B3 Chapter 26 – Preparations

-Malpaars-

 

“Krraaaauuuu!!”
Like the echoes of a mountainous beast, a proud screech reverberated loudly through the air, marking the day’s dawn.
With three pairs of wings unfurled majestically and soaring above the trees like a bolt of black lightning, “Kaaaryaaahhh!” Zirus howled sharply again, this time with irritation as it roused the sleeping forest.

At its command, throughout the thick and resilient undergrowth, a number of animals began scurrying out of their burrows and nests. Meeting the frozen world head on, many of them began thrashing through the leaflitters with confusion as they fled in all directions.

Without hesitation or fear of failure, the youngling instantly swooped into the sea of trees. Weaving through them skillfully, “Kuuuarrrraaa!” With a fierce roar, it quickly sought out the larger and more substantial preys, cutting off their frantic escapes and redirecting the paths of their flight.

 

 

Forming a crude wall formation with their three archers in the back, a terrified group of thirteen waited with wooden spears, clubs, and battered swords in hands.
Having woken up to a state of disarray and unwilling to flee into the gloom of the forest, they had cleared their camp and gathered for what was to come.

“Haassss! Hassshaaaa!”
There it was again, the hissing that had awoken them, echoing from within the depths of the forest. Looking to one another, the group stilled themselves, hoping for whatever it was that was approaching their camp to ignore their presence.

“Kusssshaaa!”
Like there were multiple beasts, the shouts continued to grow louder and louder, until they were suddenly preceded by dozens of different noises, all rustling and rushing through the forest.

“Kuuuarrrraaa!”
This time, a piercing roar swept across their camp, sounding just barely out of sight.
Shaken by the powerful gust that had stormed by, the formation began crumbling as guards and volunteers alike lost what little courage they still had left.
 
Yet, before anyone could break away and flee out of fear, “If you get lost in the woods, you are on your own! Stand together!” Jonns nervously shouted, hoping to solidify the faltering resolve of those around him. With an arrow already on his bow, he quickly drew as the icy and frozen ground beneath his feet rumbled.

A single amber ringed fox suddenly emerged from the rustling brushes toward the left side of their formation. In the dim light, it paid them no heed as it rushed past their shabby camp and disappeared into the forest behind them, fleeing like it was being chased.
Following the fox, the sound of hooves crushing frozen leaves and ice, along with a multitude of squeaking came through from the dense thickets directly ahead of them. Drawing closer, “Bueeeee!” A shrill cry ripped through the air as a large wild white-maned boar the height of a small child suddenly burst through.

Seeing that the charging boar was heading straight for their group, “F-fire!” Jonns shouted and let loose the arrow in his hand.

“Bhueeeee! Buheeee!” The boar shrieked in terror, almost like it was just as surprised to see them. In a sudden attempt to halt itself, the beast lost its footing as two arrows entered its right shoulders.

“Brace yourselves!” Voices shouted, and the guards at the front of the formation hurried and awkwardly huddled together as the stumbling boar tumbled toward them.

Even with the two arrows sticking out of its shoulder, after crashing into the group, the boar fought even harder with those around it, and stood back up. Breathing heavily with exhaustion, it shrieked twice more and then attempted to flee.

The purpose of their expedition immediately brought itself to mind, and, “Don’t let it get away!” Jonns hollered, fumbling to nock another arrow as the others quickly jumped onto the boar at his command. Swiftly drawing his bow once again, before he could even set his aim back onto the wild beast, the sight of a fitarin bursting through the brushes caught his eyes.
Unlike the boar, upon spotting their group, the hairy and elusive forest cat skillfully managed to halt its momentum and with a sharp and agile turn, swiftly darted away in a completely different direction.

On the ground, “BuuuEEEEE! HHUEEEEE” The boar’s cries continued to struggle through the air as half a dozen guards piled themselves on top of it, while others attempted to stab and hit it with whatever they had in hand.

Just like the forest cat before them, a handful of squirrels also emerged onto the clearing of their small camp. Coming through the opening of the thicket that had been opened by the boar, they too, ignored everything around them and frantically ran by.

Holding his fire, Jonns swiftly refocused his aim toward that of the forest as another pair of squirrels darted by, hurrying after the others.
Something was watching them from within the dim forest and keeping his bow drawn and at the ready, he felt himself trembling as the two hunters beside him mimicked his actions.

“Krrrraaaaaaaa!” As if answering their caution, another shrill and piercing cry easily shook the trees around them, causing the rest of their group to suddenly halt what they were doing while.

“What in the world…” One of the hunters beside him voiced frightfully and Jonns tightened his grip.

Flying in place like it was swimming in the air, an elongated serpent had emerged from the shadows of the trees a good dozen or so strides away from them. At least the length of a man’s arm span, even in the dimness of the dawn, the beast’s pitch-black body was gleaming with a polished luster while its two pairs of large translucent wings alternated effortlessly. On its head, two pale silver eyes were quietly gazing down at them as a forked tongue the same blood-red color as that of the gemstone upon its forehead, flickered in and out.

Recalling his encounter with the young hvaral all those nights ago in the midst of the forest, Jonns shivered.

“W-Waaa! Whrraaaaa!!” One of the terrified men finally cried out upon spotting the youngling. Hysterically pointing their wooden spear at the serpent, “Don’t come any closer! RAAAA!!!” The man screamed, prompting another three to fearfully redirect their weapons at the beast as well.

It watched them for a silent moment, then, “Kaara!” The serpent suddenly snapped back.
The boar that had apparently been subdued unexpectedly began thrashing again as blood sprayed out of its wounds. Struggling defiantly, the large boar quickly dislodge itself from under the grasps of the men who were now warily watching the young serpent, and with a forceful kick, it managed to free and pull itself up once more.

In the air, the young serpent quickly raised its two large forewings. Narrowing its eyes, with a single powerful thrust it instantly closed the distance between itself and the boar.
Twisting in mid-air, it slammed its tail into the side of the bloody boar, sending the large beast back onto the ground.
As if acting on instinct, the young serpent swiftly wrapped itself around the boar’s body and ferociously ripped into the boar’s neck with its fangs. Tearing out a chunk of bloody flesh, a flood of blood gushed out of the opening as the serpent tightened its grip.

Within moments, a large and dark puddle had pooled around the boar, with the beast having ceased its convulsions.

Slithering atop the lifeless boar, the black serpent raised its head upward to face them yet again. “Shaa! Raaaa!” With an angry hiss and a vexatious glare, the youngling turned its eyes toward that of where some of the animals had fled. Without further words, it launched itself into the air, disappearing into the trees.

Stunned and terrified by what had just transpired, “W-what manner of beast was that?!” One of the younger men who had volunteered to join them exclaimed as the silence of the forest slowly returned to them.

“That…” Swallowing his own astonishment and unsure as to what it was doing so far away from its master, “That was the young lord’s drakall.” Jonns quietly replied.
As the others pelted him with curious looks, he lowered his gaze onto the lifeless boar on the ground.
In an instant, the young drakall had taken care of the beast that half a dozen grown men had struggled to hold down. Recalling how exhausted and frightened the boar had looked as it ran into them, he could not help but assume that the young drakall’s presence was anything, but a coincidence.

 

***

 

Northern outskirts of the forest encampment.
Sitting beside a small pile of logs that he had collected with Koran’s help earlier that morning, Kaidus quietly and rhythmically shaved away at the rough plank in his hand.
The thick knife that he had molded from a piece of iron easily leveled the burls on the board, and with practiced motions, he continued to skillfully flatten out both sides of the plank.
Eventually content with the elongated board’s smoothness and thickness, he placed it alongside the others, then picked up another piece.

Unable to withstand her curiosity any longer, “Wouldn’t that be faster with magic?” Elamara finally questioned from where she had been silently watching with her sister.

“It would,” Kaidus returned a smile to the inquisitive phrae, “But the day is still fresh and this will keep me from idling.”
The boards were to be used in the construction of a number of carts and although magic would have certainly expedited the process, there was plenty of time to spare. Instead of simply sitting around the camp, it was also something to do.

Fluttering down to the pile of timber that would eventually become the bed of a cart or two, Elamara began to curiously strut along their lengths before jumping from one to another. “So… this is a cart?” The young phrae questioned, tilting her head dumbfoundedly.

“Not yet.” He replied as his smile broadened.

From where she was floating in the air, Ulamara began giggling.

“Why are you laughing? Like you know what a cart looks like!” Elamara rebuked, looking up at her sister.

“I do! I’ve seen them before!” And Ulamara replied, proceeding to grin proudly.

Elamara’s lips curved into a snicker as if knowing that such a thing was impossible, and, “Liar.” She shot back; her voice effused with undeniable doubt.

“I’m not lying!”

“This is the first time we’ve been out like this. Where could you have seen a cart, huh?”

“In- …” Ulamara quickly closed her mouth and turned to look over in his direction. “I’m not-”

“Now, you two. There’s no need to argue over this.” He interjected, stopping what he was doing. Cycling his gaze between the siblings, he could not help but be amused at seeing how similar they were to that of human children.

“But Ela called me a liar.” Ulamara aggrievedly voiced as if pained by the accusation.

“You laughed at me first!” Elamara swiftly countered.

“I-!” Realizing her own fault, Ulamara silenced herself once more.

“Your sister’s not lying, Elamara. It’s complicated, but I’m sure she’s telling the truth.”
Through their resonance, Ulamara had undoubtedly witnessed many things that she should not have known about. Yet, at his words, he caught Elamara’s eyes faltering with misunderstanding, “And Ulamara.” He chided, looking at the floating figure before him. “There is nothing wrong with being curious. To laugh at someone else when they are sincerely trying to broaden their horizons, it is unbecoming of one’s self and character.”

“H-huh?” Elamara’s eyes lit up, the bitter look on her face slowly dissipating like a cloud of smoke.

Ulamara on the other hand, meekly lowered her head. “Yes, sir.” The young phrae replied and without a second thought, flew down to Elamara. “I’m sorry, Ela.”

“I-…” With a quick and stunned glance up at him, “Me too.” Elamara quickly replied, taking her sister’s hands into her own. “I’m sorry for calling you a liar.”

“Nhhn. It’s okay.” Almost like their little spat never even happened, a wide grin suddenly ruptured across Ulamara’s lips. “You’re going to love the cart! You can ride on it, can put things on it, can even sleep on it, and…”

As Ulamara’s tiny voice exploded off into a string of excitable yet completely mundane uses for a cart, he turned back to his task and continued what he was doing.

“Yes, I’d say most cities are like that.” Kaidus voiced, putting down the last of the boards that he was working on.
Noon had passed by uneventfully, and he could already sense a familiar presence coming to retrieve him.

“So… the splintered ancestors were right.” Elamara remarked, her eyes glistening with fascination. “Mother and father always said that the ancestors had all lost their sparks and with it their minds, but I’ve always felt there was more to their stories.”

Seeing the young phrae’s elated expression, “Some cities are even larger and grander.” He added, fueling her excitement. “It is after all, a place where tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people gather. Ferrent, the city where I came from for example. If you were to walk from one side of the city to the other, it would probably take you all afternoon. To explore the whole of the city, that would take days.”

“That long!?”

He grinned, seeing the amazement on Elamara’s face. “Yes, which is why many people prefer to travel by horses or carriages within the city.”

“Oh! We’ve seen horses before! In the forest!” Elamara exclaimed ecstatically at the word.

“Have you now?”

“Of course! Ulamara, do you remember?”

A sheepish grin already on her face, “I remember.” Ulamara quickly nodded from where she was sitting patiently. “Father didn’t let us out of his sight for days after he found out that we had gone outside, and that we had even seen some humans and their beasts.”  

“That’s because you told him.” Elamara grumbled back cheerfully.

“I didn’t say anything to father. I asked the Shii about what we saw, and the Shii told father. It was the Shii’s fault.” Though denying the blame, Ulamara’s large silver eyes were laughing deviously.

Smiling at the exchange and seeing as they were going to be interrupted soon, “How about next time we get to a city, we all go exploring?” He offered, standing up to stretch his arms and legs.

““Really?!”” Both twins shouted together and like they were of one mind, simultaneously and suddenly shot upward to eye level with him.

“Of course.” He quickly reaffirmed.

“Nn!” Again, the twins both nodded in unison.
“Did you hear that, Ula?! Exploring a human city! I can’t wait!” Her usually silent and cautious demeanor nowhere to be seen, Elamara began cheering happily as if they were already standing before the grandeur of a city. 
And, “With thousands of humans!” Ulamara supplemented with awe.

