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Bacorium Legacy

 

Bacorium Legacy

by Nicholas Alexander

© 2015 Nicholas Alexander

Contents

Prologue 

I – How to Bring a Blush to the Snow 

II – A Soul’s Refrain 

III – The Killing Moon 

IV – His Father’s Sword 

V – The Serpent who Devours his own Tail 

VI – Heroes and Monsters 

VII – Be Still, My Beating Heart 

VIII – People Die All the Time 

IX – The Gullibility of the Benevolent 

X – A Message 

XI – Strange Pleasures 

XII – Altair 

XIII – Where Strides the Behemoth 

XIV – True Companions 

XV – Phantom Pain 

XVI – Broken Vows 

XVII – Scaramouche 

XVIII – The Man in the Shadows 

XIX – Things that Lurk in the Dark 

XX – The Sword in the Stone 

XXI – We Three Kings 

XXII – The Night Before 

XXIII – First Blood 

XXIV – Run Away, Never Look Back 

XXV – The Will to Power 

XXVI – Mother 

XXVII – Prophecy 

XXVIII – A Sun Sets, A Sun Rises 

XXIX – Let Slip the Dogs of War 

XXX – The First Snow of Winter 

Epilogue 

PROLOGUE

Barren

The wind told no tales, for there was nothing left to tell. Only death existed in this place she now found herself.

It was a village that was once filled with the warmth of the sun, the sight of people coming and going, and the laughter of children ringing in the air. Now it was nought but a shadow of a memory – a testament to the lingering emptiness of death.

There was nothing. The buildings stood intact, the well was full of water, and the trees still grew tall. But there was not even the faintest breath of life in any of it, not without the people who had once given it all meaning. Someone had once lived in this town. There had been dozens of families – men and women and children and elderly grandparents. Now, nobody walked these streets. A wind of death had blown through the town, taking all life from it and leaving no mercy in its wake. The occasional overturned bucket, or a crushed wooden toy half buried in the dirt, was all the proof that remained of the struggle.

She held her breath as she passed through the streets, listening closely for the betraying sound that she only half hoped to hear – the sound that she may not truly be alone after all.

But of course, the wind told no tales. She was alone, in this empty, dead town. She had found exactly what she was looking for. The emptiness was familiar to her.

Very well, then – she could live in such a place.

<> <> <>

Emila rose from the floor, and took a look at her hands, grimacing at the dust and filth that covered them. She had just spent the last hour or so cleaning out the bedroom she was going to be using for the foreseeable future. Everything in the room had been covered in a fine layer of dust, and it had taken ages for her to clean it out. All the windows in the building had been opened to air it out. But finally, after beginning in the early morning, she had finished around noontime.

When she had arrived in the town of Forga, she hadn’t expected much. Those expectations had not been betrayed. The town was deserted – mysteriously abandoned for reasons that nobody was certain about. An investigation had been held some time ago, but no definite reason could be found for the sudden disappearance of the townspeople. There were a few signs of battle, suggesting that a group had come and wiped the townspeople out, but no survivors or witnesses from Forga had appeared at any of the other towns in the region. The primary blame was, like so much these days, placed upon the kingdom of Acaria, but it did not match the usual style of their attacks.

Emila did not think it was the Acarians. She had seen firsthand the results of their violence, and she knew that their proud king would never carry out such a secretive attack. He liked his atrocities to be known. He would have left survivors, to run and tell Marcus, the Saetician king, what had happened.

She looked over the room again, which was finally in livable condition now that she had cleaned out the dust. She had explored a few unlocked buildings before coming to the inn, and found that the town had been left in almost perfect condition. Gold and belongings were sitting in chests in bedrooms, untouched. Perfectly usable weapons were still hung on the walls. Food was still stored away in the kitchens, though most of it was long expired. If attackers had come to raid Forga, they had left behind a plethora of essential resources.

Emila knew the attackers had not been Acarians, which was why she had chosen to live there. She had been staying in T’Saw, the capital city of the kingdom of Sono, for the previous two years of her life. In the past few months, she had heard much talk among the city folk regarding Acaria. In fearful whispers, they spoke of its vengeful ruler, his growing army, and his vendetta against Zaow, the king of Sono. They said the Acarian king carried a magick sword and used dark powers sealed away long ago. They said he would not stop until Sono was destroyed, or even the whole Alliance of Kingdoms, if need be.

War was coming, it seemed, and Emila did not want to be caught in the middle. So she had packed her things and set out for the mysterious ghost town that nobody would go to, so that she might be able to be in peace, free of the nightmares of the men in black armour who chased her. If she had to live all by herself, so be it.

Anything to be free of the Acarians.

The journey had taken her a full two months, making her way across the countryside of Sono, before crossing the border into Saeticia. She perhaps could have shortened the time had she travelled at night, when the monsters emerged, but she wasn’t a fierce fighter. She preferred to avoid violence whenever possible. Hunting monsters for food was a necessity for any traveller in Bacoria, but fighting against humans was a different matter altogether. She could kill a goblin when she was hungry if need be, but she could not bring herself to do the same to another person. Thus, she made sure she travelled very carefully to avoid bandits and thieves on the road. Thankfully, the highways had been unusually clear of late, ironically, thanks to the very men she was running from.

Emila returned to the inn’s kitchen, which she had cleaned earlier. Her work there had been far more difficult, with less desirable results. The vast majority of food that had been stored there had long ago spoilt, and thus had needed to be disposed of outside. Only a small amount of the supplies were untarnished. She would still prefer to use it only in emergencies if she could. What other food she would eat would have to come from hunting. Living in the town on her own would not be a problem. There was a well to drink from and plenty of beasts to hunt – she could even set traps in the woods outside the town.

Emila lifted a bucket of clear water from the floor and placed it on the counter, and began to wash her hands with it. The running water and indoor magitech were down, but if she could fix those she would also have tap water, showers, and a refrigerator and stove to ease her burden.

Once she was finished, she dried her hands. She was feeling tired from the work, and hungry and thirsty. She decided she would cook up some of the meat she had left from her travelling supplies, then turn in for the night. Before that, however, she would need to make a quick trip to the well and refill her bucket.

Taking the wooden bucket, Emila stepped outside onto the streets of Forga. The sun was still high in the sky, not likely to begin setting for another hour or two. That was good – she would have plenty of time to lock up the inn and prepare for the night. The town was abandoned, so there was little doubt the usual beasts would emerge and prowl the streets once the sun had set. She could likely hold the monsters off, but avoiding confrontation was the first step for survival. Her mother had once said something along those lines…

Emila thought of her home, Sulin, and her parents and younger sister. The memory of them was painful and caused an aching in her heart that pierced right through her numb apathy and threatened to bring forth tears. She suppressed the pain – as she always did.

She arrived at the stone well in the centre of town, and began the process of lowering the bucket down into its depths. Now that she was back out in the open, and no longer within the comforting walls of the inn, she could feel it again – that sense of death that pervaded the air around the place. Something very terrible had happened in this town.

She would get used to the isolation, or at least she hoped she would. She would have to find books to occupy her time once the place was done being fixed up. She needed something to do, lest she lose her mind from boredom. She’d known the risks she was taking by coming here, and she’d prepared for them, but already she was beginning to feel the weight of it.

Perhaps she’d made a mistake, she considered for a moment, before shaking her head and reminding herself what was back in T’Saw – and the inevitability of what would happen. She would rather stay in this empty, dead town and suffer boredom and loneliness and possibly even insanity. It was better than another meeting with that one-eyed man of darkness – the Acarian king who had taken everything from her.

Emila pulled the bucket back up from the well, which was now filled with clear water. Looking up for the first time in a few minutes, she felt a prickling on the back of her neck – that feeling of being watched. She looked around, but the town was empty. She knew it was empty – she could feel the loneliness of it every moment. So why had she felt like someone was there?

Then, there was suddenly the sound of an explosion. A flash of light filled her vision, momentarily blinding her. She felt a wave of mana surge through the area, travelling in a ripple away from it’s point of origin. It came so suddenly, and in such intensity, that Emila was knocked back, slipping off her feet and falling. The bucket of water left her hands and hit the ground, its contents spilling out on the dirt road.

Thankfully, Emila did not fall into the well – she was able to grab the edge of the stone and push herself away, instead falling onto the ground. The intense wave of mana was fading, and she could tell where it had come from now – the river at the edge of town.

Emila moved on instinct, pulling herself up and racing to the nearest tree. Her sense of hearing told her that the mana burst, whatever it had been, had happened at the very edge of the river.

The scent of blood lust filled the air.

Emila gathered her body’s mana and formed it into the shape of a small dagger of ice, which she held at her side. It was a very weak spell, the blade would likely shatter with a single glancing blow. But it could save her life, and the amount of mana she had used to make it was too minor to be felt from a distance – or so she hoped.

There was silence now. The blood lust was gone, replaced by a hesitant tension. Like a hunter who had momentarily lost its prey.

She found herself wondering what it was. The amount of mana that she had felt could not have come from anything but a magickal attack, but from who and why? Was someone or something after her? Was it a monster? It couldn’t be – monsters did not come out until after dark.

That mana had rippled away, being felt after the effect of the spell had occurred. That meant it wasn’t the source, but an after-effect. An echo of a more powerful spell. And with such a large area being felt by an echo of the spell – it had to have come from a powerful magus.

There was a sudden spike of mana, accompanied by the sound of someone shouting. Emila braced herself, fearing she had been found, but nothing happened to her. She quickly realised there were two voices shouting.

Nobody was after her. There were two people by the river, and they were fighting. They likely didn’t even realise she was there.

Carefully, Emila poked her head out from behind the tree to spy on the distant river. She saw, as she had suspected, two men. One was large and armoured from head to toe in red-trimmed black plate mail. His eyes were hidden within a steel helm. He held a large and heavy battle axe that he held with no sign of difficulty. She knew that armour well, and the sight of it made her blood run cold. It was an Acarian. 

The other figure was very different. A young man with hair as white as snow, dressed in heavy fur robes. He was armed with a sword, which he held in a reverse-grip. Blood dripped from his chin as he stared down the armoured man. He drew his breaths in heavy, pained gasps.

Emila did not know why they were fighting, but she had no desire to get between two warriors in combat. She would have turned and fled back to the inn, were it not for the fact that she would have been noticed by both men if she tried.

The two fighters stood still as statues, warily watching each other from a distance. Each was waiting for the other to make a move. After a few moments, the man in black armour lifted his battle axe and moved in for the kill. The white-haired man held his sword at the ready.

It was obvious who was going to win. The white-haired man was clearly exhausted, drawing painful and ragged breaths. His heavy fur robes were weighing him down, he bled freely from several spots on his body, and he had an arrow stuck in his leg. The Acarian, on the other hand, was untouched, much larger, and moved with surprising speed for someone in full armour.

Emila watched as the Acarian closed in on the white-haired man, swinging his axe for what was certainly a killing blow.

She couldn’t help but gasp as the exact opposite happened. The white-haired man threw off his robes, and moved with unforeseen speed, not dodging, but blocking the Acarian’s heavy axe with his sword. Emila had thought the man untrained because he was holding the sword in a reverse-grip, which was universally discouraged. Perhaps the Acarian had thought the same thing. It certainly wasn’t an unreasonable expectation, but it was one that turned out to be wrong. The white-haired man flowed around the Acarian like a dancer, blocking each swing of his axe, and countering where he could.

The Acarian took several glancing blows in the gaps in his armour, but made no vocal sounds. He did not fall back or change his strategy. He should have, for the next stroke of the white-haired man’s sword decapitated him even as he raised his axe for another swing. The severed head flew away, helm and all, and landed in the river.

The body stood on its own for a moment, as blood sprayed from the headless torso like a fountain of red. The Acarian’s blood mingled with the boy’s. Then, the armoured man let out one last breath, and fell back into the mud with a splash.

Silence returned.

Emila hesitated. The Acarian was dead, and the white-haired man was clearly clinging to life. He did not breath as a healthy man did. He would die in minutes, if he did not get any healing. She could not have asked for a better outcome to the conflict – and yet she found herself unable to leave the boy to die.

She knew it would be wiser to turn away, and forget about this. The man had been fighting with an Acarian. Helping an enemy of an Acarian could get her involved in whatever conflict this fight had been a result of. But her conscience urged her to him. If she had the power to save someone, it was her responsibility to do so. That was one of the basic laws of healers – one of the lessons her father had instilled in her. Cursing herself, Emila stepped out from behind the tree, and ran to the white-haired man.

The Acarian had already vanished, his body dissipated into mana as every human did in death. Only the black armour remained. The white-haired man lay unconscious in the mud, covered in filth, blood, and snow. He still lived, at least.

She blinked at the sight of his clothes – it was early summer in the middle of Saeticia.[_ _]This snow was not the artificial stuff one could create with mana. It was real, true snow, covering the man’s fur clothes. As an ice-form magus, she could tell the difference. Bits of the snow were in his hair, which was so white itself that one could hardly tell they was there. 

How was this possible, Emila wondered. How could this man, who appeared from nowhere with an Acarian soldier trying to kill him, be covered in snow?

But there was[_ _]no time to worry about that. She would have to move quickly if she wanted to save his life. The dark stains in his clothes were growing. Whatever his injuries were, they were severe. 

She pulled the man up out of the thick mud, half-dragging him as quickly as she could manage back to the inn. She passed the well, kicking the bucket aside on her way. It was difficult for her – he was heavier than he looked.

Once she got him back inside, she pulled him atop the kitchen table, and examined his injuries. He had a nasty cut across his left cheek, running from his jaw to his ear, which bled profusely. The arrow in his leg was broken in half. And he had several other injuries which bled, but nothing too severe.

What was killing him was the broken short sword that had pierced his lung.

Emila gathered her mana up and ran her hands over his chest, sensing the full extent of the injury. He must have fallen at some point, driving the small blade between his ribs. The hilt had broken off, leaving only the top half of the blade, which would make it an nigh impossible to remove. She allowed herself a rare curse, for she realised how difficult it would be to save this man.

Emila considered her options. The healing abilities of ice-form magick were not as strong as light-form or spirit-form, but they were better than the other seven schools. Her little sister, a spirit-form magus, had been far more skilled at healing than Emila was. She would not have had a problem with this. Emila, on the other hand – though she had trained at healing for years, she still had problems with it. They said a true healer never left a scar, but Emila sometimes did.

An injury like this was difficult, but not impossible. As long as she was careful, she could pull the blade out of his lung and repair the damage. The problem was, she did not have time to be careful. The man’s breathing was growing worse by the second. If she did not do something quickly…

An idea popped into her head.

And just as quickly, she cast it aside. She could not use such a spell on a complete stranger. Her father had told her so when he’d taught it to her – how vital it was not to do so. The risks were too great.

The spell she was considering was dangerous. She had been told that she should only use it to save the life of another if there was no other option available, and even then, only on close friends and family. If the healer and patient were too incompatible, then the risks were said to be worse than death itself…

Emila bit her lip. She didn’t have time to think about it. It was the only way to save him. He would die if she did not. If he woke, and he turned out to be an evil man, she could always take off running.

She was taking a huge risk to save the life of a stranger.

Undeterred, Emila placed her hand on the man’s forehead, and placed her other on her own. She gathered her mana, wove the spell, and released the energy.

There was a flash of light in the room, and the temperature briefly dropped. Emila saw her breath as she gasped. A strange feeling ran through her, making her dizzy and causing her knees to buckle. She had to grab the edge of the table to remain standing.

It took a minute or so for the effects to fade, but time was no matter now. The man’s life was in no danger. When Emila returned her attention to him, his breathing was steady, his pulse was normal, and his face looked at peace, even though his injuries were still untended, including the pierced lung.

That was it, then. There was no going back now. Emila wondered if perhaps she’d just made the greatest mistake of her life.

No. Not her greatest mistake, she remembered. She had already made that two years ago.

Emila sighed and drew up a wet cloth, wiping the blood and dirt from the man’s face. She could already feel the effects of the spell. But until he woke, she wouldn’t truly know whom it was she had just linked herself to.

The man’s closed eyes looked troubled.

“I wonder who you are…” she asked him, half hoping he would answer. A moment passed, and he did not.

Emila gathered her mana once more, and began the long process of healing his wounds.

She worked well into the small hours of the night.

Chapter I

How to Bring a Blush to the Snow

He shivered. Even though he had lit a small fire, closed and locked the door, and closed the windows of his small hut, it did little to keep out the cold. The harsh winds of the north were unstoppable.

He hated the cold.

He shook his head. How it infuriated him that his father had chosen to come to such a place – of all the places they had gone in the past decade, this was the worst. It was too cold outside for him to practise swordplay or magick, leaving him with nothing to do but read. He enjoyed to read usually, but today he felt restless.

With a frown, he returned his attention to the small, hand-written journal in his hands, which he had been given by one of the people in the unnamed village he was staying in. It was the account of an anonymous writer who had set out to remote parts to discover great secrets.

It read:

Although these cold nights in the mountains have brought me little comfort or satisfaction, my resolution remains untarnished. The sanctum I seek must rest somewhere in these hills. My research has brought me to this location for a single reason; the lost and forgotten arts of the Magi. These great men of ages past were recorded by written account performing feats of magick unseen in this age.

Such a tragedy, it seemed to me, that such greatness would be lost. Therefore I set out to rediscover at least some fragment of their lost knowledge. But the discovery I so eagerly seek has yet to manifest itself in any shape or form. All I have found out here is ice and monsters.

But as I have said already, my resolution remains untarnished. If what I seek exists at all, then I shall find it or die.

Tomorrow, I will search further.

It would seem there was no escape from the freezing hell he was in. Even his book saw fit to remind him of it. He closed the book, rose and drew his robes tighter around himself. He paced relentlessly, hoping the movement would warm him up.

Though it was always cold in the village, this day in particular was merciless. He prayed the storm would die down at least a bit before his father returned. Once he was back, they were to go out hunting. And he knew that no weather, no matter how fierce, would keep his father from a hunt. Not because the man enjoyed it – he seldom did – but because they were the only two hunters the village had left, so without them, there would be no food.

How the people of this village had survived before their arrival, he did not know. The Arimos region was a deathly and desolate place, barely habitable by humans. Only certain parts of it could be safely settled, and even those were far deadlier than the more southern lands of Bacoria. The monsters of the north were more vicious, food and supplies harder to come by, and of course there was always…

The cold.

He made his way over to the lone door of the small hut, and peered out at the raging blizzard through the cracked frame. The howling winds gave no sign of relief. If his father was on his way, he would not be able to see him approaching through that haze.

His father was a tough man, tempered by many years of living in the farthest corners of Bacoria. Humourless and determined, he had trained his son vigorously for the past fourteen years, almost all of which they had spent travelling, stopping only to rest in the occasional remote village for a month or two at a time. They had passed through Torachi and Samgo and Mainyu, and even the dead kingdom of Freidu. The more populated lands, like Sono and Saeticia, his father seemed to avoid, though they did pass through the edges of even those from time to time.

The training had made him as tough as his father. He knew how to wield a blade well after nearly a decade and a half of practise. Though he was nothing compared to his father, he figured himself skilled enough in swordplay to handle just about any monster he came across. He had never fought another man, though. Sometime he wondered what it would be like to kill someone.

His father never gave him a reason for the constant travel. He knew little about his father’s life, or where they had come from. He had vague memories of a home he had once lived in, and a beautiful mother with golden hair. Whenever he brought this up, his father always grew quiet, and his eyes would fill with the weight of memory. And regret.

For seven months now he had been staying in this village, longer than any of the other places they had gone to, and he was starting to feel restless. While he was no stranger to staying in areas all but untouched by mankind, he felt almost claustrophobic whenever he stepped outside the hut he shared with his father. Part of this perhaps was because of the tall cliffs surrounding the village, but the minuscule population was the true reason. That tight feeling, coupled with his disdain for the cold, had led to him becoming something of a shut-in for the past two weeks or so.

Calling it a village in the first place was a compliment, really – it was more like a glorified group of huts. The population probably didn’t even exceed fifty. He wasn’t quite sure, as the only people he saw regularly were the village elder and a girl named Arlea. The girl seemed to go out of her way to ‘bump’ into him often – the reasons for which were all too clear with the obvious lack of young men in the town. He would have been flattered if the whole affair hadn’t been such a bother to him. He liked girls, sure – but he had learnt long ago not to get attached.

Indeed, it wasn’t only girls that he had made a habit of avoiding. He had learnt long ago not to bother making friends in the small towns and villages they passed through. He had made a decision to walk alone – one of the most important books his father had ever given him had instilled in him a sense of duty and honour which he had swore never to sway from.

He turned his attentions back to his books, exhausted and frustrated by his thoughts. The diary of the traveller which he had been reading moments ago was nearing its end – only a sliver of page length remained in the binding. Wishing to save the rest for another time, he returned it to the wooden chest he kept his books in. He withdrew instead a thick tome of Bacorian lore, which he had already made considerable progress in studying. He returned to his comfortable mattress beside the fire, and opened to where he had left off – a chapter on myths told in the early days of Bacoria.

He read of Ekkei, the god-emperor of mankind. He read of the Eldritch, the fell beasts Ekkei commanded, that enforced the demon’s will. And he read of Uro, the liberator, who had appeared with Rixeor the magick sword, and had slain both the demon and the beasts that followed it.

Familiar stories. He’d read them many times before. It was not so much the legend of Uro that interested him so much as the writings of Uro himself that he had left behind after his conquest – the Way.

Some time passed, but it passed by slow.

From the single window of his home, sunlight peaked in where it could through the shoddy curtain. And yet the shadows were long, betraying the day’s infancy. The sky of Arimos was an often troubled one, the thick clouds so perfectly blocking the sun so as to drag on night and throttle the light of day. In the frozen north, light was precious. He idly wondered if noon drew near.

His thoughts were interrupted as the song-like voice of a young woman called his name from the other side of his door.

“Luca, are you home? It’s noon, and I wondered if you might be interested in sharing a meal with me?”

He cursed his luck. He had hoped his father would appear and take him away before Arlea got the same idea. Still, he couldn’t turn aside the company.

“Come in.”

Luca rose and dusted himself off as the girl stepped inside. Her garb was similar to his own – several layers of insulating monster skins to shield the wearer from the biting cold – the same cold he felt as she opened the door. Her yellow hair was longer than his, reaching just past her shoulders, and her eyes were wide and blue.

She was pretty, he figured… but he just had no interest in her in the way she seemed to be interested in him. Or rather, he would not allow himself to – again, he had his code…

Arlea smiled and showed him a small bowl.

“I brought soup,” she said, holding up the bowl in her hands. “Are you cold? There is a chill in this tent. Perhaps there is a hole somewhere that the wind is coming through.”

Without answering her, Luca moved from his bedroll to beside the small fire surrounded by rocks in the centre of the room. Arlea sat on the opposite side of the fire, and handed him a warm bowl of soup. It was still warm in spite of the deathly cold outside.

Arlea looked around the hut.

“Your father is absent,” she observed. “Is he gone often?”

“Fairly,” Luca muttered. Inwardly, he scoffed at the thought of the girl being surprised at his father being away. She had probably been counting on it. “He keeps himself busy with hunts. But right now he is speaking with the elder.”

“So I have noticed,” Arlea said. “As have we all. Indeed, a greater hunter has never shown his face among these parts.”

“You take my father for the greatest hunter your village has even seen?” Luca said, raising an eyebrow. “If a man like him is such a blessing to you, how have you all survived so long?” There was a hint of venom in his words he hadn’t meant to show.

Arlea tilted her head, possibly confused by his anger. “Do you not like your father, Luca?”

His eyes found the fire. “He is my father,” he responded cryptically. “He is the only family I have.”

Perhaps realising that he did not wish to continue this discussion, Arlea grew quiet. She remained so for a while, and the only sound in the small hut was the crackling of the flames and the faint howl of the wind outside. Luca glanced at the window, considering the growing snowfall visible on the fringe of the curtain.

Arlea slowly met his gaze, more hesitation in her eyes.

“The other villagers speak of you and Master Lodin,” she said. “They wonder why such a skilled hunter would come to such a remote place as this.”

“I often wonder the same thing.”

“Have you been to many places?”

“More than I can count,” he said “Many as remote and desolate as this. My father says that we lived first in Saeticia, but I have no memories of that land.”

“I have never left Arimos,” Arlea sighed. “I can see you hate this land, and I feel the same. I have wanted to leave and see places like Sono and Saeticia.”

“Then why stay here?” he asked.

A sad smile graced her pink lips.

“I am no hunter, Luca,” she said. “I have no knowledge of the beasts or the elements. The extent of my talent with magick is keeping soup warm. I would never survive a journey to the southern port, let alone through the rest of Bacoria.”

Luca stole a glance at the girl, whose eyes were on the small fire before her, her mind deep in thought.

“I have been thinking about this for quite some time now, in fact,” she continued without looking up. “You caught my interest the moment you arrived, all those months ago. You are no stranger to travel, and you are a skilled hunter. You do not wish to remain here…”

“You want to leave with me,” he finished for her.

Her eyes lit up. There was eagerness in those eyes, a kind of hope and anticipation he had not seen in a long time. His own eyes, and more so those of his father, were so often filled with weariness, having been worn down by so many long years of travel. There was something quite refreshing about the way Arlea looked at him, something he had not been expecting when he had invited her in mere minutes before.

“Your father… would he be angry?” she asked. She could not mask the eagerness in her voice.

“Perhaps. I have never attempted to leave him before.”

“Does this mean…?”

“I will consider it,” he said. “Something like this… It is not the kind of decision you make without a day or so of consideration. But – I would be lying if I said you haven’t intrigued me.”

Arlea smiled. “A day to think about it… I should have come sooner, then. I was thinking – if you do wish to leave with me, mind you – that the annual festival tonight would be the perfect time to do so. The adults will be occupied with their celebration and their drinking. It will take them a while to miss us. If you do wish to leave, of course. Please, take your time to think about it.”

Of course, the festival – it had entirely slipped his mind.

“I will think on it,” he concluded.

She gave him a smile, and in spite of himself, he could not help but return it.

Arlea rose to leave, and Luca leaned forward to return the now-empty bowl. As their hands met briefly, he could feel her trembling.

“Well, then… I‘d best leave you now. Uh… well, whichever way your mind goes, I suppose I will see you tonight. Until then…”

She hurried herself out.

Luca didn’t even notice the cold breeze as she stepped outside.

<> <> <>

Nearly an hour later, Luca marched through knee-deep snow with his father, leaving the village and headed towards the pass up into the mountains. A thick net, dragged over Lodin’s shoulder, left a trail in the snow behind them. Once they had slain a beast, they would bring it out and wrap it in the net, and use that to drag it back to the town.

“How goes your training?”

Luca glanced up at his father as they walked. Lodin stood a head above him, with the same white hair and blue eyes he had. His face had firm lines around his mouth and under his eyes, and a grey stubble around his lips and chin. His eyes were tired and weary, with many untold stories from his five decades of life.

“In what regard?”

“In the magick circle I gave you,” Lodin said.

“Ah, that,” Luca muttered, feeling irritated at the thought. “It might be easier to focus mana through the circle if I knew exactly what it was supposed to do. It is infuriating, like trying to write with no knowledge of the topic.”

Lodin, in turn, then glanced at his son.

“You feel I should give you more guidance?” the older man asked. “You have little difficulty creating new spells for your mana without my advice at other times.”

“This is different,” he replied. “In those cases, I was simply discovering things on my own. Here, you expect a specific result by giving me only the base materials, and yet telling me nothing else of what it is you expect.”

Lodin stroked his chin. “Perhaps the technique is just too advanced for you. But giving you more guidance? I cannot do this. This spell is different from most others. It is hard to explain, but if I tell you any more about the weave before you actually perform it, mental blocks could rise up and prevent you from ever mastering it at all. It is like swimming… the only way to figure it out is to just jump in. Dwelling on it only makes the task difficult.”

Luca thought about that, but his father’s words only made him more confused.

“Then perhaps your first guess was right. Perhaps it simply is too advanced for me.”

“I would not hold it against you if it were,” Lodin reassured him. “I myself could never master that spell, to tell the truth. And I had many years more than you to practise, as well. So it is no fault of yours if you are not skilled enough.”

Lodin smiled.

“But I don’t think that’s it.”

<> <> <>

After a few more minutes of travel they reached the peak of the large hill, the view of which would have been quite majestic, were it not for the heavy snowfall blinding their view. In the two months they had spent in the unnamed village, Luca had ascended the small mountain several times, and he knew that from where they were, one could see the entire village a kilometre or so away in better conditions.

“You have something in particular in mind?” He turned to his father as he asked the question.

“I just may,” Lodin replied, a confident smile on his bearded face. He pointed to somewhere on the other side of the pass. “There is a cave in that valley there we have not yet explored. It’s quite large, so it may hold something big enough for the feast.”

With that note, Lodin began his descent into the valley below, and Luca silently followed him.  As they walked, Luca thought of his conversation with Arlea, and weighed the options regarding whether he should leave with her. He would have to think hard on it, as leaving could be a fatal mistake.

He had never left his father’s side before, but perhaps that was a mistake of its own. In the past he had depended on his father’s protection against monsters during their travels. But he had now grown into a skilled enough hunter that taking care of common beasts was not a worrisome matter.

What worried him more was that Arlea was no more trained in fighting monsters than he was at playing the lute. And the necessity of travelling at night, when monsters were active, would put them both in danger, as he would have to watch out for her as well as himself. He was used to travelling with his father, whom he did not need to concern himself with during battles. It would be all too easy for him to slip up and for Arlea to be hurt while his attention was occupied.

Extra care would have to be taken to avoid wild areas at first, at least until he taught her the basics of self-protection. Avoiding travel at the deepest hours of the night and finding secure areas to rest would also help. It would be easy enough in the south to do this, but in the Arimos…

More troubling was the matter of getting off the Arimos island. The only ships to dock were those that came to Frostbite, the small port on the southwestern side, and their appearances were infrequent at that.

Perhaps he could converse with the village elder on the matter. If anyone in the unnamed village were to know when the next ship was to arrive, he would.

It wasn’t the best of plans, but if the conditions were right, it wouldn’t be impossible. Satisfied for the moment, Luca returned his thoughts to the present.

At last they had reached the mouth of the cave, which led into an icy tunnel that burrowed deep into the mountainside. Visibility was quickly obscured by the suffocating darkness.

Lodin dropped the ropes of the large net he had been dragging. He went over and looked into the cavern.

“As you can see, it is quite dark in there,” Lodin pointed out.

