, four others were also kneeling quietly with their heads down.

“Findings? These excuses and pointless conjectures?” A swift retort, “Tell me. How is this possible?”

Raising his head, unlike the graying of his beard, two sapphire blue eyes glistened observantly from the man’s slender face. Expression unchanging like it was frozen, “We are also at a loss in that regard, your majesty.” Darvont Elutus Kalzorr, Head of the 12th ward Mystiks Guild answered, keeping his voice steady. “The various skirmishes throughout the city should have been our greatest leads, yet there is no residual mana for our seekers to trace. We have also been unable to find a single body, shred, or hide of our enemies. It’s as if they had all simply vanished into thin air during that brief night, guiding all our pursuits into futility.” Locking eyes with his king, Darvont kept his gaze still and confident, not allowing his king to peer into his thoughts.

“And that darkness?” Holding up the report, “A spell employed by the enemies to mask their retreat, was it? Does the Mystiks Guild truly believe that?”

“The very matter is still up for discussion and everyone has their own speculations, but the consensus seems to be so.” Darvont swiftly replied, “Assuming we are correct, it would answer many questions.”

“What of the questions that are unanswered?”

“We are still in the process of figuring that out, your majesty.”

“Hmph. So, no explanations on how this happened without your notice, no trails to follow, no names or bodies to bring to justice, and lastly… no answers or countermeasures for a spell that can consume this whole city.” Sarjace scowled with discontent. Narrowing his eyes, “Am I free to assume that the Mystiks Guild still knows nothing at all, beyond the fact that this was the doing of Tal’hrus?” He questioned, scrutinizing the five mages.

“… Yes.” Darvont answered and quickly lowered his forehead to the floor. “I am ashamed and have no excuses. For this failure, I will gladly accept any and all responsibilities.”

Sitting forward in amusement at the statement, “You?” King Sarjace snapped back, “You think you alone can shoulder the thousands of lives that were lost due to the guild’s negligence?”

“My king. It was my lack of foresight and vigilance that such wanton destruction found its way into our midst. As such, this fault is mine and mine alone. I implore you, please do not blame anyone else.”

Sarjace looked to the four mages behind Darvont, “And you four? What say you?”

“Sire.” Instead of the mages, again, it was Darvont who answered, “It was due to the efforts of the guild mages that we were able to minimize our losses. I hope that your majesty will show leniency and consideration toward his many loyal subjects.”

“My loyal subjects?” Scoffing at the remark, “Do you include yourself in that, my lord?”

“I do, your majesty.” An instant reply.

Discarding the amusement upon his face, “I find it humorous that you would.” With a callousness to his voice, King Sarjace stood up from his throne and slowly ambled forward, “Remind me again… WHAT is the purpose of the Mystiks Guild?”

“It- It is of course to protect and serve this city, your majesty.”

“And WHO does this city belong to?”

“…” Facing the floor, Darvont Elutus Kalzorr reluctantly closed his eyes, “This city belongs to you, your majesty.”

“Then would it be wrong to say that in a sense, the guild exists to serve me?” King Sarjace queried, looming over the mage.

“It would not, your majesty…”

“So enlighten me.”

“Yes, your majesty?”

“Why do you… my ‘loyal subject’, continue this farce?”

“Farce?” Taken aback by the question, Darvont lifted his head only to be met with a harsh glare.

“Do you believe me blind and deaf? That I cannot see what is happening within my own city? That I would not hear about what happens inside the confines of the Mystiks Guild?”

“Your majesty, I don’t understand.”

“But you do,” King Sarjace swiftly countered, staring down at the mage. “The whispers of treason that you have so carefully concealed and buried, going so far as to restrict even my own court mage from disclosing it… just where in this report is it?” He spat the words out and threw the pages before the mage. “To think you would dare to ask for leniency while withholding such secrets from me.”

“That?” Darvont calmly replied, keeping his facial expression in tandem with the tone of his voice, “Forgive me, but I did not deem such matters to be worthy of your majesty’s attention.” He carefully supplemented, lowering his head once more. “The issue was but a tragic misunderstanding on our part, and has already been ruled as such by those who were present at the time. Had I not ordered a decree of silence and the truth were to reach the populace, it would have tarnished the reputation of the Mystiks Guild and by extension, your majesty’s own. In these direst of times when your majesty must have the complete faith and trust of the people, I felt that the blunder of arresting and accusing two innocent citizens would only serve to complicate our situation.”

“… how considerate of you to have kept me in mind.” Releasing the intensity of his scowl, King Sarjace turned around and slowly returned to his throne. Sitting lazily back down on the seat, “Lord Darvont Elutus Kalzorr.” He named, projecting his voice as loud as possible, “For allowing our enemies into the city under your watch. For your inability to bring justice to the people… to the bereaved families of this fair city. I, Sarjace Jeziar Roulus Dalzon, hereby relieve you of your duty as Head of the 12th ward Mystiks Guild.”

“Y-your majesty!?”
One of the four mages behind Darvont cried out, their voice filled with disbelief at the sudden and unexpected ruling.
Yet with the raise of an arm from Darvont himself, the mage instantly stilled his tongue as the King continued in annoyance.

“You are to be restricted to the confines of your home until I have deemed otherwise, and you will no longer trouble yourself with guild matters. As for your replacement, I shall appoint someone else within the coming days. I thank you for your years of service, and hereby officially dismiss you of any further obligations.” King Sarjace commanded, voices resolute and firm.

“Your majesty, please reconsider!” One of the mages quickly begged, raising their voice anxiously.

“Were it not for Lord Kalzorr’s swift actions, many more would have suffered.” Another hastily spoke out, “If anything, it is the guil-”

“Enough. Ryvaas, Evier.” Silencing his subordinates, Darvont quietly looked up to his King and bowed his head once more. “Your majesty is merciful and magnanimous. I shall never forget your benevolence, sire.”