“At least hold your excitement until we get to one first.” He replied, lowering himself and picking up an armful of the finished boards. “Also, I believe we’ve got company, so let’s end our questions and answers here for now.”

At the mention of company, both girls nodded gleefully at one another and immediately began weaving the light around them. Within the span of a single breath, both had vanished like mirages, having concealed themselves from mortal eyes.

“Were you talking to someone, milord?” Koran, his personal guard questioned upon arriving with a cat-like approach.

“Just to myself, Koran. How are the preparations coming along?” He questioned, turning to greet the man.

“Most haven’t stopped grumbling since hearing about it yesterday, but everyone has been following the orders.” Koran answered.
Noticing what he was doing, the guard tactfully hurried over to take hold of what was in his arms before continuing the report.
“Many have already packed. They are simply waiting for the orders to move out before tearing down their tents and fires. As for the carpenters and help that you wanted to recruit, they are… less than enthusiastic. Many are arguing that carts would only serve to hinder our pace out of these woods.”

Having stacked a little over a dozen boards onto Koran’s arms, “If that is it, then reassure them that there is nothing to worry about.” Kaidus voiced as he picked up the last couple for himself. “Because if everything goes as planned, one or two carts will not be enough. We’re going to need at least half a dozen or even more.” He added, and began the short trek back toward the camp.

“Yessir. I will revisit the carpenters again when we get back.”

Hearing the guard’s blind acquiescence as usual, “I’ve said it before, Koran, but I’d appreciate it if you would stop being so formal with me all the time. And you should know that I am grateful for your diligence, so if you are ever curious about something, you are always free to inquire.”

“Thank you sire, but my task is to guard you and to do as you command. Questioning you is not a part of it.” Koran studiously replied.

“Is that because of the captain?” He probed, imagining the blonde knight giving a stern lecture about the chains of command, and how he was not to be challenged.

“No, milord.”

“Then?”

“Two men in two breaths.” The guard succinctly replied, voice tense but subdued and filling with admiration. “I have seen sword master’s incapable of doing what you have demonstrated. As a man of the sword myself and someone who’s been chasing after Captain Biran and Vick, it is only right that I afford you the proper respect.”

“Hah… so that’s what it was.” He somberly sighed at the truth, “Looks like I may have gone a little overboard there with them.”

“Milord diffused a situation before it could spiral out of control. I am sure they understood.”

“Perhaps, but I’m not sure everyone saw it that way.” He replied, recalling the look of terror on some of the guards.
He had suddenly shown up out of nowhere and mercilessly beaten down both Biran and Vick, before usurping command. There was no way a few people were not wary or confused about what was happening.
And then… there was the stunt he had pulled the previous morning.
The large-scale rejuvenation and regeneration spells had created quite the stir around camp, and many of those who had been affected were already asking questions.
The atmosphere within their own camp had gotten quite tense as well, and was partly the reason why he had excused himself to the outskirts for a breather.

“Actually…” Koran spoke up from behind, ending the sudden awkward silence and pulling him out of his own thoughts, “There is something I’ve been wondering about. If milord does not mind me asking, where did you learn how to do all this?”

“Hmm? All what?” He questioned, giving the man a quick glance.

“Woodworking.” Koran replied, “The way you split the logs, how you slice along the grain so naturally, even polishing and levelling out the wood. It was almost like I was watching an artisan at work earlier.”

“Hah. I am nowhere near the skills of an artisan, but thank you.” Pausing his words briefly to collect his thoughts, “Before my travels, I lived with a company of mercenaries for three years, learning swordplay and whatever I could. These carving skills were simply picked up while I was learning how to use the bow.” A mustached face flashed before his eyes and, “Well… that, and my teacher was quite adamant about being able to carve my own bows and make my own arrows.” A fond smile crept onto his face as he recalled the days of simply sitting within the courtyard of the Droxxon headquarters and whittling away, crafting his own arrows for the practice range.

“Milord is an archer?” The guard queried, sounding more upbeat than the usual reserved tone of formality.

“I dabble in the arts but with my poor skills, I’m uncertain if I can call myself a true archer.” He replied, recalling how dexterous the large and burly mercenary who had taught him the ways of the bow was.
The 8th chair of the Droxxon company, he had seen the man do things with a bow that should be impossible without magic.
Things, such as curving arrows around obstacles and nailing fleeing preys or enemies, all while during the rush of the chase or heat of battle.
Things, like smiting a band of brigands with multiple arrows before the first of said unfortunate individuals can even hit the ground.
Or simply splitting a man’s skull with a single iron tipped arrow, sniping from afar.
The force of the man’s draws and his speed as well as ability with the bow was definitely a thing of wonder.

“Surely milord jests. Anyone who so passionately involves themselves in their craft as milord was doing, must be someone of considerable skills.”

“You flatter me, but in truth I am just barely competent. For me, the bow was only a means to help supplement my own inadequacies.” He replied, catching sight of a guard approaching them from the camp. “One can’t very well fill their stomach if one does not know how to hunt, and hunting for your meal is just easier done with a bow, than it is with a sword.”

“That- is true.” Koran’s voice followed, sounding chipper and less rigid. “I must say though… to consider such things at your age, milord is quite wise. I wish I had been as proactive and diligent when I was younger.”

“Wise, huh?” He affably retorted, pushing a few of the foolish decisions he had already made into the forefront of his thoughts.
There was the decision to leave Zorin’s and all its resources and connections behind. Discarding Lord Gelrin’s favor, while incurring conflict with the Vatengers and allowing it to devolve into something he would have to personally address again, once he returned. Then leaving his family behind for his own selfish pursuits without even considering that Tal’hrus might attack Ferrent. Finally, there was also everything else that he did not want to remember.

“There is no doubt about it.” Koran’s voice declared from behind, completely oblivious to his thoughts. “Not to mention, the air about milord is also very different from that of others. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you before.”

“Different? How so?” He wondered.

“It- it comes and goes, but sometimes… sometimes it feels like milord is a completely different person.” Koran spoke, his voice sounding unsure like it was second-guessing itself, “Looking at milord right now, it is not as apparent, but for the past few days, there were times where milord felt completely unapproachable. Like- like a… ah-” As if catching onto his own tone and manners, Koran quickly ceased his words as the other guard drew closer, “My apologies, sire. I forget myself sometimes.”

With a wry smile on his face, Kaidus looked back at the man. “Like a monster?” He voiced, calmly finishing the man’s sentence.

“Like someone of actual status.” Koran swiftly amended, “One with such prestigious pedigree, that you would never expect to find them in such a place as this. The way you carry yourself, your mannerism, the odd tranquility that seem to always surround you…” Taken aback by his own words, “My apologies. I did not intend to compare milord with the likes of us.”

“That… is quite the pedestal you have placed me upon. But fortunately for all of us, you’re quite mistaken about a few things. You spoke of my pedigree. Well, my father was a mere mercenary who became a guard. My mother on the other hand, was simply… for lack of a better term, a good loving wife and mother. A place like this… one filled with those who are struggling to survive is exactly where I belong, so please do me a favor and continue as you were.” He corrected, hoping to dispel the man’s uneasiness.

“I- yes, milord. If that is your wish, then I shall try.” Koran replied, returning an embarrassed smile as footsteps rushed toward them.

“Sir! Please let me help you with that!”

Maneuvering before him, the guard who had just arrived quickly took the boards off his hands before he could protest.
“Thank you?” Looking at the guard, he had seen the blonde youth before. Appearing to be barely a year or two older than himself, the boy was the messenger from the previous morning. “You are…”

“Doyle at your service, milord!” The young guard jovially replied, before leading them into the camp.

“I am Kaidus. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Pleasure’s all mine.” The youth grinned back, slowing down to walk beside him. “Captain’s told me about you. Also, I don’t know if you remember, but we’ve actually seen each other before!”

“Oh?” Giving the youth a curious glance, “I must apologize then, for I do not recall your face.” He awkwardly replied, unsure what to make of the sudden situation.

“It’s fine. I was merely a part of the crowd back then.” Like a dog with his bone, the youth continued to grin widely.

“Back then?”

“On the road that day. When you helped the Countess’ man escape.”

Remembering the group of terrified villagers surrounding a lone man, “You were there too?”

“Sure was. Got a scolding from me ma for joining the chase, but- right! You should have also met me ma the other day!”

“Your mother is…” He said in confusion, taking a moment to reassess the youth’s overly friendly attitude.

“Short curly brown hair, built like a stump but fierce as a bear, and twice as ferocious. Ring any bells?” The young guard snarked.

“Don’t mock your mother, Doyle. She’s a good woman.” Koran loudly reprimanded from behind. “This boy’s mother is Ms. Ebernny, sire. She was the one who took care of your group when we first got here.”

“Ah, so it’s her.” He quickly recalled the woman who had been worried for Saadra upon their encounter at the stream.

“Yep. That’s her. Nosy and a busybody.” Doyle stated proudly.

“Looks like I owe your mother my gratitude then.”

With another hearty grin on his face, “You don’t owe anyone anything. You’ve already done more than enough!” The young guard exclaimed.

“Excuse me?”

“Milord.” Doyle stopped walking, “That was you yesterday, wasn’t it? That odd feeling. Like an invisible wind burning throughout everyone in camp.” Doyle stated, his tone solemn but overflowing with curious sincerity.

Seeing the look in the young man’s eyes, “Yes. It was.” He replied, unable to hide a smile.

“Thank you!” Doyle instantly lowered his head. “Thank you…”

“Raise your head. There is no need to-”

“There is.” With a swift rebuttal and keeping his head down, “My ma… she’s been having coughing fits. She tries to hide it, but there were a few times where it got so bad that she even threw up blood.” The youth somberly continued, keeping his body bent as the joy in his voice fluctuated.

“Doyle… if that’s the case, why didn’t you or your ma tell anyone?” Koran interjected.

“Ma doesn’t want people to worry. Said everyone is already struggling, so she’s been acting like her usual and strong self. But… deep down, I knew she was hurting an’ scared.” The boy paused painfully, “It was why I fought so hard to join the guards. I was hoping she’d get better with my rations, but she wasn’t.”

“That…” Koran attempted to say something, yet at a loss for words, quickly quieted himself.

“But it’s not a problem no more. The fits completely disappeared yesterday along with everyone else’s ailments. Thank you, milord!” As quickly as it came, the sullenness in Doyle’s voice had already disappeared, replaced by a jubilant tone.

Kaidus quietly watched young man before him.
He had not done what he did for the sake of appreciation, but hearing the relief in those words and the joy within them, it had been worth the time and energy expended.
“I am glad that your mother is feeling better.” He calmly replied, feeling his smile widening.
The spells, while a small gesture of kindness, was more a chance to test his own abilities. In that, they had been gifts freely given without any expectations. A simple boon, for those who had been through so much with so little.
Whether the people affected knew who had helped them or not, such things had been irrelevant.

Straightening himself up, “Milord.” Doyle spoke, eyes filled with conviction and determination, “I heard from the captain that he had pledged himself to you. To follow you as your arms and legs.”

His smile and positive assessment of the filial boy instantly disappeared alongside a sigh. “No.”

Proceeding to kneel down in the mud, “I am unlearned, but- hah?” Face twisting in confusion, Doyle looked up. “W-what did you say?”

Seeing the boy’s foolish action, “I said no.” He repeated.  

“Wait, but I- you didn’t even—”

“Nope. Not happening.” Not wanting to bother, he quickly stepped past the boy.

“W-wait! Milord?!”

Ignoring the pointless pleading, “Koran.” He called out, addressing the guard behind him. “Bring our friend with you and deliver those boards to the carpenters. While you’re at it, relay my earlier message to them. I will be returning first.” He instructed without giving them a second glance.

“Yessir.” A compliant affirmation came from the guard.

“Wait, Koran. Gah- wha- what’re you doing! Ah!? Wait! Milord, please! Just hear me out!” The youth protested as Koran proceeded to shuffle them both away.

Waving dismissively without looking back, “Get that foolish notion out of your mind, and take care of your mother.” He replied before hurrying away.

“Kihihihih!” “Pffttt!”
Muffled laughter exploded beside him as they were out of earshot of everyone.
“What an amusing human.” Ulamara remarked, whispering softly as her joyful presence flickered before him.
“What does he mean by pledge? Humans can’t bind other humans, right? How silly.” Elamara pondered curiously from his left. After a silent moment, “Right?” She echoed.

 

****************************************************

 

Did everyone have a good Christmas and New Year? 
Well, here’s to hoping that 2021 will be even better!