Luca resisted the urge to retort. Of course he could see that. It was just his father’s way of prompting him.

“Give me a minute,” he muttered.

Luca gathered his mana, feeling the rush of energy one always felt when using magick. He then used this energy to weave within his hands an orb of glowing energy, which he released upon an invisible string to hover behind him at a distance, much like a balloon. The orb of light cast a bright glow around Luca and his father.

Lodin nodded in approval. He then entered the small cave, and Luca silently followed behind him. Tethered to him, the magick orb followed as well.

Idly, Luca wondered what would happen if he severed the connection with the magick orb. Would the orb linger, continuing to provide light until the mana faded? Normally, he dispelled the magick on his own – he had never just cut it off from himself. Could it survive on its own? Or was it truly dependent on his mana to exist at all?

As they walked, Lodin stopped to examine a spot on the wall. Luca realised he had noticed something. With his fingers, Lodin traced a cross carved into the ice, and bent down to examine the floor. Kicking aside the snow, Lodin uncovered the blackened remains of a campfire.

“Someone has been here,” Lodin muttered, his expression darkening.

“One of ours?”

“Perhaps,” Lodin said, but he did not seem to think so. “Either way, discretion is the better part of valour. Proceed with caution. We still have no knowledge of the monsters that may be here.”

Luca knew there would be no problem. His father had been cataloguing the beasts of Bacoria his entire life. If he was insisting caution, there was a different reason for it. Could there be bandits? Not likely, Luca decided. The campfire had been buried under snow, so it was probably old.

They proceeded deeper into the cave. The farther they went, the darker and narrower the cave became, and they began to see bones in the corners of the passages. Most were the bones of the same beasts they had hunted themselves since arriving. Once or twice, they were the bones of humans, coming from arms and legs torn off before death.

They reached the heart of the cave, where a sickening sound reached their ears. As they rounded the final corner, a large humanoid beast came into view.  It stood a good two metres taller than Lodin, and nearly twice as wide. Large arms could be traced beneath its thick white fur, ending in long claws specked with red blood.

They entered the yeti’s view, with Luca’s orb of illumination following behind him. The beast looked up and saw two humans, and it dropped the severed arm it had been in the process of consuming. The yeti gave out a bellowing roar of rage, and it drew up and started towards its enemies.

“These guys can be a bit tricky, so I’ll take care of this,” Lodin said, stepping forward and drawing his sword from his belt. Luca gave no objection – his father knew what he was doing.

The yeti leaped towards Lodin, swinging its claws in a slash that would decapitate Lodin if he failed to dodge it. The ageing man moved with surprising agility, sidestepping the swing. He swung his sword, wielding the blade like it weighed nothing. It swung through the yeti’s neck like a knife through butter, beheading the beast in an instant.

The head flew off into a dark corner of the cave, and the body collapsed, bleeding out on the floor. The yeti had no soul, therefore it did not disappear after death. Its body remained, cold and dead.

Lodin wiped his blade off on the beast’s fur, and he looked with disdain at the remnants of its unfinished meal. The arm it had been gnawing on had come from a human. The arm had not been turned into mana, which meant it had been removed some time before its owner’s death.

“Well, now we know what happened to the people who were camped out at the entrance,” Luca offered with a wry chuckle.

“Indeed,” Lodin replied. His face had grown pale. “Son – over in the corner.”

Luca looked to where his father was pointing, and saw what truly was bothering him. A small nest lay in the corner of the room, where three infant yeti slept, undisturbed by the slaughter of their mother.

“I see,” Luca muttered, knowing at once what needed done. “Go ahead and take it out to the net. I’ll meet you at the entrance.”

After quickly summoning an illuminating orb of his own, Lodin heaved the dead yeti over his shoulders by its legs and left, while Luca went over to the nest.

He hated to do it, but it was better than leaving them. Without their mother, the creatures would inevitably die, so there was no sense in sparing them. He drew his hunting blade and quickly drove it into each of the three children. It was a quick, clean kill, and they never woke from their sleep.

His deed done, he turned and left the room.

It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened on a hunt. Lodin always made his son kill the children, for he could never bring himself to do it.

Lodin never told him why.

<> <> <>

Luca could see the bright glow of the bonfire in the distance as he stood, leaning against the back of his hut. The celebrations of the village’s annual festival were underway, and his father was likely busy getting drunk. The snowstorm had finally died out while the two of them had dragged the headless yeti body back to the town, where they had been greeted with applause by a few dozen people.

After returning to the village with Lodin, Luca had slipped away and gone to the elder’s hut. The elder had told him that a ship was due to arrive in Frostbite in about a month – just enough time for him to travel there with a single companion.

The night was due in an hour or two, and the villagers were too distracted with their celebrations to notice anything. His small number of belongings were packed away in a bag at his side.

His books remained in the shelf in the hut, with the exception of the traveller’s journal, which he had stuffed away in the bag. There was really only one other book he would have felt the need to take with him, but he knew that one by heart. And he wouldn’t have wanted Arlea to see that one – it might hurt her to realise just what kind of person Luca was.

They would depart under cover of darkness. Not a soul would witness them, and their absence would not be noticed until the next morning. Truly, the circumstances of their elopement could not have been more perfect. Still, Luca had his doubts.

Something felt wrong.

He frowned as he noticed Arlea approaching. She was dressed in travel clothes, as he was, and she carried a bag at her side, just as he did.

“We’re going?” she asked hopefully.

Luca sighed. He needed to give her an answer. It was not a matter that could wait, and they would not get another chance like this to carry it out. He had no idea how his father would react should he find out, but he knew the elder would never permit Arlea to leave. She was only a few months short of marriageable age, and the village was shy of young women as it was. Perhaps that was why she wanted to leave so badly – she knew that Luca was her only chance of escaping a marriage with someone two decades her senior.

Arlea watched him, expectantly awaiting his answer. He opened his mouth to tell her…

And then he noticed something strange.

The bonfire of the annual festival was very bright. Too bright. His hut was some distance from the village square. He shouldn’t have been able to see the orange glow so well from where he was.

“Luca, what is it?” Arlea asked.

He stepped past her, not answering her question. Something was definitely wrong. The fire seemed to be growing brighter by the moment.

Then he heard a dying scream and his blood ran cold.

“What was that?!” Arlea exclaimed.

“Stay here!” Luca shouted. He drew his short sword and took off at a run, leaving Arlea behind. Her confused questions carried in the wind behind him.

It didn’t take him long to reach the village square and see what was wrong.

The village was under attack by men in black armour.

The huts were on fire, the celebratory bonfire having been used as a weapon by the attacking people. Dying villagers were vanishing all around, leaving only blood and clothes behind as oblivion took them.

It was a massacre. The feast was abandoned, several villagers were dying on the table, arrows sticking out of their backs. Other villagers ran in fear, men in armour pursuing them with swords raised. A woman screamed as she was cut down, crimson blood spilling out and staining the snow. A man cried out as a fireball incinerated him.

It was a one-sided conflict. The villagers were helpless innocents – few of them even carried daggers, much less knew how to fight. The men in black armour moved without hesitation or emotion, carrying out the slaughter like machines.

Luca quickly searched the few survivors for someone he knew. He saw no one. The village elder had been killed already – only his blood-stained robes remained. Lodin was nowhere in sight.

Luca cried out as pain suddenly filled his leg.

He looked down, and saw an arrow was stuck fast in his left thigh, only a few millimetres away from his knee. It hurt, but it was not very deep. He could still walk.

He looked around and quickly found the archer. The armoured man stood at a distance, and was already in the process of firing a second. He released the string and the arrow flew towards Luca.

He rolled out of the way, and the arrow missed him. With the first arrow still in his leg, he took off at a run, quickly closing the distance between himself and the archer. Between the breastplate and helm, he spotted a gap where pale flesh could be seen – that was the spot where he drove his short sword.

The man did not cry out as he died. He simply collapsed backwards, Luca’s blade sliding out as he fell. He vanished into nothingness before he hit the ground, and the black-painted steel armour broke apart into many pieces in the snow.

Luca then realised that he had just killed a man. Somehow, he had expected something more. It was odd how numb he felt – it almost frightened him. He’d thought it should have been harder – but this faceless soldier he had struck down hadn’t felt like a true human being. Killing him had been easy – too easy.

But there was no time to dwell on such things. Luca turned, seeing the small and pathetic village he resented in flames. He looked for his father, but he was nowhere in sight. Luca feared the worst, but he refused to accept that it was true until he saw it happen with his own eyes.

A woman cried out as she was killed, and Luca spotted the soldier who had done it. The man pulled his sword up, still covered in her blood, and Luca was suddenly filled with blind rage.

“Bastard!”

The soldier turned to him, his armoured face looking towards Luca with no indication or surprise, regret, or humanity. As Luca ran towards him, he approached with a slow, unfettered march.

Luca swung his short sword, and their blades met.

“Why are you doing this?!” he demanded. “Who are you people?!”

The soldier was silent.

After two blocked strokes, a small fireball hit the soldier in the back, throwing him off guard. Not wasting the opportunity, Luca sprang forward and decapitated him.

Arlea ran up to Luca, still emanating mana from the fireball she had thrown.

“Are you okay?!” she asked him.

“I told you to stay back at the hut!”

She ignored that. “What’s happening here? Who are these people?”

“I don’t know.”

Arlea noticed the arrow in his leg and gasped. “You’ve been hit! Goodness, you’re bleeding!”

“Forget about that!” Luca shouted. “You have to get out of here! It’s not safe, there’s soldiers everywhere. Start running – I’ll cover you so you can get away!”

She shook her head and Luca cursed her obstinacy.

“Damn it, get out of here! Everyone is dead already and this place is burning! All you can do is save yourself at this point!”

“No, not without-”

She never finished that sentence. An arrow came flying, perhaps meant for Luca, and struck Arlea in the throat. She stumbled back in shock, choked out a sound that may have been his name, and collapsed, fading to nothing before she hit the ground.

Everything seemed to stop. Luca felt cold. Colder than he had ever felt before. He couldn’t believe his eyes – it didn’t feel like it had really happened.

“Arlea…”

Blind rage filled Luca.

He turned with a feral growl and spotted the archer who had killed Arlea. He charged, a second arrow somehow missing him as he closed in, and swung his sword, slicing open the man’s throat with a single stroke. The archer hit the ground and twitched helplessly for a moment before death took him.

That was three of them he had killed so far, he found himself thinking.

Luca slipping away from view, hiding behind one of the few houses not yet on fire. Few villagers remained now. It was clear these people had come to kill, not to pillage or rape, but to simply kill every person present. It was an extermination.

“…why?!”

“Luca!”

He turned. Lodin had appeared behind him, his face pale and eyes wide. Luca exhaled in relief, thankful that his father still lived.

“Arlea was with you, wasn’t she?” Lodin asked. “What happened?”

“Dead,” he said in a cold voice.

Lodin’s face grew paler. “Come,” he insisted. “We have to flee. There’s nothing we can do here now.”

“Flee?”

Luca didn’t understand. His father had never been a coward, nor had he ever been one to let innocent people die. Why would he want to run away now?

He noticed that his father’s belongings were packed as his own were. But Lodin’s things had still been stored away in the hut when he had last been there. Which meant…

Luca glared at my father. “You have been packing while these people were being slaughtered?”

Lodin blinked, his eyes filled with deep regret. It was the same look he had whenever Luca asked about his mother, or what it was that they were running from.

“Son – sometimes you have to give things up,” Lodin said quietly.

“You gave up awfully quickly,” Luca spat. “You were a better hunter than any of these people! A better fighter! How many of these people could have been spared if you would have defended them?!”

“Luca, don’t be a fool!” Lodin urged. “We can’t fight these men! These are Acarian soldiers!”

“Perhaps you can’t. But I won’t let these people die in vain. I won’t let Arlea’s death be meaningless. You can run. I’m going to take out every one of these bastards!”

“You don’t understand, son – their leader-”

Lodin stopped, his eyes growing wide like he had just seen a ghost.

From the white haze, a black figure emerged. A tall man with a handsome face of indeterminate age, He wore the same red-trimmed black armour as the soldiers, but lacked the helmet. The man’s right eye was covered by a patch, and his left glowed a deep red. His hair was black and shoulder-length, with a single strand by his left ear braided.

Lodin gasped. “Zinoro…”

The man called Zinoro stared at Lodin expressionlessly.

“Hello, Lodin,” he said in a cold, low voice. “It has been some time since we last met.”

“Your face…! After all these years…”

“Yes,” Zinoro said, his single red eye gleaming. “Some things have changed, but some things have not. You certainly carry the weight of your years.”

Lodin said nothing. There was a great sorrow in his eyes – a kind of resignation Luca had never seen in his father. Lodin had often been sombre, but never weary. Now, he suddenly looked many years older.

Luca stepped up to his father’s side.

“You’re their leader,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but a statement that expected an answer. “You’re the one responsible for all this!”

Zinoro gave him a brief glance with his single eye, then returned his gaze to Lodin.

“Your son has grown since we last crossed paths. It must be nice, for a father to see his son’s childhood, hmm?”

Lodin’s mouth tightened.

“In that case, I find it fitting that he should be forced to watch his father die,” Zinoro said. “Draw your sword, Lodin. You have run from me long enough.”

Lodin hesitated.

“I’ve found you,” Zinoro said. “You know there’s no escaping this time.”

Finally, Lodin tossed his bag aside and slowly slid his sword from its sheath. He gave the blade a long glance, as if saying goodbye to the weapon.

“Siora…” he muttered so quietly it was almost lost to the wind.

Lodin then tossed the sword aside into the snow.

Zinoro’s face twisted in rage. “What is the meaning of this?! Pick up your sword, you coward!”

Lodin shook his head.

“I will not kill you Zinoro,” he said sombrely. “I will not even raise a hand to defend myself. If you wish to end me, you will have to do so in cold blood. I will not allow you the comfort of a quick kill in the heat of battle.”

Zinoro spat at the ground.

“You would insult me after all these years?” Zinoro turned to Luca, and addressed him for the first time. “Look, boy, at the man your father is. To spend fifteen years fleeing from his enemy, only to insult him when they do at last meet? A spineless fool.”

Luca turned from his father to glare at the armoured man. He didn’t understand much of what they spoke of, but he would not abide by this man insulting his father. His short sword was drawn in a second, and he charged at Zinoro.

The armoured Acarian turned his head ever so slightly, and he frowned. He was clearly not threatened by his charge, but merely annoyed. He made no visible movement, not drawing his own weapon or attempting to dodge, but Luca could feel the man gathering his mana about him.

Too late, he realised just how much mana Zinoro had gathered, and how quickly, and regretted not setting up a defencive shield. Zinoro’s single red eye stared right into his own.

Luca saw no visible sign of the spell, but he felt an intense pain shoot through every nerve in his body. He collapsed, cut off from his very senses. He was unable to think, or move, or do anything but twitch pathetically. He couldn’t tell if he was screaming – he likely was. He could see nothing – his eyes were open, but all he saw was darkness. A black void. The pain was unbearable, horrid, invasive, and vile. He could feel Zinoro’s mana. It was black and thick and dirty – like polluted water.

Shadow-form mana.

When his senses finally returned to him, the situation around him had changed. Lodin was now on his knees, staring ahead with dull, lifeless eyes. He was bleeding from a gash across his forehead, and several slashes and wounds across his body.

Zinoro stood before Lodin. His blade was now drawn, a large and heavy claymore that he somehow held with only one hand. There was an aura of mana shrouding the edge of the blade, something between a black fire or mist. Luca had never felt so much mana in his life. Even from where he was, several metres away from Zinoro, Luca could feel the overwhelming intensity of the black flame around the sword.

He then knew just what sort of sword that was.

It was a weapon that would never dull or chip or rust. A weapon as light as a feather, yet heavier than a hammer when swung. A weapon that would burn the flesh of anyone that should try to wield it who was not its master. A unique weapon, one with eight siblings.

It was one of the nine fragments of Rixeor, the legendary weapon that slain Ekkei in the early days of the world, according to legend. Whether it was true that Ekkei existed or not, there was no doubt that the sword had – as the man before Luca held a part of it in his hand.

The black fire around the blade was manaflame – a magick manifestation of the sword’s power. When the wielder channelled mana through the sword, the manaflame appeared and gave the sword an unnaturally sharp edge. If Zinoro swung that blade, it would cut through ten metres of solid stone like a hand parting wind. No ordinary weapon could match a Rixeor Fragment.

Whoever this Zinoro man was, he was a master swordsman if he wielded a Rixeor Fragment. Only the most skilled of warriors could attain them, for one needed to kill the previous master to use one. Luca had spent many hours reading about them, and dreaming of the day that he might carry one of his own.

But he had not the time to think of such things. For Zinoro was standing before Lodin now, his sword pointed at his father’s chest.

“No!”

He climbed to his feet, his body still half-numb with the pain of Zinoro’s magick. The arrow in his leg had snapped in half at some point – possibly broken while he had been thrashing around in agony.

Zinoro glanced back over his shoulder, noticing Luca’s struggle. Turning away from Lodin for a moment, he approached Luca. He drew close to Luca, and got on one knee to look him in the eyes.

“You have determination, son of Lodin. It is possible that you could beat me. I am ready for that. But for now, I am here for your father. Your time will come, have no fear. But until then, you are weak, and nothing more than an annoyance to me. We are bound by the chains of fate, and I am bound by them to be the conqueror who will destroy a kingdom. Stop me if you can. I am not invincible – you have the ability to kill me. But not today. Today you will watch your father die.”

Luca said nothing as Zinoro spoke, simply glaring back at him. Then, as Zinoro moved to rise, he sprang back up, ignoring the pain in his leg, and swung his sword.

Genuinely caught off guard, Zinoro’s eye widened and he jumped back. The blade struck only empty air. His face twisted into an ugly scowl of anger and indignation.

“You should learn your manners,” he spat. “When your elder speaks, you would do well to listen.”

Zinoro swung his claymore without moving from where he stood. The blade, shrouded in black fire, cut right through the steel of the short sword Luca held, leaving behind only a hilt. Then, Zinoro swung again, and the very tip of the blade cut across Luca’s right cheek.

Luca gasped, and then lines of red blood ran down his cheek, and dripped down into the snow. The wound burned, in a strange way that no other cut ever had.

Zinoro smiled. “That’s better. Never forget your mistakes, for there are some scars that a healer cannot mend.”

Zinoro snapped his fingers as he turned away from Luca. A very large Acarian, who was armoured from head to toe and had a large battle axe strapped to his back, stepped up behind Luca, grabbing his shoulders and lifting him to his feet.

“Hold him,” Zinoro ordered. “He will not like the next part.”

Luca struggled against the man holding him. The grip only tightened. The only weapon left was Lodin’s sword, but it was far beyond his reach, resting in the snow beside his father. Luca started to gather his mana, which was his only option. Zinoro would be able to sense it, but he did not seem to care.

Luca’s hands were not free, so directing a spell would be difficult. But he wouldn’t simply stand there and watch Zinoro…

He couldn’t feel his mana.

Luca began to panic. He had never felt such a thing before. His mana was always there, a bodily sense not unlike sight or taste. To suddenly lose it…

The cut on his cheek was burning. He noticed that the more mana he tried to pull, the more it hurt.

There was nothing he could do. The frustration of his powerlessness setting in, Luca struggled in vain against the powerful hands holding him in place.

Luca began to panic. He knew what was about to happen.

Zinoro walked back over to where Lodin knelt, unmoved since his beating. Lodin’s white hair and beard swayed as a heavy wind blew through the cold tundra. A sombre wind. The village was all but gone now – the wooden huts had been reduced to ash, and what remained was being buried by snowfall. The villagers were all dead now, and the Acarian soldiers had disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

Only four souls were present to witness Lodin’s death.

Zinoro said something as he stared impassively at his former enemy. Luca did not hear a word of it. The wind was so loud now, and the snowfall was blinding. He could barely see the shape of his father against the whiteout.

Luca screamed when he saw Zinoro’s blade glow again with his dark mana, and he twisted and flailed in a useless struggle at escape as he saw red blood spill from his father’s chest.

The snowfall ended suddenly then, as though cut off with Lodin’s life. For a brief second, Luca could see his father lying in a pool of red before the body was taken by the spiritual plane, leaving only the fur clothes and blood already spilt behind.

For a moment, he simply stared in silence, unable to believe that his father, his only family, and sole companion for fourteen years, was dead. Zinoro also seemed to be in a sombre state. He seemed disappointed, as though he had expecting more out of the confrontation.

Zinoro conjured a cloth out of his pocket, wiped his sword down, and slid the blade back into its sheath. Then he turned and addressed the Acarian holding Luca.

“Knock him out,” he said. “We return to the circle. Our business here is done.”

Luca’s mind did not register the words, but he did recognise Zinoro’s voice, which brought him back to the present.

Zinoro turned his back and started to walk away. His ebony form was gone within a blink, somehow vanishing into the white landscape.

Something clicked in Luca’s mind. Grief filled him, and he struggled with renewed fury. The Acarian holding him released him, and he stumbled forward into the snow. As he hit the ground, pain filled his chest, like he had been stabbed. He did not see the red blood dripping onto the snow, nor the tip of his former short sword sticking out form between his ribs. None of this registered in his fever dream.

Luca climbed back to his feet, and spat out a mouthful of blood. Everything was burning up, despite the freezing cold around him. Everything was on fire. He couldn’t even feel the icy wind in his face.

He hated the cold.

His mana was rising, as though on its own. He was weaving a spell. It was strange, because he wasn’t even thinking about it. It was like his mind was doing things of its own will.

He half-walked, half-stumbled few steps backwards, and stepped on something buried in the snow. His father’s blade. Almost absentmindedly, he reached down and picked it up. It felt warm in his hands – too warm for a steel blade covered in snow.

The armoured Acarian, in response, drew his heavy axe. Zinoro had simply ordered him to knock Luca out, but this mindless brute was going to end up killing him with how much of a struggle he was going to put up.

It was getting harder to breath. He was gasping and wheezing.

Everything was burning up.

His mana was overflowing now. He had never drawn so much in his life. The old nursery rhymes and cautionary tales about overloading yourself with mana echoed in his head. He could feel it. He could feel his own life energy fading with each breath.

The Acarian swung his axe…

And as he released the magick he felt himself being ripped away from the snowy ground below his feet. He felt every molecule in his body being shredded to oblivion, and he felt them all rocketing away at the speed of light.

<> <> <>

I knew this day was coming.

Lodin watched as Zinoro pointed his sword at his chest. The blade was burning black.

How many times have I seen this in my dreams?

He was bleeding. He didn’t even feel pain anymore. Lodin fell backwards, landing in the snow. He could see his son struggling against the grip of a massive Acarian, screaming and crying.

He had never seen Luca cry before. He always tried so hard to hide his pain. Was the boy even aware in his sorrow?

Lodin closed his eyes. He didn’t want to say goodbye with a lingering gaze. He had always hated goodbyes. When the time for his seclusion had come, he hadn’t said goodbye to any of his friends. He hadn’t said goodbye to his wife, or his youngest child.

Farewells pained him more than anything.

Still, I was selfish in denying him that. I’ve made so many selfish choices over the years… 

He had hoped he could hold things off. But the remnants of the Acarian scout’s campfire in the cave had told him that his day of reckoning was nigh. He had intended to warn the others away. The girl Arlea’s death was his fault. All the slaughtered villagers were his fault. He should have warned them away the moment he got back from the hunt. 

Once again, he had failed. Just as he may well have failed his son.

He didn’t want to think of such things in his final moments. Instead, the dying man comforted himself with other images from his dreams. His son, and the girl with hair as dark as the night. The other five in the group. His son’s second family. The family he had failed to give him.

He knew that great hardships awaited the boy, but he also knew that, no matter how dark things got, it would all work out in the end.

“Luc-”

Zinoro’s blade entered his heart, and he was unable to finish saying his son’s name. Then, he was dead. The final piece of his puzzle had been put in place.

And with that thought in mind, Lodin smiled as he faded into the embrace of death.

Chapter II

A Soul’s Refrain

Luca’s sleep was short and fitful, and his dreams were troubled by painful memories. He saw the death of his father, repeating again and again in his mind’s eye, continually taunting him with his inability to stop it. He saw the glowing, single red eye of Zinoro, watching him endlessly from some dark place. He saw the barren wasteland that had once been the village, now nought but ashes buried under snow. He saw the clothes and blood of those taken by death. He saw the look of resignation in his father’s eyes as Zinoro ended him.

He woke, suddenly and without sound. His instincts kicked in, and he reached for his blade. It was not by his side.

Wherever he was, it was not where he had been before.

He was lying in a warm and comfortable bed, wearing a change of soft bedclothes he had never seen before. He was in a bedroom, illuminated by the silver glow of moonlight streaming in through an open window. The room was sparsely and indifferently furnished in the way that inns always were.

The air was different. It was warmer – a welcome relief from the harsh and biting cold of the Arimos region. He did not know where he was, but it was certainly farther south.

The real question was how he had came to be in such a place.

He thought back as best he could. His final memory was of Zinoro walking away, leaving him to be dealt with by the large Acarian with the axe. After that, he remembered being seized by a great fury, and blacking out.

Zinoro had delegated his work to one of his men, not even bothering to kill a person who was, in his eyes, nothing but a child. Even after everything he had done.

Luca looked down at his hands. The cold images flashed through his mind again. Arlea was dead. His father was dead.

“Zinoro.”

He said the name softly, as though his lips were testing it. He vowed never to forget that name. The man who had slain his father…

The door of the bedroom creaked opened. Luca looked up to see a girl stepping inside, carrying a bag under her right arm, and a pitcher of water in her left hand. She looked up as she stepped in, freezing and giving a small start as her gaze met his.

Luca found himself looking her over. The girl was pretty, but not beautiful. She had dark black hair, which ran down to just past her shoulders, contrasting well with her milky white skin. Her eyes were large and round, and as green as emeralds. She was dressed simply, in a plain white dress, which seemed to glow mysteriously in the strong moonlight. She was not wearing any shoes.

The girl watched Luca warily, not speaking or moving. She was waiting to see what he would do – like a wild beast. He found that strangely irritating, so he decided not to do anything at all. He simply sat there, and an indeterminate amount of time went by before the girl at last spoke, breaking the silence.

“So you are awake…” she said slowly.

“Your powers of observation are astounding,” he muttered dryly.

The girl blinked, and looked away from him awkwardly. “I don’t understand why I… Well, I guess that’s because of the…”

Her words trailed off, and she looked down at the floor, confused about something.

“I apologise,” she said finally. “I shouldn’t just be standing here. Are you alright? How are your injuries?”

Injuries? He looked over himself to find that he was bandaged in several places beneath the bedclothes. It made sense he would be injured, after what had happened – he just hadn’t noticed the wounds until she had mentioned them, so they must have been well-treated.

“It seems I’ll live.”

The girl smiled.

“Excellent. I was just bringing your clothes up. I had just finished cleaning them. I also got you some water if you’re thirsty.”

He was, actually. He sat up, and moved to the side of the bed as she approached. She placed the pitcher on the nightstand, and placed his clothes atop the dresser while he drank. He easily downed the entirety of the water in the pitcher, likely half a litre. A little surprised with himself, he set the pitcher down and turned to the girl.

“Thank you,” he said.

She smiled and bowed. “Of course. How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”

He did not feel particularly well, nor did he really want anything. Something about the girl’s presence was bothering him, some sort of strange feeling in the air between the two of them that he had never felt with another person. She was a stranger, and he was not comfortable with feeling such a thing with someone he did not know. This was too much, especially in the aftermath of the attack. He needed time alone to gather his thoughts.

“I’m fine,” he told her. “You can go, I don’t need anything right now.”

He did his best not to sound rude, but some animosity may have slipped through regardless. The girl, if she noticed, did not show it. She bowed again, like a servant, and left the room quietly. She stopped at the doorway, and turned back to him.

“My name is Emila, by the way.”

And with that, she left, not waiting to see if he would tell her his own name. Somehow that bothered him. He felt as though she had just made a move in some unspoken game, securing an advantage over him, simply by telling him her name. He felt like he needed to regain some ground. He rose to follow after her, but stopped himself before crossing half the length of the room, realising how foolish the thought was. With a frustrated sigh, he threw himself back onto the bed, ignoring the aches in his bones.

“Emila…” he muttered.

He spotted his bags where the girl had left them. All the belongings he had meant to take with him when he left with Arlea. A pang of guilt struck him at the thought of the girl. He was supposed to have been her saviour – rescuing her from a life of unhappiness in a cold, empty place. Instead, she had following him to her death.

Perhaps the reason this Emila girl was bothering him was because he saw a bit of Arlea in her eyes.

He closed his eyes, deciding what he was going to do. A few minutes passed. After he had made up his mind, and once he was certain Emila was downstairs and not about to disturb him again, he rose from the bed and pulled his makeshift clothes off. He grabbed his fur garments and quickly dressed himself, ignoring the stiffness and pain in his body. He did not dress fully, for he would not need the extra layers in such a warm region, and it would only slow him down either way. He grabbed his bag, and threw it over his shoulder.

His father’s sword rested against the dresser. He went over to it, and picked it up slowly, testing the weight of it. In all their years of travels, his father had never let him touch his sword once. Now, with Lodin’s death, the blade was his.

Luca looked briefly, but he couldn’t find his old short sword, which he remembered Zinoro’s Rixeor Fragment blade slicing in half. It mattered not. He only needed one sword, and it was fitting that he use Lodin’s blade to avenge him.

After sheathing the sword at his belt, he turned and went to the bedroom’s sole window. He unlatched it as quietly as possible, then climbed through and jumped from the second storey. He landed on the dirt road below without a sound. Thankfully, the arrow in his leg was gone now, so the landing was soft.

The town was deathly quiet and empty, even for midnight. Not a single soul was visible on the streets, nor was a single window illuminated. It was as though he and Emila were the only people in the town. If that were true, then he would be leaving her by herself…

He shook his head. It didn’t matter.

He took off at a run.

<> <> <>

Emila returned to the inn’s kitchen and flicked the light-switch, activating the electric lamps on the walls. It was strange that the plumbing in the town was down, but the magitech was still functioning. She decided she would look into it tomorrow. Life would certainly be easier in the abandoned town if she could get the toilets and sinks working.

Well, she actually wasn’t sure what would happen on the morrow. Her unexpected guest had thrown her short-term plans into doubt. What if he didn’t want to stay in Forga?

“No point in worrying about that yet. I’m sure we’ll figure this out.”

She started the stove and rummaged through her belongings until she found the wrapped tea leaves she had brought with her. After such a long night, she decided she deserved a treat.