Clenching his fist, King Sarjace stiffly and irritably stood up as the double doors closed upon the opposite side of the large hall.

“Sire, how about some wine? I can have the servants bring a jar to-”

“No.”
Instantly rejecting his steward, he quickly made his way toward one of the side passages, halting as he reached one of the six large supporting pillars.
“Have your men continue observing the guild. I want to be ready for whatever they are up to.” Sarjace ordered, not turning to look at the presence that was now emerging beside them.

“And the target?” An unfeeling but prideful voice answered from the pillar. The shadow that had been cast on one side of it quickly shifted, revealing two dark eyes from within.

“Given the opportunity, finish the job.”

Eyes smiling at the ruthless command, “Of course, master.” The voice replied and vanished back into the shadows.

“Sire…” Lorhan whispered cautiously from behind as the presence disappeared, leaving them alone in the empty hall. “Is it really wise to trust one as such?”

“Trust?” Sarjace retorted, finally turning to look at the now vacant pillar. “I would be a fool to put my trust in such a person. Thankfully for us, it is coins he is after and not trust.” Reaching out, he touched where the man had been hiding within the shadows. Not a single shred of the man’s presence or mana could be felt. “And as you have seen for yourself, his skills are without a doubt second to none. To be able to conceal his presence from the famed Ice Sage of Dumierre… it is no small feat.”

“That- that is true, but I fear that this will only invite-”

“It is not up for debate, Lorhan.”

“I-… of course, sire.”

“Then enough with the second guessing.” Continuing his steps toward the side door, “I will be in my study. Have the royal secretary draw up a list of suitable mages within my court and bring it to me there. I wish to decide on the new replacement as soon as possible.”
Without waiting for a reply, he proceeded forth through the passage with all his dignity in tow.

 

***

 

1st Ward. Southern District.
Standing behind his lord, Troyle’s gaze slowly drew away from the sobbing widow before them and slowly settled onto a young boy standing beside the charred kitchen arch of the small residence.

The boy was clutching a leather vambrace to his chest and there was anger in his tear-filled eyes, yet the child did not make a sound as he watched his mother crying.  

“I’m sorry. I did everything I could.”

Lord Varath’s apology entered his ears and not looking away from the child, Troyle gritted his teeth, biting down his own anger.
Because of him, because of his complacency, the child had become fatherless. And now, the justice they had been promised would never come as well.

“I wish that my wealth and influence was enough, but they are not. And at this point, it would be detrimental for us to continue pushing further. I hope you understand.” Alzin Varath added, bowing low to the woman across from them.

“Y-yes… I understand…” Amidst silent tears, a feeble voice deprived of hope quietly answered.
 
“But that does not mean you both are out of options.” Alzin Varath continued. Not lifting his head, he reached into his cloak and pulled out a sizable pouch before presenting it forth. “This is for you and Adeim. I have made sure that there is enough in there. Enough until he comes of age.”

“M-my lord?”

“Please take it.” Alzin pleaded, keeping his head down.

Hastily getting up from her chair, the woman took hold of Alzin’s arms, “My lord, please. Please raise your head.” She entreated as she attempted to pull him up.

Seeing the woman panicking and his lord refusing to lift their head, “Yuralai.” Troyle spoke, interrupting the anxious widow, “Please take it.”

“But how can I-”

“Please. It is his lordship’s will. Do not hesitate.”

Her two dark eyes stalled onto his own as if searching for verification, and with a nod from him, “T-thank you. Thank you….” The woman reluctantly took the pouch and fell to her knees.

“No… thank you, my lady.” Alzin Varath softly replied before raising his head again. Fixing his posture on the seat and composing himself, he turned his attention back to the widow, “With that, there is something else I wish to ask of you, my lady.”

Seeing the sudden change, the woman quickly drew in her emotions, “Y-yes?”

“It is sudden, but I have decided to uproot my family elsewhere. Troyle here along with a few of the others have already decided to join me on this. If you are not against the idea, how about coming with us?”

Facing the window, he could not help but stare at the devastation around them as their carriage rattled back toward the 11th ward.

Thick lines of soot stretched endlessly across the sides of buildings and roads alike, designating where large flaming walls had been erected during the attack. In their proximity stood the crumbling houses that had been scorched black by the flames, and strewn all along both sides of the main road with no end in sight, were countless emergency tents hosting those who had been displaced from their homes.

The scene was a far cry from the last time they had visited the 1st ward, but seeing it, he could not help but feel fortunate for his own family’s circumstances.

“You’ve been eerily silent since we left Oris’ house.”

The words came from in front of him and Troyle quickly turned his focus from the outside to his lord.

“Mind sharing what’s on your mind?” Alzin added, staring back at him.

“My lord,” Forcing his own thoughts away from the devastation, “I… I’m wondering if this is the right thing to do?” Troyle calmly answered, holding back the myriad of other questions within his own mind.

“If what is the right thing to do?”

“Leaving like this.” He elaborated, “Oris and Kanaar, along with their families… they deserve better than this.”

“I know.” Alzin Varath replied, sitting forward solemnly, “But unless you are willing to set that thing in your sword free, then our options are pretty limited. Especially with what’s happened.”

Following his lord’s gaze, Troyle lowered his eyes to the two slim swords next to him. The weapon housing the familiar had reappeared by itself within the Varath manor upon their return, and they had not dared to question it.
“I… I am not.” He quietly conceded, recalling what it did to a room of mages. What it had effortlessly done, to one of the Five Flames.

“Then all we can do for them is offer their families some form of security, while looking after our own.” Alzin Varath replied.

“Yes, my lord.”