As always, thank you for reading, and please leave any comments or corrections down below. Have a good day, everyone!

B3 Chapter 25 – A City, Forsaken

-Darsus-

 

Ferrent. 11th ward.

Sylvia tilted her head, gazing up to the second floor of the Ravon manor where her friend’s bedroom was located.
Unlike its usual setting, the two windows were closed shut and even the curtains inside had been pulled.
Turning to look at her sister, Jillian was also staring up at Naleen’s room. There was an irritated look on Jillian’s face, and she could almost feel the annoyance emanating from Jillian’s whole body in the way that Jillian stood–with both hands to her hips while impatiently shaking her right leg.

“Jill… you’re doing it again.” She said quietly, seeing that her sister was only a few breaths away from pacing back and forth.

“Haaa… let’s just go home. Naleen obviously doesn’t want to see us.” Consciously ceasing her shaking, Jillian coldly replied with a weary scowl.

“Just wait a little longer. We’re leaving tomorrow morning anyways. Who knows when we’ll see each other again.”

“She didn’t want to see us yesterday or the day before, what makes you think she’ll want to this time?” A sharp retort.

“It’s Naleen, Jill. Do you really want to just leave like this?” She questioned.

“I- argh! Why is she being so stubborn!? Don’t tell me she really believes those stupid rumors about father! GAH!” With an exasperated sigh, “Whatever. I’ve had enough! I’ll wait in the carriage.” Promptly dismissing herself, Jillian turned and headed back for the carriage behind them. 

“Jill, wait.” Sylvia gingerly called out, stopping her sister. “Sir Sedram is here.” She supplemented, seeing a tall older gentleman opening the manor’s main door.
Older than even the new Ravon family head, the man had been serving the Ravon family since the previous generation and was someone who warranted both their attention.
Hastily brushing her dress, she brought both her feet together and straightened herself as Jillian hurried back to her side.
“Good afternoon, Sir Sedram.” She curtsied, addressing the old steward as the man hastened to stand before them.

“Afternoon, Lady Sylvia. Lady Jillian.” The gentleman nodded straightforwardly and admirably at them both, his impeccable presence befitting a dignified representative of the Ravon house.

Seeing a cordial smile on the old man, “Is Naleen still unwell?” She questioned, easily catching the downcast eyes that were being hidden by the grandfatherly smile.

“My utmost apologies once again.” Bowing, the man lowered his head deeply as if to show his sincerity. “The young lady is still feeling under the weather and does not wish to receive any guests at the moment. I hope you can both forgive her.”

“Naleen…” Taking a somber breath of concession, Jillian quietly turned around and slowly walked back to the carriage without another word.

“I am truly sorry for inconveniencing you both.” The steward apologized again, kindly addressing her as Jillian departed. “Perhaps you could allow me the honor of sending a letter to the Varath manor when Lady Naleen is feeling better?” And followed it with a polite proposal.

“Thank you, but that will not be necessary.” She too politely reciprocated with a thankful bow, knowing full well the offering was merely a formality. “Instead, would you be so kind as to deliver my message to her?” Calmly pulling out a small letter that had been folded into the shape of a bird from her left sleeve, she presented it forth with both hands.

“My, how thoughtful. I will personally make sure that the young lady gets it.” With a looking of understanding, the steward took the letter off her hands.

“Well then… goodbye, Sir Sedram. Please stay well.”

A sincere smile appeared upon his face, and, “You too, young one.” The elderly man nodded back.

Returning a curt and final bow, she took one last look at the large manor and made her way back to the carriage, to where Jillian and four of their family guards were waiting.

 

 

Peeking through the curtains of the grim room, Naleen quietly watched as the Varath carriage slowly rolled away.
Three times Sylvia and Jillian had come to see her, and three times she had sent them away.

“Are you really not going to see them off?” Her mother’s voice questioned from behind.

“What’s the point…” Naleen slovenly replied as her eyes glared down at her legs. Bound to a set of splints and a chair, all she could feel was pain and anger at herself.

“Naleen…” Her mother calmly voiced and walked over to stand beside her. “You know… it’s fine if you wish to continue mourning your grandfather, but don’t you think you should consider those around you a little?” Taking hold of her left hand, “Should you miss this chance, who can say when you will see them again. Are you really willing to discard the bonds that you have created over the years just like that?”

“I… Gu- I want to see them… I want to say goodbye.” She relented as tears slowly filled her eyes. “But I-… how can I face them like this? How do I smile before them, when I can’t even be myself anymore?” She cried out, unable to contain the anger, sadness, or frustrations within herself.

“You don’t. If you want to cry, then cry in front of them. If you want to scream, then scream in front of them. I’m sure they will understand.”

“But- Ugu- nhnnn!” Clenching her jaw at her mother’s words, the memory of her grandfather’s worried face as he dug her out from under her horse flashed within her mind. Trying to push it away, the fear within his eyes as they were ambushed by the winged man instantly took its place, “Haagguuuu!” And she groaned, painfully curling forward to hide away from it.

“Looking at them both, they have already understood what is to come.” Her mother quietly voiced as she continued to hide within herself, “The three of you may not be sisters and your familiarity may only be a byproduct of our connections, but you did all grow up together… with that said, from this point forth, your path and theirs will only diverge further and further from one another.”

“Aaauuue…” Wailing to rid herself of the agony within, it did nothing but seize at her chest.

“Expel that shame from your mind and go see them off as a proper lady of the Ravon House. Wish them well, so that this does not become another source of regret for you.” There was a firmness to her mother’s words, “After that, you may mourn and grieve all you want. I know that you loved your grandfather more than anything, so take all the time you need. “The words softened, and she could feel her mother’s arms embracing her tenderly, “But once you are done grieving… promise me that you will continue to devote yourself to the path you have chosen. Promise me that you will not allow the brilliance you have obtained from following in your grandfather’s footsteps to simply fade away like this.”

Her chest tightened and, “I… ahguuu!” She wept, knowing full well that had she not selfishly followed along with him, things might have turned out differently. “UggaAaaaahhh!!” And she screamed, knowing that she would never be able hear her venerable grandfather’s praises or show him her sword forms ever again.

 

 

11th ward. Lithius Manor.

Leaping out of the carriage before it could come to a stop, Prim hurried toward the entrance of the large manor. Face warped with worry and confusion, without even acknowledging the servants who had spotted her, she swiftly made her way through the foyer, running up the stairs and toward her sister’s bedroom.
Having arrived back into the city from their exhaustive expedition in eastern Darsus, a bout of gossip had caught her ears and she needed to verify it.

“Evelyn!” She shouted upon reaching her sister’s chamber. “Evelyn are you in there?!” And hearing nothing but silence, she proceeded to bang on the door.

“Prim?” A raspy voice eventually came from within amidst her ruckus.

“I heard you were dismissed from your position as a court mage! Is it true?!” She yelled, hearing her own frantic voice echoing through the hallway.

The sound of reluctant footsteps slowly began shuffling from within the room and were quickly followed by the clicking of locks unbolting, before the door finally and slowly crept ajar.

Prim quickly froze.
A gaunt, almost starved looking face covered by clumps of disheveled green hair was now staring out at her from within. Her sister’s beautiful pale complexion was nowhere to be seen, and Evelyn’s two emerald green eyes, the defining trait of the Lithius line, had lost all their light. Her sister’s always lush green hair as well, were now matted and uncombed.
“E-Evelyn?” She stuttered, unable to believe that the woman before her was the proud and capable woman that she had been idolizing.

“Prim…” A gentle, but weak smile surfaced upon Evelyn’s face, “Y-you’re back.” Her voice was raspy and shaking, almost like she was sick.

Looking at her sister, the memories of a terrified Lisin talking to her through the cracks of a door slowly crept into her thoughts. “I-…” Swallowing her initial curiosity, “How did this- w-what happened to you?” She managed to ask, seeing the state of her beloved sister.

“I…” With a quick downward glance at herself, “I must look hideous, don’t I?” Evelyn replied, forcing another smile.

“Evelyn… what happened? The last time I saw you, you were still… you were still you! How did this happen?!” She groaned, barely able to look at the shell of the woman before her.

“Prim please… I don’t want to talk about it.” A defeated reply, it was one very much unlike that of her sister.

“Evelyn?!” Hastily pressing a foot against the door as Evelyn tried to close it, “Talk to me!” She exclaimed angrily.

“Please, Prim…” There was a heaviness to Evelyn’s voice, “Just let it go.”

“No! Not until you tell me what happened!” She shouted in return, feeling a sense of hopelessness enveloping her sister.

“I’m sorry, Prim. I- I lost my-…” Tears began welling upon Evelyn’s eyes, and her sister quickly stepped away from the door, retreating back into the depths of the room.

“You lost your…?” Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t say it. The words repeated themselves in her mind, but she could not look away from Evelyn. The Evelyn, who was now trembling, shaking, as if terrified of something.

Situating herself on the edge of her bed, Evelyn looked down at her hands, “I know how much you’ve been wanting to surpass me… I’m sorry.” Keeping her gaze down, “I-… I’ve lost my ma- magic…”

The terrifying touch of dread that she had been feeling in the back of her mind instantly infused itself into her bones, and her whole body shuddered. “No… that’s impossible.” She thoughtlessly spouted as Evelyn’s words continued ringing in her ears.

“It- it’s not impossible.” Evelyn quietly rebutted, voice pounding with excruciating calm.

“How?!” She bellowed back, having never heard of someone in the ranks of a Malgin simply just losing their magic. Stepping into the room, “How does one-?!” She stopped. Inside, parts of the bedroom had been charred and a handful of Evelyn’s dresses and robes were strewn across the room, dirty and singed as if someone had lost control while trying to invoke a fire spell.

“I- I can’t feel them anymore, Prim.” Bringing her hands closer to her face, Evelyn began sobbing. “The incantations… the magic… they- they will not listen to me anymore, no matter how many times I try.”

“There- there must be a reason for this.” Rushing to her sister’s side, “There must-”

“R-reason?” Evelyn’s two hollow green eyes caught her by surprise. Within them, there was nothing but terror. “A spirit…” Evelyn shakenly stated, “F-far stronger than any I have ever felt before.” Tears began to slowly trickle forth from her Evelyn’s eyes, “The moment it touched me and devoured my mana, I saw it, Prim… I felt its strength.” Evelyn continued, trembling as she spoke, “Limitless and horrible… like an endless void. I was… I- I was NOTHING to it. Our titles, our feeble strength… they were nothing! It- it was ready and willing to- no… it was eager to kill those of us who were there. It would have done so, had it not been for that man… Ughukkk-” Burying her face into her hands, Evelyn began sobbing inconsolably.

Seeing her sister’s terror-stricken state, the face of a young man whom she had not seen for the past few years began piecing themselves together in her mind.

 

 

11th ward.

Jerking his gaze sideways, Ralfus turned his full attention toward that of his bedroom door.
From the hallway outside, the clanking of hardened metal footsteps against cold stone had begun to reverberate, echoing loudly into the stillness of his chamber like that of furious thunderclaps.
Taking a nervous sip of the wine in his hand, he listened as the silence that had persisted for the better part of the afternoon slowly disappeared, mutilated and estranged by a cacophony of veritable sounds.

Quietly listening, a wave of anxiety ripped into his chest and tore at his thoughts, proliferating his dread further. “S-stay away.” He murmured as his body recoiled upon hearing the footsteps drawing closer. “Don’t come here. Go away.” He commanded in silence as his eyes darted between the large dresser in the corner of the room, then back to the door. “Just… leave me be.” He begged, watching the darkness flickering.

The resounding footsteps continued their march through the hallway and as they drew near his room, he hurried to standing up on alert and held his breath, only to hear them passing by without a care or mention.
“Hah… hahaha…” A lukewarm, almost anxious laughter escaped his mouth as his own foolish thoughts returned. “Not today. It- it is not today either…” He reassured himself, his fears quickly alleviated by the fact that it was merely paranoia and not the guild or the knights coming for him.
Sitting back down onto his chair, the dark interior of his room came settling into his vision like that of the unending night and he breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
With hands that were still trembling, he carefully took hold of the pitcher atop the table beside him and quickly poured himself another cup of wine.

*Knock! Knock! Knock!”
Three loud knocks shattered the fleeting silence once again, causing him to almost spill the wine.

“Milord, are you awake!?” A woman’s voice called out for him, followed by another set of louder knocking. “I brought you your dinner! If you are awake, please open up!” The voice shouted.