As she was measuring out the water, she wondered if her new friend might want some. And with that thought, she also realised that she hadn’t even asked his name. She had given him her own, but she had been so nervous and eager to get out of the room she hadn’t waited for a reply.

“Stupid…” she berated herself.

Deciding to return to his room and apologise, she turned off the stove and left the kitchen. However, as her bare foot touched the first step of the stairs, she felt a wrenching nausea in her gut, and a feeling of panic hit her.

“What…? Oh no! What is he doing?! Stupid! I should have told him right away!”

She ran to the entrance, threw the door open, and took off after him.

<> <> <>

Luca estimated that he had run half a kilometre from the town when he was forced to a sudden stop.

A feeling of unease and worry had been filling him as he ran. He had ignored it, and continued running, trying not to notice that it grew the farther he went. The feeling had gradually turned into pain, but he had written it off as aches from pushing his injured body into action.

He realised now, as he could go no farther, what a mistake he had made.

Luca’s stomach heaved, and he doubled over onto the ground. He began to violently cough, and red drops of blood sprayed the dirt below him. The pain in his chest grew in a crescendo, and he felt something within his ribs moving. His head spun, dizzy from the overwhelming pain.

His breathing was suddenly laboured, and came in thin gasps. It felt like his lungs were pulling themselves apart. He would have screamed were he able to breathe.

This suffering continued for several long minutes, but gradually lessened. By the time he saw the raven-haired girl drawing near him, it was all but gone.

“Thank goodness,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t think you would take off, but I still should have told you…”

Emila offered her hand to him, and he reluctantly took it. She helped him back to his feet, and he moved to a tree and leaned against the bark for several minutes, catching his breath. Emila watched him with a strange expression, but she said nothing.

Once he was recovered, he turned to her and glared.

“What the hell – did you do to me?!”

Surprise crossed her features for a moment, but that quickly vanished. Emila’s eyes narrowed, and her lips tightened to a thin line.

“I saved your life,” she said firmly.

Luca blinked in surprise, then looked to the ground in shame.

“I did what I had to do,” Emila continued, her voice softer than before. “If I hadn’t – you would never have made it. It was a taboo magick, and for good reason. But it saved you.”

“What exactly did you do?” he asked.

Emila hesitated, but she told him.

“I linked us through magick. Essentially, I tethered your spirit to my own. A small blade had found its way into your lung, and even after removing it, you would never have made it.”

A small blade – ah, the top half of his old hunting sword, which Zinoro had cut in half. He remembered now that he had fallen and stabbed himself with it.

“The wound was too severe,” Emila continued. “You could never breathe with your own lungs. Regular healing repaired the damage, but your lung won’t work without the magick’s support for a while. The Soul Tether sends my mana to you, filling any gaps in your life energy. The only way you’re breathing right now is because the magick is doing it for you.”

Luca took a breath, feeling air fill him. “It still feels the same…”

“If the tether were to be severed, you wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore. That’s what nearly just happened.”

Another question had entered Luca’s mind, and he wasn’t sure he would like the answer. Still, he had to ask.

“How long must we remain connected like this?”

Emila thought about it. “Well, until your lung heals. Ordinary healing can’t fix that – only time. A week or two, at the least.”

He swore silently.

“And until then, I have to remain in your company,” he muttered. It was not a question.

Emila nodded. “If there is too much distance between us, the link will break and you will die.”

She cast her gaze down at the ground where the dirt was stained brown with blood.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “Please understand, it was the only way. You were dying, and I didn’t know what else to do.”

He turned to her, feeling suspicious. “Why even save me in the first place? I was nothing but a stranger to you. Why put yourself in such a risk to save somebody you don’t even know?”

Emila shrugged. “Do we always need a reason to help people?”

Luca sighed. Emila looked up, as though suddenly realising where they were, and went to his side. “We should get back to the town. Monsters will be out.”

He nodded, silently cursing his fate. To be chained to this weak girl for so long… Whatever time it took him to heal was time wasted. Every day that passed would be another day that Zinoro walked with his head in the air, unpunished for killing his father.

As they walked back to the town, he looked over at Emila. She still wasn’t wearing any shoes, walking over the dirt road in her bare feet.

Still, she did put herself at great risk just to save me. I suppose I should be grateful.

She noticed his staring, and met his gaze.

“I’m Luca,” he told her.

<> <> <>

“This town is called Forga,” Emila told him as they made their way through the city streets, on their way back to the inn. “As you can see, it’s empty. Nobody lives here.”

“What happened to them?”

Emila shook her head, frowning. “Nobody knows. One day, out of nowhere, everyone in the town just vanished.”

Luca looked to her. “So this isn’t your home, then?”

“Oh, no. I was just travelling, and I stopped here to rest for a few days.” She didn’t meet his gaze as she said this. “And then, out of nowhere, you showed up with an Acarian.”

Luca stopped.

He remembered the brief fight with the large axe-wielding Acarian – a hazy fever dream that blurred with the other nightmares of before. Though he was having some trouble putting together what had happened, he was sure that much was real, at the very least.

But Luca and that Acarian had been at the Arimos before, standing at the snow-covered ash of the village. And there was no chance that the Acarian had travelled with him all the way to Saeticia.

Which meant that somehow, they had travelled several hundred kilometres in only a few moments.

“What is it?” Emila asked. She stood a few paces ahead, looking back at him in confusion at his sudden stop.

“It’s nothing,” Luca told her. “Go on ahead. I want to take a look around this place.”

“Alright,” Emila muttered. She left him a moment later. Things were still a bit tense between them – neither of them really had a definite impression of the other yet.

Once she was gone, Luca looked around the town. The moonlight above illuminated the village well. Though it was – as Emila had said – empty, the town was in fine condition. There were few signs of conflict visible, save for the occasional broken window or kicked-in door. Whatever had happened to these people, it had happened quickly and efficiently – in contrast to the bloody massacre Luca had witnessed earlier.

“What drew me here, of all places?” he wondered aloud.

Some magick had transported Luca and that Acarian from the Arimos to this town. Did it have something to do with the disappearance of the villagers? Did it have something to with this girl who had a spell that could avert a fatal wound?

Luca looked around the abandoned town, searching the empty houses for something, anything, to ease his need for answers. And as he passed through the streets, he couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of familiarity – despite knowing he had never been through the town of Forga on his travels.

He stopped before a half-standing ruin, unique among the buildings of the town in that it had been burned down. The house stood isolated some distance from the main street, so whatever fire had struck it must have been contained to it. But the fire couldn’t have been related to the disappearance of the villagers – that had happened much later than when the house must have burned.

“Ack…”

Luca’s head suddenly pained him, like he was thinking too hard on something. Part of him wanted to explore that burned ruin, born of some compulsion he couldn’t put his finger on. But he knew he would find nothing there but memories – the memories of similar fires he had seen the day before. And he just wanted to forget about those.

He turned away from the burned house and went to return to the inn.

<> <> <>

The following morning came, and Emila awoke to find Luca absent from the inn. For a moment she panicked, fearing he had attempted to flee once again, but she shook her head and decided that he could not be so foolish.

After fixing her own breakfast, she left the inn to find him. A quick search determined that he was out by the river, shirtless save for his bandages, doing push-ups. His sword was unsheathed and stuck in a tree stump nearby.

“Yeah?” Luca groaned between breaths. Sweat dripped down from his brow.

“I was just wondering where you were.”

He didn’t answer.

Emila averted her gaze, as she knew she would blush if she watched. “What are you doing out here, if I may ask?”

“What does it look like?” he told her curtly. “I’m training.”

Emila looked down at the ground, feeling distracted.

“I won’t heal any faster by sitting around doing nothing,” he continued. “If I keep physically fit, my body will recover fast, and I can get out of this place.”

Emila didn’t look up. “You don’t want to be here?”

Luca scoffed. “Who would?”

Emila frowned, taking her own turn to be silent.

With a groan, Luca climbed back to his feet. He went over to the edge of the river, cupped his hands, and splashed some water on his head.

“Where were you going?” he asked suddenly.

“I’m sorry?” Emila said.

“You said last night you were travelling, and that you were stopping to rest in this place. I’m asking where you were headed.”

“Oh. I, uh… Err..”

She shifted awkwardly, and silently berated herself for not coming up with something before.

Luca stared at her, his eyes seeming to know far more than he should. “I understand if you have secrets to keep.”

Emila bit her lip and said nothing.

He went over to the log, and drew the sword out from it. He stared at the steel blade for a long moment, then said in a quiet voice, “I’m used to those around me keeping secrets.”

<> <> <>

Emila spent the rest of the day trying to get the plumbing to work. She eventually found the town’s water supply was still full, so she returned to the inn and followed the path of the pipes back to the well. She found that one particular pipe was broken, so she repaired it and returned to the inn. She started the faucet and clear water flowed.

Emila sighed in relief.

An hour later, she was bathed and refreshed. She returned to the lobby, which had grown dark after the sun had set.

Luca had not yet returned to the inn.

Emila sighed again, and she stepped out the front door. She quickly found the white-haired man at the very spot he had been before. He was on his hands, gasping and panting. Sweat dripped off his chest and brow, and his arms trembled.

She could feel faintly, through their connection, that he was on the verge of collapsing. As she drew near him, his arms buckled under his own weight, and he fell onto the dirt. He sighed, and noticed her, surprise in his eyes. And shame.

“You need rest, Luca,” she said.

He turned away from her gentle words, ignoring her very existence. He forced himself up to his feet, and stumbled over to the river.

“I don’t…”

He was at a loss for words. She moved next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. He recoiled from her touch.

She blinked, but said nothing of this. Instead, she took a step back and gave him an invitation.

“I’ve fixed the water,” she said. “Come back to the inn, and take a shower. I’ll make something to eat.”

He cast his eyes down, and considered for a moment.

“Very well,” he relented.

<> <> <>

Luca emerged from the shower, and pulled a towel around his body. He was sore and tired from the hard day of training, but he felt better about his condition. In only a day, the majority of his injuries had healed. The minor ones, scratches and the like, had been treated by Emila earlier. His left leg occasionally pained him from the arrow it had received, but that was nothing he wasn’t used to.

Yet despite this progress, he knew he was far from leaving. Every time he breathed, he knew that he was only able to because Emila was nearby, feeding him with her mana. That strange connection he had felt with her, which he now knew to be the Soul Tether, was a constant reminder of his weak dependence on her.

He hated it, but he could not avenge his father if he died on the side of the road. He would have to wait, and only leave when he was sure he was able to.

Luca stepped before the mirror, and looked back at his reflection. Predictably, he looked tired and worn, but clean. He ran his hand through his white hair, pushing it back, when he noticed something.

A thin scar, running across his left cheek, from his temple to his chin.

The mark Zinoro had given him. Most scars would disappear after being healed with magick, but this one – dark energy had flowed through that wound. The pain had vanished the moment he was separated from Zinoro, but the mark itself would likely never fade.

Luca swore under his breath. He considered himself a rather handsome man, though it was not something he took pride in. Beauty had its uses from time to time, but it was a shallow pride, and a temporary element that faded with time.

No, it was not his face that Zinoro had scarred, but his pride. The scar was not meant to disfigure him, but to serve as a reminder of what had happened – of how easily he had been beaten. It was a scar of humiliation.

Luca thought of Emila, and how she had said nothing of the scar. Perhaps she had not mentioned it out of courtesy, or perhaps she was ashamed she had not been able to heal it with her magick.

Perhaps she pitied him. The thought made him scowl. To hell with her pity.

He quickly dried off and dressed, pulling on his fur garments.

Zinoro wouldn’t win. Luca had decided that he was not going to let the man get away with what he had done. He wasn’t ready yet to face him yet, though. He would have to train hard, and to acquire skills to counter Zinoro’s magick. Most importantly, if Luca wanted to be able to counter Zinoro’s Rixeor Fragment blade, he would need one of his own.

First, there was somewhere he needed to go, and someone he needed to see.

<> <> <>

Emila greeted Luca with a warm smile he did not return. He descended the stairs and joined her at the table she had set. They dined in relative silence, once it became clear that Luca had no desire to talk to her. She felt a bit hurt, but she was starting to understand the kind of person Luca was.

He was an asshole.

That much was clear. He was reserved, brooding, melancholic, and when he spoke: short, sarcastic, and cynical. The very first thing he had said to her was an insult. He was the exact kind of person she hated, and did her best to avoid.

And yet…

There was pain in his eyes. She could see it, as hard as he tried to hide it. She doubted that she had it in her to convince him to tell her exactly what it was that was troubling him so, but it bothered her. She didn’t think she was seeing the true Luca, so she would simply be patient with him, until she understood what caused him pain.

She would need to be patient, because neither of them were going anywhere. She was essentially bound to him, so she figured that she might as well do what she could to help him. She liked to help people whenever she could, and leaving him as he was just didn’t seem right after she had saved his life.

“Luca, when you were trying to leave last night – where were you going to go?”

He looked up at her and hesitated, possibly considering if he should tell her.

“Allma Temple,” he finally said..

She blinked. That was an interesting answer.

“Allma? The training school in Torachi? What business could you have there? You don’t look like you need any combat training.”

Luca idly twirled his fork in his hand.

“I need to see a man there named Dori.”

There was a finality in those words. He wasn’t going to tell her anymore. She returned her attention to her dinner.

Dori – she had heard that name before somewhere. She couldn’t seem to recall where, though.

There was a flash of lightning, which illuminated the dark outside, followed by the clap of thunder. Rain began to pour in heavy sheets. Emila noticed this and smiled, before turning back to her guest.

“Is it urgent that you see this man, Luca?” she asked.

He looked at her for a moment, then nodded.

“I see – in that case, we can leave in the morning.”

He sat up suddenly.

“What are you saying? I thought….”

“You have to stay in my company,” Emila said. “That doesn’t mean you have to stay in Forga. We can go where you need to. It doesn’t seem fair to me that you should be stuck here, when you clearly have things to do. And after watching you train all day, simply because you felt it would help you recover faster, I realised just how badly you want to get out of here. But you need to be with me, right? So the solution is simple: we both go.”

Luca stared at her for a moment. “What about your own destination? Don’t tell me you were on your way to Allma, too.”

“Of course not.”

“So this trip of yours is unimportant enough that you can just cast it aside and go with me to Allma?”

Emila frowned, and muttered, “Indeed.”

There was a long silence. Luca stared at her, deep in thought, like she were a puzzle he was trying to work out the solution to.

“Very well,” he said, breaking the silence. “We can leave on the morrow.”

<> <> <>

Luca sat alone, upstairs in the room he had woken in before. As the inn was empty save for the two of them, he could have chosen to sleep in any room he wanted. But it really made no difference to him – it was more convenient to stay where he was, as his belongings were already there.

Outside, the rain had died down to a light trickle.

He wasn’t sure how to feel about this latest news. For one, he was eager to be out of the barren, empty town, and on his way towards Allma. Each hour that passed was one wasted – time he could be spending preparing for his revenge on Zinoro. So on that hand, he was glad that he was leaving tomorrow, instead of in a fortnight.

On the other hand…

The thought of having Emila with him as he went to see Dori was not one he quite enjoyed.

Dori was a master of Allma Temple, and the man who had trained his father. Luca vaguely remembered visiting him with Lodin once, many years ago. His father had often spoke of Dori, and he’d told Luca several times that if anything should happen to him, to go see Dori of Allma Temple. He wasn’t sure what step to take next, so going to see Dori seemed better than anything else.

Dori was a skilled trainer, and he could teach Luca things his father had not. Skills he may need to kill Zinoro. But having to explain to the man who trained his father that he was going to go after Zinoro for revenge, while his life was magickally bound to this timid girl – how humiliating.

In any case, Luca had checked one of the maps in the inn, and Allma Temple wasn’t far. Forga sat on the western edge of the Saetician border, and Allma was on the southern border of Torachi. It couldn’t take more than a week of travel to get there.

He did not know what kind of fighter Emila was, but he wasn’t counting on her to be very skilled. It would be no different from the journey he was already prepared to take with Arlea, but he would be under far greater pressure to protect Emila. If she were to be wounded, the Tether could be broken, and his own life would be in danger. Should they come across an enemy that realised this, Emila would be all too easy a target.

Luca felt a sudden chill, and was suddenly back in the cold hell of the Arimos. He pulled his fur coat around his shoulders and shivered. He had always hated the cold, but now it was his very bane. It reminded him of death. The villagers. Arlea. His father. The cold was a nightmare to him.

And he knew he would have nightmares when he slept.

The chill was enough to bother him, so Luca got up and went over to the fireplace in the bedroom. He tossed a couple of logs into the fire and turned the knob to activate the magitech. After a few clicks and sparks, a flame started up, and enveloped the wooden logs.

A very small part of him would regret leaving behind such convenience. After seven months of the Arimos, a magitech fireplace was a luxury.

Luca returned to his bed and sat down, reaching into his bag and taking out the one book he had packed for the doomed trip with Arlea. All the others that he had left behind in the hut were now certainly reduced to ash, like everything else in the village.

Setting aside such regretful thoughts, he opened the book to where he’d left off. There wasn’t much left until he was finished.

I have made a grave mistake.

The distant reaches of Arimos are a cold and unforgiving land. In the farthest parts, where I have come to be, there are not even monsters living in these lands. There are only shades of death that forever haunt these barren lands. My supplies are running low. I have been here too long – weeks longer than I originally intended. And yet I have not found the ruins I set out in search of.

I should have given up on this futile quest. I should have left when I still had the chance, and returned home, where my children wait for me. This quest was never worth risking my life.

Now it is too late. If I still had the strength, I could turn around and go back. But I cannot. The cold winds drive me only north when I try to travel. I do not have enough left to eat to survive a trip back south.

I will never make it. This cold land will be my grave.

I can only hope that one day, someone will find this journal and take it back to my children. I do not have heart that someone could come as far north as I have and make it back alive. It breaks my heart that my children will never know what happened to me.

There is little light left now, so I cannot write much more. If this diary ends here, then that means I did not make it.

Forgive me. Forgive this foolish man.

That was all there was.

Luca looked at those last sentences, not sure what to make of it. The traveller – he had not survived, and yet someone had found the journal. Had it been Lodin, or had someone given it to him?

It angered him that that was all there was. That man had believed so deeply in his mission, and yet it had led him to death, without ever finding what he had been seeking. It was all nothing more than a shaggy dog story – a pointless waste of time.

He rose and went over to the fire, about to toss the book into the flames when he realised something.

It was not pointless. It was a cautionary tale.

The traveller had hoped that his journal would tell others his story. It was a warning not to throw your life away for an ideal.

Rather than throwing the book into the fire, Luca set it on the shelf of the room.

Maybe later somebody would find the book and learn something from it. Luca would be leaving tomorrow, so there was no sense in him taking the book with him, but if he left it behind in Forga, perhaps someone would end up there someday and discover it.

The cold breeze had not faded, and he felt a strong flow of mana coming from outside the inn. Perhaps because of the Tether, Luca felt the mana was Emila’s.

He went to the window, and saw Emila outside in the streets. She had her arms outstretched, and her head up at the sky. Large amounts of mana were being used for some kind of spell he had never seen before.

She seemed to be focusing the mana on the cloud in the sky.

It was then he noticed that it was no longer raining.

Is she altering the weather?

There was no mistaking it. That was exactly what she was doing.

“What a pointless waste of mana…”

He could now see the result. Emila was using her mana, ice-form, as he now realised, to change the raindrops into ice crystals. She was changing the rain to snow.

He frowned. So that explained the cold wind.

Emila was now twirling around as snow fell around her, dancing in the artificial snowfall. She was smiling.

Luca turned away from the window and collapsed on the bed, pulling his cloak around himself to keep away the cold.

So there would be no escaping his nightmares after all.

Outside, Emila continued to dance under the snow.

Chapter III

The Killing Moon

The scent of blood was heavy in the air.

He ran. He ran and ran and ran until his chest burned. Until his veins flowed with liquid fire. Until his eyes bled. And yet he continued to run.

Was he being hunted – or was he the one doing the hunting?

It didn’t matter. He could feel the rush of adrenaline. His blade was at his side, ready to be drawn between two breaths. It was a hunt, and that was all that mattered.

Through trees, ducking and weaving, he ran. His feet scarcely touched the ground. He was running so fast he was practically floating.

It was exhilarating, yet terrifying at the same time.

His attacker appeared in a flash. He drew his blade immediately, and parried the attack that would have killed him. They exchanged several blows. They did the dance of blades, swinging and striking, each waiting for the precious moment when the other would make a mistake.

It was he who faltered first. Their blades met, and he was trapped in a parry. His opponent responded by producing a dagger with his free hand, which was used to impale him in the eye.

He screamed. The pain was unbearable. Blood ran down his cheek in tiny red rivers, dripping down to the earth below. But he did not stop fighting, not even for a moment. He was a warrior, and he would fight until he could not fight any more. Even with missing limbs, he would still bite, even if that was all he could do.

His pain and fury gave him strength. His attacks turned to the offencive, and he drove the enemy back. His opponent struggled to block his vicious strikes. Gradually, the tide turned in his favour. He struck a decisive blow. The enemy fell to the ground in defeat, and he mercilessly decapitated the foe.

Red blood flowed.

He stood over his enemy’s corpse, a smiled stretched across his face. He breathed heavily, his skin tingled and glistened with sweat, and he gripped his sword firmly and with passion. The thrill of a kill – it was exhilarating.

He looked down at his dead enemy, noting the white hair and blue eyes. His very own.

And then he saw his own face reflected back at him in the ever-growing pool of blood.

The face of Zinoro.

<> <> <>

Luca awoke, not screaming, but gripped with terror nonetheless. He had predicted he would have nightmares, and he had been right. His fingers drifted to his right eye, the one he had lost in his dream, and he was relieved to find it was still there.

The very eye Zinoro was missing.

He sat up, shivering in the cold night air. Despite how cold he felt, he was sweating. His hands trembled, and he felt slightly nauseous. After running his hands through his white hair, he shook his head, hoping to regain some degree of lucidity. When that did nothing, he rose from the bed and went to the window.

The outside was still shaded by the darkness of the night. It was likely midnight or later. Luca knew himself well enough to realise that trying to get back to sleep would be pointless. Once he was awake, he always stayed that way.

Emila was no longer dancing outside in the snow. She had certainly gone to bed by now. But her artificial snow still remained on the streets outside, preserved by the night’s cold air.

A glimpse of movement caught Luca’s attention. A goblin roamed the streets, sniffing with its pig-like snout at the air.

Goblins were a simple beast, standing at half a man’s height, with grey to green skin, and animal-like features. Like most monsters, they emerged at night to hunt for food. It was a safe bet that if you saw one, there were nine others nearby. They bred quickly, and were even prone to eating one another if they failed to find a meal, but they were more of a nuisance than a threat. They were dumb, slow, and weak. A decently trained swordsman could handle a dozen goblins with little trouble.

Upon seeing the easy target of the goblin outside, Luca was filled with the urge to kill. Lingering sentiments of his dream drove him forward. He pulled on his fur clothes, complete with his coat, and took his father’s blade and hung it at his belt. He then went as quietly as he could from his room to the front door of the inn.

He paused there, listening carefully for any sound indicating that he might have disturbed Emila. After a moment, satisfied that she slept, he opened the door and stepped outside.

Luca shivered. The cold was sharper than he had thought, striking him suddenly as he moved from the warmth of the insulated inn to the stark outside. Summer in the southern lands was nearing its end, and the nights were getting colder. The fur coat he wore over his back kept him warm, but his cheeks were bare to the elements.

The goblin noticed his presence immediately, and gave out a shrill cry to the open air. It was a call to its companions, telling them it had found prey. The others would come for this. That suited him fine.

Luca drew his sword and charged at the goblin, running through the snow. The beast raised its weapon, a knife carved from an arm’s bone. Its meagre attempts were no match for his trained swordplay – he quickly cut the creature down, and pierced its heart with his blade.

The goblin collapsed in the snow. The creature’s thick green blood stained the ground and Luca’s sword. Its body did not dissipate into mana as a human’s did when death took them. Rather, it left behind a lifeless corpse. Goblins, like most monsters, were soulless beings, and they had no souls to be retaken by the spiritual realm.

The sound of footsteps drew his attention. Luca turned around to find that a set of three more goblins had appeared from behind a building across the street. They were all armed in a similar fashion as their companion, wearing shabby scraps of clothing stolen from their prey, and carrying crude knives carved from bones.

He approached the beasts slowly. He considered using magick to blind them, so as to make the kills easier, but the surge of mana would likely awaken Emila. And he really had little need to, for he was certain he could handle three goblins with nothing more than swordplay.

The goblins saw the sight of their fallen companion, but gave no reaction. No anger, no rallying cry, no sorrow. They were mindless creatures of instinct, and death to them was merely a part of everyday life. They did, however, take note of his approach, for they eyed him warily. At last, the dumb things seemed to decide they could handle a single human, and they moved in to attack. The goblins on the left and right moved to either side of him, while the centre goblin approached him directly. A simple strategy – they likely figured that he was unable to defend himself from multiple attacks. These goblins were clearly new to the hunt, though there was really no such thing as a veteran goblin. They never survived long enough to learn from their mistakes.

Luca sprang suddenly to the left, decapitating the first goblin before it even had a chance to react. The goblin on the right cried out in its thick, wordless voice, and raised its bone-knife to stab him while his back was turned. Luca anticipated the attack and rolled aside, which caused the goblin to stumble. As he came back to his feet, he slashed the goblin across the chest. The sharp blade cut through the goblin’s thin skin like paper, and the beast fell forward with a choked cry to bleed to death on the ground.

Luca turned to the final goblin, which had ceased its approach and was now reconsidering its attack. He figured there was likely a fifty percent chance of the beast turning and fleeing for its life, or stupidly attacking him anyway.

Not caring to wait for the beast to make its own mind up, he swung his sword through the air and severed the goblin’s hand, which held its weapon. It gave out a cry of pain and stumbled back, clutching its bleeding stump. He stepped forward and drove his sword through the goblin’s head.

Silence took the air once more.

He kicked the goblin back, pushing it off his father’s sword. He turned and saw the second goblin, which still lived, breathing in ragged gasps. He raised his sword up and drove it down into the beast’s neck, putting it out of its misery.

After cleaning his sword off on the rags of his fallen opponent, Luca sheathed the blade and walked slowly back to the inn. A modicum of his stress had been eased by the bloodshed. He cared not for the bodies, for other monsters would be drawn to the scent of blood and feast on the corpses. An easy meal. Therefore, unconcerned by further visitors, he went back to the inn.

A cold breeze enveloped him, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.

Luca stopped.

He listened carefully. It was almost inaudible, but he had no doubt of it. He could hear the sound of breathing.

Luca turned, his hand drifting to the hilt of his sword. He searched the area, peering carefully into the thick darkness. There was no movement that could give away the location of the unseen voyeur. But now that he had detected it, he had no doubt that he was not alone. He could feel a single set of eyes locked on him, studying him like the meal it no doubt thought he was.

Whatever this new arrival was, it was no goblin. A goblin would have charged stupidly to its death, as the four he had already slain had. This beast was watching him, waiting. It had no doubt been doing so since he had emerged, and had silently witnessed his slaying of the goblins as well. It was intelligent enough to keep its distance, yet it had also seen him effortlessly kill four goblins. And it likely realised he knew it was there, too, yet it did not flee.

Luca drew his sword slowly. The sound of the steel blade brushing against the metal tip of the sheath carried through the dead silence of the ghost-town. It was his announcement. He was saying, ‘I know you are here, so come and face me’. 

And the creature responded, emerging from the shadows with certain, unhesitating steps.

The monster before him was shaped like a human woman, with a pretty face and hair was black as the shadows that had concealed it. And indeed, it had once been human. But its skin, as grey and lifeless as a corpse’s, and its eyes, as red as blood, betrayed its true identity.

The vampire spoke to him, with a voice like lavender wine.

“Your instincts are refined for a human. I expected you would return to the building and return to sleep.”

“You would have killed me in my sleep,” Luca spat.

“Of course,” the vampire said with a raised eyebrow, as though surprised that anyone would be surprised by that. “Two humans staying in the town? I would be a fool to pass such an opportunity. I grow weary of these goblins. Their blood sustains our kind, but it lacks in flavour.”

The vampire grinned, displaying her sharp incisors. Luca kept his eyes away from the vampire’s own. If one met a vampire’s gaze for too long, the vampire could hypnotise them.

“I first saw the girl when she arrived here, two days ago,” the vampire told him. “What a beauty. And her hair is already dark as the night. She would do well as one of us. As for you – your blood would make a fine meal, but your mana reeks of light.”

With his left hand, Luca began to press his fingernail into his palm. His right hand tightened its grip on his sword, and he was ready to move in a second if the vampire should. A moment’s hesitation was all a vampire needed to kill a human.

“I guess its a good thing for me that I’m a fitful sleeper, eh?” Luca asked with a smirk.

The vampire shrugged. “It will make no difference in the end. Some of my kind like to make prey of their meals, to amuse themselves. I always preferred merciful kills. But being discovered will not spare you and or keep me from turning the girl.”

And then the vampire sprang forth with the speed of sound, closing the distance between the two within a second. He swung his sword, aiming to take off the thing’s head. But the vampire had sharper reflexes than his own – she easily sidestepped his attack, and was standing before him a second later.

Luca felt himself being lifted off his feet, the vampire’s grip around his neck like a steel brace. He felt like his head was about to pop off. He could feel the vampire’s fingers digging into his flesh. It burned. The vampire then opened her mouth, displaying those long fangs, and prepared to sink them into his neck.

Luca flicked his wrist before the vampire’s eyes, spraying her face with a few drops of crimson blood. The vampire’s red eyes went wide, and she dropped him involuntarily, lightly touching the blood on her face. The vampire couldn’t help but to taste his blood on her fingertips. She was dazed for the moment, not having expected such a thing.

He used these precious seconds to roll back and rise. With his left hand, which bled freely from the self-inflicted wound, he summoned and released a considerable amount of his mana in the vampire’s face.

Light filled the street.

The vampire blinked, trying to restore her disabled vision. Unaffected by his own magick, Luca charged and drove his sword through the vampire’s chest, where its heart should have been.

This did not kill the vampire. But he knew it would not. There were only two things that can kill a vampire: decapitation and fire. What he did was push the vampire forward, up against the wall of the inn. His sword, protruding from the other side of the vampire’s chest, went through the wall of the building, pinning the creature in place.