Seeing Troyle’s troubled expression and sensing the discomfort within the carriage, “Don’t look so disappointed. Let me just tell you now that this isn’t over yet.” Alzin Varath quickly stated, “We will bide our time for now and wait for this to blow over. Once it does, I will petition his majesty once again.”

“You will?” Troyle questioned, surprised at the unyielding resolve.

Turning to face Troyle, Alzin smiled. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m just unwilling to sit back and allow that ignoble and treacherous walking discharge of a man to get away with what he did.”

“Then I must apologize for thinking otherwise.”

“It’s fine. As a great man once said, ‘Anger and vengeance are powerful tools, but a true man must know how and when to employ their patience’. I might not be that great of a man myself, but I too, can be patient… if not persistent.”

“I’d say persistent would be an understatement.” Troyle quipped, finally forcing a smile out of himself.

“Hah? Yea okay, fair enough.” Alzin lightheartedly admitted with a grin of his own and leaned back, “I mean… just who wouldn’t be if they knew what I knew?” He replied while staring ponderously at the empty seat across from him.

“You gave your words. Don’t forget that.” Troyle swiftly reminded.

“I know!” With an exaggerated groan, Alzin Varath sighed and slumped further down his seat. “I know… which is why I’m regretting it so much right now.” He pouted, looking to be lost in frivolous thoughts.
And for the span of a few breaths, they continued in silence as the somber atmosphere returned.
Hurrying to sit up again, “Do you have any idea when he’s coming back?”

“I don’t. We have yet to receive a single letter as well.”

“I see…” Straightening himself, Alzin quickly returned to his usual poise, “I just keep wondering what might have happened had he been here, you know?” A frightened but overly curious smile crept onto his lips. 

And, “I do.” Troyle quietly concurred.

“What do you-”

“My lord. Do you think Kanaar and Oris’ widows will accept your proposal?” Troyle quickly interrupted, not wishing to dwell on the matter further.

“Hmmm…” Easily taking the hint, “Lady Aury has family here in Ferrent, so I’m not sure about her. As for Oris’ widow… I believe she was from outside the city. If either of them was to join, I think it will be her.”

“So a possible eight families.”

“Yes.” Alzin confirmed, “What about you? How are your preparations coming along?”

“A few minor things need to be accounted for and the house will have to be sold, but I have already acquired the service of the merchant’s guild for these very matters. Even if our escorts get here before everything is taken care of, my family will be good to go.”

“That’s great. Then I shall continue to trouble you.”

“It is part of the job, my lord.” Troyle replied, returning a wry smile.

B3 Chapter 14 – Twins II

The sound of sniveling began to silently reverberate around them as Ulamara’s breathing stabilized itself. Having watched over her carefully, the light from the young spirit’s body had already dimmed and the infusion of mana he had given her had also vanished, yet she did not wake. Instead, her body was beginning to curl up.

“Ulamara. Can you hear me?” He whispered, keeping his voice barely audible.

Her lips began twitching in silent grief and, “Please… please stay safe… *sniff*” As if pleading for the wellbeing of someone, tiny droplets of tears began to emerge from the corner of her eyes as she sobbed.

“Ulamara.” He gently reached forward and carefully wiped away a stream of tears, “It’s time to wake up.” He coaxed, willing for her to return.
And almost immediately, the young spirit’s eyes drew open.
Having accepted his will, no longer were her eyes a deep black like that of the void, they had also taken on the same silver as his own–just like Zirus.
She turned to look up at him and he smiled, seeing the dazed and confused look on her face.

Unsteadily pushing herself to sit up, “I- I had a dream…” The young spirit’s poignant voice slowed to a crawl as her eyes widened in surprise. Bringing her arms up, Ulamara began to carefully examine herself as if looking to confirm that they were hers.

“You fell unconscious.”

“I… Th- that’s right…” With a somber reply, more tears emerged to roll down her cheeks.

“Did you witness another memory?” He questioned, seeing her forlorn and melancholic expression. And without a word, she simply nodded.
“I see…” Unwilling to imagine what was going through her thoughts, he reached forward again and gently wiped away more tears. “Cheer up.” He encouraged, “Those are, but mere after images of withering dreams and not something you can control. Do not dally on them, as there are far better and more fortuitous moments to consider.” Her two silver eyes drew upward at his words and seeing her staring, he smiled, “The pact has been sealed, and we are bound. I will be in your care from now on.”

A joyous grin suddenly emerged upon the young spirit’s lips. “Yes!” and she quickly replied in affirmation, her grief all but gone.

Without another word. By his will, the three protective layers of light surrounding them instantly shattered into nothingness, revealing an exhausted phrae standing in the air–at the edge of the outer barrier.

“Ulamara!” Instead of the exhausted guardian, Elamara’s frantic voice rushed toward them. Flying past him, the young phrae descended down to her sister. “Wh- what happened to you?!” The young girl exclaimed.

“I… I don’t know.” Turning down to look at herself once more, Ulamara’s frazzled expression was evident enough of her own curiosity.

“You feel so- so different. And your eyes… how!?” Elamara shouted again, voice now filling with curious excitement.

Ulamara turned, looking up to him questioningly. “I think- hmmm… I think it’s because of what happened?”

Giving another smile in return, he slowly stood up from where he had knelt all morning, “Come,” He beckoned, extending an arm outward.
With an eager nod and then an apologetic smile to her sister, Ulamara rushed toward him and walked off the edge of the large chest.

“Ula?!” A frantic voice cried out.

With a surprising calm to her, mana burst forth from the young spirit’s body.
Wrapping around her like a gilded veil, Ulamara took to the air, flying upward effortlessly.
Overflowing with her newfound gift, the young phrae enthusiastically circled around him twice, before landing gracefully atop the palm of his hand like she had been flying all her life.