Recognizing the maidservant’s voice, “V-Valarie? Is that you?” He responded back.

“It is, milord. Please open up. This tray is quite heavy.” The voice urged.

Not wanting to rise, he kept his eyes locked onto the door. “Leave it out there. I’ll bring it in myself.”

“I can’t do that today, milord. The master wishes to confirm that you are still eating. If I do not at least make sure that you finish your meal today, I will be in trouble. So please…”

Hearing her troublesome words, he reluctantly set his cup back onto the table.
Though in no mood to eat, without the desire to make more enemies out of those around him, he slowly made the trek across the room, undoing the two locks on the door before opening it.
“Who are-” Instead of Valarie, someone else was standing before his door. Another maid, but one he did not recognize. Before he could finish his question, the stranger’s hand had already shot forth at him and covered his mouth. With a simple push, the woman easily forced him back into his room as the door closed behind them both.

With dark braided hair and ruby-like eyes that were smiling in contrast to the gloom of his room, the woman flashed a sheepish and seductive grin before pushing him back a few steps away from her. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, master Vatenger.” A tone of coyness wafted through the air between them, pelting his ears with what felt like a gaseous draft.

Taking a moment to get a better look at her, the woman was almost a head shorter than himself and her slim body easily suggested that he could probably overpower her should he so desired. Yet, the force of her push and how she had manipulated her voice to trick him was saying otherwise.
“Wh- who are you? Where’s Valarie?” Ralfus quickly queried, trying to keep himself composed and from falling over.

“Who I am or where your maidservant is, is not important.” The woman answered, eyeing the dark room with curious intrigue.

“Then- w- what are you doing here? What do you want?” Failing to appear undaunted, he continued questioning the purpose of her intrusion instead.

“I have come to deliver a message from a mutual benefactor.” The woman stopped gawking around the room and turned back to face him.

“Fu-” The fear that had been strangling him suddenly returned, knotting and rampaging within the pit of his stomach like a vicious beast. “Le- leave.”

“He’s been worried, you know?” Tilting her head playfully, the woman gazed up at him. “Asking whether you’ve been healthy or not, and wondering this and that.”

“I… I will not alert the guards, so leave while you still can. As for Urixx, tell him that we are done. I want nothing more to do with him.” Spitting the words out, he proceeded to saunter across the room back to his chair.

“But it’s not over yet, milord. Especially with such an opportunity before us.”

Picking up the cup of wine that he had set on the table prior, he shakenly took a swig. “What more could he possibly want from me!?”

“For you to see this through to the end.”

Gripping the cup tightly, “Hhhua!” Ralfus launched the cup past her and across the room, “Look around you! Does this look like I still want to continue?! I’m done, you hear me?!” Screaming loudly as the fear in his body was overtaken by anger, he could almost feel his stump arm throbbing incorrigibly as if it had just been torn off.

“Lord Varath and by proxy his guard, along with the guard’s family will be leaving the city tomorrow.” The woman calmly recited like she was simply giving a report, “Their caravan will consist of a dozen families and a few dozen guards who have decided to follow the lord. Half a dozen highly skilled mercenaries have also been hired to escort the group, but their numbers are negligible. Th-”

“Are you deaf?! Fuck off!” Screaming at the woman, he grabbed the pitcher of wine and sat back down.

“As I was saying, the necessary arrangements have been made, and a sizable force is already being amassed. I am here to offer you his chance to finish what you started.”

“You don’t listen, do you?” Ralfus snarled back, “Tell Urixx that he can go fuck himself. And you too, while you’re at it.”

“These arrangements were not made on Urixx’s command…” The woman sternly stated as if to remind him of his position, “You do understand what that means, don’t you?”

His eyes widened, finally realizing that she had not been talking about the detestable liaison. Setting the pitcher back onto the table, he quickly wiped his mouth with his sleeve before eyeing her again, “You mean…”

“Yes.” A seriously reply. “His majesty himself is offering you this golden opportunity.”

Heart sinking at her words, something else finally clicked within himself. “It… it was never about helping me, was it?” He fought to spit the words out like throwing up bile.
And as if to ridicule him for his naive assumptions, a knowing grin erupted across the woman’s lips.
“Haha… hahaha!” Slumping in his chair, he could not help but throw his head back and laugh. “I see… so that’s how it is! I was just another dog!”

“Amusing, isn’t it? His majesty needed a dagger that would not be traced back to him, and you needed the approval and assistance of someone beyond your station.” Straightening her posture, she glared down at him, “Now milord… will you join in on this effort, or will this be the end of your vengeance?”

Narrowing his eyes, he could feel his anger at having been used boiling over. “What… what happens if I decline this offer?”

“The arrow is already in flight, milord. It matters not which choice you make.” A simple, but clear answer. “The only difference, is where you will stand at the end of the day. By his majesty’s side, or in this prison of your own making.”
 
He clenched his fist, “Do- do you take me for a fool!?” He harshly snarled back, knowing that there was only one option.

“That remains to be seen. Now… your answer, master Vatenger.”

“I… I will-”
An image of hundreds of black spikes, forking and surging through the air like lightning.
The overpowering sensation of cold liquid steel gripping at his neck.
Like a horrific nightmare, he could still remember them vividly.

‘When the time comes, and make no mistake for it will, you will own up to the consequences and save this family from any more indignity.’
Alongside the memories, his father’s words meticulously entered his ears, reminding him of his mistakes and his new purpose. Whispering of the reason why he had imprisoned himself in his room.

“KUh!” Gritting his teeth, Ralfus slowly took a deep breath. “I, Ralfus Zoladas Vatenger, accept his majesty’s generosity and shall pledge myself in this endeavor…” Forcing the words out of his mouth, he cautiously watched as the woman’s grin broadened.

Calmly approaching him, “Then kneel, and swear it.” The woman instructed, stopping a good step away.

“Kneel? To you?” He grumbled in return, seeing the patronizing look upon her face like she was looking down at a beaten animal.

“I carry the will of his majesty. You do not wish to kneel before his will?”

An incantation for a binding spell instantly flickered into his mind, but he immediately thought against it. “Ku-…” Unable to refute and unwilling to assault her while in such a state, he sluggishly stood up and then lowered himself before the woman. On one knee and keeping his head down, “I, Ralfus Zoladas Vatenger, hereby swe- UhRK?!” Something extremely sharp had dug itself into the side of his neck, and he could feel his throat clenching.
Agonizingly tilting his head to look upward, two eyes bereft of emotions were staring down into his own as the knife was dragged across his neck. Grabbing at her arms in futility, he saw that the woman’s grin had also disappeared along with the joy in her eyes.

“On second thought, your participation will no longer be required.”
The words resounded in his ears as the beginnings of a fire incantation wrapped itself around him.

 

******************************

 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I hope you all enjoyed the two chapters. 
And Ralfus… yep. He’s dead. What does it mean? Find out on the next episode of Dragon Ball Z. (not really)

As always, thank you all for reading and please leave any error or corrections in the comments! 

Thank you all, and see you next year!

-Za1d3

B3 Chapter 24 – Metamorphosis

A bright sea of flames, it roared fiercely through the forest like a rampant beast before flickering into nothingness.
Vanishing into the hundreds of people that had required it, with a thought, he slowly drew in his breath once more and instantly absorbed any excess mana that Vishan had failed to take in.

“Haaa…” Exhaling deeply, Kaidus closed his mind and opened his eyes to the inside of his tent.
It had worked. The spell had manifested just as he had conceptualized.
Through his mind’s eye, he had previously scoured the camp with his mana senses and marked those who were sick or injured. Breaking his mind into hundreds of fragments, he had infused those fragments into the people that were marked, willing the fragments to restore and recover the bodies to a perfect state of being.
Having already had plenty of practice with the human body, the spell had successfully been deployed without any problems.

“Are… are you okay?” Ulamara worriedly voiced as he took another deep breath.

“I’m alright.” He answered, presenting the young phrae with a thankful smile. “The spell had required more finesse than expected, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“Thank goodness.” A grin veered itself on her face and Ulamara zipped upward to hover beside him. Flying closer than usual, she carefully touched the side of his face with her tiny hands, “An awful lot of water was coming out of you. I thought you were going to shrivel up.” She quipped gleefully.

“Only a little sweat. Nothing to worry about.” With another deep breath, he slowly pushed himself up from his seated position and stretched.
Meticulously splitting his mind and healing hundreds of injuries at once, the toll upon him had been greater than expected. Yet, it was still well within the margin of error that he had calculated after fortifying himself.

“Um…” Filled with curiosity, Elamara’s voice came from a short distance beside them. “Is this supposed to be glowing?” She asked.

He turned to look at what she was talking about, and he could not help but grin.
On his bedroll beside Elamara, the rabbit hide pouch was open and inside it, the small crowned seed was shining. Not with its usual dim glow, but a bright green radiance.

Picking the seed up, it was faint, but he could sense something within it now.
An almost ethereal presence, one that is subtly perceivable and may even be tangible. Something akin to that of the green feline he had fought against before, and Zeeke, Zorin Academy’s guardian.
It had stolen some of his mana while he was conducting his spell, and was now obscuring and trying to hide itself amidst the mana while absorbing it.

“What are you?” He wondered again, rolling the seed in between his fingers.
It was like that of a spirit, yet there seemed to be an incredible amount of intelligence within it. Especially in the way that it had quietly siphoned off his mana without his notice, or the fact that it was now trying to hide itself from his senses.

Carefully watching it as its glow dimmed to a luster, he could not get the thought of the circular and lush field that he had woken upon out of his mind. The more he stared at it, the more it felt like he was staring into a silent forest, one that was gushing with life.

“It can’t be…” Kaidus whispered to himself.
Thinking back, Hasen had been born of his own shadow, and their trials had evolved it to what it is now.
Feziel had offered its strength to him after obtaining the trust of the Phraes.
Zion on the other hand, was already a force to be reckoned with and had to be subdued.
As for Vishan, the light spirit had pledged itself upon the fields of carnage, having been apparently persuaded by his indomitable spirit.
The object before him now could not claim any such grandeur, but he could not get the thought that it would definitely become another powerful ally out of his mind.

“What is it?”
“Yes, what is it?”
Both twins curiously queried one after another as they hovered around the seed. Deftly landing on his hand, Ulamara pressed both her hands against it. “It… it’s warm.” She voiced in astonishment.

“I’m not sure, but it’s probably a spirit…”
Recalling the last time he saw Zeeke, the feline had gone out of its way to bring it to him after meeting Feziel and Zion.

““A spirit?”” Both younglings questioned at the same time.

It was definitely not a simple coincidence that the object in his hand right now, was giving off such an unusual presence. With a curious thought, he willed a surge of mana into the seed and the seed suddenly burst with light once again, even brighter than before.

“Ahh!” Ulamara cried out and hastily turned away. “Kyaa!” And Elamara yelped, covering her eyes.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think it would light up like that.” He quickly apologized, holding down a chuckle at their reactions.
Turning the seed around in between his fingers, instead of just one, like roots, four more tails had emerged to wrap themselves around the glowing seed. The small circle of crowns itself, was also growing longer and more pronounced right before his eyes.

“Look, Elamara! It’s- It’s moving!” Ulamara cried out enthusiastically, having distanced herself a little.

Instead of waiting for it to stop glowing, he quickly infused a steady stream of mana into the seed, faintly recalling what it had done the last time he did so. ‘What are you going to do now?’ He wondered, watching as it began pulsing brightly.
And… just as it had done before, like a voracious glutton, it began devouring his mana even faster.
“Oh? Still not enough for you?” Unable to hide his intrigue, he carefully wrapped his fingers around the seed and clenched it within his fist. Pouring even more mana into it, he held firmly as the tiny thorns pierced his hand. Squeezing it, he felt it squirming, changing and shifting as rays of green light burst through the gaps of his fingers.
Then with a final burst of golden light, everything ceased completely.
“Ha… hahahha… selfish little thing, aren’t you?”
Just like before, it had completely sealed itself off after taking its fill of mana.

“What happened?” Elamara questioned, hurrying closer to his fist.

“It has had enough from the looks of it.” He replied with a grin and unwrapped his hand.

““Whaaao!”” Ulamara and Elamara both suddenly lit up as he did so.

Once again, the seed had transformed itself.
No longer a dull green, it now had a brass, almost golden sheen over its metallic body.
Also more elongated than spherical, instead of only the five tails that he had seen before, another seven had sprouted alongside them.
The small circular crown of thorns on the other hand, had fused together into a single curved horn that was half the length of the seed itself.
Like the beginnings of limbs, little nubs had also appeared on four distinct parts of the seed with a number of hardened ridges in between them.
Starting from the base of the horn and running down the side opposite the nubs, numerous tiny spikes now divided the seed like a vertebra.