The creature hissed, and struggled to free herself like the trapped animal she was. Her vision had not yet fully returned, so she swung her arms with abandon, not sure where her target was standing.

Luca let go of his sword. The vampire was stuck – she wasn’t going anywhere. He took a step back, and coughed. A few deep breaths later, he felt the lightness in his head fading.

The vampire blinked, her vision returning. Her former haughtiness was gone – she looked like a frightened girl. She looked to Luca, pleading with him with wide, red eyes.

“Please don’t do this…”

Luca glared at the thing. His throat hurt too much to speak, but he felt little desire to communicate with the monster anyway. A moment ago, the vampire would have drained Luca’s blood, turning him into a withered husk, and then gone into the inn to turn Emila into a soulless thing like herself. And yet, she thought that batting her eyelashes and pleading for her life would save her. There was no mercy in Luca’s gaze.

His hands returned to the hilt of his sword.

“Please, don’t! I know your-!”

Before she could finish, Luca drew the sword free, and spun in a single movement. The blade sliced through the vampire’s neck. The bloodless corpse collapsed.

Luca let out a heavy sigh, and sheathed his sword once more. There was a crumpling sound as the headless body of the vampire dried and shrivelled into dust before his eyes.

He turned to find Emila standing at the entrance of the inn, her eyes wide.

“Luca, what just happened?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Instead, a sharp pain shot through his throat. He took a step forward and stumbled, a wave of dizziness rushing to his head.

Emila rushed to him, and pulled his arm over her shoulder to keep him from falling.

“Careful,” she said gently. “Come back inside, I’ll heal you.”

She saw the scattered bodies of the goblins in the snow, but said nothing.

<> <> <>

Luca’s small, child fingers were wrapped around the blade in his hand. A single drop of blood fell from the tip of the dagger as he held it up and looked at the silver blade. Not red human blood, but the green ichor of a monster.

Luca looked down at the small creature he had killed. A jakalope, an almost harmless monster found in most part of Bacoria. It had put up little struggle, only trying to get away from him, until it had realised it could not flee from the small corner of the cave Luca had cornered it in. Only then had it hissed and tried to bite as he drew near.

The young boy felt sick to the stomach. He’d felt so sorry for the poor creature as he had drove the dagger into its small body. The first stroke hadn’t killed it, so it had suffered for a few seconds until Luca could muster up the guts to stab it again.

He hadn’t wanted to go in the first place. He didn’t like to see anything suffer, especially not cute little creatures like jakalopes. But his father had told him, that if he did not bring back one, then he would not eat that night. And he was hungry and worn-out from the long day of travel. He knew that if he went to bed that night without something in his belly, then travel the next day would be unbearable.

Luca picked up the dead jakalope by its antlers and carried it back with him through the forest to the small camp his father had set up. Lodin watched him as he emerged, and a proud smile appeared on the man’s bearded face.

“Well done. Now, you can eat.”

Luca looked down at the small fire at his father’s feet. There was no meal there.

“Father, I don’t understand. There’s nothing here to eat.”

Lodin leaned in towards Luca, and placed a hand upon his son’s shoulder.

“My boy, where do you think the meat we eat comes from?” Lodin asked his son. “Why would I go out hunting every evening, if there was nothing to gain from killing the beasts I come across?”

Lodin took the dead jakalope from his son’s hands. “This creature was killed by a superior being. Now, its flesh will sustain you.” Luca then felt his stomach turning as his father skinned it.

As his father placed the jakalope upon a spit and held it over the fire, Luca sat beside him, pale-faced at what his father had said. He had never hesitated to eat the meals his father had prepared for him, even when he saw the dead and bloody bodies Lodin had dragged back with him. He had simply never given it that much thought. But now that he himself had killed, he felt a different feeling.

Lodin spoke to him as he turned the jakalope over the flames.

“You are old enough now. From now on, you can join me in my hunts.”

Luca stared down at the fire despondently.

“When we die – do monsters eat us?” he asked quietly.

His father turned to him, and shook his head.

“When a human dies, they are retaken by the spiritual realm. Nothing is left behind. That is our payment to the Old Ones for using magick, the gift they gave us. Monsters have no souls, and they have no mana to give when they die. The flesh they leave behind is their gift.”

Luca sighed. Lodin took note of this. “You are unhappy to hear this?”

Luca nodded, and replied hesitantly.

“I suppose – I would not feel so bad about slaying and eating another creature if I knew that it could do the same to me.”

“Ah,” Lodin said, scratching his beard. “Yes, there is always a feeling of guilt. But that will fade in time. You will see.”

Lodin took the jakalope out of the fire, now cooked down to red meat. After turning it over to confirm it was done, he handed the spit to his son.

“Here. It is your first kill, so you may enjoy it yourself.”

Enjoy it? Luca had his doubts. His stomach growled, so he would eat the jakalope, but he doubted he would enjoy it. The guilt of seeing the poor creature cower in terror continued to plague him.

How could his father make him do this? How could his father think he could enjoy hurting an innocent creature?

Luca knew he would never enjoy taking another life.

<> <> <>

Emila took Luca back inside the inn, and had him lay upon the sofa. She gathered her mana, and her hands glowed with pale blue energy. There was no point in objecting, as he needed the healing, so he said nothing. Not that he could have anyway; the vampire’s attempt at crushing his throat had rendered him temporarily mute.

In a few minutes, the pain in his neck faded away. The vampire’s grip had been so powerful that it had left red marks in the shape of hands upon his throat.

Once Emila’s job was finished, he sat up. He still felt lightheaded and his arms and legs seemed heavier than usual. He didn’t know why – he hadn’t felt so exhausted before fighting the vampire. Still, his wounds were treated well.

“Thank you,” he said to her.

Emila nodded and smiled, but there was concern in her eyes. She glanced at the door they had come through. The darkness outside told no tales.

“That was – a vampire, wasn’t it?” she asked slowly.

Luca nodded. Emila frowned, needing to know more, but unsure what to say.

“Did you – well, how did you know it was out there?”

“I didn’t,” he replied. “I simply woke in the middle of the night and decided to relieve some stress. That was the goblins. It was by chance that I realised the vampire was there.”

Emila met his gaze for a moment, her eyes wide. Apparently, that was not what she had expected to hear.

“Are you saying…?”

“If I had not woken and gone outside to kill those goblins, that vampire would have walked in the inn and killed us both,” he told her in a voice devoid of emotion.

Luca thought of the vampire’s words, and how she had spoken of Emila. Her tone of voice had been obsessive. Lustful. She had wanted to turn Emila into a creature like herself, and do unspeakable things to her. He decided that he would be considerate enough not to tell her that part. She looked uncomfortable enough already.

Emila fidgeted nervously in her seat. “Then I guess you’ve payed me back,” she said. “You know, for saving your life.”

“Not quite. I’m still in your debt. You’ve saved me twice. First, when you healed me the first time. Secondly, when you stopped me from running. So I still owe you once over.”

“I see,” she said quietly. “Um, so the vampire is dead, then?”

“As dead as a vampire can be.”

Emila rubbed her eyes. “Then we’re safe.”

“No, we’re not.”

Emila looked over at him. His face had grown grim.

“What do you mean?”

“Vampires live in groups,” he told her. “When the vampire I killed fails to return to the den, the others will come out to find out what happened to her. This town is likely her usual haunt, so they’ll know to look here. We have to leave as soon as possible, or we’ll be annihilated.”

It was only common sense that they could not survive such an attack. He had exhausted himself fighting a single vampire – it would have killed him to fight more than three.

Emila, upon hearing this, grew pale.

“We have to leave…” she said nervously. “Okay, then. I’ll go pack my things. Do you need help?”

Luca rose as best he could, testing his balance. While he felt far more tired than he should, gathering his few possessions would not be a problem.

“I’ll be fine.”

He raised his hand, and noticed that the wound he had inflicted upon himself was still open, and a few drops of blood had fallen to the inn’s floor. Emila noticed this.

“Oh! I forgot about that. Here…”

Before he could send her away, she took his hand in her own. He felt her mana flowing through her into himself, and when she let him go, the wound was closed.

“Thank you.”

Emila nodded and smiled warmly, her previous anxiety gone.

“Of course. Let’s get our things together and get out of here, shall we?”

Luca’s hand tingled just slightly from the contact as he followed Emila upstairs. It had nothing to do with the healing.

<> <> <>

Ten minutes later, Forga was a vague shape disappearing behind the horizon. The moon had finally emerged from behind the clouds, casting its silver light upon the path before the two travellers.

Luca and Emila walked abreast, at as steady a pace as he could manage in his weakened state. Haste was a concern, but be knew that at least for the moment, they were safe. If such a large group of vampires as he expected were to appear, then they would know some time before they actually reached them.

He noticed that Emila had finally donned some footwear. She wore a simple pair of sandals, not exactly the ideal choice for travel, but he figured she probably didn’t have much to choose from. Still, boots like his would have been better.

Emila paid close attention to him as they walked, likely half-expecting him to fall over. While he had regained a degree of his strength after Emila had healed him, he was still nowhere near his peak, nor would he be until he had rest. After thinking about his weariness, he decided it seemed to be mana exhaustion – the fatigue that one came under when they used too much magick. But Luca had only used a small amount of mana earlier, when he created the flash that had blinded the vampire. So while he didn’t understand why his mana felt so drained, he knew that he couldn’t use any more magick, or he could risk death.

The path they followed was cut through a forest, travelled enough to be free of nature’s many obstacles, but still esoteric enough that the trees lining the sides were thick and concealing. This was something Luca took note of, and he listened intently for any rustling that may indicate a monster’s presence. The darkness was still heavy, even with the moon’s aid, and it was at the darkest parts of the night that the foul beasts emerged to hunt. Humans hunted in the day, monsters hunted at night. That was how it had always been in Bacoria, and how it likely would always be.

Thankfully, aside from a few small creatures, likely jakalopes, they encountered nothing. The reason for this was clear enough; the local vampires were at the top of the food chain.

“Let’s move a bit faster,” he urged Emila.

She looked at him with concern. “Are you sure you can handle it?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Without waiting for any consent from Emila, he took off at a jog. After a moment of hesitation, he heard her pace quicken behind him.

They ran for a few minutes. Forga had vanished behind them, and the moon seemed to grow brighter in the sky. Or perhaps his vision was simply adjusting to the dark.

Emila laughed suddenly. “You know, I’m rather enjoying this. The forest is beautiful at night.”

He grunted in reply.

“I have no regrets about this, you know,” she told him. “We were going to leave in the morning anyway. So this doesn’t make a difference. Aside from the fact that we weren’t turned into raisins by that vampire.”

“We might still get turned into raisins if we don’t get out of here.”

“Yes, yes,” Emila said. “But it’ll take at least a few hours before the other vampires come looking. You said so yourself. I’m sure we’ll be far from Forga by then, even at a walking pace. It’s possible we might even make it to the next town at this pace, before the night is over.”

“It’s possible that the vampires may not come for us at all,” Luca said. “It’s even possible that we could run and dance and sing our way through this forest without a care in the world, and make it to sunrise alive. Don’t count on possibilities. There’s a reason your parents lock the doors at night. The stories they tell you about the demon Ekkei might be nothing but legends, but there are monsters hiding under your bed, make no mistake.”

“But-”

“What do you think happened to all the people who lived in that town? Vampires aren’t born like other monsters – they have to come from somewhere.”

Emila grew quiet at this, and they continued on in silence.

<> <> <>

Roughly two hours after they had set out from Forga, the sky was just beginning to turn orange. Unable to run any longer, Luca collapsed beside a tree.

Emila, hearing the sound of him hitting the ground, brought herself to a halt and turned to him.

“Goodness!” she exclaimed. “You’re so pale!”

He forced himself up to a sitting position, and his hand was on the hilt of his father’s sword. “I’m fine,” he muttered, though it was clear from the strain in his voice that he wasn’t. He struggled just to keep his eyes open. As Emila drew near him, he could see fatigue in her eyes, as well.

Despite Emila’s protests, he fought to rise to a standing position. His body ached, and grew number by the moment. He tried his hardest to rise, but his legs gave out underneath him, and he collapsed against the tree.

“Luca!” Emila cried, rushing to him. As her hands touched his skin, he felt a flash of rage. He pushed Emila away, more roughly than he had meant to, and she stumbled back and fell on the dirt road.

“Enough!” he shouted. “Enough of this coddling! I’m not your damn child!”

There was a flash of pain in Emila’s eyes. Her lip trembled briefly, and she looked away from him in shame.

A moment passed in silence.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

He felt guilty, seeing her like that, but he wasn’t about to back down. With no small amount of effort, he drew himself up, leaning against the tree while he found his balance.

“We can’t stop yet,” he said firmly. “The vampires will not be out anymore, so we’re safe from them. But we’re too vulnerable right now to rest until we find a more secure location. The monsters are no longer a concern, but human bandits may roam these areas. We’ll go into the woods, and find a place to make camp. We’ll take turns keeping watch. Is that alright?”

She finally looked up at him, surprised by that last sentence. Her eyes were tired and shone with unshed tears.

“I – yeah, that’s fine.”

He offered his hand to her, and helped her up. They left the path ahead, and entered the thick forest. Emila was quiet, and refused to meet his gaze.

Finally, they found a place isolated enough to be safe. They laid out their respective sleeping bags, and made up a makeshift camp.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Luca told her. She gave him a brief look, but didn’t argue. She was clearly upset by what had happened. They both knew he needed rest more than she did, but his sense of chivalry wouldn’t let him do so. He felt a sick feeling in his gut as he thought of that. How could he claim to follow chivalry when he hurt her for trying to help him?

“I’ll apologise to her later,” he said to himself under his breath.

A quiet moan came from Emila. He turned to find she was already asleep. She must have been more tired than he had thought.

At her side, her bag had popped open from being dropped, and a few things had spilt out from the top. As quietly as he could, Luca went over and began to pick up her things, placing them back where they belonged. Within her bag, he caught a glimpse of some sort of small package, wrapped up in paper. Suddenly curious, Luca gently tried to pull it out, only to find it resisted him with a surprising weight. He gave up, realising he couldn’t possibly take out the wrapped object without removing everything else in the bag.

He set his curiosity aside, deciding it would be rude either way to rummage through Emila’s things. He put the rest of the spilt belongings back in the bag, and placed it upright so it wouldn’t spill over again. Perhaps he would ask her about the wrapped thing later, if he remembered.

Some time passed, and he continued to watch her, thinking about his circumstances and how he had ended up bound to this odd girl. When he thought about it, he really didn’t know much about her at all. But she also knew nothing about him either, save for his plans to go to Allma Temple.

Perhaps if he told her that his father had just died, she might understand why he was so short with her.

Luca shook his head at the thought. He couldn’t get close to this girl. As soon as his lung was healed, and he no longer needed the Soul Tether to live, he was leaving, and he would never see her again. He would prefer that to happen before they even got to Allma Temple.

He thought of Arlea, and the guilty feelings grew. He could not give into the comfort of being close to anyone, especially not a beautiful girl. Death was now a companion of his, always walking behind him, and looking over his shoulder. His path would inevitably take him to places where somewhere like Emila could not follow.

Like to Zinoro, who waited for him in Acaria.

Emila stirred, but she did not awaken. She muttered something, clearly dreaming.

Despite himself, Luca leaned in closer to hear what she was saying.

“M-mother – please, don’t – leave me.”

Hating himself, he turned away from her and held his sword like a lifeline.

Chapter IV

His Father’s Sword

Luca drew himself up, and took a deep breath.

“C’mon – ten more metres…”

He moved in slow, careful steps. His body shook and ached, and every now and then he would have to stop, lest he be driven to his knees by a coughing fit or a wave of dizziness. Beside him, on the trees standing at the margin of the road were numbers that he and Emila had carved in the bark earlier. These numbers continued on for some distance, the final marked tree being still too far away for him to see. They had left such numbers for a good three kilometres in preparation for the test.

And he had not even made it more than a kilometre away from her before the symptoms started kicking in.

He swore under his breath. He didn’t know how much farther he could go, but if he went too far, he might hit a point where he was unable to even go back. Emila would return for him if he took too long, but there was no sense in pushing himself too hard. His condition had only gotten worse after his attempt at fleeing Forga, and when that was coupled with the fight against the vampire, he had been so drained he could hardly carry his own sword. And he had been like that for days.

He simply couldn’t go any farther.

Damn it all…

Luca turned and started back, where Emila would be waiting.

The results had been expected, but he was still frustrated. At this rate of recovery, it would take him months to be independent again, not just weeks, as Emila had initially predicted.

Some part of him hated that she had saved his life.

<> <> <>

“How far were you able to go?”

Luca collapsed on the log opposite of the one she sat upon. A small fire crackled between them, providing a bit of light and warmth as the sun began to fade behind the horizon.

“Not far at all,” he muttered sorely. “A kilometre and a half, and even that was pushing it.” He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and massaged a sore temple.

She frowned. “Really? That means – wow. You’re actually getting worse.”

Luca’s eyes shot open, and he looked at her with an intense gaze. “How do you mean?”

“When you tried to leave Forga, you made it about two kilometres out before the symptoms kicked in,” she told him. “I know this because you were close to a signpost that pointed out the distance to town.”

Luca bowed his head again and swore.

“That’s not what’s really bothering me, though,” Emila continued. “My side of the tether has been getting stronger. At first, I could only sense your presence as a kind of feeling at the edge of my mind. That feeling fading was how I knew when you were leaving Forga. When you were fighting that vampire, I was woken up by a feeling of pain in my left hand. I later found out that was the same hand in which you inflicted a wound upon yourself.”

“Right,” Luca said. “I made myself bleed, to distract the vampire.”

“I feel none of the things you feel when you tested the connection,” Emila said. “But I’m guessing that’s because those things are caused by the tether being strained. When the tether is strong, I feel the same pain that you do.”

“Yesterday you stubbed your toe on a rock,” Luca added. “I felt that, but only a little bit.”

Emila’s eyes widened. “The pain goes both ways? I didn’t know it could do that…”

“How much did you know about this spell before you used it?”

“Not much, unfortunately,” Emila sighed. “Actually, not a lot of people do. It’s not a well-known technique, and what little research has been done on it varies wildly. It is known that if the two people connected are too different in personality, it can produce negative reactions.”

“Negative reactions?”

“People have killed each other to get out of the tether,” Emila said quietly, staring into the fire. “It’s driven people insane. There’s a good reason I was so hesitant to use it.”

She grew quiet after that. Luca stared at the fire as well, thinking to himself. Around them, the light of the sun faded and the shadows grew bolder, closing in around their small sanctuary of light.

“Thank you, though,” Luca said to her. “I would be dead if you had not done what you did. I’m starting to see what a risk you took to help a total stranger, and I want you to know that I appreciate that.”

Emila met his gaze and smiled.

Luca did not return it.

Instead, he unfolded their map and checked the roads, looking for the one they had just crossed.

“Here we are…” he muttered. “We’re close. Allma Temple is only another day’s walk away.”

“What will happen when we get there?”

“I have someone to meet,” Luca replied.

“Yes, Master Dori.”

Luca blinked, a bit surprised she remembered. “Indeed. Hopefully, he can give me some of the answers I’m looking for.”

“Answers…”

Emila sighed, and turned away from him.

“He still hasn’t told me anything,” she said under her breath. “Who he is, where he came from, how he ended up in Forga with an Acarian and covered in snow… He’s so…”

She looked over at Luca, whose back was turned to her. The man whose soul was linked to her own, and yet she knew nothing about.

“…distant.”

<> <> <>

They reached the top of the hill, and looked down at Allma Temple below.

The temple itself was a large stone sanctum built into the side of the hill. Within the temple was a large garden, through which a river ran. Many buildings were built on the left and right sides, making up something of a small town. And finally, a large stone wall ran around the temple, enclosing all of this from the outside world.

“Well, that’s it,” Emila said. “Allma Temple. The most prestigious training facility in Torachi. Many of the greatest swordsmen and warriors of the past century were taught there.”

Luca nodded. “And that’s where Dori is. Let’s not waste any time. I’m eager to meet him.”

He started down the hill, but Emila hesitated. He noticed this, and turned to her.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” she muttered. “But – do you really want me coming with you?”

Luca gave her a puzzled look. “You have to come. You know this. I can’t live without you.”

Emila looked down at the ground for a moment, before nodding and following him down the hill. She was glad Luca wasn’t looking at her, because that last sentence had made her cheeks burn red.

They followed the path, nearing the gates of the temple. As they drew closer, the walls seemed to grow larger, until they finally stood above the height of ten men. The gates themselves were a set of wooden double-doors, guarded by a pair of young soldiers in armour. The insignia upon their armour was not that of the Torachi nation, but rather the crest of Allma itself.

The kingdom of Torachi would often hire warriors trained by the temple, but Allma had always been neutral in times of conflict.

“Halt,” ordered the guards once they were close enough. “State your business.”

“My name is Luca, son of Lodin,” he told them. “I’ve come to see Dori.”

The guards exchanged glances.

“Better let him know,” said one of them.

The other guard nodded, and knocked three times on the heavy wooden gate. A moment later, there was the sound of chains being pulled, and with a deep groan the wooden gate slowly swung open.

Luca and Emila started to step inside, but the first guard raised his hand.

“Just wait there.”

The other guard left, vanishing into the temple interior. A few minutes later, he returned, in the company of a tall man with black hair and a leather coat.

“Greetings,” this man said, offering his hand to Luca. “You may call me Tranom. What did you say your name was?”

“Luca,” he repeated. “The son of Lodin.”

Tranom looked him up and down. “Yes, you certainly look like one of Lodin’s kids. You may enter the temple. Who is your companion?”

Emila bowed politely. “My name is Emila. I’m – well, just a girl from Saeticia.”

Tranom stared at them for a moment. “Are you two…?”

Emila’s cheeks burned, and she shook her head. “Oh, no. Not at all.”

“It’s complicated,” Luca said. “But we need to be together for the time being.”

Tranom shrugged. “Very well. We don’t let just anyone through our gates, but your father was one of us, so you are welcome here. As long as you swear by the girl, she may enter too, but she is your responsibility.”

Luca glanced at Emila, catching a bit of irritation in her eyes, but she kept silent.

Tranom then beckoned, and led them into the temple. Once they passed the threshold, the gates closed shut behind them.

Allma Temple was filled with many teenage students in white robes, who were busy going from place to place. Others were paired off in small sand circles, sparring with wooden weapons, while older instructors supervised.

Tranom led them through the centre of the temple, towards the sanctum at the far end. On the way, they passed one of the small arenas, where two students were donning wooden armour. As they passed, several of the students spotted him, and pointed out Luca’s white hair and spoke amongst themselves.

“My father trained here,” Luca said to Tranom. “I remember he spoke of it from time to time. And I believe he brought me here once.”

“He was one of our best,” Tranom replied. “He has quite the reputation.”

“Did you know him?”

“No, but I’ve heard the stories,” Tranom chuckled. “We all have. I’m guessing your being here means something has happened?”

“He’s dead.”

Tranom stopped walking.

“Is that right?” Tranom asked after a moment. “By whose hand?”

“A man named Zinoro.”

Tranom turned and looked at Luca with a contained surprise. Behind him, Emila had stopped dead in her tracks, and drew in a sharp breath.

“I can see there’s much that needs discussed,” Tranom said. “But it’s not my place to say anything. Masters Allma and Dori will meet with you, and you can speak with them about it.”

Tranom then continued walking, not making any more conversation. Luca followed behind him, and tried to ignore Emila’s wide-eyed stare. There was something in her eyes that made him very uncomfortable.

They reached the sanctum, and stepped inside. The inside was carved of smooth stone and was cool and dark. A young man in robes was waiting for them. Tranom approached the boy and spoke to him.

“Rael, go tell Master Dori that something very important has happened, and that he should come to the sanctum.”

The young student, Rael, hesitated, clearly not comfortable with the idea for some reason. But he gave no vocal objections. With a curt nod, the boy strode past them and disappeared.

Tranom turned back to Luca. “I shall go and inform Master Allma that you are here. Wait here until Master Dori arrives.” Without waiting for any reply, Tranom passed through the door into the next chamber.

A few moments of silence passed. Luca waited, aware of Emila’s unwavering gaze on his back.

“What?” he asked finally.

“Your father died?” she said. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because that was none of your concern,” he replied without turning around. “I’m not looking for your pity. Or anyone’s pity. I’m not here for that. I’m here because I want to see the man who killed him dead.” There was a finality in those words that told Emila he had no desire to continue the conversation.

“Is that right?” asked a new voice from the doorway.

Luca and Emila turned, to find that the boy Rael had returned, in the company of a grizzled-looking ageing man in tattered grey rags. The old man approached Luca, leaning heavily on a cane with each step. He drew close to Luca, looking deep into his eyes. An uncomfortably long moment passed – Luca said nothing.

“Yup,” the man said. “You’re definitely a son of Lodin’s.”

“Are you Dori?” Luca asked. He couldn’t remember what Dori looked like from his faint memories of his first visit, all those years ago. But when he thought of the man who had trained his father, he hadn’t imagined an old man in rags.

However, the old man nodded. “That’s me. And you are?”

“Luca.”

“Luca…” Dori repeated slowly. “That’s right. I remember you now.”

Dori turned back to the young student at the door. “Rael, you’re dismissed.” The boy nodded, and left them alone.

Dori moved past Luca, glancing only briefly at Emila. “Allma and Tranom are probably waiting for us. Let’s go.”

<> <> <>

Luca and Emila stood in the centre of the room, while Dori, Tranom, and Allma sat in seats before them. Allma the third was a tall, imposing man with a trimmed grey beard. He had watched Luca warily as they entered, and the introductions and mentioning of his father provoked no reaction from him. Eventually, Luca was asked to present his father’s sword, to prove he truly was Lodin’s son. He did this, and Allma and Dori both looked over the blade and nodded.

“As sharp and smooth as when I last saw it,” Allma said as he held the blade up and examined it under the light of the overhanging lantern. “You’ve kept your father’s blade in perfect condition.”

Dori stepped forward and took the blade from Allma. “The test was hardly necessary, though. I could tell who he was the moment I saw him.”

“You knew my father well?” Luca asked.

“I trained him for four years,” Dori replied, his eyes distant. “So yeah, I think I knew a thing or two about him.”

“Then you can tell me why he sent me to you,” Luca said. “The only advice he ever gave me should he be killed was to come here and speak to you.”

Dori grew quiet for a moment, staring at the sword which he held in his small hands. He ran a finger over the edge of the blade, drawing no blood in spite of its sharpness. He frowned, and finally shrugged.

“Dunno,” he muttered. “I guess it was to point you in the right direction.”

Dori went to Luca and handed him back Lodin’s sword. There was a sense of something greater in that simple action – something unspoken between Dori, the sword of his dead student, and the student’s son. Perhaps it was Dori’s way of saying goodbye to his closest friend. Wordlessly, Luca returned the blade to the sheath at his side, and Dori returned to his seat, looking weary and aged.

Luca was silent, giving no indication of his frustration. He wasn’t sure what it was he had been expecting from his father’s old master, but he’d thought he’d get more than a shrug. Perhaps a few answers at the very least, like who Zinoro was, and why he had been after Lodin.

“So Lodin is dead,” Allma said quietly. “And at the hand of Zinoro, according to Tranom.”

“That’s right,” Luca affirmed.

Allma sighed, also looking weary from the news. “As his son, you have the right to know why this has happened. What do you know of Zinoro?”

Ah. It would seem he was to get his answers after all.

“I know he is Acarian,” Luca said. “I know he holds some rank among them. And I know he wields one of the nine fragments of Rixeor. Other than that, I know nothing about him.”

Dori, Allma, and Tranom exchanged glances. Emila stepped up from the back of the room and stared at Luca incredulously.

“Luca,” Emila said to him. “You really don’t know who Zinoro is?”

He returned her stare, unsure what to say.

“Zinoro is the leader of the Acarian nation,” Tranom explained. “Or what remains of it, anyway. He inherited the rule from his father, Manorith.”

“Manorith…” Luca repeated. “That name I certainly know. He was the one who led the invasion of Sono twenty years ago.”

“Indeed,” Tranom said. “Acaria was, before then, a prosperous and peaceful nation. But they were struck by a plague that left their land devastated. Green fields turned to deserts. Food was in short supply. At this time, Manorith was just beginning his tenure as the king of Acaria. His people, in their desperation, demanded a solution to the troubles of the kingdom. Manorith provided them with one: the invasion of Sono.”

“And it would have succeeded, too,” Dori said, sitting up. “Manorith had superior numbers compared to Sono, which was emerging from a period peace and ease. But Manorith’s mind was not one inclined for mass warfare. He made a number of foolish mistakes that cost him an easy victory.”

“Torachi and Saeticia offered their aid to Sono, but it was not necessary,” Tranom continued. “We went there and supplied a number of our skilled students, but even our help made little difference. Sono had all but beaten Acaria before we even arrived, They tried to flee over the mountains back to Acaria, but they had started a conflict, and Sono would not let them get away after that. The Acarian army was crushed, wiping out a large percentage of the already diminishing land. Taking into account the plague that was still ravaging the Acarian homeland, and the population was reduced to a mere fragment of what it once was. These days, it is rare to find an entire family of Acarians.”

“So what does this have to do with my father?” Luca asked. “Why would Zinoro go after him?”

“I was just finishing training Lodin when the war broke out,” Dori said. “Torachi was sending their own forces to aid Sono, and they paid the temple to lend its skilled fighters. Your father and I were among those who went. But by the time we got to Sono, things were starting to wrap up. The Acarians were scattered, and the large scale battles were reduced to manhunts of small squads of Acarian troops.”

Dori took a deep breath before continuing.

“Publicly, the credit for the death of Manorith went to Zaow, the king of Sono,” Dori said in a cold voice. “It was actually your father who found and killed him.”

Emila’s eyes went wide and she looked back and forth from Dori to Luca. “You’re not serious… It was actually Luca’s father who killed the king of Acaria?”

Dori nodded. “I wasn’t there at the time, so I don’t know how it happened exactly. All I have are secondhand accounts. Lodin’s squad was patrolling the base of the Acarian mountain range, and Lodin stumbled across a cave where a group of Acarians were camped for the night. That group was Manorith and several of his men who had fled with him. Lodin’s squad attacked them without realising who was there. One of the Acarians fled the cave, and Lodin pursued him. Half an hour passed before Lodin returned, carrying the helmet of the Acarian king.”

Luca looked down at the ground, silently pondering this story.

“Only one of the Acarians managed to escape that battle,” Dori said. “No doubt he returned to Acarienthia and told the queen what had happened.”