With her in hand, he turned around to face the other phraes, “Is there any objections to my choice?” He questioned, holding Ulamara in front of him for all to see.

The face of the young girl’s father twisted from anger to fear and helplessness, and on the ground behind the phrae, the others voicelessly turned to look at the elderly Shii with anxious expressions.

Yet instead of rallying them, the old phrae merely shook his head in resignation and flew upward to stand beside the twin’s father–Osfurun.
“To think I would see the day…” Eyes filled with wonder, the old spirit placed a hand on the twin’s father as if to console the defeated phrae before floating forward. Without taking its eyes off them, “The words of the Eternals have been spoken, and the bonds have been forged… these insignificant ones would not dare.” The elder spoke, lowering its head carefully, “The honored one may do as he wishes.”
And as the Shii did so, on the ground, the group of phraes looked to one another with bewilderment before doing the same.

Kaidus turned his attention to the father of his new bond. “I can see your distress. Let me assure you that nothing shall ever happen to your daughter. And should she ever wish for it, I will bring her back. You have my words.”

“H-how?” The troubled spirit questioned, his expression faltering as his eyes continued to stare at them, at Ulamara. “How is it possible that you know the bindings of the Eternals? Such magic should have… should be lost to the realm of men already. Just what- just who are you?”

An amused smile crept onto his lips, “You were not entirely wrong in calling me a destroyer.” He coyly answered, recalling what Ulamara and Elamara had said about them after his inquiry the previous night, “But do not think me the same as those dregs.”

“D-dregs?”

The deathly wails of thousands of phraes entered his ears, and he quickly shut them out. “What else would you call thieves who can do naught, but steal and claim the strength of others as their own?” By his will, the silver of his true lineage manifested itself once more.

Just like what happened the previous night, the inquisitive phrae quickly recoiled defensively. Its curiosity and pride instantly vanished, leaving nothing but fear and confusion in their place.
The others frantically took on defensive postures beside each other and their bodies began flaring with mana, but with a single look from the Shii, they all swiftly ceased their actions.

Hiding his amusement, he quickly dispelled himself and reverted his appearance. “Ulamara.” Addressing the young spirit in his hand, “There is something I must do before we depart. If you have any words for your parents and your kin, I suggest that you go and bid your farewells.”

Returning a questioning look and then an understanding nod, the young girl leapt from his hand and flew toward her frozen father.

 

***

 

Standing before her mother and father along with Elamara to her side, “I’m sorry.” She apologized, lowering her head as the apology left her mouth.

“Ulamara…”

Her mother’s voice swept by and through her newfound senses she felt a hand coming toward her, but it quickly stilled itself before reaching her head.
Sensing the hesitation, “Please forgive me…” She quickly entreated, keeping her eyes on her own two legs as the power coursing throughout her body continued to circulate from within the depths of her core.
‘Please… please say something.’ She begged within her mind. Yet as she stood with her head down, neither of them said a word.
‘Please…’
Feeling her own sense of self crumbling due to the silence, two arms suddenly wrapped themselves around her.

“What are you guys doing when Ula is leaving?!” Elamara’s voice snarled loudly. From her sister, there was neither hesitation nor fear. All that existed on Elamara’s face, was an envious smile and eyes filled with joy.
“Don’t bother with them!” Elamara exclaimed, directing a bout of irritation at their parents, “I’m happy for you. Just… please come back and tell me all about the outside?” Ela added, pulling her in tighter.

Elamara’s words that were filling with loneliness crushed her from within, and she powerlessly lowered her head onto Ela’s shoulders, “Nhn… I promise.”

“Ulamara…” A gentle hand finally settled itself upon her head and tenderly brushed her hair backward, “We should be the ones apologizing.” Her mother’s voice echoed into her ears.

Pulling away from Elamara, she looked to her mother.
There was sadness in her mother’s eyes. One, that was overwhelmed by guilt and hidden behind an immeasurable fear of the unknown.

“You have never been one to spin tales, and I should have believed you. To lose you like this… it is my greatest regret, and I am sorry. Can you forgive me?” An apologetic smile manifested upon her mother’s lips.

Rushing into her mother’s chest as her own tears spilled out, “Mam!” She cried out, embracing her mother tightly.

“We only wished to protect you. I’m so sorry.”
Voice trembling, her mother broke into tears as gentle fingers continued to tenderly brush through her hair.

“You have!” She sobbed as memories arose within the back of her mind, “You all have!” She added, forever grateful for the countless nights they had stayed up beside her as she writhed in pain from over exposure to the mana sustaining her. Thankful for how they had cherished her even though she had been nothing but a burden, a phrae incapable of utilizing the gifts bestowed upon their kind. Remorseful, for having blamed them for her illness on more than one occasions.

With a good cry, her mother wiped away her tears and she reluctantly stepped away before facing her father.
“Father…” She timidly addressed, ashamed at putting him through so much.

“Ulamara.”

“I’ve been inconsiderate and selfish. Please forgive me.” She quickly lowered her head again.

“So you do understand the nature of your actions…”

Hearing the disappointment and disapproval in his voice, “I’m sorry.” The words were barely able to squeeze themselves out of her mouth.

“I- haaa…. me too. I’m-… I’m sorry for not believing you.” Instead of further displeasure, her father sighed and his tone staggered into one of dumbfounded apology, “Your stubbornness… it reminded me of my own, and perhaps that was why I couldn’t believe what you were saying…” She could hear a tinge of guilt clinging onto his every word, “But alas, I see now that I was wrong… completely wrong.”

Hearing the solemnness in his voice, she glanced upward, only to see her father looking over to where the honored one was busy tying grass stalks together.

“I cannot stop you anymore, and you have already chosen this path so I will not ask why. But you… you should already know the reasons why our ancestors have sequestered us into this realm. Why our forebearers have always kept to themselves. So please… please take care of yourself.”