It was evolving. No, it was more fitting to say that it was undergoing metamorphosis. Just by looking at its hardened form, its appearance was more like that of a chrysalis than a seed now.

“It’s so pretty…” Ulamara breathtakingly stated, descending upon the seed in his hand like a pollinating insect to a flower.

“It grew longer. And that… a horn?” Elamara questioned, settling down beside her sister.

Picking the seed up with his free hand, he willed another surge of mana into it, but as expected, nothing happened. It had gone dormant again. 
Feeling the armored ridges along the seed’s side, he turned it and ran his thumb over the line of spikes. “Hmm… interesting.” It was truly and completely different from what it had been before. “Are spirits born from seeds?” He pondered aloud, placing the seed back down on its nubs. Reassessing its appearance, the seed was now like that of a horned creature laying down on four legs. Something similar to that of a prowling predator.
Zeeke’s small form along with the other feline’s appearance quickly came to mind, but neither of them had horns, and the seed was too small in comparison to them.

“Do they?” Ulamara questioned, wrapping her arms around the seed like she was measuring it.
“I’ve never heard of such.” Elamara supplemented, looking puzzled.

“Neither have I…”
As far as he knew, it was believed that elemental spirits were entities that had either existed since the dawn of time, or were born via the undying will of Lagus in order to help maintain the world’s natural order. That they were reflections of Lovis itself, made whole and given life by the pure and primordial mana of the spirit realm.
It was largely the reason why summoners could use their familiars as a catalyst to tap into the primal energy, for the spirits were a part of Lagus itself.

Yet in his hand, was something else entirely unknown to him. It had possibly been born of the spirit world, but it was his mana and not the primal energy of Lagus that was inducing its mutations.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out.” Closing his fist around the seed once again, from it, he could feel something faint like a pulse, calmly beating in tandem with his own heartbeat.

 

 

A cheerful, almost festive atmosphere overwhelmed them as they returned from their trip to the stream.
Taking careful steps so as not to spill the two buckets filled with water in her hands, Narissa curiously threw her attention about, listening in on the various conversations that were happening around them.

Passing by a nearby trio, she caught one of the women talking about how the woman’s son had suddenly recovered from his illness, while another claimed that their husband’s limp from a farming accident years ago had completely vanished.
It was an unusual topic for discussion and though the three were trying to keep quiet as if wary of something, she could see the joy upon their faces.

“What is going on?” Darla’s voice curiously questioned from her right.

Without turning to the younger woman, “I don’t know. Did we miss something?” She wondered back as the others behind her began taking notice of the odd atmosphere as well.

Passing even more people while making their way back to their encampment, a few notable individuals caught her eyes. Notable not because of their status or extraordinaire, but because many of them had been indisposed or bedridden.  

A young boy whom she had seen on multiple occasions to have required the aid of a walking stick, was now running amok like it was natural.
A farmhand who had twisted their arm from a terrible fall just a few days prior, was now using that very arm and deftly chopping up a pile of fire wood while hollering joyfully to his wife.
Even more incredible, was a young lady who had lost an eye due to a particularly bad ambush while trying to flee her village. The young lady was no longer wearing a cloth around her head, and her two violet eyes were sparkling beautifully as she talked with her peers.

Something had definitely occurred while they were gone, and though a few people were up in alarm with curiosity and skepticism, many more were praising and giving thanks to the gods.

Yet, she could not picture the gods. Instead, “Kaidus… what did you do?” She whispered the boy’s name aloud, knowing that it could only be his doing. She had seen what he did to Juliana and Emila, but she had not expected that such a thing was even possible, and with so many people.

“Narissa, look,” Darla called out to her and she turned her head, “Isn’t that Lania from the old lord’s group?”

Spotting a woman quietly taking in the afternoon sun while tearfully rocking a newborn in her arms, “That… that IS Lania…” She softly replied.
They have all heard that the young mother had been having difficulties after giving birth eight days ago, and was supposedly bedridden and could barely sit up. That she was getting weaker by the day, and even her family was not sure if she was going to make it to the end of the year. But looking at her now, Lania was the picture of health.

“It’s not just Lania. Look over there. That’s Ulfreth the cobbler.” Hannah, one of the young ladies following behind them pointed out.

Turning her gaze, Narissa easily picked out the skinny, almost stick-like figure of the cobbler. The man was grinning maniacally and flashing his yellow teeth while regaling and gesturing to his left hand. A hand, that had apparently been lopped off during the attack on Esperen.

“Let us not dawdle. We can find out what happened after we get back to our camp.” She urged and without minding the buckets in her hands, broadened her steps.

Unlike what she had expected, a different scene from that of the morning or the camp’s atmosphere was playing itself out around the fires of their encampment.

Instead of screaming and running around like usual, the three boys who did not join them for a wash were now carrying pieces of sticks and twines back and forth upon order. Being directed by Kaidus, they appeared to be helping with the assembly of something.

“Orphe! I was going to get that!” One of the boys cried out, seeing that another had already brought over what appears to be a long stick from the pile of firewood.

“You were too slow!” The boy named Orphe exclaimed proudly.

“But Kaidus asked me to-”

“It’s alright. We’re going to need a few more so can you find me some that’s around the same length?” Kaidus quickly interrupted.

“Length?” The small boy puzzled.

“Another one that’s just as long.” With a smile, Kaidus took the stick from the one named Orphe and began measuring it against the ground as both boys hurried back to the firewood.

Taking her eyes away from what Kaidus and the boys were doing, she spotted the group of young ladies who had opted to stay behind.
Tasked with cleaning the camp and lunch preparations, they had swept the area, washed the pot and tended to the fires, but instead of seeing to the ingredients in front of them, they were keenly watching Kaidus.

“You girls see something you like?” Arleen’s playful teasing came from behind, and instantly drew the attention of the group. Seeing them frantically trying to resume their duties as their faces flushed with colors, “Can I have a look too?” Arleen chuckled and hurried over to them with her bucket that was filled with wet clothes.

Doing the same, she quickly followed and set her buckets of water down behind the group. “What happened while we were gone? Everyone is so… so oddly cheerful.” Narissa questioned, moving out of the way as others came to unload their own water. 

“We don’t know.” Juliana, one of those who had stayed behind answered while continuing to mash up a bowl of roots. “Not long after you all left, a light started coming from his tent and then… it- it was like a gentle wind suddenly swept through us.”

“It was very warm.” Another of the girls interjected while beaming nostalgically.

“Yes. Almost like a breath even…” Juliana added.

“A breath?”
Her own experience within the command tent the evening prior easily came to mind.

“Yes, but… it was all throughout your body. It felt like it was inside of me.”

“Me too.” The others quickly affirmed.

“Hmm…” Taking another look at Kaidus, the young man was pulling something up off the ground. “I see… please excuse me.” Breaking away from the group, she quickly made her way over to him.
“What is that?” She questioned as she approached.
In front of Kaidus, was a wide and crisscrossing structure made of sticks, vines, and twine, rising up to about half of Kaidus’ height. The long sticks she saw the boys bringing him had been placed horizontally along the structure and tightly bound in place by long pieces of twines. The vines had been used to bind the cross sections of the shorter sticks, interlocking them diagonally in place to keep the structure from folding in on itself. With a wide base, the structure was standing upright.
“Wait… is that a drying rack?” She marveled, seeing the crude craftsmanship.

“It takes a lot of time for wet clothes to dry if you just place it by the fire. I figured I would make myself useful.”

“But-” Looking at the flimsy rack made of uneven sticks and twigs, it looked like it would break if a few pieces of clothes were placed on it, not to mention wet clothes. “Is that going to hold? The structural integrity looks lacking at best.” She replied, not trying to diminish his good intentions.

“It’ll hold.” Kaidus grinned back at her. “It wouldn’t even break of ten grown men were to climb atop it.”

“Did you… do something to it?” She quietly inquired, seeing the confidence on his face.

“I did.” And without hiding it, Kaidus calmly admitted. “Reinforced it with my mana so there’s nothing to worry about. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

Looking at the rack, her hands urged for her to reach out and break it, but with a smile, “I believe you.” She quickly conceded. “I think the others will be glad to have something like this.”

“We won’t be here for much longer, but it should offer a modicum of convenience.” Picking the rack up with one hand, Kaidus moved it closer to the fire.

‘Can’t you… can’t you just dry their clothes for them with magic?’ The question caught itself in the back of her throat and quickly discarding it, “Kaidus. You remember what you said this morning? That you needed to tell me something?” She queried, changing up the subject.

“Of course. If you’ve no more tasks, how about discussing it in private before lunch?” The youth suggested.

With a quick glance over to the edge of their camp, to where a small two-person shelter had been set up, “I’ll wait for you in your tent.” She replied, excusing herself.

Situating herself atop a piece of log opposite the boy’s sleeping area, it was not long before Kaidus joined her.
Just like the day before, the youth’s eyes flashed silver for an instant as he entered, and the air inside the tent suddenly grew heavier.

A sense of foreboding immediately began creeping under her skin and the thought of standing up and leaving for air tugged at her mind, but with a controlled breath, she quickly calmed herself down.

As if he had noticed, “It’s just a simple barrier. One that will keep our conversation from being overheard.” Kaidus nonchalantly explained and sat down on a bedroll opposite her.

Checking around the tent, “Where… where’s that lizard anyways? I don’t see him.” She questioned, trying to keep herself from losing her nerves.

“I’ve sent Zirus out on a task. He’ll be back tomorrow.” A curt reply as Kaidus settled.

“I see. So…” She could feel herself wavering as they sat before one another. “What was so important that you couldn’t discuss it outside?”

She looked into his eyes, and, “I’m sorry, Narissa.” The youth quickly apologized, his tone dark and solemn.

“Sorry?” She repeated, “Sorry for what?”
The sense of foreboding was growing more overbearing as she continued staring at him.

“I know you were hoping, but there is no one living on or around the Shadow Peak Mountains… not anymore.”

“What? What do you mean?” She questioned, unable to understand what he was talking about.
They had only discussed it the previous day. There was no way he could have found the mountain already or knew what awaits them.

“Your family, Narissa. I’m afraid that they have long since departed the mountains.”

“H-how do you know? How can you possibly know that?” Hearing her own voice fluctuating, she quietly turned her eyes toward the ground, unwilling to accept his words.

“My familiar has already searched the mountain multiple times. I assure you. There is no one up there anymore.”

“Then… are you saying there were people there before?” She questioned, looking back up at him.

“A small settlement was found a day’s march up the mountain’s northern slopes. But from what I can gather, it looks like it was attacked, and recently at that.”

“Attacked? By what? What would attack such a remote settlement in such a place?” She could feel the blood in her arms slowly waning, dripping away like condensation upon a leaf in the morning’s mist.

“Let me ask you one thing first.” The youth interrupted, halting her bombardment, “Does anyone in your family or those around them know magic?”

“Wha- magic?”

“I’m asking if there is a possibility that a mage might be working with your family.”

“I… I don’t believe so.” She sullenly replied, “Most if not all of the mages had been forced to join the war. I doubt anyone would be working for a blacksmith like my father when lords and ladies are fighting over them.”

Kaidus’ face suddenly darkened. “If that’s the case, then this was probably a drakall attack.”

“H-how can you tell?” She stuttered, seeing him narrowing his eyes contemplatively.

“My familiar tells me that there are various claw marks and bite marks on the remaining bodies along with signs of magic throughout the small area of the settlement.”

“UuuhhK!” Just imagining her family and friend’s dead or torn to pieces, she felt her body tensing up.

“My guess is that the beasts probably ate what they could, and left the rest to the elements. As for what type of drakall, I’m putting my money on Kalligors. Only a pair of Kalligors would be brazen and vicious enough to attack and kill humans in such a place.”

“No… that can’t be right. You must be lying.” The words came flowing out even before she could think about them.

“Narissa.” Hearing her name, she quickly focused in on him again as if an unknown force had compelled her to do so. “I promised you that I would search the Shadow Peak Mountains for your parents, and I have done so. Dead or alive, it is clear now that there will be no one waiting for us there even if we were to make the trip. Tell me. What do you want to do now?”

Seeing his inquiring gaze, she could not help but shiver.
The boy before her, a child on the cusp of manhood, was talking about death like it was a natural thing to him. As if it was but another small part in his short life thus far.