“And her fifteen year old son,” Tranom added quietly. “Who later assumed the throne.”

Silence settled over the stone chamber. Allma and Dori were both staring away, expressions of sorrow and regret upon their faces. Emila had retreated back into the rear of the chamber, as quiet as a mouse.

“So my father killed Zinoro’s father,” Luca affirmed. “And thus, Zinoro came after him in vengeance.”

“I often told Lodin to deal with Zinoro before it became a problem,” Dori muttered. “But he regretted what happened with Manorith. The guilt was too much for him. He became a shadow of his former self, and he swore never to kill another man.”

“That’s why he refused to fight back when Zinoro attacked him,” Luca muttered. “He just sat there, lost in his own guilt. All those years of travel – I always knew we were running. He never told me who it was he fled from. And when his past finally caught up with him…” His voice grew more quiet with each word – by the end he spoke in a whisper.

Several moments passed in silence.

“Well, now you know what happened,” Allma said. “You came here and spoke with Dori. Your obligations to your father are fulfilled. You are free to do whatever you wish. You can leave, or you can stay here. The truth of Manorith’s death is known among us, and your father is respected for it. The debts we owe him belong to his kin.”

Allma rose from his seat and walked out. Dori watched Allma leave with a strange look in his eye. Once the old man was gone, he turned to Luca and Emila. “So, what are you going to do?”

Luca glanced at Emila. “That is up to my companion. I am bound to her, and where she goes, I must go. I cannot ask her to stay, as I already owe her for accompanying me here in the first place.”

Emila blinked, then she shrugged passively. “I have nowhere I wish to be. If you want to stay here, I have no objections.”

Luca turned back to Dori. “In that case, I wish to stay here and prepare for the next phase in my plan.”

Tranom joined them. “And what plan is that?”

“The death of Zinoro,” Luca said quietly.

<> <> <>

“Can you train me?” Luca asked Dori as they emerged from the sanctum. “The way you trained my father?”

“If you survived an encounter with Zinoro, I doubt you need my training to begin with,” Dori chuckled. “Rather, it is not a lack of skills that separates you from Zinoro, but simply that he carries a weapon that you cannot hope to match.”

“A Rixeor fragment,” he said. “Do they really grant such power?”

“Not quite,” Dori replied as they walked. “Rather, they draw out the strongest part of the wielder and remove its inherent limitations. Zinoro is most likely filled with great hatred and anger. The Rixeor fragment amplifies this and turns his emotion into mana power. That is how he has such physical power. Trying to match that would be a waste of your time.”

“Then how can I fight him?”

Dori frowned, searching for the right words. “Find your own strength. That is how you overcome an enemy like Zinoro. Not with gimmicks like a Rixeor blade. You might think you need to find one, but you don’t. You already have what you need to fight him. You just need to learn how to use it.”

Luca held back a cynical retort. Perhaps in stories, that might be true. But in the real world, the outcome of a fight depended on who had the better weapon. And right now, that was Zinoro.

“Besides, I couldn’t train you anyway,” Dori muttered. “I have my own good-for-nothing apprentice to deal with. Speaking of which, where is he? I think you should meet him.”

“I believe he is sparring with my own apprentice in the central ring,” Tranom said, who was walking behind them with a silent Emila.

“Ah, excellent,” Dori said, grinning for the first time. “Let’s go watch, shall we?”

The elderly man moved with surprising energy, heading for the sand arena in the middle of the temple that Luca and Emila had passed on their way in. A small crowd was gathered around the two students in the centre, and a lone instructor monitored the match. As they drew closer, they could see that the students wore wooden armour, complete with masked helmets that concealed their identities.

Luca also noticed that a large portion of the audience was comprised of young girls, who were watching the taller of the fighters with doe-eyed expressions.

The slightly shorter fighter moved with agility and speed, dodging most blows rather than blocking them, and attacking whenever he saw an opening. Despite this, the taller fighter was clearly more skilled – his movements were minimal yet effective, and he wielded his wooden sword like an extension of his arm. He was focusing on pure defence, ignoring many opportunities to counter, yet he was still wearing his opponent down.

In fact, he almost seemed to be toying with the other fighter.

“Apprentice!” Tranom shouted. “Wrap this up. Dori needs his student.”

The tall fighter glanced at Tranom for a second, before lunging forth and switching to an aggressive offencive attack. Suddenly, the entire fight was reversed, with the taller fighter forcing the fast one into defence. Within ten strokes of their weapons, the other student was disarmed and on his back.

Luca tried not to show surprise. He considered himself a rather skilled swordsman, but even he could not have pulled off a feat like that.

The tall swordsman tossed his wooden sword aside and pulled off his helmet, revealing a olive-skinned, handsome face with slick black hair, and piercing auburn eyes. He looked over at the many girls gathered to watch him, and he winked.

The fangirls exploded with squees and giggles.

“Alright, that’s enough!” declared the instructor who had supervised the match. “Dismissed! Everyone clear out!”

The other fighter rose and began to leave, not even bothering to take off the helmet.

“Ash!” Dori yelled after him. “Come here! I need to speak with you!”

The student either ignored Dori, or did not hear him. Regardless, he continued marching away in the opposite direction.

Dori growled. “Damn obstinate boy. Wait here, Luca. I’ll bring him back.”

As Dori rushed off, Luca turned to Tranom. “Why does he want me to meet his apprentice so badly?”

Tranom hesitated. “It’s not really my place to say.”

Having removed the rest of the wooden armour, and gotten rid of the crowd of girls, the tall fighter joined them. He moved right past Luca, and extended his hand to Emila first.

“Hello,” he said to her. “Who might you be?”

Emila meekly took his hand and replied, “Emila.”

“My name is Brand,” he said, placing a kiss on the back of her hand. “Will you be training here with us?”

“Oh, no,” Emila said, her cheeks turning red. “I’m uh, just staying here for a bit.”

“Too bad,” Brand said. “I could have shown you a thing or two.”

“That was quite a display,” Luca said to him, a bit louder than he would have liked.

Brand let Emila’s hand go, which she uncomfortably wiped on the hem of her skirt. “The sparring match, you mean?” he asked.

“You were toying with your opponent,” Luca told him. “You could have taken him down at any time. Why draw it out?”

Brand stared at Luca for a moment, taking note of his white hair. “There’s a bit of history between the two of us. I rarely get such a chance to vent my frustration with him.”

“And you were showing off for those girls.”

“Just giving them what they wanted.”

They stared at each other for a moment, some sort of unspoken challenge in the air. Emila and Tranom watched silently, waiting for something to happen, whatever it may be.

“Will you be training here, then?” Brand asked Luca. 

“Perhaps,” he replied. “If I need it.”

Brand met his intense stare for a moment more, before lunging towards Luca suddenly and without warning, swinging the wooden sword he still carried at his side. Emila gasped aloud, but Luca had already drawn his own sword, and parried the blow.

The black haired boy broke out into a wide grin.

“You don’t need it,” Brand told him. “Your reflexes are sharp. Who trained you?”

“My father,” Luca replied.

“Of course,” Brand said, pulling the training sword back, looking at the long slash that Luca’s steel blade had left in it from the contact. “The great Lodin. I wouldn’t mind having a match with you up in that arena.”

Luca felt some sort of competitive urge welling up in him, and he had a hard time saying no to Brand’s challenge.

Tranom sighed. “You kids.”

<> <> <>

It took some time for Dori to catch up with his student, who had returned to his chambers, and was currently stripping away his training armour.

“Did you not hear me calling for you, boy?” Dori demanded.

Ash did not reply.

“No, I know you did,” Dori muttered. “That damn rebellious streak is gonna get you in a lot of trouble some day, you know that?”

Ash removed his helmet, and turned to face his teacher, brushing his long white hair out of his eyes.

“I have no desire to speak with him,” Ash said quietly. “You should understand why.”

Dori frowned. “Really? Ash, he’s your last surviving kin. There’s no sense in avoiding this confrontation. Sooner or later, he’ll find out. He’ll see you, or someone will break our rule and tell him who you are. He’s your older brother, Ash – what would your mother think?”

Ash glared at Dori. “Don’t use her against me. You have no right – master.” 

Dori turned away and looked at the floor, too stubborn to admit Ash was right.

Ash put the rest of his white apprentice cloak on, and pulled his long hair back into a ponytail.

“I’m going to see him when I feel like it,” Ash said. “On my terms, not yours.”

Dori considered that for a bit. “Very well. You will see him when you choose to. I will speak to Allma, and ensure no one ruins that for you.”

<> <> <>

Tranom took Luca and Emila and showed them to where they would be staying, which was one of the unoccupied student bed chambers. Being considered a guest, Luca was free to stay as long as he wished, and he had access to any of the temple’s facilities, so long as he did not disrupt the usual training activities.

As Emila was considered his responsibility, she would not be getting her own bedchamber. Neither of them minded, as they had travelled for a week already, taking turns sleeping with no tent or privacy. Sharing a single room was an improvement.

That is, until they stepped inside and saw the room.

“Um…” Emila muttered. “There’s only one bed.”

Luca turned to Tranom, feeling a bit irritated. “As much as we appreciate your hospitality, what exactly is this supposed to suggest?”

Tranom raised an eyebrow. “I suggest nothing. All our rooms are like this. A single bed, to be shared by two students.”

The two teenagers exchanged confused glances. “What’s the point of that?” Emila asked.

“It encourages competition among them,” Tranom explained. “Or that’s what they’re supposed to think. It actually teaches them how to get along and manage with limited resources. After long days of difficult training, both students will want to sleep in the bed. Sometimes this leads to fights. Sometimes this leads to both students uncomfortably sharing a bed too small for them. Most of the time, though, they have to figure out a compromise. The beginnings of teamwork.”

Luca rolled his eyes. “An odd method, to say the least.”

“Perhaps,” Tranom said. “But an important part of the training here is figuring out things for yourself. The masters provide the tools and the means for this, but only through self-discovery can one grow strong.”

Luca thought back to his father, and the odd spell he had been trying to teach him in his final days, where one was to master the spell without actually learning what it did. He hadn’t been able to. Now the scroll he needed to practise the technique and the man who knew its secret were both lost in the frozen wasteland of the Arimos, gone forever.

“Here,” Tranom said, tossing him the key to the room. “Whatever goes on behind closed doors is your own business.”

The sun was just beginning to set. Tranom turned and left, leaving them alone before the open bedroom.

And its single bed.

He handed Emila the key and pulled his bags off his shoulder and tossed them into the corner. “We still have all our travel supplies. I’ll use my sleeping bag. You can take the bed.”

“That’s not necessary,” Emila insisted, stepping inside and closing the door. “We can take turns.”

“The chivalrous thing to do is let the lady have the bed,” he told her. “I just wouldn’t be comfortable sleeping in that bed with you on the floor, even if it’s only every other day.”

“Well, that’s how I feel!” Emila protested. “Taking turns is the best thing. You’ll get back problems or something if you sleep on the floor all the time.”

“I don’t want the damn thing, Emila,” Luca told her. “I’d rather sleep on the hard, cold ground. Comfort leads to apathy.”

“Well, sometimes you need to just let good things happen!” Emila nearly shouted. “You can’t live with just cold distance all the time!”

“Who says I can’t?”

“I do!”

An awkward silence settled over the room. Somehow, he got the feeling they weren’t talking about the bed anymore.

“I’m not using it,” he said, pointing to the bed. “Ever.”

“Well, neither am I,” Emila said, her chin in the air. “So I guess we’ll both be sleeping on the floor.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Luca said. “Just sleep in the damn bed, Emila.”

“Not unless you do,” she said, crossing her arms. “And that’s final.”

They stared at each other, the tension thick in the air. An immeasurable amount of time passed.

Finally, he shrugged. “Very well. Enjoy the floor.”

<> <> <>

“Very well. I will have all the students and masters told before the morning.” Allma scratched his beard. “So what do you think about them?”

Dori paced back and forth in the stone chamber, leaning on his walking stick. “Luca is a lot like his father. And his brother. Stubborn, foolhardy, defiant. He’ll do things his way, and no other way. He’ll fight anyone who challenges him, and he’ll die before he gives his enemy the satisfaction of a surrender. Unlike his brother, he still has some degree of respect for his father.” Dori stopped. “And he wants to kill Zinoro more than anything.”

Allma nodded. “And what about the girl?”

“That Emila?” Dori muttered. “She’s just as stubborn, but she’s more selective about the things she fights for. She’s not as submissive as she lets on, nor is she as naive. Still, she’s an optimist, and most importantly, she doesn’t like killing.”

“And why do you think that is?”

Dori shrugged. “Who knows?”

Allma shifted in his seat, switching the knuckles he rested his chin on. “Your ability to psychoanalyse was always your best trait, old friend.”

At those last two words, Dori found himself glaring at the man in the seat. Allma did not notice – he was deep in thought.

“And what’s the point of this rule of yours?” Dori asked. “Why not just tell Luca about his brother?”

“I have my reasons,” Allma replied. “For the most part, I want to learn a little more about this son of Lodin. We know that Lodin fled with his older son, to train him while he hid from Zinoro, but why would he leave behind the younger son?”

“And his wife,” Dori reminded him.

“Indeed,” Allma said. “If Luca finds out about Ash now, it might draw away from that. For now, let him ponder why Lodin sent him to you, while you train him.”

“So this is definite, then? I have to train both sons?”

Allma grinned. “Why not? Keep it a family affair, right?”

Dori scowled, and turned away from the leader, leaning on his cane.

“He wants revenge for his father’s death,” Allma muttered. “He’s ambitious to go after that man – or perhaps he simply doesn’t grasp the situation. Do you think he has a chance at beating Zinoro?”

Dori frowned. “A better chance than anyone else here. A better chance than his brother, by far.”

“Well, the emissary from Sono should be here in a week. Can you get him ready by then?”

Dori nodded. “His fighting abilities are sufficient. I’ll teach him what I can, but you can’t put more tea in a cup that’s already full. He’s reckless, but he’s young. That’s not the problem.”

“The problem is that he’s too wild,” Allma said. “He’s not actually one of our students, so our capacity to use him is limited.”

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the emissary is after. All we can do is make our best offers and hope for the best.”

“Perhaps,” Allma muttered, his eyes distant and thoughtful. He remained like this for several long moments, which Dori took as his sign that the conversation was over. His cane clicking on the stone floor, the old teacher made his way out of the sanctum.

“His arrival is unexpected, but I think I can make it work,” Allma said to himself quietly. “So many variables to consider – but I do think I can make this work.”

<> <> <>

“You really have no place you want to go?” Luca asked. “Nowhere at all?”

Emila sighed, and rolled over in her sleeping bag. Luca lay on the other side of the room, his hands clasped behind his head.

“No, I already told you,” she said. “Why?”

“It bothers me,” he told her. “We’re linked by the tether, so we have to stay close together or I’ll die. So wherever one of us goes, the other has to follow. But you had no problem bringing me here, and now you’re going to stay here with us while I prepare.”

“Of course…”

“You never told me why you were in an abandoned place like Forga to begin with.”

Emila grew quiet.

“I just – I don’t know. I was running, I guess.”

“From what?”

“From what happened.”

Luca sat up and looked over at her.

“I understand that you didn’t want to tell me about your father, Luca,” Emila said. “I understand all too well. But you confided in me today, so I should do the same.”

“I didn’t,” he insisted. “I didn’t confide in you at all. You just happened to be there when I told the story.”

“You could have sent me away,” Emila insisted. “But you didn’t. It was indirect, but you still told me what happened. Before we got here, I was starting to wonder why you were so distant. I understand now. I know how much loss hurts.”

Emila took a deep breath.

“I grew up in a city called Sulin, which is east of here,” she told him. “My father was the local healer, and he taught me everything I know. My mother was a kind and gentle woman, who took care of me and my younger sister. About two years ago – there was an accident. My parents and my sister all died.”

The room grew quiet. Her story was over as quickly as it had began.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Luca said, as honest as he had ever been.

“I never went back to Sulin after they were gone,” Emila said quietly. “I spent some time in T’Saw, but things were starting to get heated there and I didn’t want to be there if war broke out between Sono and Acaria. So I went to Forga, to get away from everything. That’s when I bumped into you.”

She sighed again, and traced her fingers over her belly. “I never told anybody that.”

Emila rested her hand on her stomach, and a single tear ran down her cheek.

Chapter V

The Serpent who Devours his own Tail

Luca woke at the crack of dawn, as he always did.

Following years of training, he opened his eyes without moving or making a sound, taking in his surroundings. He lay in the bedroom Tranom had taken him to, on the floor in his sleeping bag.

Emila was not there.

“She must have woke first,” he muttered, as he climbed up from the floor. Through the mana tether, he could still feel her presence, like a faint buzzing in the back of his head. She was on temple grounds, just not anywhere near him. Nor far enough away to cause him any harm, for which he was immensely grateful.

Still, his body ached. The hard ground he had slept on, even with the sleeping bag’s small comfort, had been bumpy and rough. He honestly would have preferred even the bare ground outside before the floor of that bedroom. Were it not for his strong opinion of chivalry, he would have reconsidered Emila’s offer to take turns using the bed.

“If she wants to be stubborn, then so be it,” he said to himself. “If the floor was as uncomfortable for her as it was for me, perhaps she will give up this defiance in time.”

But somehow, he doubted that.

<> <> <>

After going to the kitchens and getting something to eat, Luca wandered the grounds until he found Dori.

The old man stood at the edge of one of the small sparring rings, wearing the same tattered rags as before. Within the ring, a pair of students were busy sparring. One of them, Luca recognised as Rael, Allma’s young assistant. The other was a boy with short, dark hair whom he did not know.

“Ah,” Dori said as he approached. “Glad to see you’re finally up.”

“Finally?”

Dori blinked. “Ah, pay it no mind. My apprentice Ash is often awake before the sun even rises. I forget sometimes that most don’t do that.”

“Speaking of this apprentice of yours, where is he?” Luca asked. “You said yesterday that you wanted to introduce him to me.”

“Yes, I did,” Dori replied. “I’ve been having some trouble finding the boy. He’s quite moody at times, and he generally prefers to keep to himself. I suppose he’ll show up when he chooses to – no sooner, no later.”

“I see,” Luca muttered. It seemed odd – yesterday, Dori had been quite eager to introduce Luca to this apprentice of his. Yet now he dismissed it with a wave of his hand.

“So you said you wanted me to teach you a few things, eh?” Dori said, turning on his cane and marching off. “Well, let’s go.”

“Where to?”

“To one of the private sanctums. Tranom and his apprentice Brand are waiting there for us. Tranom tells me that you and Brand had a little encounter yesterday. I’d like to see this in more depth.”

“Great,” Luca muttered. He was filled with an odd sort of anticipation. Part of him dreaded the thought of another encounter with that Brand guy. At the same time, another part of him was looking forward to it. Somehow, Brand was able to bring out his competitive spirit – a side of himself that he usually kept well hidden.

“Hey, what happened to that girlfriend of yours?” Dori asked him suddenly.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Luca’s replied dryly.

“Yes, yes,” Dori muttered, brushing his words away with a quick wave of his hand. “Still, where has she gotten to? Did she leave?”

“She wasn’t there when I woke up. But she’s still here somewhere. Likely seeing the sights, or something like that.”

“I’m surprised to see you apart.”

“She can live her own life. She’s not tied to my arm.”

Dori gave him a strange look, but said nothing.

They arrived at a large building on the outer edge of the temple. Dori moved past him and pushed open the large doors that towered over him, demonstrating surprising strength for someone so old. Inside was a cool chamber illuminated by several torches on the walls. Tranom leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets, while Brand was stretching in the middle of the room. Beside Brand on the floor was a sheathed scimitar. No wooden training weapons could be seen.

“We’re using actual weapons?” Luca asked Dori.

“A good part of combat is restraint,” Dori said. “Before one can learn how to wield a weapon to take a life, one must first learn how to wield one and not. Those heavy training swords are for younger students who have not yet acquired that degree of finesse. Giving you one of those things would be a waste of time. You’ve been carrying Siora around long enough to know how to use it.” 

Siora, Luca thought as he looked down upon his father’s blade. He had never known the blade had a name. 

“You’re already well-trained, yet you lack in certain aspects,” Dori continued. “What I wish to see is a match as close to a true fight as possible. This will be the best way for me to determine what skills need improved, if any at all.”

“Are you ready, my apprentice?” Tranom asked Brand.

With a sharp look in his eye, Brand picked up the scimitar and tossed the sheath aside. “Yup.”

“Very well,” Tranom said. “The rules for the match – no magick, no heavy injuries, and no foul play. Victor is decided when the other is disarmed, or surrenders. Fighting is to cease immediately if blood stains the floor, an instructor calls off the match, or there are any interruptions.”

“Go ahead, son of Lodin,” Dori said with a grin. “Show us what you can do.”

Luca looked back at the old man for a moment, thinking there was more to this than he was picking up, like some joke the other three people in the room got that he didn’t. Their faces confessed nothing.

He turned to face his opponent, and drew his own blade from its sheath. He assumed a combat stance.

“You don’t have to hold back,” Brand told him. “And I don’t plan to.”

And then Brand attacked.

He moved with surprising speed, closing the distance between them, and swinging his scimitar down in a simple stroke that would be easily blocked. In fact, he was likely counting on it. Too obvious – he wanted Luca to block it.

Instead, Luca moved to the side and countered with a stroke of his own. Brand easily blocked this. They exchanged a series of quick blows, none of them breaking through the opponent’s guard, and then they each stepped back, and Brand reassessed the situation.

Luca took advantage of this momentary pause to close in and assume the offencive. Brand countered his attacks expertly, though Luca could see at this point he was still being cautious.

The battle had them dancing around the small room. Brand’s scimitar met Luca’s sword with a powerful amount of force, and his temporary offence was over. He fell back, and Brand pressed forward, his blade weaving about in masterful strokes.

When Luca felt his back hit the stone wall, he parried one final swing, and held Brand’s sword. Using his right leg, he kicked Brand in the stomach.

As his opponent grunted in pain, he used this precious second of distraction to roll to the side.

Luca admitted to himself that Brand was good. Better than Luca, actually – at least as far as swordplay went. Luca would have to use other strategies if he planned to win. Tranom had forbidden the use of magick, so he could not blind his opponent that way. Likewise, a ban on foul play prevented the use of moves that could get one out of a life-or-death situation, though he would not have used those in a competitive match anyway. To win, he would need to either disarm Brand, or bring him to surrender.

Brand had recovered and was now closing in on him, bringing his blade down in merciless swings. Luca did his best to block and avoid, but already he could feel himself tiring.

Frustration began to grow. Luca felt weak, being incapable of matching Brand’s swordplay. He thought of his similar weakness against Zinoro, and wondered how he could possibly have his revenge against the Acarian king if he couldn’t even beat a student.

Luca fell back again, and thought of his available options. Other than changing his combat style, there wasn’t really much he could do.

Brand continued his assault, moving on light feet and dancing with his blade with all the grace of a true master. His opponent was clearly a prodigy. Luca wondered why he was even still in training, when he was leagues above his peers.

As Luca parried yet another strike, he was surprised he had managed not to get hit at all so far. Not wanting to test him luck, he took a step back…

A mistake. Brand’s sword momentarily slipped through his defences, and Luca felt a sharp pain across his thigh – the very same spot the arrow had hit him.

Luca bit down on his tongue and fought away the pain. Brand, not noticing any change in him, took a step forward and continued his attacks. Luca parried this blow, holding the far edge of his blade with his free hand for extra strength, and he pushed Brand back with all the strength he could muster. His opponent fell back a few steps with a look of surprise, while Luca took a few careful steps away from him, his jaw tight as he forced the pain in his left leg out of his mind.

Expecting Brand to close in and attack again, Luca was a bit surprised when he didn’t.

“Well, you’re pretty good,” Brand said to him from across the room. “Want to call it off? I’m sure Master Dori has seen all he needs.”

Luca shook his head. No. That would be the same as giving up.

Brand shrugged. “Whatever you say, man.” He then returned to his ready stance, and slowly moved towards him.

No, Luca had decided he was going for it all. This was a matter of pride to him – he couldn’t let himself show such weakness in front of his father’s teacher.

Luca held his blade before himself for a moment, and tossed it into the air. The blade came down and he caught it, this time holding the sword the other way, as one would hold a knife.

Brand’s eyes widened. He could tell something was different now.

Still ignoring the pain in his left leg, Luca charged towards Brand. His opponent, not knowing what to expect in the change in fighting style, switched to a defencive stance. And that was his mistake.

Luca moved through the air, swinging his sword in a spinning motion. Brand blocked the attack, but as his feet reached the floor, he crouched and swung the reverse-held sword at Brand’s feet. Brand had to jump in the air to avoid the attack.

“Who taught him this?” Tranom muttered to Dori. “Some trick of Lodin’s?”

Dori did not reply. His eyes were focused on the fight before him.

Luca continued to moved in single, fluid motions. He darted around Brand and swung his blade in a vertical stroke. This time, the weapon did connect, leaving a long slash across Brand’s back, and drawing a few drops of red blood.

Brand did not cry out. Instead he spun around, and slashed at the spot where Luca had been standing a moment ago. But he was already in another spot. He continued his attack, and though Brand successfully managed to block the next string of attacks, he was clearly having trouble keeping up with his unpredictable movements.

Sparks flew from his sword at the next exchange. A drop of sweat rolled down Brand’s olive-skinned face, and hit the floor, joining a few drops of blood.

“Alright, that’s enough!” Tranom called out. “You two will kill each other if you keep this up.”

Luca stepped back, as did Brand. They were both sweating, and short of breath. A moment passed as they stared at each other, tension between them.

Then, they shook hands.

“Man,” Brand said. “That was incredible. You should have just fought like that from the beginning. What was that?”

Luca couldn’t help but grin. “Well, it’s a fighting style my father created. He called it Jiuv’ol’xolic, or the ‘leaf in the wind’.” 

Lodin had borrowed many of the moves from dancing techniques unique to the southern parts of Samgo, but he didn’t trust Brand quite enough to tell him that.

“Well whatever it was, it definitely worked,” Brand laughed. He touched his back, where his shirt was cut. “You got me. I guess that makes you the winner.”

“Not quite,” he insisted, as he sheathed his blade. “You had me in defence for most of the fight. You were clearly the better swordsman.”

“Hmm…” Brand said, smiling. “Well, I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Dori approached them, the sound of his polished wooden cane striking the stone floor interrupting their banter. “Well, well. You two’ll have plenty of time to talk later. Brand, why don’t you and your master go to the healing chamber? Luca and I have a bit to discuss.”

“Aye,” Tranom agreed. “Come, my apprentice. Let’s leave them be.”

“Alright,” Brand said. He started off, but then he seemed to remember something, and he went back to his side. “There’s something I want to ask you about. Could you come see me when you’re done here?”

“Sure,” Luca told him with a shrug.

“Thanks.” And then he and Tranom were gone.

Dori reached into his ragged cloak and produced a flask, which he took a quick drink from before he spoke. “Your family will be the death of me, you know that?”

Luca wasn’t quite sure what to say, so he didn’t say anything. Dori paced back and forth a few  times, then he stopped and faced him.

“You have skill,” Dori said to him. “Raw talent, I should say. Not many here are good enough at swordplay to manage to wound Brand. So congratulations on that – he’s the temple’s top student, and with good reason. And I will also say that it wasn’t a bad idea of you to hold back at first, keeping your true fighting style secret until you had an idea of your opponent’s skill. It was cautious – and caution like that could easily save your life.”

Luca knew what was coming next just by the way Dori was speaking. “But…?”

However, Dori didn’t continue. He changed subjects, asking, “How is your leg?”

There was a small cut through his trousers, and a bit of red staining it. The bleeding wasn’t particularly bad, but it stung to the touch.

“I’ve had worse,” Luca said.

“It looked quite painful when it struck.”

Luca frowned. “I was hit by an arrow not very long ago in that very spot. An Acarian fired it at me – during the attack that took my father’s life. That’s why it hurt – normally such a shallow wound wouldn’t even slow me down.”

“Was it the physical pain that hindered you, or a phantom pain – the pain of your father’s death?”

Luca looked up at Dori. The old master watched him intently, leaning on his cane and scratching at his unkempt beard.

“In a normal battle, that wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“Ah, but this was a normal battle,” Dori said. “Or at least it was as far as you were concerned. Brand was right – I had seen all I needed of your swordplay at the point where he offered to make an end of it. Your insistence to continue told me more about the person you are. I could see the pride behind your eyes – Brand had drawn your blood, but you could not be content with things until you did the same.”

Luca found himself scowling. Dori was too right for his comfort.

“Your abilities are sufficient, as I suspected they would be,” the old man continued. “This goal of yours – getting your revenge on Zinoro – if it came down to something as simple as your swordplay against his, I’d have faith you could beat him. That is not the problem.”

“What is the problem, then?”

“It is that you lack the maturity to be the swordsman your father was. You are too angry, too impatient, and you have too much to prove. You are the kind of person who would rush right into a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences. Following that kind of logic, you’ll dig yourself an early grave. And it won’t make a difference whether you can fight or not if you get yourself killed before you can even get to Zinoro.”

“You’re saying I’m not cautious enough?” Luca demanded. “Just a moment ago, you were commending me for being cautious.”

“Caution to preserve your pride, versus caution to preserve your life?” Dori said rhetorically. “Which do you think your father would rather you have?”

Luca was silent.

“I can see you’re eager to leave, so I’ll say one last thing,” Dori said, moving closer to Luca and looking him in the eyes. “Think back to when your father was killed. Why do you think he refused to fight back against Zinoro, even when his son’s life was on the line?”

<> <> <>

Brand pulled the replacement robe on, and tossed aside the one with the slash in its back. He thanked the healer who had mended his wounds, and left the healing chambers.

His master, Tranom, was waiting for him outside. “All patched up?”

Brand grinned. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Excellent,” Tranom told him. They started to walk. “You did well today. To face both sons of Lodin in a row, and to emerge from both fights with only a single scratch… You’re much better than I was at your age.”

“You flatter me, master. But really, Luca was the one who won that match.”

“In a true fight you would have beaten him,” Tranom said. “You deserve the praise. Now, you know the emissary from T’Saw will be here in a week or so. I have no doubt you will be chosen for this mission. After all, you’re the temple’s top student.”

“King Zaow’s mission…” Brand muttered. “How many students are being chosen?”

“Three. While Luca is not a true student of the temple, I have no doubt he will be one of them. The spot was previously reserved for his brother, but the outcomes of your matches will show which of Lodin’s sons is the superior fighter.”