Mouth quivering with relief, she immediately prostrated herself and lowered her head to the ground, gracious for his love and care. “I will, father.”

“And… there is one more thing I must ask of you.”

“Yes, father?”

“Take- … take your sister with you.”

“Huh?!” Elamara’s shocked voice shattered the subtle atmosphere.

“Take Ela with me?” She echoed back, looking up in disbelief.

“*Sigh*… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes… take Elamara with you.” Their father confirmed, his body language and voice having completely given up already. “The two of you have never been apart from one another for more than an afternoon. I fear she will end up sneaking out on her own to follow you regardless of what may happen. And you… you have never been without us either.” Turning to Elamara, “Go with your sister. Watch out for each-”

Before their father could even finish, Elamara had already thrown herself at him. “T-thank you! Thank you! thank you! thank you!”

 

***

 

Giving the bundle of grass that he had crudely strung together in front of him a final inspection, Kaidus pulled it up and wrapped it around his waist.
Long enough to encircle him almost twice, the grass skirt fell down to his knees and easily concealed his lower half.
“That should be good enough.” He remarked and turned toward the two young spirits who had been waiting patiently for him. “Thank you for waiting. Are the both of you ready to go?”
 
“Yes!” Shouting excitedly, Elamara swiftly flew upward to eye level with him.
Nodding brightly as well, Ulamara did the same and floated up beside her sister.

“Then I believe it is time we left these woods.” Giving them both a grin, he looked down to the pile of black coils that had been lying silently on the ground beside him. “Zirus.”
At his behest, the youngling’s eyes lit up and two translucent wings instantly shot upward. A single flap of its wings propelled the serpent into the air, and beating its two pairs of forewings in rhythm, “SHRaaa!” The serpent proudly displayed itself before excitedly rushing to settle along his shoulders.
“You have both seen him, but let me introduce you. This is Zirus, my traveling companion. He is a bit prideful, but he too has formed a bond with me.” Gesturing to the two young spirits, “Zirus, these are Elamara and Ulamara. They will be coming with us. Be nice to them.”

Having formally introduced them to one another, the twins quickly bowed their heads while Zirus arched its own curiously toward them. “Hssss!” And with a disinterested hiss, it quickly slithered to coil itself around his left arm as usual.

With the twins and Zirus accounted for, by his will, his three shards of the Nyzacus mirrors along with the crowned seed that he had picked up the previous day lurched upward from where they laid.
Leaving them to hover around his vicinity, he closed his eyes and focused his mind onto one of the three rings on his fingers.
As soon as he did so, the signal from Vick’s ring immediately responded.

Vick’s position was no longer where it had been the previous evening and judging by the distance in relation to his own, it was surely a good four to five days of careful trekking on foot.
Turning his attention back to the two eager spirits, “I’ve got our destination. We will take it slow so that you both do not exhaust yourselves, but please let me know if you wish to rest at any time.”
 
“I will.” Ulamara calmly answered back.
With a curious look at her sister, “Me too!” Elamara added as her excitement spilled out onto her face.

“Alright then.” Willing the mana within his body to gush forth, “Let’s go.” He spoke, and powerful gust swept him into the air.

“Ehhh?!?”
Elamara’s surprised voice resounded from below him as Ulamara giggled knowingly, zipping up to his side.
“Y-you can fly too?!”

 

***

 

-Darsus. Zorin Academy-

“Please… please give me a sign…” Master Keral groaned, having lost count of the numerous texts and documents he had boringly slogged through, “I beg you… anything will do at this point. ANYTHING.” He pleaded, quickly flipping through the texts in front of him without even skimming through them, before dismissing them onto a large pile behind him.

Ever since the attack on the city, he had spent almost every available moment seeking out what the deceased headmaster had been pursuing.
But even after hundreds of records, journals, books, and documents, his laborious efforts had borne little to no reward. The only thing that he could conclude from the seemingly endless pursuit, was that the old master had been researching history. And not just any history, but ancient history with a few texts going as far back as what has been deemed the Golden Ages by modern scholars.
Yet, having survived the trials of time via countless transcriptions and reiterations, the works before him now were nothing more, than fanciful tales filled with metaphors and idyllic visions.

“Why?” Keral questioned, slumping back into the seat. “Haaa….” With an exhausted sigh, he turned to look at the mountains of books around him before leaning his head back and closing his eyes. “Why did you not confide in any of us?” He groaned as frustration overwhelmed his thoughts.

As if on cue to disturb him, *Knock!* *Knock!* “Master Keral? Are you still in there?” A voice called out to him from through the door.

Hurrying to sit up properly, “Yes?! Come in!” Keral quickly shouted back, prompting the door to creak open.
Stepping into the room with a tray of food was Sven, the head of the deceased headmaster’s scribes.
“Is it dinner already?” He questioned in surprise, seeing the man out of his green and white scribe robes.

“Not yet, but I thought you might be hungry.” The man answered while carefully maneuvering through the mess toward him.

“That so? Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” Sven replied, carefully placing the tray onto the desk. Taking a curt step back, instead of leaving, the scribe took a long gander around the room. “This mess… it really reminds me of him.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Keral quietly agreed, following the scribe’s gaze.

“Locking himself in here all those days. Forgetting to even eat, never even resting, and now…”

Seeing the desolate look on Sven’s face, “The return orders have not been sent out yet, you know? If you need more time to mourn, just-”

“No.” A swift reply with a grateful nod, “Thank you, but I am fine. It’s just… I’m so used to seeing him there in your very spot that it just feels surreal. Who would have guessed that he would be gone like this?” With a lifeless smile, “Anyways, my apologies for disturbing you. I shall return to my duties at once.”