“Narissa.” He called her name again, and she quickly snapped out of her thoughts.

“I… I want to see it…” She quietly answered, fighting down her fears. “I want to confirm it with my own eyes. To see if they are indeed my family or not.”

“The bodies were all kovus’, but very well. As per our agreement, I shall accompany you so that you may see this through.”

Unable to submit to the loss, “Kaidus…” She whispered, “They- my family… they could still be alive, right?” And pointedly questioned, hoping that it was possible.

“I’m sorry Narissa, but I don’t know the answer to that.” The boy replied, and the heaviness within the tent instantly dissolved. “We will escort everyone to Imvera first, and then you and I shall make our way east.” Kaidus added and stood up to leave. “I know it’s hard, but it is best that you prepare yourself for the worst.”

B3 Chapter 23 – Transcendence

A thin soup of plant roots and bark.
Carefully taking a sip of the hot broth, he scooped a thin piece of cambium into his mouth. With it having been soaked in water overnight, the sinewy fibers easily broke apart, giving the inner bark a tender, almost meat-like texture. 
It went down easily and though mostly tasteless, there was a hearty warmth to it. “Hmm, this is good.” Kaidus smiled, allowing his surprise to show for the girl who had been waiting for his verdict, “Tell Arleen and Darla, thank you.” He added, spooning up a piece of root.

“It is, isn’t it? My sister got up extra early this morning to help prepare it.” Sarah replied with a wide grin on her face, as if to make sure that the very fact was known to him.

“Then please give Saadra my regards as well.” Returning a smile, he scooped another spoonful of soup into his mouth and appearing content with herself, Sarah happily skipped away.
Sensing that a number of eyes were still quietly watching him even with Sarah gone, he looked up from his bowl, only to catch the various gazes all hurrying to look away.
He chuckled.

Words about how he healed Juliana and Emila the previous evening had already circulated through the group, and it had culminated in even more awkwardness as some of the young ladies were now refusing to meet his eyes lest he entrapped them.
Yet, on the opposite side of the fire, unlike their older and more self-conscious sisters, the younger boys and girls who had been fearfully keeping their distance due to Zirus, were now quietly watching him with curious wonderment.

Taking a final swig of his soup, he looked up and saw Emila shyly approaching him with a second bowl.
Fair of face and figure, the young lady was perhaps a good two to three years older than himself. With long auburn hair that fell down to her waist like a beautiful mirage of the sunset, her fierce and unyielding brown eyes from the evening before were now screaming and darting nervously as she made her way toward him.

Greeting her with a cordial smile, “Good morning, Emila. You’re looking much better.” He complimented, surprised to see that she was already up and about.

The sight of a nervous but lovely smile tugged at her lips and looking embarrassed, the young lady quickly lowered head. “G-good morning. Uhm- thank you, and here’s a second helping if you’re still hungry.” With a modest but gracious bow, she carefully handed him the new bowl and tensely took the empty one in his hand.

“Thank you, but what about you all? Will there be enough?” He asked, seeing that it was another generous helping of soup. Glancing over to where the pot was, along with Arleen and Darla, it did not look like those who had been serving breakfast had eaten yet.

“There’s still plenty left to go around, so please enjoy.” Holding his empty bowl to her chest, Emila quickly turned around and swiftly hurried away as if to flee from him.

She’s a strong one. He mused to himself as she walked away with what appears to be an energetic gait in her steps.
From what he had heard, the girl had fought back against their assailants, allowing her friends to escape and get help.
That, even after being chased down by the dogs who had wanted their ways with her, she had clawed and kicked at them, screaming and biting until help arrived. Due to her unwillingness to submit and the frustrations of her assailants, the result had ended with her bloodied and bruised.
Upon seeing her the previous evening, she had been scarred with a large gash that ran down the side of her left thigh to her knees, which ended up incapacitating her with a dreadful fever. There were also more than a few dozen bruises throughout her body with deep tissue damage, and two fractured ribs on the right side of her torso, along with a nasty sprain on her right wrist.
Yet, looking at her now, one would not have known that she had been through such a horrific experience.

“She’s a pretty one, isn’t she? Those bastards deserved what Vick did to them.” A voice filled with a forced sense of calm came from his side as Narissa joined him.

“Narissa. Good morning.” Returning a curt greeting to the kovus woman, he took a second look at the bowl in his hand and resumed his breakfast.
She was too kind. What Vick had done, was spare the dredges. Their punishment had been nothing compared to the fear inflicted upon Emila, Ashlyn, and Juliana, and paying only an ear each for such a betrayal… it was too small a price.

Instantly reeling back her candor as if she had caught onto his state of mind, “R-right. Good morning…” Narissa quickly replied, before sitting down on the seat beside his.

They sat in silence, and though she was holding her own bowl of soup in hand, Narissa did not eat. Instead, he could feel her eyes constantly darting over to him.
The conversation with Zion the previous night began to coil about his thoughts as she continued to watch him, and, “Narissa…” He sighed, lowering his bowl. “If you have something to say, you might as well speak.”

“I- I uh-…” She paused, and then anxiously took a sip of her soup.

Seeing her surprise and hearing her lack of words, “Where’s the garrulous woman I traveled with all those days ago?” He asked, turning to face her. “You’re not suddenly too afraid of me now to speak your mind after everything, are you?”

“P- that’s- that’s preposterous! W-who’s afraid of you?!” Exclaiming loudly, Narissa quickly recoiled in embarrassment as those around them turned to look at her. “I- I just wasn’t sure if I should be asking you while you’re eating, that’s all.”

“It’s fine. Ask away.”

“Ahem! Uhm…” Narissa quickly drew closer and, “You… you said for us to begin yesterday. What did you mean by that? Are we going to leave soon?” She questioned, her voice a curious whisper.

She had indeed come to inquire about that specific affair. “I meant just that. And no, we won’t be leaving just yet.” He calmly answered.

“Then when?”

“I’ll let you know later. There is something I must tell you as well.”
As commanded, Zion had scoured the Shadow Peak Mountains. Yet what it had found, was not something that should be regaled lightly. Especially not at breakfast, and with so many children around.

“Hhmmm… fine.” With a disgruntled and helpless groan, Narissa sat back and began to probe her soup with her spoon.

They sat and ate in silence once more, and as he stood after finishing his breakfast, the sound of footsteps immediately drew themselves toward him as if they had been waiting.
Looking over his shoulders, Koran, the guard who had been ordered to stay near him was walking in his direction.

“Milord.” The man stopped behind him.

“What is it?” He questioned, turning to look at Koran.

“The Captain sent words, Sire. The hunting parties have departed.”

Beyond Koran and toward the entrance of the group’s encampment, he could see another guard was standing there. A stout young man not much older than himself, the blonde youth was looking around nervously, as if afraid of stepping into the girl’s camp.

“Got it.” About to step away, “Koran.”

“Milord?”

“Have the messenger deliver a message for me. Tell the captain that I said to go ahead and start preparations for our departure. He’ll know what to do.”

Without questioning him, “Yessir.” The man bowed and swiftly retreated two steps before turning around and striding away.

Sensing an odd pair of eyes on him, Kaidus turned to look beside him.

Narissa was grinning from ear to ear. “Are you sure you’re not some lordling?” She questioned from her seat, narrowing her eyes playfully.

“I am certain of that fact.”

“Well, you could have fooled me. Perhaps in another life?” She quipped jovially.

Reciprocating her joke with an indulgent smile, “Perhaps.” He wryly concurred, before walking away.

Approaching the table that had been designated for dishes, he saw Arleen, Sarah, Saadra, and Ashlyn eating together along with a few others who had been busy serving.
The older woman caught his eyes and quickly set her breakfast aside, before hurrying over to him. Taking his empty bowl before he could discard it, “How about another?” She kindly questioned as she looked over to the pot of soup.

“It was delicious, but I am perfectly content right now. Thank you.”

“Kaidus?” She quickly voiced as he was about to leave, “Can I still call you Kaidus?”

Curious at her choice of words, “Of course. It’s my name.” He replied and at his answer, the older woman’s eyes instantly began smiling.

“I’m sorry, but do you have any plans for today?” Arleen hastily inquired and looked back to a few of the girls behind her.  

Through the corner of his eyes, he caught a few of the young ladies mouthing words and shaking their heads at Arleen. “Not much. I’ll probably take a look around the camp. See if there’s anything I can help with. Why do you ask?”

“We- the girls are planning to go to the stream for more water. A few of us also want to wash and bathe, so I thought I’d ask if you would join us.” There was a grin on Arleen’s face. Peeking beyond her, the complexion of the other girls had flushed red. “Of course, it’s to keep an eye out. I think everyone would feel more relieved if they knew you were nearby.”

With a cordial smile of his own, “It is a tempting offer, but maybe next time.” Politely declining the invitation, he gave a grateful nod and headed back to his tent. 

““Arleeeen!”” A number of voices scolded behind him as the older woman began giggling.

 

 

Uncertain of his decision, Biran sat forward and took another gander at the piece of flattened hide in front of him.

Upon the crude map, the large circles that had encapsulated the position of their camp was now divided into four quadrants, with each extending at least two days out from camp.
Sticking to Jonns initial plans, they had divided the workload between their hunters, guards, and volunteers, sending out four groups in four different directions.
The groups would then further fan out into smaller teams led by capable hunters that he had appointed, and with the assistance of the volunteers that had answered their urgent plea for help, they would scour the forest for food and game.
Four smaller groups had also been established with the sole purpose of transporting food back to the camp.
Yet with only a few dozen hunters and a little over a hundred volunteers, there was no telling how long it would take before the first successful hunts come back.

“Captain?” One of his guards who had been positioned outside of the tent peeked inward, catching him slumping over the map, “Will you be making your rounds soon?” The man questioned.

Looking up, he quickly fixed his posture, “In a moment.” Biran replied, not allowing his worries to show as he picked up the map. Taking notice of the guard’s troubled expression, “Is something wrong?”

“I… think we might have trouble already.” The man replied.

Inhaling deeply to steel himself for the day’s first bickering that he would have to mediate, “What’s going on this time?”

“Ildirn just came from the old lord’s camp, sir. Said there was an altercation, and that someone got banged up pretty badly. The old man wishes for you to go help resolve it.”

His stomach churned upon hearing that it was Lord Shradech’s people, and the faces of a few furious parents instantly manifested within his mind. “… they sure picked the perfect time to stir trouble, didn’t they?” Sighing to himself, he gave the guard a stern look, “Get Tak and go with Ildirn. Make sure that the situation does not escalate further and wait for me.”

“You’re not coming with us?” The guard queried back.

“I will get his lordship. If it is who I think it is, maybe they’ll listen to him.”

Dismissing the guard, he quietly stood up and made his way to his room in the back.
Stopping before the sheet of cloth that separated his room from the rest of the tent, he could already feel the beckoning of the weapon that was within.

Like it was alive, the enchanted blade always knew when he was approaching.
Even without seeing it, he could sense the coldness of its steel reverberating through his bones. Could feel its incredible strength as the blood within his body vigorously resonated with it, becoming one and the same.

Stepping closer to the weapon that was lying atop his bed, he felt himself trembling in excitement.
Small ice crystals had already formed around the weapon’s handle and guard, and were glistening dimly as clouds of cold air continuously oozed forth from the mouth of its scabbard.

“Huuu…” With a deep and slow breath, he knelt down and quietly admired the beautiful sword.
Intricately carved, the hilt was dark and appeared to have been crafted out of a single bone or a petrified piece of tree. Its guard on the other hand, was made of metal and had a number of small runes lining its length, with small ice crystals jutting from each of them, giving it an oddly intimidating allure. And the blade… though nestled within its shabby metal scabbard, he could distinctly visualize the thin and transparent metal that was now undoubtedly glowing an eerie blue.

The air around it slowly rose upward as if to greet him as he stared, and quickly swirling around his right arm, it begged for him to take hold of the sword.

Inhaling deeply, he slowly reached forth and grabbed the weapon by its hilt. “Kugh-!! Grrrrkk-” Gritting his teeth, just like the night he had sworn himself, a surge of power rushed into his body, freezing his arm all the way up to his shoulders as the ice upon the weapon shattered and fell to the ground. “Haaaa… Haa…” Exhaling harshly as the rush of power slowly subsided, he sucked in a few extra breaths of air before standing up. Having been subdued, the ice along his arm slowly receded into his flesh as if it were a part of him.