“I’m fine with that,” Brand said. “I’d much rather be on the team with Luca than Ash. Hell, I’d pick anyone in this temple before Ash.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

“Who do you think will be picked for the third position?”

“Of the third, I am less certain. There are several potential candidates. We can’t be certain until the emissary announces it. Even you and Luca’s positions are uncertain, though I would bet money on you both being picked.”

“I suppose only time will tell,” Brand said. As they passed the training chamber from before, Brand noticed Luca emerging, looking rather pale. “Excuse me, master.”

Tranom nodded, and departed into the garden. Brand went over to Luca’s side, who did not notice him approaching until he was just before him.

“You alright?” Brand asked him.

Luca nodded. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. What is it?”

“Come with me, it’s too crowded to talk about it here.” Brand placed his arm over Luca’s shoulder and led him away from the others to a more remote area. Luca was rather irritated at the contact, but he said nothing. His curiosity had been piqued.

When they were at last alone, Brand looked Luca closely in the eyes and spoke to him. “I’m putting together something secret,” he said in a quiet voice. “Tonight, several students and I will be going out into the forest that borders our temple. There have been reports of a special beast making a nest there – a monster not commonly seen in these parts. We’re going to go out and hunt it. I was hoping you could join us.”

Luca’s eyes brightened. It was clear to Brand that the prospect of a good hunt intrigued him. But he did not immediately agree.

“Would that be allowed?” he asked. “I thought the gates closed after sunset.”

“We are given a generous amount of freedom here,” Brand told him. “Technically, we are not supposed to go out after the gates close – you’re right about that. But the gatekeepers will let us through. I’m the temple’s top student, and you’re the son of Lodin. They’ll turn a blind eye for us.”

“If you say so. And what is this beast that you’re so eager to hunt?”

“I’ll tell everyone once we’re on our way. I like to keep things suspenseful. So what do you say?”

Luca looked down at his left leg for a moment, and considered. “I could use a good hunt. Very well, count me in.”

Brand grinned and he pat Luca on the shoulder. “Excellent. Meet us at the gates an hour after the sun sets.”

<> <> <>

Going on a hunt will help, he told himself. It will. It will help him get his mind off what Dori said. He told himself that like a man pleading for his life.

Luca walked through the grounds of the temple, doing his best to memorise the layout of the place. The many students, all dressed in the same white robes, gave him the occasional glance, but for the most part the excitement his arrival caused seemed to be dying down. Despite how relaxed and laid-back everything in the temple seemed to be, the students actually appeared to take their training quite seriously. The training rings were always occupied, with a pair or two waiting on the sides for their chance to spar. A circular path ran along the temple’s outer edge, which students jogged through. He spotted a weight room, a pond to swim through, and closed sanctums in which to meditate and strengthen mana.

He was impressed. Allma Temple was so secretive, that stories of what went on within its walls ranged from the outlandish to the nightmarish. In reality, it was a place full of decent people who took their training seriously, but had a good time and didn’t overwork themselves. Were it not for his other plans, he might have considered staying there for a few years, and training as a student himself.

But there were things that needed done.

As Luca made his way around the temple, meeting a few people here and there, he kept an eye open for a certain girl with black hair. He expected her to be wandering around the place, much as he was. Eventually they would bump into each other, she would laugh and tell him about her morning, while he patiently listened.

He was a little disappointed that it never happened.

Some time in the afternoon he found himself back at the bedroom Tranom had given them, and he went inside, thinking that he might find Emila there. Her travel belongings, left there the previous night were still there, but she was not.

It was strange, not seeing her at all. Luca had grown so used to her constant presence, that it felt odd that she was not constantly beside him. There was something unhealthy about that. He wasn’t lonely or anything. He didn’t feel any overwhelming urge to run to her. If anything, it was like spending a long time sleeping on a certain bed, and then waking one day in a sleeping bag in the woods – or waking up in Saeticia one day after spending several months in Arimos.

Luca decided to get some rest before night came, so that he would be at his best when it came time to hunt this monster Brand spoke of. The bed was inviting, but his previous oath would remain untarnished – he was not going to use it while he shared the room with Emila. His sleeping bag would be just as good. However, his sore back disagreed with that promise.

Perhaps he would wake up in the evening and Emila would be there.

He closed his eyes and several hours passed. He rose, and turned on the lights, for the room had grown too dark to see in.

Emila was not there.

<> <> <>

Emila was, however, waiting at the gates of the temple, along with Brand and two other students.

As Luca drew near, she gave him a fleeting glance, before looking away, casting her eyes down. He knew what that look meant – that there was something bothering her. Something she wanted to say, but wasn’t sure how.

Brand on the other hand, greeting him enthusiastically. He told him how glad he was Luca had come, and other things Luca only half listened to. He introduced him to the other two boys in their company. One he had met already – Allma’s squire, Rael. The other was a young man whom he had only seen briefly earlier in the day – a boy with short black hair named Davik.

“So – will you tell us what this monster we’ll be hunting is, Brand?” Luca asked him.

Brand clasped his hands together and a big grin spread across his face. “Ah, yes. The creature we will be searching for – the deadly ouroboros.”

Everyone exchanged confused glances.

“You’re joking,” said Rael. “An ouroboros in these parts? You never see them outside of Mainyu”

“What’s so strange about that?” Brand asked. “Mainyu is Torachi’s southern border. It’s just a trip north over the mountains, and you’re right on our doorstep. Sightings do show up every now and then. But usually the local hunters from the neighbouring villages take care of them. I’ve been told by the gatekeepers that the merchants who bring food carts to the temples have been seeing an ouroboros in the woods. It will take a few days before the villages hear about this, so we have a chance to get it before they do.”

“And what’s the point of this?” Rael asked. “If the locals are going to take care of it anyway, then why should we bother?”

Brand looked at Rael for the briefest of moments, then said: “Why not? It’s a hunt. A good hunt. Why let somebody else take care of it, when we can have the fun ourselves?”

Rael frowned, and looked away disapprovingly. Davik simply shrugged, and Emila was impassively silent. Luca, however, placed his hand on his sword’s hilt, and gave Brand a sure nod. It was a confirmation that he would follow him, seen often on the battlefield, that only two warriors could fully appreciate. He returned the nod, and an unspoken pact was formed between them.

Brand turned to the others – with the exception of Luca – and spoke to them. “If anybody wants out, now’s the time to say so.”

“I’m in,” said Emila without a moment of hesitation.

“Me, too,” Davik added, though a brief moment of doubt was visible in his eyes.

“I guess I’m in, too,” said Rael. He did not look Brand in the eyes when he said this.

“Excellent,” Brand said, clasping his hands together. “Then let’s go, before the night grows any older.”

And with those uplifting words, they set off.

Brand led the group, confidently marching forth, his scimitar sheathed across his back. The rest of the group followed behind him in varying states of certainty, in the order of Rael, Luca, Davik, and Emila.

Luca wanted very much to talk to Emila, to ask her what she had been doing all day, and why she was coming with them on this hunt. The absence he had been feeling all day was not lifted by her surprise appearance here. But he could not do that, especially in front of three other people whom he hardly knew. They were on a hunt now – personal matters would come later.

Still he allowed himself to turn his head and steal a glance. Emila was walking with her bow in hand. He had seen her take out the bow a few times during their trip from Forga, but he had never actually seen her use it. Interestingly, he noticed she had no quiver.

She noticed him staring and she gave him a small smile. He turned back around.

Luca couldn’t possibly return that smile.

“W-whoa!”

Rael cried out as he tripped on a stray vine and fell forward. Brand spun around and grabbed his arm before his hand hit the ground. With a groan, Brand pulled Rael back up to his feet.

“That was close,” Brand said with a sigh of relief.

“What do you mean?” Davik asked him.

In response, Brand kicked at the foliage where Rael’s hand would have landed. There was a strange flower-like plant hidden there. Brand’s kicking had woken it, and the flower opened up, revealing several rows of teeth, in a mouth large enough to fit a human limb and deep enough to swallow it.

“A leg eater,” Rael muttered with a heavy frown. “How in the world did you notice it was there?”

Brand shrugged. “I just did.” He drew his sword and drove it down into the leg eater’s mouth. The thing shrieked in pain, thrashing about and biting uselessly at Brand’s scimitar. Green ichor stained the blade and the ground around it. Brand twisted the sword and the leg eater made one last pathetic sound, then it moved no more.

Brand pulled his sword out, and wiped the blade on a cloth he produced from his pocket. “Watch where you’re going, okay? They like to plant themselves near roots and places where things trip easily.”

They paid more attention to where they went after that.

After some time, they made their way deep into the forest and came to a large clearing. Brand stopped here, and turned to face them.

“Alright, the ouroboros shouldn’t be very hard to find,” he told them. “If anything, it should find us. But it would be preferable if we could surprise it instead. Now it doesn’t have legs like other monsters – it slithers across the ground by moving its body left and right. This leaves a pretty distinctive trench shape in the ground. Keep an eye open for that.”

“We could split up,” Davik suggested.

“No,” Brand said immediately. “A party of five trained fighters will have no problem with an ouroboros, but there’s no way to split up without sacrificing our defences. A group of only two would be vulnerable. The last thing I need tonight is to return to the temple with the bloody clothes of a dead student.”

He said that last sentence firmly, staring directly at Davik with a look that gave no room for argument. Davik didn’t look particularly pleased about this, but he didn’t press the issue.

“We’ll check the lower part of the woods first,” Brand continued, pointing off to the east. “That’s the place where we’re most likely to come across the ouroboros. Any objections?”

There were none.

“Then let’s go.” And with that, Brand marched off.

There was something different about the way he now spoke, Luca thought. A degree of his carelessness seemed to be gone. No, not carelessness. From the moment they had left, Brand had been nothing but careful. The incident with the leg eater had been proof enough of that. Whatever was bothering him, it was something else.

As they went on, the path grew increasingly wild, and with the limited visibility of the night, they were having a hard time keeping their footing. Davik seemed to be having the most trouble, as he fell behind to the back of the group. As they made their way down into the lower part of the forest, a few bushes rustled and a few small creatures scurried away from them into the night. No goblins, or any other monsters that would dare to attack them, appeared, which bothered him. So Luca brought this up.

“Hmm,” Brand muttered. “No doubt because of the ouroboros. The goblin population tends to drop whenever they appear – easy prey, after all.”

“Still, we’re not exactly being quiet,” Luca said. “Surely, something this deep in the forest would have come by now.”

“We work pretty hard to keep our monster population down around here,” Rael explained. “It’s a good way to test the abilities we learn.”

They reached the edge of a small cliff, which led down into a small valley, through which a shallow stream ran. The ground below was treacherous and covered in a thick layer of leaves, but they were able to make their way down rather easily. As they reached the bottom of the steep hill, the clouds parted to allow the moonlight to shine through. The valley was illuminated by silver light.

A memory worked its way to the forefront of Luca’s mind. He remembered waking, not even two weeks ago, in that dusty room in the inn of Forga. He remembered Emila opening the door, and how she looked illuminated by the silver moonlight.

He turned around to look at her, wondering if she would look the same now.

He froze.

There was fear in Emila’s eyes. Davik stood behind her, one hand clasped over her mouth, the other holding a sword, the blade of which was pressed up against her throat. Her bow was on the ground some distance away.

Luca immediately reached for his sword.

“Don’t,” Davik said. “Draw that blade and she dies.”

With a great force of will, he did not draw his weapon. Davik’s voice had drawn the attention of Brand and Rael, who turned and saw what Luca was seeing.

“Davik…” Brand hissed. “What is the meaning of this?!”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Davik said, ignoring Brand’s words. “All three of you are going to slowly unbuckle the sheathes of your swords and set them on the ground. Then you’re going to take a few steps back.”

“Davik…!” Brand growled.

“Do it!” he said, pressing the blade up to Emila’s neck. “I’ll kill her, I mean it.”

Luca could feel a faint tingling against the skin of his own neck, as he saw a single bead of Emila’s blood roll down Davik’s sword. He did not hesitate. He undid the buckle of his father’s sword and dropped it on the ground.

“Good,” Davik said. “Now you two do the same.”

Brand undid his own sheath and set the scimitar down on the ground. Rael hesitated a moment more, but he did the same.

“Good,” Davik said. “Now take a few steps back.”

“C’mon,” Brand said to Luca, as he placed his hand on his shoulder. He took a step back, and Luca did the same.

Luca never took his eyes off of Davik.

“Davik, why are you doing this?” Rael asked him after they had taken five steps away form him.

“I guess you wouldn’t know, would you, Rael?” Davik said. He took his hand off of Emila’s mouth and held her by her arm. With the sword still pressed up against her neck, he led her forward until they had stepped over the weapons. He kicked a few leaves over them.

“Not everyone knows about it, but I keep my ears open,” Davik said to Rael. “The emissary from Sono is on his way here, to take the temple’s three best students to T’Saw. Acaria is becoming a problem, and Zaow wants a hero like Lodin to beat him. Well, I mean to be that hero. Not Luca here, and certainly not that damn brother of his!”

Emila gasped.

“Davik!” Brand exclaimed.

He chuckled. “What’s it matter now? It was a stupid rule – he was going to find out sooner or later.”

“What the hell are you saying?” Luca demanded.

“Ash! You know, Dori’s apprentice? He’s your brother. The second son of Lodin. The one he abandoned in order to train you. Everybody here at the temple knows about it, but Allma set forth an order that nobody could say anything of it to you, save for Dori or Ash himself. Not that they would – Ash is a pathetic weakling, and Dori’s an old drunk.”

“Enough,” Luca spat. “I won’t have this conversation while you’re holding a blade up to Emila’s throat. Let her go first.”

Davik laughed again. “Not a chance. You see, there’s two ways this is going to work. The first option is that you cooperate with me. You three stay here, and get eaten by the ouroboros. The girl and I will go to the top of the valley, and watch you die. After that, I’ll let her go. She can go on with her life, and I will go on to be the hero that saves Sono from Acaria.”

“And the other option?” Brand asked in a flat voice.

“You could try to find some way out of this,” Davik said. “And I kill the girl. Her blood will seep into the ground and the scent of it will wake the ouroboros and its spawn, who are sleeping right under your feet. With my earth magick, I can escape from this valley in seconds. You three, on the other hand…”

“You think nobody will suspect you if you come back alone?” Brand demanded.

“Accidents happen all the time,” Davik muttered. “Especially to those who sneak off after hours to do dangerous things. It’ll be a tragedy, for sure. But I’ll be a hero to the temple, for slaying the monster that took your lives.”

“You honourless cur!” Rael shouted.

The boy smirked, but a slight twitching betrayed his nervousness. “Not all of us can make it in this world with honour. Not all of us are born with the natural talent that Luca and Brand have… You’re just an unfortunate casualty, Rael. Just like this girl here. It’s just Brand and Luca whom I meant to die today. It was the perfect opportunity – the overconfident pair stole out on a hunt hours after the gates closed. How could I pass it up? I need to get them out of the way, if I am to have any chance of being chosen as Sono’s champion.”

“Some hero you are,” Luca spat, his mana rising up in spite of himself from the sheer anger he was feeling. “Holding a girl hostage. Murdering those who pose a threat to you through trickery and deception…!”

“Shut up!” Davik shouted. “Cut off the mana, or I’ll kill the girl right now!”

Luca forced the energy to subside. It resisted for a moment, almost as though it was fighting against him. And indeed, he felt the overwhelming desire to use his magick to rend Davik into a thousand pieces. But he couldn’t do a thing while he held Emila. So he forced his mana down until he couldn’t feel it at all.

“That’s better,” Davik said, letting out a sigh of relief in spite of himself. A bead of sweat ran down his face.

“It doesn’t matter what you do now,” Luca said to him. “You crossed a line by threatening her. I will kill you for this. I swear it.”

“You misjudge the situation,” Davik said. “Right now, there isn’t anything you can-”

It was at that moment that Emila made her move. With her left hand, she grabbed Davik’s sword, which was millimetres from her neck. She pushed back against Davik, forcing the surprised boy backwards. As his back hit a tree, Emila drew up her free hand, revealing a dagger formed of ice mana. Davik cried out when he saw this, and he let go of his sword and tried to run. Emila thrust the dagger back as best she could, and it drove through Davik’s right hand, pinning it to the tree behind them.

Davik screamed in pain. Emila jumped back, tossing Davik’s sword aside and scrambling away from him. Blood dripped from between her fingers.

Luca rushed to her side. “Emila! Emila, are you okay?”

She was trembling, but she nodded.

“Luca, here!” Brand said, tossing him the sheath that contained Siora. He caught it in midair, drew the blade, and tossed the sheath aside. His eyes locked onto Davik, who wore an expression of pure terror. 

“L-Luca, no!” Emila called to him.

But there was no stopping him, He marched slowly up to Davik, who struggled uselessly to free his hand from Emila’s ice-dagger. He looked down at him for a moment.

“Pathetic,” Luca said.

He reached down and picked Davik’s sword up from the ground, and he tossed it into his lap. He jumped a bit when it landed on him, but he had simply given him his weapon back, rather than drove it through him.

“I swore I would kill you,” Luca said. “I never break an oath. But I’m also not a coward like you. So I’ll give you a chance to save your life.”

And then Luca swung down his sword through Davik’s wrist, severing it from the hand that was nailed to the tree.

Davik screamed in pain and rolled away from the tree, clutching the stump where his right hand had once been.

“Get up and fight me,” Luca told him, with no trace of mercy in his voice.

“Luca, please don’t do this…” Emila pleaded to him. But her pained words were as the wind’s whispers to his ears. He heard nothing. He was not a person at this moment, but a killing force. His target was the one who had deceived them and threatened to hurt the girl whom he owed his life to. Nothing would stop him now, not even the one whose honour he claimed to fight for.

Davik struggled to his feet. Blood flowed freely from the wound Luca had given him. Without quick medical attention, he would die from blood loss. Medical attention he couldn’t possibly get out here. He had already killed him. But he wasn’t going to simply let him bleed out in the woods. He had a code of honour he would not break, and part of that was giving enemies a quick death over a slow and painful one. That meant Davik would receive mercy that he didn’t deserve.

Davik held his sword with his left hand, which was clearly not his good one. He attacked Luca three times, with clumsy strokes befitting a child more than the trained warrior he had claimed to be. Luca met each blow with ease, noting the fading strength in each swing. After the third, Davik barely had enough strength left to lift his sword. He would be going into shock soon – that was all Luca could get out of him.

Luca ended it then. He swung his father’s blade in a clean stroke, cutting open Davik’s throat. There was the briefest moment of shock in his eyes, before he fell to the ground, blood pouring out onto the leaves.

Emila gasped, and turned away from the death before her.

Davik’s body had already vanished, leaving behind only the robes he had been wearing.

Silence took the valley. Several minutes passed. The scent of blood hung in the air.

Finally, Brand stepped forward, picking up Davik’s clothes and folding them up, sighing heavily as he did. “I’ll let Justia know what happened to her student. C’mon, let’s get back.”

“What are you going to tell them?” Emila asked.

“The truth,” Brand said. “There’s no need to cover up what happened, nor would I wish to.”

“What about the ouroboros?” Rael asked.

“It would have appeared,” Brand told him. “In fact, it should have shown up the moment his hand was stabbed. I think he was just bluffing the whole time. Either the ouroboros’ nest is in a different part of the forest – or it really was just a rumour. Either way, I don’t think any of us are up to going after it now.”

Indeed, nobody was.

They slowly made their way back, and once he had made sure Emila was alright, and that she had healed her hand up, Luca walked beside Brand and spoke to him.

“What he said about Ash being my brother – is that true?”

Brand hesitated, but he answered honestly. “Yes. Ash really is your brother.”

“And you all knew this?”

“We did. But we were forbidden to tell you, by Allma’s orders.”

“But why would Allma make such a rule?”

“We do not question the word of Allma. It is not our place. We merely follow.” Brand said it like a mantra. There was a clear undercurrent of hatred in his voice that Luca did not fail to notice.

Setting aside the why for the time being, Luca’s mind turned to the implications of this. This Ash kid – Dori’s apprentice that he had wanted Luca to meet before – was his younger brother, someone Luca had assumed long dead. He wasn’t sure what to think of this yet, but at least he now understood why his father had wanted him to come to Allma Temple.

<> <> <>

“Are you alright?” Emila asked him once they had returned to their shared room. She was sitting on the bed, while Luca was on the floor, stretching.

“Me?” he said, a bit surprised. “I’m more concerned about you.”

She smiled a bit, and looked away meekly. “I’m fine. I guess I was just surprised at how you reacted. You were so – enraged at him.”

“He was going to kill you.”

“Yes, but still…”

“If you die, I die. We’re connected, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” she said. “That’s how I was able to get away from him. I used your mana to create that ice shard.”

He looked up at her in surprise. “That was you? I thought my mana just swelled up because of how angry I was.”

“Well, it was just an idea I had,” she said. “I didn’t think it would actually work, but thankfully it did. I just needed a little bit, so I took it from you, that way he wouldn’t notice what I was doing. He thought you were up to something, not me.”

“Still, you shouldn’t have done that,” Luca told her. “It was risky. He might have panicked. He might have killed you.”

Emila thought for a moment, then she looked down in shame.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m not just responsible for my life anymore. I’m responsible for your life, as well. I never thought I…” She trailed off.

She seemed a bit upset, so Luca sat up and moved to the side of the bed. He placed his hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, the important thing is that we made it, right? You heard what Brand said, it was all just a bluff. Just be more careful in the future, okay? I can take the hits, but you can’t.”

She looked at him for a moment, like she wanted to protest, but she couldn’t seem to find the words. So instead, she sat back, resting her head against the wall.

“Luca, I have to tell you something,” she said. “Earlier today, one of the students told me about your brother. They said that the rule was that they couldn’t tell you about him, but they could tell me. Since I’m not a student, the rule didn’t apply to me, so I could tell you if I wanted to. I wasn’t sure what to do. All day, I wandered around the temple, unable to make up my mind.”

He laid back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. “Were you going to tell me?”

“I really wanted to. I felt that you had the right to know. But – when I spoke to Brand, he said that your brother is – not a very good person. He said that Ash once killed another student, and that perhaps Allma passed that rule of silence because of that. He said that most of the students hate Ash, and that the only thing keeping Allma from banishing him is Dori’s insistence on training him.”

Luca didn’t know what to say.

Ash! You know, Dori’s apprentice? He’s your brother. The second son of Lodin. The one he abandoned in order to train you.

His father had abandoned one of his children, preferring to raise one over the other? He just couldn’t believe Lodin would do that. There must be more to the story.

“Dori clearly wanted you to meet him,” Emila said. “He was trying to introduce you yesterday, remember? Maybe the rumours are wrong. I don’t really know. It’s not my place to make decisions about this, because this is your business. Family business. That’s why I was having such a hard time deciding if I should tell you or not. Brand felt that Dori would eventually tell you – ‘when the time was right’.”

“Well…” Luca said slowly. “I guess I’ll go pay him a visit tomorrow morning. I’ll go meet my brother.”

He got up and turned the lights off. Emila said nothing else, she just laid down on the bed and was asleep in minutes.

Luca remembered their argument from last night, and how she refused to use the bed unless they took turns. He, on the other hand, had refused to use the bed because that would leave her sleeping on the floor some nights.

Yet here she was, caving in after only a single day. Or perhaps – this meant she would try to use this to get him to take turns with her now. Which he wouldn’t do, of course. And yet, having them both sleep on the floor was no solution, either. It was simply a stalemate met out of their mutual stubbornness.

If only there was another way they could do this, some way where they both could…

No.

Not a chance in hell.

He’d take the floor himself, the rest of his life, before that.

Luca sighed, and climbed inside his sleeping bag. This shouldn’t have been bothering him. She was on the bed, he was on the floor. This was what he wanted. He had won. End of story.

What was really bothering him was how close she had come to being hurt today. How nearly Davik had killed her. Back in that forest, with that sword pressed up against Emila’s neck, all he could think about was Arlea.

And in the end, he had not been able to help her. It was Emila’s own cleverness that had saved her life. He wasn’t able to do a thing.

The sound of her gentle breathing was the only sound in the room. It was so quiet, so peaceful.

He hated how worried about her he had been.

Chapter VI

Heroes and Monsters

Luca woke before Emila this time, and was greeted by the amusing sight of her arm dangling over the edge of the bed. Her soft breathing was the only sound in the room.

He sat up, yawned, stretched, and grabbed a fresh change of clothes from his bags. As they had gone to sleep the moment they had returned from the forest, he was still wearing his garments from the previous night. With fresh clothes in hand, he left the room as quietly as possible. Outside, the early morning sun was just beginning to emerge over the horizon.

Many of the students were already awake and going about their daily routine. He asked one student where he could find the showers, and the boy gave him directions. Luca had only used a public shower once before, and he hadn’t liked being around other people. Thankfully, he was the only one there when he arrived, so he was able to go about his business in privacy. Luca was clean and dressed in fifteen minutes.

Luca then stopped by the dining hall, grabbed two trays of food, and returned to the bedroom. Emila was just beginning to stir when he entered, and a big smile appeared on her face at the sight of the warm breakfast.

He gave her one of the trays, and sat down beside the bed with his own. They spent the next five or so minutes filling their stomachs.

“Luca,” Emila said after a while. “How are you holding up?”

“In what regard?”

“Well – with what happened last night.”

“What about it?”

“You killed somebody.”

He paused, about to bite into a sausage. “That sort of thing doesn’t bother me.”

Emila leaned over the bed, giving him a strange look. “It bothers everyone.”

“Not me.”

“A lot of stuff happened last night. Are you sure there isn’t anything you’d like to talk about?”

“Nothing.”

Disappointed, Emila leaned back, disappearing from his view.

“I’m going to go see my brother today,” Luca told her.

“You are?” She sat back up. “For sure?”

“Of course. For the past two weeks I’ve thought I was the only surviving member of my family. Last night, I learnt for the first time that I have a brother. Of course I’m going to go see him.”

“Brand said he’s very hard to find.”

“Then I’ll ask around. There’s only so many places here one can hide.”

“I can help you,” she offered.

He accepted her offer with a nod.

They finished their meal in silence, and then emerged to the bustling and thriving grounds of the temple. The students were going about their daily activities, and only giving the two the occasional glance. They seemed used to them by now, the excitement of Luca’s initial arrival having died down. There were no more hushed whispers behind their backs.

He had been expecting hushed whispers after what had happened in the woods.

This meant that news of Davik had yet to reach their ears, Luca thought.

<> <> <>

Luca wondered where to look first. He eventually considered going to Dori, deciding that he was probably the best place to start. Dori was Ash’s master, and thus should know where his apprentice was. But Luca didn’t see him among the populace of the temple. It seemed to him that Dori only appeared at times when Dori himself chose.

Before they went to ask a student where to find Dori, they spotted Brand amongst the white-robed students. He was with a group of girls, likely the same ones who had ogled him during his match with Ash. He noticed Luca and Emila as they approached, and he quickly excused himself from the harem.

“Ah, good morning!” he said as they reached him. “How are you both doing?”

Luca didn’t feel like answering this particular question, so he let Emila do the talking. Thankfully, she had no reservations about sharing her feelings.

“We’re fine,” she said. “I got a good rest, and I woke to a nice breakfast waiting for me. But, uh – about last night…”

Brand waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve told Allma what happened. A cover story will be told to the students. Nobody will know what really happened, with the exception of Rael and ourselves.”

“We’re going to lie to them?” Emila asked, clearly not enthusiastic about the idea.

“For now,” Brand assured her. “Things are delicate at the moment. We can’t let any unnecessary tension be sown among the students. Well – that’s what Allma said, anyway.”

“Because of the emissary from Sono?” Luca asked.

“Exactly. Right now, it’s not officially confirmed, but everyone knows the emissary is on their way. Somebody must have leaked the news. As a result, there’s a lot of different rumours, and speculation about who will be chosen. If it got out that one student tried to murder another over this, who knows how they would react?”

“And exactly what is this emissary choosing students for?” Luca asked, crossing his arms.

Brand shrugged. “Nobody knows for sure. The most popular rumour is that King Zaow wants to hire the three best prodigies of the temple to be his generals, should another war break out between Sono and Acaria. I don’t know if that’s true or not, because Zaow is known for avoiding conflicts. I have doubts that he would wish to take the offencive, as Acaria still has yet to make any direct attacks. Just small raids on tiny villages… which isn’t enough to start a war, but enough to get people nervous. I asked my master about it, and he said he doesn’t know what the emissary is picking people for, either.”

Luca considered.[_ _]Davik had seemed to think being chosen would lead to him being a hero… But the last thing Luca would want would be to command troops. 

“Luca,” Brand said. “About your brother…”

“I want to see him,” he said immediately.

“That’s understandable,” Brand said. “I think we should talk first. There’s a few things you need to know.”

Luca frowned. “Very well.”

Brand took them to a bench beneath a tree, some distance away from the centre of the temple. He sat down opposite of Luca and Emila. His eyes were weary.

“Your brother does not have the best reputation here,” Brand told Luca, as levelly as he were able. “I’m honest enough to tell you that even I don’t particularly like him. I’ll give him the time of day, which is more than some here will, but I generally prefer company other than his.”

“Why?” Luca demanded.

“Why is he so hated?” Brand asked rhetorically. “I think it’s a number of things. For one, he’s not very nice. He’s very short and dismissive of others. He doesn’t talk much, which puts people off. Often, when spoken to, he’ll simply ignore the person addressing him. But there’s more to it than just that. That’s just his personality – there’s people in this temple with attitudes worse than his. A lot of it has to do with Dori.”

“Dori?” Emila asked.

Brand nodded. “Dori is the man who trained Lodin. He’s a legend – the first human to ever ride a dragon into battle. In terms of popularity, I would say that Dori is respected the most of the temple’s alumni, after Lodin. Of course, the fact that he actually trained Lodin contributes to that.”

A rider of dragons? Luca hadn’t known Dori had done such things. And judging by the surprise on her face, it seemed Emila hadn’t either. Just one surprise after another, it would seem. Just how many secrets did this temple hold?

“After the war, there was a lot of competition amongst the students to be chosen as Dori’s next apprentice,” Brand continued. “It isn’t surprising that many expected him to produce another hero like Lodin. But he didn’t. For years, he refused to take another student. Until Ash arrived. Dori took him under his wing immediately.