“Nonsense, and thank you for the food.” Keral quickly answered back.
Yet as he watched the scribe open the door to leave, a thought suddenly struck him. “Sven! Wait!” And he shouted, prompting the scribe to halt before the door.

“Yes?”

“Do you… do you happen to know who usually brought the headmaster his food while he secluded himself in here?”

A questioning look manifested upon Sven’s face, “I did whenever I could, sir. Otherwise, I would send one of the others. Why do you ask?”

“I just- can you come back here for a moment?” He urged, and as the scribe made his way back toward him, “I need you to look around to see if there is anything you might recognize. Maybe a book that you saw the headmaster deeply curious with. Maybe he let slip a remark about something to you? Just anything that might clue me in on whatever it is that he was so fervently searching for.”

Quickly silencing himself, he watched as Sven proceeded to carefully survey the room.

After a long arduous moment, alas, the scribe merely looked back to him and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize anything here nor can I remember the headmaster taking a vested interested in any of these texts.”

“I see… thank you.” With a deep sigh and the hopes within him vanishing, he quietly reached forward and took hold of the spoon upon his dinner tray.
The answers he was seeking were nowhere to be found yet. At least he would not be searching for them on an empty stomach.

“Master Keral.”

“Yes?” He looked back up to the scribe.

“If you believe whatever the headmaster was doing to be important, perhaps there might be a clue in his notes?”

Eyes widening at the information, “Notes? The old man was taking notes?” He immediately questioned back.

“I’ve seen him scribbling on more than one occasion. He would never tell me what he was doing and would always try and hide them whenever I got close, but I remember seeing pages here and there whenever I would come to check up on him.

“I… I have not seen anything resembling notes around here.”

“Maybe he’s hidden them somewhere? If we’re lucky, maybe they’ve been buried under the books?”

“That- curses…” He grumbled at his own stupidity, “With all that’s happened and everyone so busy and away these days, I didn’t think it a priority to waste anyone’s time tidying up this room.”

“A handful of the scribes have already returned. If you’d like, I can call for them and we can spend the evening clearing and organizing this place.” Sven quickly suggested.

“Yes. Yes… that would be great.”

Before long, the crumpled corners belonging to a handful of beige parchments edged through the mountain of books they were excavating. Situated midway through the pile, it had probably fallen off the desk during the many quakes and shocks of the attack, and then gotten buried beneath even more books that fell after. 

Just looking at the corners, they could all see that they were the same type of papers that the scribes were using, and did not have any bindings or covers like all the rest.

Shuddering with excitement as he pulled it free, Keral quickly poured through the pages. “This… this is it. The old man’s notes…” He voiced in exasperated relief, taking in the familiar handwriting that had been scribbled throughout them all.

B3 Chapter 13 – Animals

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. 

“Yes…”
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.”

‘Huh?’
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.

‘This is…’

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.

‘Great Mother…’
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.

 

***

 

-Southern Malpaars-

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.”

“Matters?”

“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.

“Lady Narissa.”

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.

“S-sir?”

“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.

“VICK!”
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.

“I…”

“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.

“GRUAaaaaahhH! UnnnhhggggrrraaAAA!”
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.

B3 Chapter 12 – Treasures of the Phrae

Floating above the ground, Elamara quietly observed the slumbering human before her.
Sleeping idly without a care in the world, even though she knew he was a mage, she could no longer sense any trace of magic or malice coming from him. Even his daunting presence the night before had disappeared, and were she not looking at him directly, she would not have known that he was there at all.

“Kaidus Paltos…” She spoke his name, whispering it curiously.
While his appearance was that of a young male, he did not carry himself like those she had seen of his age. The feeling he gave off and the way he spoke, it was more akin to someone like that of their father, even an elder within the clan.

Looking to his side, her eyes fell upon Ulamara who was resting peacefully on a bed of grass.

The odd exchanges between the two resurfaced in her mind, along with her own inquiry regarding the human.
Thinking back, Ulamara’s answer had been promptly cut off by the person himself, and because of what was happening at the time, she had thought nothing of it.
Even with Ulamara calling him an “honored one”, the significance of those words had not truly dawn upon her until they were back home.

First it was the quarrel against the Shii about gifts from the entangled troves, and then with their parents for coming into contact with the human.
Ulamara, who had always been careful of what she was saying and had never been a cause for concern or disputes, had actively contended against their elders. And not just for an outsider, but a human. Then there was the portal and everything else since.
As unbelievable as it was, the sudden changes had undoubtedly come after their meeting with the person before her.

“Hmmm…”
Closing her eyes, the events of the previous night easily came to her. 

The human’s careful deliverance of them onto the ground.
His snap, bringing about the white world.
Their father’s petrified expression of helplessness.
The human’s brief introduction, followed by an intense resonance.
And then Ulamara’s effortless conjuring of a portal to send their father back.

The oppressive atmosphere that surrounded them then had been enough to keep her questions and curiosity at bay, but now, all she can think about was his true identity.
Rhultal Vox Treval AnDargus.’
The name echoed through her core, but she could not understand why he had given them a false name in the first place.
“Last of the An’Daralites…” She voiced curiously, incapable of comprehending what such words even meant. “Heir to the Silver Pla-”

“HHHsssss!”
The dreaded sound of a peeved hiss came from behind the human, almost frightening her out of the air.

Barely managing to catch herself, she quickly flew upward as two menacing silver eyes slowly slithered onto the human’s slumbering body.
Though she had glimpsed it in the darkness before, the creature was unlike what she had expected. Now stretching its two pairs of translucent black forewings into the air, it was not just an ordinary serpent, but a beast of the sky. Along its body, the serpent’s sleek black scales were gleaming with an odd and eerie luster.