Unlike its usual self, the weapon had been acting up since a few days ago, and he could not understand why. Even with the lord’s return, the abnormality had not vanished. Instead, it was now like a cup that was constantly overflowing.
Not with water or a liquid, but an indescribable power that someone the likes of himself could never wholly tame or wield.

Deftly fastening the weapon to his waist, he took a moment to quickly compose himself before leaving the confines of his room and command tent.

Hastily moving north through the camp, “Doyle?” He called out, spotting the eager youth that he had sent to deliver his message earlier.

“Captain!” The young guard cried out with surprise and rushed over to him.

“Did you give the lord my message?” He questioned, seeing that the youth was coming south toward him.

“I did, sir. But…” A hint of cumbersome worry mixed with confusion appeared on the boy’s face.

“But?”

“I think I’ve seen him before. Is he really a lord?” Doyle supplemented, voicing his curiosity.

“He’s my lord. The person I have sworn my life to. You and the others don’t have to worry about it.”

“Oh… okay.” With a thoughtful nod, Doyle looked up again, “Oh. He also wanted me to bring you a message.”

“His lordship did?”

“Yes.” Another quick nod. “Koran said that the message was for you to start preparing for departure. I don’t know what he means, but he said that the lord mentioned you’ll know what to do.”

Biran looked to the direction that Doyle had come from, “… very well. If that is the lord’s will, then let us begin the preparations.” Placing a hand on the sword at his side, he turned away from his purpose for coming there and proceed eastward instead.

His lord had trusted him enough to not interfere with his authority within the camp. To be requesting assistance for such a minor problem as an altercation, it would only prove how incapable he was.

“Come. I’ll need you to relay a few orders to the other guards who are still here while I deal with what’s happening.” He commanded.

The responsibility was his, and he would take care of it.

“We should never have allowed them to stay!” A man’s voice angrily resounded through the air as Biran approached the location of the elder’s hut. “Just look at what is happening around us! We’ve no say anymore! And you, you’ve all completely lost your positions and voices to these newcomers!”

“I’d watch what I say if I were you, Galag.” A familiar but imposing voice warned.

“What are you going to do if I don’t? Beat me like you did Angson?!” The angry voice contested loudly.

“You try what he did, and I’ll do more than give you a beating.”

“Do you all hear that?! This! This is what we have come to after everything that we’ve been through!” The voice shouted, “Governed by brutes and cowards! Is this what you all want?!”

Biran edged upward to see what was happening, and spotting his approach, his guards whom he had sent ahead earlier quickly rushed over. Pushing through the circle of spectators who had begun clamoring at the man’s provocations, the three of them barely managed to force an opening for him to enter.
“What is going on here?” He questioned as the others around them also spotted him and began to tone down their voices.

On one side, standing before the doorway to the old lord’s hut was Pelwin, the old man’s guard. The lord himself, was nowhere to be seen.
On the other side, with his back to a group of people, Galag, a face he had familiarized himself with over the past handful of days, had caught sight of him and was now glaring at him.

“Do you see what I mean? We have even lost the right to our own disputes! They have completely taken over OUR camp and OUR people!” The man, Galag, exclaimed.

“Enough!” Pelwin roared, silencing the area. “Is this what you all really want?! Do you truly think that this is the best decision for us right now?!”

“What we want, are our sons back!”
A man who had been standing behind the one called Galag shouted.
“My son did not deserve to be cast out like that!”
A woman complemented angrily.

“Stop it! All of you!” Haggard and exhausted, the old lord’s voice came from inside the hut that Pelwin was protecting. Supporting himself with a large stick, Lord Shradech slowly limped out of the hut.

“My lord!” Biran called out and the old lord met his eyes, acknowledging his words with a nod.

“As none of you will listen, since the Captain is here now, I will leave this matter to him. I am tired of this nonsense, and I have no wish to hear any more of it. Now leave me be and go elsewhere.” The old man brusquely stated before quickly turning back toward his hut.

“You- you spineless old man! We trusted you!” One of the mothers screamed from the audience, and something immediately flew toward the old lord.

Biran hastily rushed forward. With an upward flick of his sword, the stick was cleanly severed in two and its momentum instantly halted. Falling to the ground, the two pieces slowly began frosting over from their points of severance.
“I am going to go out on a limb and assume that this is about the exile of your sons… again.” He calmly stated as he slid the translucent weapon back into its scabbard. Looking to the group of resentful parents who had come together once more, “Am I right?”

“An- an outsider like you… how dare you?!”

“Sirs and missus.” He retorted with a cold glare, “You were all given a choice that day. Either leave with your sons, or stay. You all chose to stay. Just what sort of reasons could have brought you all here today?”

“Justice! Justice is what brought us here!” Galag cried out indignantly. “You summarily exiled our sons without so much as a fair trial. Today, we will have justice!”
Looking at the large farmer, Galag was at least half a head taller than himself. The man’s arms were muscular like that of a miner’s and could probably easily crush a man’s throat. His aggressive posture alone would be frightening, were it not for the overly large mouth plastered upon the bottom half of the man’s face, along with his incessant squabbling.

“What need is there for a trial, when the evidence of wrongdoing is so plainly obvious, and those responsible have all admitted their guilt?” Biran snarled back, not backing down from the infuriating man. “Or am I to believe that the damages we have all witnessed upon those girls were self-inflicted?”

“Admission of guilt?! They were coerced, and you know it!”

“Your son Arnold admitted to everything in front of witnesses, and the others confirmed his words. It is time you did the same and ceased this pointles-” Biran gritted his teeth. His whole body suddenly stiffened midsentence, as what felt like an invisible wave of heat passed through him.
Quickly grasping the sword at his side in fear of an enemy, all of the muscles within his body instinctively tightened up as a surge of raw power coursed into the weapon in his hand, exploding outward to freeze half of his body.

“Kyaaa!!” Someone screamed and, “AaaRaaGGhhhh!!” Others shouted excruciatingly.
From the distance, many more voices erupted in a discord of agonizing screams as if everyone had been affected by the very same burning sensation.

“W-what- What’s happening to me?!” Panicked yelps filled with tears came from a few people around them, while others began gasping for air.

“AAAAHHh!!” And from within the old man’s hut, came what sounded like the death throes of a man at the end of his life.

Eyes widening upon realizing what it might be due to the fact that he had personally experienced it already, Biran clenched his teeth once more and forcefully shattered the ice around him before hurrying toward the hut.
Inside, the old man had fallen to the ground and was clutching onto his legs.
“By the gods…” He uttered in disbelief, seeing that the old man’s crippled leg was no longer curled slightly, but had fully extended with its scars gone.

Rushing back outside, the screams had all but dissipated. There were no longer any coughing coming from those around him, and men and women were staring at one another with terrified gazes, unable to give voice to what had just taken place.

“My… my hand! It- it grew back!” Someone screamed, raising a hand into the air as others shouted incoherently as they began to sense and feel the changes within their own bodies.

Appearing terrified, Galag’s eyes widened upon spotting his own. “What- what is happening?” The man stuttered, squeezing the words out.

Straightening himself, Biran imposingly sauntered before the man without breaking their gaze.
“You and yours would be dead by now, had it not been for my lord’s grace. What you have just experienced, was another of his blessings.” He growled harshly, using the sudden and unexpected turn of events to his advantage. “Should you and your foolish retinue still wish to remain safe amongst everyone here, you will all cease this flagrant display of insubordination. Is that clear?”
Peering into the man’s eyes, there was terror within them the likes of which he had never seen upon the man before.

And unable to retort, the man blankly returned a terrified nod of compliance.

 

 

Turning its head, “Guuuk- gurrrakhhh!!” It groaned painfully, fighting back the urge to waste its strength as it looked toward the horizon once more.

Another explosion of mana had rippled through the ephemeral realms.
Originating from the one it had been seeking, though it was not as powerful of a sensation as before, the mana within had been incredibly pure and dense, like none it had ever felt.

“GU- Grah!” Fighting itself, it growled and arched its back, contorting its body impossibly as the tips of its wings threatened to emerge, to propel it toward the source.
“NO!” Smashing itself against a nearby tree, it roared in defiance, painfully forcing itself to resist as the delicious taste of eternity consumed its thoughts.

 

 

***************************

 

Hello everyone!

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving/Holiday/November, and have been keeping yourselves safe.

As for this chapter, I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. I’ll be diving into the next one as soon as I can since I already have most of it planned out, so please look forward to that. 

On another note, I’d like to do something for my patreons to show my appreciation, so I’ll be uploading the chapters there first from now on. It won’t be a huge delay or anything. Just half a day or maybe a day’s delay before releasing it here.
Doing so also allows me to go over the chapter and fix/edit the many things that I might have missed, or rewrite/add whatever I need to make the chapter flow better. In essence, you can technically call the version that is being uploaded on patreon a finalized rough draft.

Anyways, enough rambling from me.
As always, thank you for reading, and I wouldn’t be here without all of you, so thank you all for your support! 

-Za1d3

B3 Chapter 22 – Revenants

“Pathetic.”
A deep voice filled with an immeasurable sense of disappointment echoed into his ears, followed by a set of heavy footsteps. “Just what have your instructors been doing for this past year?”

Barely comprehending those words, he could do naught, but clutch onto his side with both hands as he gasped painfully on the ground.

“To think that someone like you carries my blood… what an embarrassment. Get up.” The voice commanded, anger and reproach wholly palpable within their grating tone.

“Guh- ungh!” He painfully clenched his teeth as a sharp pain lashed at him from where he had been kicked.

“What are you waiting for? Get up!” The voice loudly demanded, and the hall rumbled as a fierce wind stormed out around them.

Unable to hide his pain, he fearfully looked upward at the man who had once been a man of compassion and righteousness. “F-father please… it- it hurts.” He begged, trying his utmost to appeal for mercy.

“Pain, is but the death of weakness.” Unmoved, his father stepped closer, “Now… stand up and pick up your sword.” 

The impact that had sent him tumbling agonized him from within even more, and his mind blurred, incapable of recalling when he had lost the weapon. “I… I can’t.” He cried out as his body refused to stand.

“Unsightly mutt- get up!”

The wind crackled in the air at his father’s words and his right shoulder was instantly licked with pain, “Auk-KAAAhhhh!” A feverish burning rushed from his shoulder down to the center of his back and he painfully arched his whole body. The throbbing in his side completely forgotten, his arms reflexively fought to rub the stinging welt that had whipped him across his back.

“Whether you desire it or not, you are now the heir.” His father’s voice grinded harshly as if the words had been begrudgingly forced out. “And as my heir… as a man who carries the blood of the An’Daralites, this weakness within you WILL be expunged.”

Rolling on the hard floor in helpless tears and agony, all that he could glimpse from the once gentle man, were two silver eyes filled with desperation and fear glaring angrily down at him.

“Now, GET UP!”

Eyes jerking open at the command, Kaidus quickly sat himself upright as the frozen vision vividly seared itself into the depths of his mind.
A dream. One, of a father slowly being consumed by grief and an oblivious son.

“Haaa…” Taking a deep breath, he slowly took notice that his small tent was aglow with an otherworldly hue.
Looking to his right, illuminated by a silver glow, he easily spotted the two young phraes sleeping peacefully within their makeshift nest of fur. Zirus on the other hand, had moved from its spot near the twins to nestle beside his pillow.

Bringing both hands up to his face, he calmly brushed back his silver hair and the glow around him slowly vanished, returning to that of night.
Taking another moment to absorb the silence around him, he quietly stood up and made his way out of the tent.

It was still dark as expected. In the night sky, the new moon had selfishly gone into hiding again, shrouding the world in shadows.
Catching the handful of torches marking where the night patrols were stationed, he also heard the odds bouts of coughing and cries of children waking in the night. Yet beyond those, the camp was mostly silent and bereft of form.

With a quick glance at the dozen or so tents and crude shelters around him, he swiftly dispersed a wave of mana outward, then quietly walked toward the burnt out firepits at the center.
Taking a seat atop one of the many log stools, instead of rousing a flame, he silently stared into the darkness.

‘Pain, is but the death of weakness.’ The words reforged themselves within the darkness and he found himself grinning at the memory.
Though it was from a different life, he could still smell the overpowering scent of cainsberry incense wafting through the air and the touch of the cold stone floor where he had spent most of his time crying.
That day, in an attempt to stir and awaken the potential within his blood, he, a mere child at the time, had been mercilessly beaten.

“Haaa…” Exhaling softly, he released the fist he had subconsciously clenched and dismissed the superfluous memory, willing it to return to the past where it belonged as he had done countless other times before.
Shaking his hand to recover from the stinging within them, he quickly resumed his infatuation with the darkness and the silence around him while he waited.