“Everyone expected Ash to be the next Lodin. And Ash trained very hard. But he made little progress. He was constantly beaten in sparring matches. People began to grow disappointed. Ash was not the hero they were expecting. He was rude and acted like he was better than everyone else just because he was Lodin’s son, or so it seemed to them. The disappointment they felt for him turned into hate. Ash remained here long after many of his peers graduated. Nobody stays in the temple longer than five years – yet Ash has been here for twelve.

“Dori refused to give up on Ash, even though everyone was telling him to let him go and choose another pupil. Some students felt that they could have been better if Dori had trained them instead. But instead of hating Dori for this, they chose to hate Ash. After all, Dori is a war hero, the dragonrider, and the man who trained Lodin. Ash was just a lost cause who refused to go away.”

By the time Brand had finished, Luca’s jaw was clenched, and his fists were tightly clenched.

“There was also an incident where another student died during a spar with Ash,” Brand said, his voice growing quiet and his eyes narrowing. “That didn’t win him many fans.” For the briefest of moments, there was a flash of something in his eyes – perhaps regret, perhaps anger, or perhaps sorrow. Only Emila saw, and it was too brief to know what it meant.

“What happened?” she asked softly.

“I don’t really know,” he said in a flat voice. “I wasn’t there, and those kinds of incidents are usually kept quiet, as you can imagine after the Davik situation.”

Brand then noticed that Luca was angry. He sighed and placed his hand on Luca’s.

“I don’t agree with them,” Brand assured him. “I’ve done more than I was obligated to in trying to help your brother. I don’t like him, but that’s because of things he’s said to me in the past, not because he isn’t the clone of your father that everyone wanted him to be.”

Emila placed her hand on his shoulder. “Luca…”

He brushed her hand away, not angrily, but firmly. “I’m fine,” he insisted.

“I’m not trying to change your opinion of your brother, or manipulate you in any way,” Brand said. “I just wanted you to know these things before you meet him.”

Luca looked up at Brand. “And where can I meet him?”

“I’m sorry,” Brand said. “Nobody knows where he goes. He disappears whenever he wants to. The only person who knows where to find him is Dori.”

“Then where is Dori?”

Brand pointed off into the distance. “Dori’s study is on the far western side of the temple. It’s a stone temple built into the side of a hill. You can’t miss it.”

Luca nodded, and started to rise from the bench.

“Luca,” Brand said to him. “Forgive me if I insulted you – now or any other time. I don’t like having enemies, and I would hate to make one of someone I have so much respect for.”

Luca stopped, and turned back around to face him. “Ash isn’t Lodin. And neither am I.”

“I never thought of either of you that way.”

He went over to Brand and offered him his hand. They shook.

“I respect you,” Luca told him.

“Aww,” Emila said. “You two are adorable.”

Luca started off again, this time a bit more briskly. “Are you coming or not?”

Emila practically hopped off the table and followed after him.

<> <> <>

After a few minutes of searching, they managed to find Dori’s temple. As Brand had described, it was a small stone chamber, built into the side of a hill. Once they had known where and what to look for, it was actually very easy to find. Luca found it rather strange that they hadn’t found it on their own.

They entered, to find a surprisingly spacious room inside. In addition to a bed, there was also a desk, a sink, a bookcase, a well-stocked wine shelf, and a stepping stool which could be used to reach various things. The room was larger than the modest entrance would suggest, indicating that it was indeed dug into the hill.

Dori himself was at the desk, still dressed in his filthy rags, peering over a massive, dusty tome. As they entered, he looked up at them over a pair of reading glasses.

“Ah, Luca,” he muttered. “I didn’t see you this morning. I’d thought you came here because you wanted me to train you.”

“I came here to unravel a mystery, it would seem,” Luca replied. “And you said yourself that I don’t need training.”

“Hmm – yes, I did say that.” He sat up, and removed the spectacles. “I see you brought your girlfriend.”

“I’m not his girlfriend,” Emila insisted.

“Yeah, whatever,” Dori muttered. He grabbed a half-empty bottle of wine from his desk and took a swig from it. “So you’re unravelling a mystery, eh? That must mean you’ve come here for another clue. What clue is that?”

“The location of my brother.”

“Ah. I was wondering if someone would slip up and tell you. Oh, well. Who was it?”

“Davik.”

“Justia’s student, eh? Never really liked that kid very much, to be honest. A real ass-kisser who never had the talent or resources to back up his promises. Still, he broke Allma’s stupid rule, so I suppose I’ll have to have him reported…”

“Reported…” Luca looked to Emila, then back at Dori. “Didn’t Brand tell you?”

“Son, you’re mistaking me for someone sociable. What happened with Davik and Brand?”

“Last night, we went into the woods to hunt a monster. Davik tried to kill us. I ended up killing him.”

Dori raised an eyebrow, and took another long drink from his bottle. Finally he asked, “Why would he do that?”

“Because of the – look, we can talk about this later. Right now, I’m more interested in finding my brother.”

Dori nodded. “Right. That’s understandable. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can tell you where he is.”

“W-what?!” Luca demanded. “You don’t know, either?”

“I do know,” Dori said. “I know exactly where he is. I just can’t tell you. He likes to hang out in this place that students aren’t supposed to know about. Honestly, Ash isn’t supposed to know about it, either. But he found out by accident one day, and nothing has stopped him from going there since.”

Luca pinched the ridge of his nose, and let out a frustrated sigh.

“Technically, I am allowed to tell whoever I want,” Dori continued. “Should there be a good reason for it, of course. I could tell you – but you need to give me something in return.”

“And what would that be…?” Luca muttered.

“Just tell me what happened last night.”

He sighed. “Brand gathered me, Emila, Rael, and Davik by the gate. He said we were going into the woods to hunt an ouroboros. We went, but we never found the ouroboros. Instead, Davik held a sword up to Emila’s throat and threatened to kill all of us. Emila managed to get away, and I killed Davik for trying to hurt her.”

Dori raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t think it would have been better to simply detain Davik and bring him back to the temple? Therefore, he could be punished properly.”

“No, I didn’t think of it.”

“Just like your brother,” Dori said. “And just like your father, too. Once you give into your rage, you’re blinded by it.”

“I wasn’t blind,” Luca declared. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I was never going to let him live after that.”

“Why is that?”

“Because…” he couldn’t help but glance at Emila briefly.

Dori scratched at his grey beard. “Because he hurt your girlfriend.”

“No!” he almost shouted. Emila looked away, her face red.

“No, that can’t be it,” Dori said. “You wouldn’t treat her the way you do if that was the case.”

Luca felt like hitting him at that moment.

“As for Davik,” Dori said. “He must have had a reason to do this, right?”

“He wanted to be chosen by the emissary from Sono,” Luca said, forcing himself to calm down. “He seemed convinced that Brand and I would be picked, even though I’m not a student.”

“I had a feeling something like this might happen soon,” Dori said. “Jealousy is a common source of violence among our students. I take it that Allma has been told about this?”

Luca nodded.

“Then there is nothing to worry about.”

“Do you know what it is the emissary will be picking students for?”

Dori shook his head. “I don’t even think Allma knows.”

So there was no way of knowing until the emissary actually got there, Luca decided.

“Alright – you want to know where your brother goes when he wants to be alone,” Dori said. “What I’m going to tell you is top secret, understand? Few souls know this. You cannot tell anyone else.”

“Er – do you want me to step outside while you tell him…?” Emila asked hesitantly.

“I don’t really care,” Dori muttered. “Now listen. There’s a series of underground passages beneath the temple. Some are secret tunnels that lead out, in case the temple were ever to fall under siege. Others yet lead to places you won’t want to go. Avoid those. What you’re looking for is a big subterranean lake. Ash goes there and meditates. Sometimes he spends entire days and nights down there. That’s where you’ll find him.”

“An – underground cavern?” Luca found himself asking.

“That’s what I said. A series of tunnels dug under the temple. That’s where you’ll find your brother. Well, unless he’s gone somewhere else. He might be wandering around the grounds right now, or having a sparring match. But if I had to wager money on it, I’d say he’s down at the lake.”

“I find this rather hard to believe. How could these tunnels exist without anyone finding out about them? The Earth-form magi training here would have felt it, at the very least.”

“There is old magick in these tunnels,” Dori said in a quiet voice. “This kind of magic likes to keep itself hidden.”

An ambiguous comment. Luca stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to say something else, but Dori simply stared deep into the auburn liquid in the bottle he held, his mind somewhere far away.

“Fine,” Luca said finally. “Can you at least tell me where I can enter the tunnels?”

Dori pointed over at a door in the back of the room, which had somehow avoided Luca’s notice until now.

“What the…” Emila muttered. “I didn’t even notice that door.”

“Old magick,” Dori repeated.

Luca thanked him, though he didn’t really feel any gratitude. He started towards the door, and as he reached for the doorknob, he realised Emila was still on the other side of the room. She smiled to him.

“He is your brother, and this is your business. I will wait here for you.”

Of course. Naturally, he would just want this meeting to be just between the two of them. He had just grown so used to her always following him…

He replied with a nod, and stepped through the door.

Once Luca was gone, Dori took one last swig from his bottle, emptying it. Emila turned to the strange old man, regarding him with an odd look.

“That damn kid just made my life so much more difficult…”

Emila wondered, was he talking about Luca or Davik?

<> <> <>

Luca found himself in a place of cool air and luminescent rocks. Resonant sounds carried through the atmosphere. He used his magic to illuminate the cavern, just as he had when exploring the yeti den with his father. The sphere of light followed behind him like an obedient child, casting a sanctuary around him to keep away the obscuring darkness.

He made his way through the underground. He wasn’t sure where to go, so he trusted in his instincts to get him to the lake that Dori had spoken of. His footsteps echoed loudly in the expansive cavern, announcing his presence to anyone who may be listening. As he walked, he noticed several paths that led to other parts of the underground. His gut told him that those led to those places he did not wish to be.

As he passed one, he felt something there. An intelligence – it did not know him, and so it watched him warily. He passed it by. Something was in there, and there was no need to find out what it was. He had not come here for that purpose. As he walked away, Luca heard the sounds of claws scratching against rock, echoing far behind.

And so, Luca continued on. The darkness grew more oppressive, and he felt himself moving away from Emila. The connection between their souls began to make itself known as he pushed its boundaries. He hoped that this lake was not too far from the temple, or he would have to go back and return with Emila.

Finally, quite deep in the cavern, he found his brother.

The lake glowed a deep blue. There was a faint light, coming down from a small hole in the ceiling. This light was reflected off of the subterranean lake, casting an impressive scene. Luca no longer needed his illuminating orb, so he dispelled it.

His brother sat in a meditative stance at the edge of the lake, on a small ledge. There was an approximately fifty metre drop from where he was, and the surface of the water. Ash’s back was turned to Luca, yet his footsteps echoed so loudly in the cave that there was no way he could not hear him.

“Ash,” Luca said hesitantly. He did not respond.

He slowly approached him. As he drew closer, his vision grew stronger, and he could see his hair was the same shade of snowy white as his own, and as their father’s.

Luca stopped when he was a few feet from Ash. A few seconds passed. Then, Ash slowly drew himself up and turned to face him. His hair was longer than Luca’s, and pulled back into a ponytail. His eyes were blue.

“Dori told you about me,” he said. It was not a question.

“I found out from someone else.”

He stared at him for a moment, then said, “I see.”

“I have questions.”

“Of course,” Ash said, turning away and looking at the lake. “Ask away.”

“Well – how did you come to be here?”

“I’ve been here for twelve years. Ever since Lodin left, taking you with him and leaving us behind.”

“Us?”

“Mother and I.”

With a start, Luca thought of his mother, the beautiful gold-haired woman who he had only the faintest of memories of. A few images and sounds were the strongest of them – a small home that they had all lived in for the first five years of Luca’s life. His mother singing and humming as she cooked. Young Ash, so young he could barely walk, trying to keep up with his older brother’s games. And Lodin, his face strained with a guilt and anxiety he could never escape, nonetheless smiling at the small, inevitably temporary happiness he had gained.

And then, nothing. Chaos and shouts. The four of them fleeing into the night.

All the memories Luca had after that were the many long days and nights, over hills and mountains, across swamps and the edge of the sea – the never ending adventure his father had taken him on – and the pursuit of the invisible enemy that Lodin could not escape.

“Is Mother…?”

“Dead,” Ash said with finality.

Luca bowed his head. He’d expected that, but it was still disappointing to hear.

“What – what happened to her?” he asked quietly. His voice still carried in the large cavern.

Ash half-turned, looking at him over his shoulder. There was a look of contempt in his eyes. “He abandoned us. He left his wife and second son to die, so that he might save himself and his first-born.”

“That can’t be it…”

“But it was. He left his three-year-old son behind, with his enemies closing in, and fled into the night with you. Don’t you remember? That night, all those years ago – the fire…?”

“Who were these enemies?” Luca asked. “The Acarians?”

Ash turned back to the water. “Your father had many enemies.”

Luca stared at him. He did not move. Some amount of time passed, with nothing said.

“He was your father, too,” he said, breaking the silence. “Don’t you care that he’s gone?”

“I do care,” Ash replied. “I care in my own way. You mistake care for regret. I feel no sorrow that Lodin is dead. I feel my life is better without him. I care in that way – that I am glad to be rid of him.”

Luca was dumbfounded. “How could you say that?”

“It’s easy for you to defend him. You were his favourite. Try to understand – just once in your life, brother – how it feels to be less than perfect. What it is like to have to live up to not only a father who threw you aside, yet is a paragon to everyone around you – but now an older brother who has come along and done in two days things that you could not in twelve years. That is how I can say what I say.”

“I didn’t come here to blemish your name! I came here to honour the name of our father! The man to whom you owe your life!”

Ash did not turn around, but Luca could feel animosity coming from him.

“Lodin has never given me anything. Least of all my life.”

Realising he had made a fist, Luca forced the muscles in his hand to unclench.

“Brand told me things about you…” he said. “Things I didn’t want to believe. He said that you’re hated amongst the people here – these people who so readily accepted me. I didn’t want to believe that.”

“These people? They haven’t accepted you. They have accepted the idea of you – that you are the successor to Lodin’s legacy. They expect you to defeat the Acarians and follow in your father’s footsteps as a hero. Fail to do that – and they’ll treat you the same way they treat me.”

“No – that can’t be it. You must have done something else. They wouldn’t treat you that way just for that. These people know you’re not Father. Tell me what it really is.”

Luca’s brother said nothing for a time.

“What happened to the student that died? Brand said that-”

He saw a flash of anger in Ash’s eyes, as he spun on the heel of his boot. His hands found the neck of Luca’s coat, and he pushed him back. Caught off guard, he stumbled back, catching his balance just in time to stay standing.

On instinct, his hand had found the hilt of his sword.

“Brand is a liar,” Ash spat. “Whatever he told you about me… It’s all manipulations and lies. Don’t listen to him. He’s in the pocket of Allma. Whatever you say to him, it reaches Allma’s ears. I did not kill that girl! It’s not true. They set that up – to turn everyone against me.”

“What the hell are you saying?!” Luca exclaimed. “A set-up? You’re paranoid!”

“Allma the first founded this temple with pure intentions,” Ash told him. “But in time, these things are always lost. This temple has become a mercenary organisation, tainted by the original Allma’s grandson, and his greed. Even now, he schemes. You will be built up as the paragon that I could not be, while I will be vilified to make you nobler in the eyes of the people. I may not be a fighter, but I am no fool. My weakness set me outside the circle, and that is how I saw the machinations.”

Luca shook his head. “Brother, you’ve spent too much time in these caves. Your isolation is driving you to madness. You’re seeing schemes where there are none.”

“Do not trust so easily – brother,” Ash said. “All these years you’ve been with Lodin, have you not seen the things that people in this world will do?” 

That – he could not argue that. Truly, he had seen a lot of things that made it difficult for him to place his faith in humanity. He had seen people betrayed and murdered – over nothing.

But what Ash was saying was just too much. The look in his eyes – it was the same look he had seen once in a man on the brink. This man had lost it, and killed his wife and two children. It had taken three hunters to put him down after he’d begun his rampage.

In their travels to the farthest corners of Bacoria, Luca and his father had seen a few things like that.

The position his brother had been placed in – where everyone around him treated him with contempt and disdain – that could certainly bring someone to desperation. Ash could not accept his failure, and he needed a reason that things had turned out the way they had. So he had created a conspiracy to justify things to himself.

“I do not hate you, brother,” Ash continued. “I understand well enough that we are not defined by our parents. I do not hold the mistakes Lodin made against you. So tell me what it is you’ve come here for, so that I can decide if I will grant it to you.”

“I came here to meet you,” Luca said. “You’re my brother, and the last of my family I have left. I came here to meet you – and to get answers. I could not just believe what Brand said about you. I felt there had to be more.”

“More…?” Ash muttered, raising an eyebrow. “You mean answers? I’ve told you already what happened. And you called me a madman for it. What are you expecting? Continuing to ask the same question just because you aren’t satisfied with the answer – well, that is the true definition of a madman. So tell me what it really is you’re after.”

“Dammit, I just wanted-!”

He couldn’t finish. He bit his tongue to stop himself from saying it. That all he had wanted was one member of his family back.

But he could see now that wasn’t going to happen. Ash had no prospects of friendship in his eyes. He watched him warily, like a monster watches a hunter who stood at a distance – carefully, waiting for the moment when they attack.

Ash watched everyone that way, even his own flesh and blood.. So there it was, the real answer to his question. That was why everyone in the temple hated his brother – because his brother hated everyone else even more.

A tense moment passed. Luca watched him, waiting to see if there was anything he had so say.

There wasn’t.

So Luca turned, and started to walk away.

“Don’t trust anyone, brother,” Ash said to his back. “Not Dori, not Brand. And not that girl who follows you, either.”

Luca stopped.

“Don’t talk about her. You know nothing about her.”

Ash laughed. “What’s there to know? You think you can trust her? You can’t trust anybody. It’s just the two of us and the world, Luca. She’ll betray you just like all the other sycophants in the temple!”

Luca’s lips curled into an angry snarl. His hand, still resting on the hilt of Siora, tightened around the sword so tightly he felt like he could break it. He drew the blade out of the sheath as he spun around, and charged at the person on the other side of the room. 

He had snapped. It had just been too much. Too much disappointment, too much anger.

“Luca!”

Ash drew his own weapon, one of the temple’s wooden training swords, and he tried to move aside. He was quick – under normal circumstances he would have dodged his attack – but there was nowhere to flee. He was trapped between Luca and the cliff overlooking the subterranean lake.

Luca brought his blade down in a heavy blow. Ash parried as best he could. His wooden sword shattered pathetically beneath Luca’s steel blade.

“Gah!”

Ash moved quickly, ducking down and rolling between his legs. With skilled agility, he rolled behind Luca and rose up. Luca turned around and swung his sword again. Ash dodged the steel blade by a hair.

“Stop!”

Luca felt a surge of mana rise from his brother, and the next thing he knew, he was struck by a blast of wind powerful enough to knock him off his feet.

It registered in his mind that he was falling, but he knew he would hit the ground in a moment. That moment did not come. Instead, he saw surprise in his brother’s eyes as he fell past him, and then the cliff.

Luca didn’t fall that long. It was only about fifty metres to the water.

He struck the surface of the lake and was lost in a confusing vision of dark water. He sank deep into the water, and his feet briefly touched the bottom. Taking advantage of this momentum, he kicked at the rock beneath him, and rose up and away from the inky blackness.

Luca’s head broke the surface and he gasped. He couldn’t see anything, because there was no light where he was. He tread water as best he could. He had never been a great swimmer, as he had never had much time to learn, but he knew the basics at least.

Eventually, he gained an understanding of his situation. The insurmountable cliff was before him, covered in slippery, jagged rocks that nobody could climb. If he were a a ground-form user, he could have simply used magick to craft the rocks into a ladder or stairs. But he was light-form, and that had no use in this situation. The lake was bordered all around like this, so there was literally no way out from where he was.

Unless…

“Brother!”

From up above the cliff, Luca saw as Ash heaved a large pile of rope over to the edge. He tossed it over, and fed the rope until it was within arm’s reach. Luca swam over and grabbed on with both hands.

And then he realised something that had previously escaped his notice.

“My sword!” he exclaimed.

His father’s sword.

Luca let go of the rope and checked his belt, under the surface of the water. The sheath was there, but it was empty. He hadn’t put the sword away – that meant…

He felt a chill, and it had nothing to do with the freezing water.

Luca swam away from the rope, and back to where he guessed that he had been. It was impossible to know for sure. Not that it mattered, anyway. The dim light that filled the cave disappeared immediately under the surface of the lake. All that was down there was darkness.

“Luca, what are you doing?! Take the rope!” Ash called out to him from the cliff.

“Father’s s-sword!” Luca gasped out as best he could, trying as he was to stay above the surface. “I-I have to find Father’s…!”

“Forget about that!” Ash called. “Get out of there now! There’s a beast down there!”

Luca barely heard what he said. He couldn’t think about anything other than his father’s sword – Siora – and how foolishly he had lost it. He held his hand up and gathered his mana into an illuminating orb. Once it was ready, he threw the orb down into the water, where it quickly sank to the bottom like a stone. He took a deep breath, and dived. 

The orb’s light helped, but not much. He couldn’t see very far past where it had landed. He tried to use his mana to get the orb to follow him, like he had in the cave, but that attempt ended quickly in his flailing desperation. It required a continuous flow of mana to follow after him, and it was impossible to do that while holding one’s breath.

How long could he hold his breath? Would the Soul Tether let him stay conscious underwater? To what extent did its life-preserving abilities reach?

The scholarly part of him considered the chance to test this, but he didn’t care about that. He had to find the sword, and at the moment, he couldn’t see where it was in the small aura of light.

Apparently, it didn’t matter. He began to feel light-headed, so he kicked off the bottom and gasped for breath back at the surface.

Luca only allowed himself a few seconds of breath before he threw another orb down into the lake and dove once more.

Half a minute of frantic searching passed, and he still did not see the sword. He was starting to panic.

He began to rise for air once more when he saw something terrifying.

Some kind of – thing – was swimming towards him. It wasn’t quite a fish, but rather like a giant serpent slithering through the water. It’s eyes were staring right at him. 

There was no way Luca could defend himself. He had no weapon, his light-form magick was almost useless in the water, and he couldn’t move away fast enough to escape. As he swam away as quickly as he could, he threw a blast of raw mana in the giant eel’s face. It blinked and stopped for a moment, but it’s ugly face was barely scratched by the attack.

Still, it gave him enough time to break the surface. He gasped as he emerged, and he saw Ash atop the cliff, still holding the rope from above.

“Hurry!” Ash called to him.

This time, Luca listened to him. He swam as quickly as he could, propelled forward by the currents caused by the eel’s movements.

Luca reached the rope and grabbed on. As soon as he did, Ash started to pull up. While Ash was pulling him up with the rope, he used his legs up push himself up from the rocks, whenever he could.

The eel’s head broke the water, and it watched him. He had already moved too far away though, so it couldn’t reach him.

At last, Luca grabbed onto the edge of the cliff and pulled himself up. He collapsed immediately beside Ash, his breaths heavy and his arms and legs tired from the swimming and climbing.

Ash said nothing – he only wrapped the rope up and held it over his shoulder.

When he felt a bit better, Luca rose to his feet and looked down at the lake. The eel was still watching him from down there. He felt a rush of anger at the thing that had nearly made a meal of him, and he raised his arm, gathering his mana to thrown needles at it. Ash stopped him by grabbing his wrist.

“Wait,” he said.

The light that peeked out from the cavern ceiling was blocked out as something massive swept down from the top of the cavern. A wind like a hurricane blew around them. Luca had to shield his eyes from the cloud of dust it kicked up.

This huge thing, it flew down from the ceiling, taking only a few seconds to pass over the lake and grasp the eel in its talons. There was a heavy splashing sound as the thrashing creature was pulled from the water. And then the large shadow flew off into a dark corner of the cavern, and after a moment, a sickening crunch was heard.

Once things settled down, Luca turned to his brother. “What was that thing?!”

“The master of these caves,” he said. “He doesn’t prey on humans, so have no fear. The other monsters hesitate to come out because of him, but you drew out that eel by going into the lake.”

Luca looked up at the dark corner where the beast had vanished.

“Does anybody else know about this?” he asked.

Ash shrugged. “I think Dori may.” He then started to walk away, clearly done with the conversation. He had nothing more to say, about him attacking him, their father’s sword, or the monstrous thing that had just killed the eel.

Ash had saved him, even though he had gone after him. Ash had called out to him, calling him ‘brother’, as he did so. That meant something.

It meant that he did still have family – just not a brother who could be a friend to him as he had hoped.

Luca looked over at the lake, where his father’s blade had fallen, and where it would remain forever now. Because of his stupidity, he had lost the blade he had sworn to kill Zinoro with. He would still kill him – he would not abandon that vow no matter what – but without Siora, it wouldn’t be the same. 

With a heavy sigh, he turned and left the lake behind.

<> <> <>

When Luca finally returned to the temple grounds from his trip to the caves, he found Emila back at the bench with Brand. They were talking, and as they spoke, he saw her laugh happily.  Illogically, he felt a jealous pang of anger pass through him.

He suppressed his feelings as he drew near them.

“Luca,” Emila spoke softly as he drew near. She sat up and looked at him with eagerness in her eyes. “How – how did it go?”

He sat down at the bench beside her. “We ended up fighting.”

Emila frowned, and she watched him, unsure what to say. Brand sat with his fingers steepled before him, his eyes closed in thought.

Some time passed as they sat there in silence.

Luca felt the absence of his sword, its familiar weight gone from the belt he wore. He felt like he had done something horrible in losing it. Even now, he could almost feel it calling to him from the caves far below his feet. And yet, he could also feel – with more certainty – the connection he had with Emila. She was still watching him, an empathetic look in her eyes. He felt guilty that she was concerned for him, and that he needed to say something to her to alleviate this doubt.

“He said things,” he told both Emila and Brand quietly. “He was angry and paranoid. He thinks there is a conspiracy within the temple.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Brand look down in contemplation. He did not let his gaze linger.

Despite the madness in his brother’s words, they had given him doubt. Certain things had been bothering him. Namely, that his brother’s existence had been hidden from him, and that his killing of Davik was being kept quiet from the students of the temple. It made him wonder what other information Allma the third was keeping hidden, and what goals he could have. Ash had warned him that anything he said to Brand would get repeated to Allma. So Luca did not look directly at him when he spoke, because he didn’t want him to think he was searching for a reaction in his eyes.

“He has been looking for daggers in every shadow since he came here,” Brand said. “I really am sorry, Luca. I truly wanted to be proven wrong today.”

“No apologies are necessary. I didn’t go to him with any expectations. I just went because he is my brother, and I needed to meet him. The kind of person he turned out to be is irrelevant.”

Emila looked away from him at last. So that was her answer.

“I see,” Brand said, as he rose from the table. There was a tired look in his eyes. “I must be going now. I have training to do yet. We’ll speak tomorrow?”

Luca nodded.

Brand smiled. “Then I will take my leave. Emila – think about what we discussed.”

Emila frowned, and she nodded. Brand gave one last curt nod, and he turned and walked away towards the middle sanctum.

“What was it you discussed?” Luca asked Emila.

She looked away.

“Nothing important.”

The rest of the day passed without incident.

<> <> <>

“You haven’t said anything yet.”

Luca stopped and turned to her in confusion. “About what?”

Emila strode past him into their room, and she sat down upon the bed.

Luca closed his eyes and sighed. “Ah. I see now.”

She tilted her head to the side. “I was surprised. I at least thought you would have something to say this morning.”

“My silence was no accident. I was actually hoping you wouldn’t bring it up at all.”

She blinked. “But – why?”

Luca sighed again, feeling really tired, and sat down on the floor. “Because this way, you got to sleep in comfort, and I could sleep right here, which is the chivalrous way.”

“Chivalry makes women weak,” Emila said, placing her hands on her hips haughtily. “We can’t have men doing everything for us. Sometimes, a girl has to take charge and get her hands dirty. There’s nothing with the guy being cared for once in a while.”

He felt a headache beginning. He rubbed his temples to ease the coming pain. “I don’t really want to get into this sort of a discussion right now. It’s too late for that.”

“It is late, isn’t it? I bet the bed sounds pretty nice right about now…”

“Emila, give it up. I’m not using that thing while I’m sharing the room with you.”

She sighed, and sat back against the wall. Then, there was a flash of inspiration in her eyes, and she sat back up.

“You know…” she said. “There isn’t really any reason why we can’t both-”

No.” 

She pouted, and got up off the bed. “Fine then. We’ll both use the floor.”

“I don’t know why we have to talk about this every night,” he said. “We’re just talking in circles at this point.”

He lay down upon his sleeping bag, and rolled over on his side, facing away from Emila. She was silent. Too silent.

“Luca…” she said, so softly he barely heard her.

He sat up and looked over at her. She stared back at him with large, pleading eyes.

“Please,” she said. “I don’t want you sleeping on the floor every night.”

Those eyes – there was something in that gaze that struck right through every piece of armour he wore. She looked to small and vulnerable to him, and he felt like some kind of monster for bringing any sort of pain to her.

Suddenly, he realised that when Emila wanted something – truly wanted it – she would not take no for an answer.

<> <> <>

Luca stared up at the ceiling, unable to get any rest.

The bed was soft and comfortable, for sure. His body still ached from the past few days of sleeping on the floor. But he could not relax enough to fall asleep. His thoughts were troubled.

He thought of his brother, and the things he had said earlier. His words had been paranoid and insane, yet he found himself now doubting things.

Brand had gone straight to Allma after they had returned from the forest. He’d told him everything, and Allma was now hiding this information from the students of the temple.

Ash had also killed a student, and this was known to everyone. Allma clearly made no effort to preserve his brother’s reputation as he had Luca’s. Why extend this courtesy? Brand had said the situation was too delicate with the coming emissary from Sono. Was that truly it? Or was he being built up as his father’s successor, and Ash being made into a villain to make him look better by comparison?

Ash said nothing about Davik. He clearly did not yet know what had happened. Not even Dori knew. Were they both being kept out of the loop? Or had Dori merely been feigning ignorance to see what Luca would say about the incident?

Luca knew he was being as paranoid as Ash now. But regardless of the truth of Ash’s claims, the conversation had showed Luca something. He was being too trusting lately. He had gone to his brother, with expectations too great. The disappointment was sobering.

Just as Brand had said of Ash, he too was now seeing daggers in every shadow.

He looked over the edge of the bed to the sleeping rolls, where Emila lay. She was fast asleep, her soft and gentle breathing once again the only sound in the room.