Casually coiling itself into a pile on top of the human’s chest, the black serpent looked up at her, “Hsssss!!” And hissed again, before turning its attention to their surroundings.

Sensing the atmosphere around them growing denser, she quickly looked in the same direction as the beast.

Along the edge of the human’s crude camp, the soft light of dawn was warping and stretching. Subtle and transparent like a window, before long, a large phrae portal manifested into the world.

 

***

 

“Zirus… get off me.” Kaidus groaned, sensing that a group of new arrivals had intruded upon his makeshift camp. Not just one or two like the previous night, there were at least over a dozen new presences now.

“Krrarrrr!”
The youngling growled back, but slithered off as he sat up.

Looking beside himself, Ulamara was still sleeping upon the nest of grass that he had pulled together for the young phrae and her sister. Elamara on the other hand, was already up and in the air with a troubled expression on her face.

Following Elamara’s gaze, he easily spotted the group of phraes.
There were sixteen altogether, and they had all stopped at the entrance of his shelter like they were waiting for him. On the grass behind them all, he could see a large elongated chest made of intertwining roots and vines.

Osfurun, the father of the twins was with the group as well. Unlike what it had done the night before, the prideful phrae was now on the ground and standing with the rest.
Along with the guardian, two of the new arrivals also caught his eyes. They were overflowing with mana comparable to that of the twin’s father themselves, and the three of them together were unquestionably the strongest within the group.
Yet his attention did not stall upon them. Instead, he found himself watching an older phrae who was walking to the front of the assembly.
Looking at least a generation or two older than the rest, the worn phrae had a curved horn and a dark body that appeared to be shrouded in shadows. There was a sense of refinement flowing from the phrae, and with just one look, he could tell that it was the “Shii” whom Elamara and Ulamara had been mentioning in passing.

Catching his eyes, ‘Pardon our intrusion,’ The elderly phrae was the first to speak, ‘But am I correct to assume that you are the one who devastated this area of our forest?’

A melodious voice quavered in his mind like a ritualistic chant, and Kaidus calmly straightened himself before nodding, “My apologies.”

A surprised smile carved itself upon the elderly spirit’s dark face. ‘I am Zener En’Tildiarai, last of my Silteil and the Shii of this unruly brood. Might you do me the honor of giving me your name as you have my progeny?’

The sudden introduction took him aback, but with careful scrutiny, “I am Rhultal Vox Treval AnDargus. You may call me Kaidus Paltos, as bestowed upon me by those who have ordained me this body of flesh.” He replied, reciprocating the phrae’s sincerity.

Behind the old phrae, the group hastily took to the air as the grounds upon which they stood began shaking. Instead of doing the same, the elder’s pitch-black eyes lit up and the spirit strolled forward, walking through the soft light that was now glowing with an invigorated luminosity. ‘This is…’ The elder’s voice resounded with wonderment as it reached out to touch the condensing light around them, ‘It is as if the will of the world itself is waking…’

The old spirit’s voice continued but not wanting to interrupt, Kaidus quietly allowed the spirit to postulate.
He had usurped the twin’s father of all its magical prowess in their brief engagement, but this time, it was the result of Vishan’s excitement alone that had brought about the phenomenon.
Watching the old phrae taking in Vishan’s presence, the spirit suddenly ceased its amazement as if realizing something and looked back up at him.

‘Forgive me if I overstep, but what did you mean by your words?’

“It is nothing.” He answered, lips edging upward into a regretful smile upon seeing the curiosity on the spirit’s face, “Merely the unintelligible murmuring of fading memories, and nothing for you or yours to be wary of.”
He had thrown the name out there with the slimmest of hopes, but as he had expected, even an elder of the phraes did not recognize it.

‘Is that so?’
The phrae’s two dark eyes pierced through him, but did not question further. Turning back to the others, the old spirit nodded.

The whole of the group began glowing and mana oozed forth from them all without exception. Like a thick mist, their magics flowed and weaved together into a large visible sphere of varying illuminations before crashing down onto the large chest behind them.

Something anxiously grasped onto his fingers, and he turned to see that Ulamara had woken up and was now hiding behind his hand that he had set on the ground.  Elamara had descended to join her, and both were keenly observing what was happening with expressions of puzzlement.

With the unified cluster of mana conforming around the large chest like a viscous liquid, the elder finally took to the air and flew back to it. Placing both of his hands upon the layer of vibrant mana that had completely encased the chest, the elder’s dark body began to glow.
*PSSSSAAAAAAAA*
The sound of compressed air sizzled from the chest as the layer of mana surrounding it vanished.

“I see…” Kaidus voiced in amazement.
Leagues above what he had seen being taught at Zorin, the group of phrae had just performed a combination spell.
Utilizing the strength of their numbers, each of the phraes had formed a specific verse of the unbinding magic with their mana. The elder himself had unified all their spells within its body and acting as a conduit, channeled it further with his own to undo the seal on the chest.
It was a flawless demonstration of magic and being a form of spirits themselves, it was something that only the phraes could have accomplished.

“Is that the ‘entangled troves’ you two were talking about?” Kaidus whispered, looking down to the twins.

“One of the two chests from it, yes.”
Elamara answered and Ulamara nodded as the Shii and two others began flying over to them.

“Elamara. Ulamara.” Preceded by a low but effeminate voice, a female phrae did not stop in the air with the other two. Instead, she descended toward the twins. “Are the both of you alright?”
With long brown hair like fertile earth and a body the tone of ember sunset just like Elamara and Ulamara, the female was one of two that had caught his attention earlier.
Veiled in a thin shroud of reddish light, she was still overflowing with power even after what they had done.

“Mam!” Elamara exclaimed, hurrying forward to embrace their mother.

“Ulamara?” The older phrae questioned, her eyes seeking out Ulamara who was hiding behind his hand.