Eventually, a presence hesitantly emerged from the tent situated beside his own, prompting his attention.
“Couldn’t sleep?” He questioned, taking the initiative.

“Yea…” Delayed by a surprised pause, Vick’s voice answered from the darkness as light steps slowly made their way over to him.

“Something wrong?” He inquired as Vick drew closer.

“You know… I had a long chat with Captain Biran earlier.”

Hearing the oddly respectful tone within the mercenary’s voice while mentioning Biran, “Was that where you went?” He quickly queried with interest.

“I figured I should at least apologize for my rudeness and how I’ve been conducting myself toward him.” Vick answered, voice trailing quietly behind him.

“I see. You two worked out your differences then?”

“Not entirely, but somewhat. I guess you can say that we came to something of an understanding.” Vick succinctly voiced, stopping a few good paces away from him. “Though a little too uptight and proper, he’s… tolerable.” Vick added without taking further steps or making any indication of sitting down

“That’s good.”

“Yea… I think so too.” Vick quietly agreed, as if saying it for himself.

Feeling Vick’s eyes keenly staring down at him whilst standing stock silent, “Surely you didn’t come out here just to tell me that you made peace with Biran. What’s really on your mind?” He probed, inviting the uneasiness that the mercenary was harboring. 

“Kaidus. You know, I-…” Vick paused and swallowed as if his nerves had gotten the best of him before continuing, “I’ve had a lot of time to think. And…” There was a sense of stoicism in his voice now. A hardened and resolute tone, one vastly different from Vick’s usual, “My apologies for such an unsightly display last time. It will not happen again.”

He curiously looked up.

“Everyone is privy to their own secrets. You obviously have your own reasons, for what you’ve done. Whether you wish to share more or not, I will not pry any further. Sorry for my insolence, and I hope that you will continue to count on me.”

Taken aback by the sincerity in Vick’s voice, he smiled. “There is nothing to apologize for, but I will thank you for your understanding. As for the latter, of course. If not you, who else am I going to count on?”

With a visible sigh of relief, “Talaras’ tits, this is unbecoming of me.” Vick grumbled before quickly relaxing his posture and reverting back to that of his usual self, “Now then. Moving on… you do remember that we had a deal, right?”

Mildly amazed at how quickly Vick’s behavior changed, “What deal?”

“What deal, he asks.” Vick tersely repeated, “You were supposed to let me know that you are okay every day through the ring.”

“Oh, that.”

“Yes, that. What happened?”

“I thought you weren’t going to pry?” He swiftly quipped back.

“Uk- Fu… fine. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” With dissatisfaction in his voice, Vick turned, “I’m going back to sleep. See you tomorrow.”

“Vick. I was sleeping.” He calmly yielded, stopping the mercenary in his tracks.

“Sleeping?” Vick questioned, looking back at him.

“Yes.”

“For nine days?”

“You counted?”

“Of course I did. I am supposed to look after you.” Vick retorted.

“I’m a deep sleeper.”

“Oh, shove it.” Snapping back sharply, Vick returned an exhausted wave and trudged away.

With an amused smile, he listened as the silence of night reclaimed its rightful place before quickly willing an invisible barrier around himself.
Closing his eyes, the mana within his body boiled as he opened his mind.
‘What have you found?’ He questioned, linking his thoughts with the wind.

And, ‘Death.’ It solemnly whispered back.

 

***

-Darsus-

 

11th Ward. Zorin Academy.
 
“Then… I shall position myself to advocate for why.” Master Hamin pointedly stated, looking around at his colleagues.
Within the room, excluding Master Juvol, Master Zara, and Master Drilm, their group of remaining academy masters had reconvened for an early morning meeting.
Seeing them all nod their heads, “Well then, why should we discard such notions and stories?” He questioned, in regards to certain stories they had all been discussing.

“Because first and foremost, we are scholars.” Master Zaele reasoned, “And secondly, such unfounded superstitions have no place in today’s society. For the civilized world to have ever considered slaughtering infants a humane and merciful act, what a disgrace to our species as a whole.”

“And yet. Regardless of that, the belief has persisted to this day. Surely there is merit in being vigilant.” Master Hamin replied, reinforcing caution.

“A belief, mainly held by the uncultured and uneducated. Propagated by those who still believe in existences such as bog-lurkers, misten raives, and every ill-conceived apparition known to men.” Master Zaele swiftly contested.

“I understand…” Master Hamin voiced, calmly looking to his younger colleague, “But we were both there that night the grandmaster lost his arm. You, Niron, and myself.” Hamin narrowed his eyes and looked down at his hands, “Personally… just how many times have you all been overwhelmed by the sheer pressure of a child unleashing their strength?”

A deathly silence immediately incapacitated the room.
It was unfathomable that a child could awaken at such an age, and even more of an impossibility for them to be capable of subduing the city’s greatest mage. Yet… it was the truth.

“Then what do you want to do, Hamin?” Master Borus spoke up from his seat, “We have kept this knowledge all these years and done nothing. What good will it do for us now to acknowledge such beliefs?”

“Nothing is the answer to both your questions.” Master Hamin stiltedly replied, “We continue to do nothing, but at the same time, we don’t dismiss them either. If the grandmaster’s notes and the information we have obtained from the Mystiks guild are not simply coincidences, then like the old man once said, ‘Open your eyes and watch. Uncover your ears and listen. The truth. Whether tangible or not, will always reveal itself.’ We need simply observe and wait for that truth.”

From his seat by the window, “I understand that this is all very exciting, but I must admit, it all sounds a little too fantastical.” Master Gorzon interjected, “I can believe the reports from the Mystiks guild, but a demon? The God of War?”

“That’s where I’m leaning.” Master Zaele added, “The child is extremely gifted. That is the truth. Why attempt to tie him to this nonsense? We should be glad that such a mage was born in this-”

“Because he is unnatural.” Master Hamin assertively stated, cutting Zaele off.

“I must agree with Hamin on this.” Master Keral who had been silently listening, finally joined in, “Whether we believe it or not, the grandmaster spent the last of his days seeking these answers. Disregarding his efforts would not do us any favors. As for the stories from the outlands, perhaps it would be best to keep them in mind even if you don’t believe them.”

“Hmmm…” Master Zaele quieted himself and fell into his seat as if drowning in deep thoughts.
 
“I understand it sounds ridiculous if you think about it, but now is not the time to be discarding what little clues we have.” Master Hamin added.

“Very well.” Master Borus voiced with understanding while Master Zaele and Master Gorzon both nodded.

“Then… forgive me for my isolation and leaving everything to you all, but how is it going with Lady Rhasula? Has there been any words?” Master Keral questioned.

“We got a letter from Niron last evening. It stated that they were a day’s ride from the town of Heriron at the time of writing, and he estimates that if the lady does not get distracted as she is prone to, they will arrive either on the 22nd, or the 23rd.” Master Hamin recounted.

“What of the Rites of Transference then?”

“Everything has been prepared. Master Drilm should be making a final check of the required items for the ritual today.” Master Gorzon answered.

“So it’s really happening…” Master Keral gave a somber sigh, then looked up at his colleagues, “Forgive me for sequestering myself and leaving everything to you all.”

“Everyone had their own task to perform. Without you, we wouldn’t eve-“
The door to the room swung open before Master Borus could finish his words.

Appearing exhausted and still wearing her same master’s robe from the last time they had seen her, Master Juvol bolted into the room.
With unsteady steps, she was clutching onto a small leather-bound tome in her arms like it was a precious artifact. Quickly setting the tome onto the table, “My apologies for being late even though I called for this meeting.” Master Juvol quickly apologized, then, “Where- where are Drilm and Zara?” She questioned, seeing that they were missing two people.

“Master Zara is visiting Lord Kalzorr’s manor to inquire further about what we have been given. Master Drilm is overseeing the final preparations for the Rites of Transference that is to be held in a few days times.” After addressing the question, Master Hamin calmly stood up, “Did you manage to find something in your search?
 
“Yes…” Master Juvol shakenly confirmed. “That name which was stated in Drend’s report. Silvaeze… I thought I had seen something similar somewhere before, and I was right.” Placing her hand atop the tome, “This… is one of the oldest books we have in the Locked Library. It easily precedes the founding of the Verakanya Dynasty, and probably came into existence not long after the Zanaen Echo itself.”

“T-the Zanaen Echo?” Master Zaele voiced in disbelief.

“Lord Aulson, the person who had been in charge of the Locked Library before me believes its contents might even predate that of the Echo.” Master Juvol replied and carefully opened the tome, revealing pages upon pages of indecipherable texts.
Sifting through the pages, she stopped on a certain one and quickly scanned through the passages, “As some of you may know, my studies were in researching and reconstructing languages of the Eramaen era. It was the reason why Lord Aulson brought me into Zorin as his assistant in the first place.” She quickly explained before placing her finger on a line of text, “Here, from what I have gathered after cross referencing various other sources these past few days, this here, is a passage that originated from that of the Oro’Phateains, a nomadic and powerful warrior tribe in the time of the Kinnacatus rule within ancient Horuns. That means, it would roughly put this passage in the Eramaen time cycle of Eramaeos 71, to somewhere in the estimated year of Eramaeos 146 to 152. Which, if I am correct, would be almost three decades before the Zanaen Echo that brought about our current time cycle.”
Having spoken anxiously, she quickly paused and caught her breath before pulling out a sheet of paper from within her master’s robe, “I have tried my best to simplify and make sense of this passage, so please, have a listen.” Clearing her throat,
“It howls, and the sky falls.
Faltering and failing, the eighth man trembles as midnight breaks.
The desolate moon screams forth,
It cometh.
Wandering in seamless gloom and lightless pyres,
It cometh.
The heralds of unending silence beware.
The Silver Death,
He cometh.”
The hair on the back of her arms were already standing up as she finished, and she carefully placed the paper onto the table.

“What… what does any of that mean?” Master Borus questioned, leaning ponderously forth on his seat.

“This whole book is filled with children’s tales and rhymes, but this passage… it alone bears this dark tone.” Master Juvol replied, “If- if I were to guess, I would say that this was a warning.”

“Master Juvol, you said something about a name in Lord Drend’s report?” Master Zaele acutely pointed out.

“Yes…” Master Juvol reaffirmed, “Took me two days to comb through the lower archives, but I am certain of it. Silvaeze, IS the Silver Death as mentioned in this passage. It is not simply a name, but a title, bestowed onto one of death.” She quickly added, “The word may sound different, but it is undeniable.
Zanaeos 487, the Sindarin reformation during Emperor Calstavea’s rule. During that peace, King Taleas of Tashuam slaughtered all who would oppose him and instated a bastard as his heir. He would later be named Talinvae, the Tyrant of Black Blood.
Zanaeos 113, the Lord of Elkunshire, Anraes Ludrith, overthrew his liege King Renharnt, the Fifth, and massacred every single man carrying the Renharnt bloodline. He was named Vaetur Anraes, or the Merciless Anraes.
Zanaeos 519, King Phinneas-“

“King Phinneas Rosingurd, the Third. Waged a particularly bloody war against his neighboring kingdoms for over a decade, ending only after having been struck down by his own son. I believe he was called the Ovaes Nasin Rosingurd, The Dread King of Rosingurd.” Master Keral quickly hijacked.

“Indeed.” Master Juvol nodded, “I thought it was familiar when I first saw it, but I didn’t think it would coincide so well with my assumptions.”

“Then… what could have possibly transpired for one to attain such a title as the Silver Death?” Master Borus wondered loudly.

“Wait.” Master Zaele quickly stood up, halting the upswelling tension within the room, “How can such a thing be possible? This is a child we’re talking about. Or am I mistaken here?”

“It would be impossible… unless there is truth to what we have been discussing.” Master Keral spoke, his voice shrinking to a whisper as all eyes fell toward him. “It would explain why the grandmaster was so adamant about keeping us from his research. And now… I’m certain that Lord Kalzorr also knows more about what is going on, than what he has delivered onto us.”

“Ahem!” Master Gorzon stood up and stride over to where Master Juvol had placed the book and her transcript. Picking up the piece of paper, with a swift incantation, the paper burst into flames and he flicked it to the ground.
“Though the grandmaster has passed, we are all still bound by our vows of secrecy. As such, we will do as Hamin said. We will wait and see what happens.”
Eyeing the other masters within the room, none disputed his words. Instead, they all quietly nodded.

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.

 

*******************************

 

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.