Unlike her sister, Ulamara returned a nod but did not move from her spot.

“Ulamara.” The Shii finally spoke out loud, his aged and collected voice reverberating through them. “I have deemed your ‘honored one’ worthy of our treasures. Do you have any further grievances?”

Without answering, Ulamara ducked behind his hand even more, obscuring herself from view.

“I shall take your silence as having no further grievances.” The elderly phrae turned, “Kaidus Paltos… son of men,” Lowering its head respectfully, “I have been informed about everything that has happened. Whatever your motives are, as an apology for what has been done and a show of gratitude for your mercy, you may take something you desire from what we have gathered over the ages.”

Looking to the now opened chest, he could see numerous items within.
The gleam of sharpened blades, armor from who knows what era, the top of an enchanted helmet, along with various undefinable magical artifacts.
“A treasure of the phraes, is it?” He questioned, and Ulamara tensed up.

“In exchange for my daughter.” The twin’s father brazenly stated, “Now undo whatever it is you have done, and see to it that our daughter comes back to us.”

Kaidus steadied his gaze onto the twin’s father. “As I have said before, you are mistaken. Ulamara is not a prisoner nor is she under any sort of enchantment.”
The young phrae clung even tighter to his hand upon his words.

From in front of them, “Ulamara, is that true?” The mother of the twins questioned, her voice quite surprised by the revelation.

He quickly attempted to move his arm aside to reveal Ulamara for them to see, but the young phrae would not let go. “Ulamara…” He spoke, easily drawing her attention instead. “Remember what you said last night?”

“…” The young spirit lowered her head, but still did not let go.

“Look at them. They have all come for you.” He added, reminding her of his words and her agreement to return, should they come to retrieve her.

“I… I want to… with… -ou…”
She dug her face into his hand, muffling her words.

“Ulamara?” Kaidus called her name again.

“I don’t want to go back. I- I want to stay with… with you.” She answered timidly.

“Haaa?!” Elamara exclaimed aloud and, “Ulamara, what are you saying?” The twin’s mother quickly and anxiously voiced, supplementing the confusion.

Peeking out at her mother, “I- I’m not going back. I want to stay with-”

“Ulamara.” Kaidus interrupted, instantly silencing her. “As I’ve said before, your emotions are not-”

“They are!” The young girl retorted loudly, her determination plain for all to hear. “They are mine and I know it! So please… please don’t make me go back. I don’t want to forget you.”

Confounded by the outburst, “Ulamara… look at me.” He instructed, and she tearfully turned to stare up at him.
Peering into her dark eyes, he could see her ironclad desires begging for him to allow her to stay by his side. It was a yearning, like that of someone who had found self and purpose. 
And unable to ignore her resolve, “It is not safe out there.” He calmly warned.

“It is if I’m with you!” The young phrae snappily countered, “Please, I can help. I can be of use!”

“Ulamara! Cease this foolishness!” Osfurun, the twin’s father shouted from where he stood within the air. “As for you…” The phrae hesitated briefly, “take whatever it is you desire from the chest, and begone from our forest.”

Still clinging onto his hand, “Please…” The young phrae tearfully begged again.

He gave the young spirit a smile, “… Your father is right. It is time we ended this and went our separate ways.” Her grasp upon his hand immediately loosened as her face fractured into sorrow.
“I may take anything I want from the chest, correct?” Kaidus questioned, looking to the Shii who had been silent thus far.

“Anything of your choosing.”

“Understood.” Slowly standing up, the young phrae’s disheartened arms left his own and she began weeping. “There is no need for tears.” He spoke, wrapping his hand around her instead and picking her up.

“What are you doing?” The twin’s father bellowed.

With Ulamara sobbing in his hand, he stepped toward the large chest and placed the young phrae inside it, setting her atop a folded chain mail. Without looking at anything else, “For the generous offer conferred to me,” He invoked, and in the chest, Ulamara slowly lifted her tearful gaze to look up at him. “I choose this child.”

““NO!””
Two voices screamed out in unison, their cries sending a shockwave throughout the clearing.

Unleashing his will, multiple layers of light immediately erected themselves around him and the chest.
“In the name of Eis’Murilzen, the First Mother,” He evoked, and Ulamara’s eyes widened as shock and anticipation made their way across her face, “I, Rhultal Vox Treval AnDargus, by the guiding hands of Cayadrin, Virulent Mistress of Bonds and Fates,” The mana within his body began to boil as he fortified his mind, “As the last of my name, I hereby invoke the Pact of Halasiens, Guardian of Eternity.”
His vast strength spilled out around them, and carefully reaching for the young phrae, “Ulamara En’Muryd, Spirit of Will and beloved daughter of Osfurun En’Kalinsor and Kelinthia En’Galite,” He recited, touching the tip of her horn and pricking himself upon its sharpness. “You, are now mine.”
At his declaration, the bead of blood that had emerged from his finger was sucked into the young girl’s horn and her body exploded with light.

With two black eyes still staring up into his own, “F-forever bounded by the roots of Dinasthirea, the E-Errant Tree of Wonder and shattered will of Lovis, I-I am yours.” She repeated, peering into his memories.

 

***

 

-Elsewhere-

Dropping the carcass of the hunter that it had been feasting upon, it turned its attention toward the horizon as its body of flesh shuddered with excitement. Bare and bloodied, a thin smile crept onto its beautiful womanly visage and the creature turned to its surroundings, only to confirm that their voices of disdain were now nonexistent.

Turning back to gaze into the distance, whatever it is that had freed it from its prison of dream had once again made their presence known. The silence of the trembling world around it was evident enough.

With a disinterested glance at the hunter, it calmly and tenderly began licking the blood on its pale and slender arms in an effort to resist the urge of reverting back to its true form.