For the first time since arriving, Luca considered the near future, and the possibility of leaving. He even considered, if things got bad, that they might have to escape. If there were conspiracies at work, he could not risk Emila’s involvement. He would flee from the temple with her to keep her safe. But he would not leave without his brother, either. He would have to meet with Ash again, and speak with him on the subject. If possible, the three of them could sneak away, perhaps during the excitement of the Sonoian emissary’s arrival.

And then, Luca remembered another plan he had made to escape with a girl.

The image of Arlea’s throat being pierced by that arrow flashed in his mind’s eye. He tried to shut it out, only for it to be replaced by that of his father, his chest spilling blood. The snow, stained red with their blood.

He could not allow that to happen again.

Ash was his younger brother. Therefore, it was his responsibility to protect him. And Emila – by all rights she should not have even come with him to the temple. He worried for her, now more than he would admit was just in his own self-preservation. He could not admit it to her – if she asked, he would say that he was protecting her to save his own life, due to the tether. But in truth, he was now more worried for her than for himself.

“Mmmm,” muttered Emila quietly in her sleep. “Mother – don’t…”

She was dreaming again.

Despite himself, Luca wondered what it was she was dreaming about. Obviously it involved her mother. Perhaps she too was reliving the death of the person who had raised her.

He needed to get some sleep.

He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He worked on emptying his thoughts, focusing only on the darkness beyond his eyelids. He listened to the sound of Emila’s breathing, its rhythmic flow easing him into the void. 

Suddenly, he felt the sheets shifting and another person pressing against him.

Luca’s eyes shot open. He turned his head to see Emila, her eyes still closed, climbing into the bed. She was moving in her sleep, climbing into the bed unaware.

“Em-”

No. He could not wake her. She was dreaming. You should never wake a person caught in a dream, or the shock could kill them.

Emila wrapped her arms around his waist and lay her head on his shoulder, apparently mistaking him for a pillow. She sighed contentedly, and her breathing slowed somewhat.

He couldn’t let this happen. He’d sworn it wouldn’t. Never.

And yet here they were, the two of them in the same bed, with only a sheet and Emila’s thin nightgown between them.

No matter how he wished it, he could not break free. Her arms were wrapped around him. If he rose from the bed, he would wake her.

But that was a lie. He had no desire to escape her. He might act like she annoyed him, and act like he could care less that she was around, but really…

“Because he hurt your girlfriend.”

“No!”

“No, that can’t be it. You wouldn’t treat her the way you do if that was the case.”

That’s wrong, Dori, he thought. He had it completely backwards. Luca treated her that way because, deep down, whether he could admit it to himself or not, he really did care for this odd girl who had saved his life. 

Her skin was so soft. Her black hair was as smooth as silk. He couldn’t help himself – he reached out and gently caressed it. Her breasts were pressing against his arm. Her breathing was tickling his skin. She was so warm. 

It was nice. It didn’t take him long to fall asleep like this.

He dreamed of her. He dreamed of this beautiful girl with eyes as green as emeralds, skin as white as snow, and hair darker than the night. He dreamed of her touch, the feel of her skin against his own. He dreamed of her lips, and how soft they felt against his.

<> <> <>

It was the first night since he had come from Arimos that he did not dream of death.

And Emila dreamed, too.

Chapter VII

Be Still, My Beating Heart

Knock, knock, knock.

Luca opened his eyes.

He felt at ease and comfortable, and more rested than he had in days. After a few moments passed and he realised where he was, he understood why. Indeed, the bed was infinitely better than the hard floor.

Knock, knock, knock.

He saw Emila was also lying in the bed, her arm around him. She was adorable in her sleep, her eyes closed and her mouth opened just slightly. Her chest rose and fell with each breath.

When it set in that they were in bed together, he panicked. Had they-?

No. No, nothing had happened. She has simply climbed into the bed, while still dreaming, and he had fallen asleep next to him. He was confusing his dreams and his memories. He had sinned in his dreams, but not in reality.

Knock, knock, knock.

Someone was knocking at the door. That was no doubt what had awoken him. If the knocking continued, Emila would wake as well. As carefully as he could, Luca rose from beneath the sheets and moved out from beneath Emila’s arm. She stirred, but did not wake.

Luca went over to the door and opened it to find Tranom there, his knuckles about to rap the door again.

“Ah,” he said. “I was beginning to fear you would not wake.”

“What is it?” Luca asked. He stood with the door open only slightly, for he couldn’t let Tranom see into the room, where Emila lay on the bed, the sheets in disarray. That could give the wrong idea, and everyone already seemed to think they were together anyway.

Idly, Luca wondered why he was afraid of that. Emila was a pretty girl – he should be amused that people would think the two of them together. But instead, the idea made him uncomfortable, and he wasn’t quite sure why.

“You are needed,” Tranom said dryly. “Get ready and join us at the centre sanctum. The emissary from Sono has arrived and you were summoned. Don’t tell anyone.”

“The – emissary?” Luca muttered, still rather tired. “I thought he would be here later in the week.”

“As did Master Allma. But she arrived earlier. This is better though, as we can get this business done without everyone in the temple knowing. This whole thing has caused enough trouble as it is.”

Indeed, Luca thought. “And you said I was summoned?”

Tranom nodded patiently. “Along with several others.”

Luca glanced over at the bed, where Emila was still fast asleep. “What about Emila? Should I bring her as well?”

“Your companion? Explain the situation to her if you wish, so long as she swears not to tell the others. I doubt she will be permitted to meet with the emissary, though.”

“I see.” Still, it would be best to tell her what was going on. If she woke, and Luca wasn’t there, she could get the wrong idea and go out looking for him.

“I must get back now,” Tranom said. “I will tell the others that you are on your way.”

Luca nodded, and Tranom left, disappearing into the darkness. He closed the door, and went over to the bed. He placed his hand on Emila’s shoulder and gently shook her awake.

“Hmmm? Lu- Luca?” She opened her eyes and looked up at him, confused in her grogginess.

“The emissary is here, and I’ve been summoned,” he told her. “I have to go to the centre sanctum.”

She sat up and stretched. “I’ll get dressed, and we can go together.”

“Er…” Well, his plan was to just let her know where he would be. But he supposed there was no harm in her following him there.

A few minutes later, after she was finished dressing, Emila joined him outside the bedroom, and followed him to Allma’s sanctum. The early morning air was cold, and there was still frost on the grass.

Emila was excited, it would seem. “What did Tranom say? Do you know why you were summoned?”

Luca shrugged. “Who can say? Tranom didn’t say much, but we had heard before that I might be picked for whatever this is. Davik did what he did in the forest because he thought I would be chosen. It would seem he was right.”

“And you still don’t know what the emissary is choosing you for?”

“I guess we’ll find out soon. Oh, but Tranom said you probably won’t be allowed to see the emissary. So I guess I’ll just tell you when I return.”

Emila bit her lip, and she looked away from him. “So – what will we do if you’re summoned to T’Saw?”

“I’m not sure.”

They had arrived at the centre sanctum. Tranom was there at the door, waiting with crossed arms. When he saw them draw near, he nodded and approached them.

“Everyone is waiting inside,” Tranom said. “If you’ll excuse me, I have things I need to attend to. There have been reports of activity in the forests I must look into.”

“Of course,” Luca replied.

Tranom strode away and disappeared once more. Luca turned to Emila. Her eyes were on the ground, deep in thought.

“This is it, then,” he said. “I will come and find you as soon as this business is done with.”

Emila looked up at him, biting her lip and looking guilty for some reason.

“Hold on a moment,” she said. She stepped closer to him, and placed her hands on his chest.

Immediately, he thought of his dreams last night, and his heart began to race.

“W-what are you…?”

“Just a moment,” she said. Her hands glowed with the faint aura of magick. Her eyes widened in surprise. After a moment, the mana faded, and she stepped away.

“What is it?” he asked.

“We’ll talk after you get back,” she said. “It’s – well, I’m not sure. I’ll have to take a second look, but it’ll take too long. Please, don’t keep the emissary waiting.” Try as she might to hide it, Luca could not help but notice the disappointment in her eyes.

His curiosity was aroused, but she was right. Whatever it was, it would have to wait.

“Very well,” Luca said as he started off. “I’ll be back soon.”

Emila stood there outside, in the cold air, with a troubled look.

<> <> <>

Luca stepped inside the centre sanctum, the very place where he had spoken before with Allma and learnt about his father’s past. Waiting for him in the antechamber were Allma, Dori, Brand, Rael, and a girl he had never seen before who wore glasses.

No emissary.

“The emissary is preparing in the other room,” Dori explained, leaning impatiently on his cane. “She’s had a long journey, and she needs a few minutes to prepare herself. That’s what she said, anyway.”

“She?” Luca asked.

“We weren’t sure who the emissary would be until they arrived,” Dori told him. “We now know that it is Princess Selphie, daughter of Zaow, and second in line to the throne of Sono.”

Luca’s eyes widened. He looked around the room at the others, finding himself hoping that it was a strange joke that Dori was telling him. There was no humour in their eyes. He sighed, suddenly feeling tired and uneasy. Meeting with a member of the royal family was the last thing he wanted to do, especially so early in the morning.

“She’s the second child of the king, after her brother Trist,” Brand offered. “Members of the royal family who are not being prepared for the throne are often made emissaries in Sono.”

“It still seems odd, to send a princess for this,” Luca said.

“She has guards,” Dori said. “Five of them, in fact. And this is Allma Temple, one of the most secure places in Torachi. But you’re right, it is a bit unusual. Zaow must be serious about this, to have sent his own daughter.”

“And for what purpose?”

Silence fell over the room. Brand and the others didn’t seem to have an answer for that. Dori paced the room slowly, leaning on his cane, and taking the occasional swig from one of his flasks.

“We’ll know as soon as she emerges,” Allma the third muttered quietly.

Luca turned to the aged leader of the temple. He stood in the corner, his large arms crossed. His bearded face was frowned in consternation.

The girl with the glasses approached Luca and offered her hand. “My name is Wiosna.”

“I’m Luca,” he said, shaking her hand. “Son of-”

“Lodin. Yes, I know. I think everyone here does.”

The glasses she wore did nothing to blemish her looks. She stood nearly a hand shorter than Luca, with blond hair and a cute, round face. She reminded him a bit of Arlea.

“Whatever it is they have us here for, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be working together for a while,” Wiosna said, smiling flirtatiously. “I look forward to it.”

The sound of Dori’s cane hitting the floor as he paced made the bespectacled girl flinch. She glanced over at the old man, her eyes passing over the flask he carried, and she grimaced.

“You all right?” Luca asked her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she reassured him, brushing a stray strand out of her eyes. She really did look like Arlea, Luca thought. He tried to put that out of his mind as she continued to speak to him.

They made casual conversation while they waited. Wiosna spoke excitedly, full of life and enthusiasm. Whenever Luca would mention something she had knowledge of, she would brighten up and name some book she had read. Eventually, Brand joined them, and the three of them talked while Allma stood in the corner, Rael sat near him, and Dori paced back and forth.

Roughly ten minutes passed while they waited for the princess to make an appearance.

“She is certainly taking her time,” Allma muttered to himself. “Were this anyone but a member of the Sonoian royal family, I would take this as an insult.”

“Be patient, old man,” Dori told him. “She’s a princess. She’s used to people waiting on her. This goes without saying, but we must be respectful to her.”

“Of course,” Allma growled. “I think you’re the last person to inform me of respect, Dori. Remember your place.”

Dori stared at him for a moment, and the air was suddenly charged with tension. The conversation between Luca and the students died down as they watched, half-expecting Dori to attack the master of the temple with the look on his face.

But he did not. Instead, the ragged old man started to chuckle. “Old friend, all these years later, and you’re no different.”

Allma cracked a slight smile.

The door of the waiting room opened then, and six more people entered the chamber. They were not wearing the armour of Sono, as Luca had expected them to be, but were garbed in plain travel clothes. In the rear walked five guards, each carrying a spear – with the exception of one in the front, who carried a large halberd that stood a head above the others.

At the front was a young woman, not much older than Luca himself, with braided golden hair. She did not look like a princess. She wore similar clothes to her guards, which included a brown travel cloak, leather armour, and what appeared to be chain mail underneath. No weapons were visible on her, but Luca could see a belt on her waist.

Still, she bowed to them with respect and poise that only someone born in the upper class could.

“Greetings, everyone,” she said. “I am Selphie, daughter of Zaow, king of Sono. I pray you will forgive our humble dress, for we have been travelling for several weeks under rather harsh conditions. I had hoped to get here quickly, you see.”

“You succeeded,” Allma said, moving from the corner and bowing to the princess. His previous hostility was gone. “You arrived several days before we expected, in fact.”

“I see,” Selphie said, her eyes showing only a bit of surprise. “I trust our arrival has not inconvenienced you too greatly?”

“Not at all,” Allma said.

“Very good,” she said. Her eyes looked over the room, lingering on Brand, Wiosna, and Luca. “I trust these are the three students I requested?”

“They are.”

“Who would the other boy be?”

“That would be my squire, Rael.”

“Ah, I see,” Selphie said. “Well, right to the point, then. With your compliance and theirs, I would take them with me back to T’Saw to meet with my father.”

“For what purpose?” Allma asked.

“Ah,” Selphie said, frowning. “I’m very sorry, but my father instructed me to speak only with them on the subject. It is rather sensitive information, you see. You will be paid well for their services, of course, make no mistake. My father has not forgotten the debts he owes you, and he does not wish you disrespect.”

Allma’s eyes betrayed his thoughts. Clearly he was less than happy with being excluded. He looked over at Brand for the briefest of moments, who returned his stare.

“Very well,” Allma said. “Dori, my squire, and I shall take our leave. You and your men are welcome to make use of the temple’s facilities for as long as your stay need be.”

“It will only be for the day,” Selphie said. “Possibly sooner. At the very latest, we will leave at this time tomorrow.”

“Very well,” Allma said. “Then good luck, your highness.”

Allma bowed once more, as did Dori and Rael. As they left, Dori met Luca’s gaze and he winked.

Selphie dismissed her guards, save for the one who carried the halberd. The other four went into the other room and closed the door behind them.

Brand, Wiosna, and Luca remained with Selphie and the guard with the halberd.

The princess smiled, and she said to them: “Well, I’m sure you three are wondering what it is that King Zaow wants of you, yes?”

“It’s been the subject of many rumours among the students, your highness,” Brand said.

“It has?” Selphie said, tilting her head to the side and frowning. “My father sent a letter to Master Allma, with the instructions to keep it a secret that I was on my way. How did you all come to know about it?”

“Nobody knows for sure, but it’s likely that someone close to Allma leaked the information,” Brand told her.

Or perhaps just Allma himself, Luca thought.

“Well, it matters not,” Selphie said. “Essentially, my father is putting together a group to send into Acaria to meet with Zinoro.”

Luca blinked.

“Meet with Zinoro?” Wiosna repeated. “But he’s…”

“Dangerous,” Brand said. “Very, very dangerous.”

“Indeed, the Acarians have been a growing threat for the past few months,” Selphie told them. “His men have carried out several raids on villages near the border of our kingdom, and their military grows in number by the day. My father is a man who values peace, and avoiding a war is his top priority. But Zinoro has expressed no interest in resolving these disputes peacefully. Several messengers have already been sent to him, and not one has returned.”

“Then how would sending us be any different?” Brand asked.

“This team will be more than a mere messenger,” Selphie explained. “The three of you have all been chosen for specific reasons.”

She turned to each of them as she spoke. “Brand, you have been picked due to your skill in combat and planning, as well as your experience in secretive and clandestine missions. Wiosna, you were chosen due to your extensive knowledge in history, especially that of Acaria, and for your use of the rare mind-form mana.”

She stopped before him, and said, “And Luca, son of Lodin – your family has a very personal history with Zinoro’s. It may be possible for us to use that to our advantage.” For the first time since her arrival, the princess seemed unsure.

Luca opened his mouth to say something, but Brand spoke before he had the chance.

“You keep saying ‘we’, your highness. Are you going to be part of this mission?”

Selphie nodded. “Naturally. I am the emissary of Sono, so if anyone has a chance of opening up friendly relations with them, it would be me.”

“I’ve met Zinoro,” Luca said. “I don’t think he has any intention of opening up friendly relations with anyone.”

Selphie’s eyes grew serious, and she drew close to them. “In the case of negotiations failing, there remains only one alternative to war. As the leader of the Acarian nation, Zinoro would need to be eliminated. What my father needs is a team that not only is diplomatically capable, but can handle Zinoro in combat should negotiations fail, as they likely will.”

“You mean to assassinate him,” he said to her.

The princess met his gaze for a moment, without even a trace of weakness in her eyes. And then, she slowly nodded.

Luca looked down at the floor. Everyone else in the room was looking at him now – Brand with an look that suggested nothing more than observation, Wiosna with curiosity, Selphie with an unreadable expression, and the halberd-carrying guard with a distrusting frown. He had made himself the centre of attention, and now everyone was waiting to know what he would say, in response to the princess’ confirmation.

“I don’t know if I can be part of this mission, princess,” he said. “I have other obligations.” He thought of Emila, and the Soul Tether. “I don’t know what you expected of me, or of my brother before I came here, but I am not my father, and neither is Ash. My father killed Manorith and brought peace to your kingdom. But that doesn’t mean that history will simply repeat itself.”

“We know that,” Selphie said gently. “That is why we came here to give you the choice. It is not a command, but an offer. We have heard what has happened. Your father – he has been killed by Zinoro.”

“Yes, he has.”

“Would you not want to be part of this, then? You could avenge your father, and save many other lives from the same fate.”

Luca knew what he was capable of. How could he forget? Every time he thought of Zinoro, he felt a rage burning deep within him. The sight of his father being stabbed replayed in his mind’s eye. He longed greatly to kill Zinoro. It was the only purpose he could find to give his life direction.

And yet – he felt he had failed already. He had lost Siora in those caverns. What justice would there be in avenging his father if he did not do it with his own sword? Sure, he could run Zinoro through with any plan steel blade he could get his hands on – but it just wouldn’t be the same without Siora

But still – he was determined to go to Acaria, hunt down the man in black armour, that one-eyed man of darkness, and end his life. Even without Siora, he would do this. And going on this mission might give him the chance. 

Or he might ruin it. His very presence on the team could doom Selphie’s chances of resolving the conflicts peacefully. He might even get them all killed. What good did Zaow think sending Lodin’s son would do? The moment they entered Zinoro’s hall, and he caught sight of Luca’s white hair, blades would be drawn. Their meeting could get a lot of people killed under those circumstances, not just Selphie’s team, but even thousands of innocent Sonoian citizens.

And putting all that aside, there was still the matter of his connection to Emila. He could not go off to Acaria while his life depended on being near her. He could not drag this innocent girl into a battlefield to satisfy his lust for vengeance, if Selphie would even permit bringing her at all.

His head hurt. There was simply too much to think about. He liked when things were simpler, when there was just him, and a goal in sight.

Luca looked up at the princess, who was eagerly awaiting his answer.

“I need time,” he told her. “This is not a decision I can make right now.”

She nodded. “At the very latest, we are to leave at this time tomorrow, though we hope to leave sooner. You may take this time to think about this, and to set your affairs in order if you do choose to come. All three of you may. Just please consider what is at stake.”

<> <> <>

Emila was still outside, when Luca finally emerged. The sun had risen in the time he had spent within the sanctum, and the students of the temple were awake and going about their business, unaware that the princess of Sono was among them.

“You’ve been waiting out here this whole time?” Luca asked as he approached her.

Rather than answering, she drew closer and stared at him with apprehension. “So – what did they say?”

They found a bench to sit at, and he told her about the meeting with the princess and King Zaow’s plan of sending a team to Acaria to confront Zinoro. And he told her about his hesitation to go, of how he could not take her to Acaria. Emila listened quietly as he spoke, her eyes distant and remembering.

“I cannot go to Acaria,” Emila said softly. “Of all the places in Bacoria, it is the only one I cannot follow you to. That place is a land of death.”

“If I go – what will you do?”

She shrugged and gave a weak smile. “Leave. Find some other place.”

“The Soul Tether…”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said. “You’ve recovered, in the three days we’ve spent here. We’re still connected – but you no longer need me. You can breathe on your own now. If I were to break the connection, you would live.”

She sounded sad as she said that. He knew why. Only a fool could deny they had grown close.

He thought of the guilty dreams he’d had of Emila. The impure acts he had imagined – things he never thought in his life he would do. He could not confess it to her – he could never even confess that to himself. How he hated to have fallen victim to such a base emotion…

He saw one of the students glance at them as he passed, and a thought came to Luca. Perhaps the reason he feared anything thinking he and Emila were together was because it would imply that Luca was the sort of person who could have the emotional capacity to care for someone. There was a sort of weakness in that – a vulnerability that a justice-seeking warrior could not have.

“Just before we came here, I checked you and you were nowhere near healed enough,” Emila said. “In fact, you seemed to be getting worse. You weren’t able to go very far without straining the connection. And through the connection, I felt you every day we spent here, relying on my mana to stay alive, because without it you would not be able to breathe. But this morning, I realised something was different. Your lung has healed, and you – no longer need me.”

“So then this means…” Luca said slowly. “That you can break the connection. I can go with Selphie to Acaria, and you can go off on your own.”

She hesitated. “Yes.”

Silence fell over them.

Logically, there was no reason not to break the tether. It was a hindrance, to be bound to her the way he was. If she didn’t want to go where he wanted, there was nothing he could do to stop her from controlling him. They were two completely different people, bound together by an impulsive act of charity. It was true that she had saved his life – but now that life was frozen in place by her actions. There was no reason now why they could not go their separate ways.

And yet – they were both hesitating, and they knew it.

“Well – what do I need to do?” Luca asked her.

“Just start walking away,” Emila told him. “March away from me. Eventually, we’ll be so far away from each other that the tether will be strained. It’ll hurt, but if you aren’t mortally wounded, it won’t kill you. Push through the pain, and keep going. After a while, it’ll just break, and you’ll be you, and I’ll be me.”

“I see.”

Another uncomfortable silence took them. Emila was looking away from Luca, keeping her gaze on the grass, unable to look him in the eyes.

“Then-” He started to speak, but he couldn’t.

He was going to say goodbye. He could go back to Selphie, tell her he was ready, and Allma Temple would be a disappearing gleam on the horizon in only an hour or two. There was nothing stopping him now. And if he was going to leave, he should at least say goodbye to the girl whom he owed his life to.

But he couldn’t say it.

“I- I need to go think for now.”

It was a compromise. And also partially a lie. But it was all he could say to her for now.

“Of course,” was her reply, emotionless and flat.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He got up, and started to walk away.

He felt like he was making a mistake. He felt like he still needed her.

But he buried those thoughts within himself, and he forced himself to walk back towards the centre sanctum.

He walked and walked, and when he turned back around, he was in a completely different part of the garden, and she was gone.

<> <> <>

There was an explosion.

The ground burst open, and the entire temple shook. The sound was deafening. Right in the centre of the grounds, within one of the garden’s sparring rings, a hole had burst open from the hidden caverns underneath, set off by a burst of magick.

Luca was just passing by as it happened.

He was thrown back by the impact, as were several of the white-robed students who were also passing through. He hit one of the stones walls, and collapsed against the ground.

“What…?” he groaned as he forced himself back up on his feet.

Where the explosion had taken place, there was now a gaping hole bordered by rocks and debris. People were climbing out of the hole – people wearing black armour and carrying swords and bows.

“Attack!” someone shouted from afar. “The temple is under attack!”

A horn was blown. All around, Luca heard the sound of weapons being drawn. The atmosphere was charged with energy, as the students and their masters began gathering mana.

“Acarians!” another student shouted. “They’ve broken in from underground!”

Students charged, hurling fireballs and bolts of lightning. The sound of steel weapons clashing filled the air.

The Acarians…

It was as history was repeating itself. The black, red-lined armour they wore was identical to what Luca had seen before, when the town in Arimos was attacked. Already, the sounds of the first to die filled the air.

And then, he had a thought. Zinoro could be with them.

Luca scanned the men in black armour, looking for that unmistakable eye patch and black hair. He did not see it.

His hand was at his side, absently reaching for the sword he always carried.

No, he had lost lost it.

Several of the students had already been killed. Their blood-stained clothes were scattered here and there. Luca spotted a sword that rested by one, and dashed over and grabbed the blade. The blade was heavier than the one Luca was used to, a bit chipped and worn, and very slightly bent. Not as good as Siora had been, but it would have to do. 

Luca rose. An Acarian was rushing towards him, preparing to drive his sword through his chest. He deftly knocked the blade aside, and decapitated his opponent in a one fell stroke. The Acarian’s body disintegrated, and his armour collapsed around him.

Luca found himself grinning. The thrill of battle filled him, and the satisfaction of slaying one of those whom he had such hatred for.

He found another Acarian, busy clashing blades with a student. He gathered his mana, and fired several dozen magick needles into the Acarian’s back. They passed right through his armour, striking the man’s flesh. Distracted by Luca’s attack, the Acarian was quickly cut down by the student.

The Acarians continued to climb up out of the hole in the grounds, pouring forth like ants.

“Get back!” someone shouted from afar. Immediately, the students disengaged their opponents and retreated away from the Acarians. Someone grabbed Luca’s arms and pulled him back as well.

The Acarians ceased their advance, wary of the sudden retreat.

A rain of arrows came down from the sky, fired by unseen archers on the roofs of buildings and atop the walls. Many of the Acarians were struck down. Some used their weapons to block the first arrows fired, but most of them were struck during the second wave. After the third wave, no more stood.

“Are there any more down there?!”

“The tunnel looks empty, sir!”

“Have the water magi flood it, then close the hole up with earth magick!”

“Yes, sir! You all heard him, water and earth magi up here, everyone else go to battle stations!”

The students divided up and ran off.

Luca stepped away from the pit, and leaned against the same wall he had been thrown against, breathing heavily. He looked down at the blade he had picked up from the dead student. It was slightly shorter than Siora had been, but it should fit in the old sheath well enough. After wiping away the blood, he sheathed it. 

Everything was suddenly different. The peaceful atmosphere of the temple was gone, replaced by a rigid military order. Everywhere, students were putting on armour and grabbing weapons from racks that were being wheeled out. This wasn’t the training gear they were used to wearing – this was actual armour.

The masters had assumed the role of commanders, and were going around, spreading messages and information. Luca listened to them, and caught snippets of their messages. It would seem two other holes had burst open within the temple walls, all at the same time. All had been dealt with, but the Acarians would not have made an attack like that in only one stage. Without a doubt, there was more to come, and so everyone was preparing for that.

Luca wasn’t sure what he should do. He could still feel Emila, through the soul tether. She was unharmed, as he felt no foreign pain on his body. But still he wanted to go to her, to make sure she was okay. On the other hand, it was possible that the Allmans might need him.

“To hell with that. She’s more important.”

Sudden concern for her drove him, and yet he did not fail to remind himself that he had been just about to leave her.[_ _] 

But there was no time to think about that. He had to go to Emila, before any more Acarians appeared. He had to find her and get her somewhere safe. He couldn’t let anything happen to her – if she died, then he would…

That didn’t matter. Even if he didn’t need her – even if he never had – the fact remained that he could not let what happened to Arlea happen to Emila as well. It would only take a second for a stray arrow to find her, and he could not live with himself if it did.

Luca ran back, retracing his footsteps to the bench where he had parted with Emila. Some distance away from there, he saw one of the other spots where the Acarians had emerged from, surrounded by students with drawn weapons.

Emila was still there, holding a mana-formed dagger of ice in her hands, stained by a few drops of blood. Across the bench was the sprawled-out form of an Acarian soldier’s armour. His sword was stuck fast in the ground. There was a large stain of blood across the bench, where the Acarian’s neck would have been.

There was a terrified look in Emila’s eyes. She was trembling. She didn’t seem aware of herself, or what was happening around her.

“Emila,” Luca called to her as he drew near. “Emila, are you alright?”

She said nothing. She didn’t even look at him.

“Emila!” he said more firmly. “Snap out of it!”

He placed his hand on her shoulder, and she blinked.

“Luca…? I-”

She then seemed to notice the dagger she held. She dropped it like it was on fire and wrapped her arms around Luca, nearly knocking him off his feet. She trembled violently against him.

Awkwardly, he patted her on the back. In the grass, the ice dagger vanished.

“What happened here?”

She pulled away from him, looking at the dead Acarian’s armour, and the ice dagger on the ground.

“This…” she muttered, unsure of herself. “Oh. That man, he attacked me. I didn’t want to hurt him. I was just trying to defend myself…”

“You killed him?”

She shook her head, her eyes wide. “No, no, no – I didn’t – I couldn’t. I cut his arm. I was just trying to disarm him. One of the students came over and pinned him over the table and – slit his throat.”

She shuddered, and looked away from the bench.

“Emila…” Luca said, placing his hand on her shoulder again. “I need you to get somewhere safe. There’s probably more Acarians out there, preparing for a second wave. I need you to go somewhere where I know you won’t be in any danger. Go back to our room and lock the door.”

“But – what will you be doing?”

“Fighting, most likely.”

“No!” Emila protested. “No, come with me. We can be safe together. We can protect each other.”

He raised an eyebrow. “If there’s going to be a battle, I need to help. I can’t be hiding.”

“You’re asking me to hide!” she exclaimed.

“That’s different, you’re-” he stopped himself from saying ‘a girl’. “You’re not a fighter. You needed to be rescued from this one man. All you could do in a battlefield is get in the way.”

She looked a little hurt, but she seemed to understand what he was saying. The battlefield was no place for someone who couldn’t kill.

“I owe these people,” Luca said. “I have the power to stop the Acarians, or at least to hold them off. I could save lives. But there’s nothing you can do out there. So please, just go to the bedroom and stay there. Don’t come out, because that will make me worried about you, and I’ll be distracted. That could cost us both our lives.”

She looked down. “I – I understand.”

“Good,” he said, as gently as he could. “Now please, get to the bedroom, lock the door, and promise me you won’t come out until this is all over.”

She looked up at him, hesitantly nodded, and then she ran off towards the dorms.

“Emila!” Luca called after her. “Promise me!”

She did not.

<> <> <>

“Everyone! Gather together at the centre sanctum! Master Allma is going to make an announcement!”

Luca found himself among the throng of white-robed students, now wearing armour over their clothes and carrying weapons, who had gathered at the gates of the centre sanctum. Dori was at the steps of the sanctum, irritatedly pacing on his walking stick. Allma was nowhere in sight, perhaps still getting ready.

He spotted a head of familiar black hair amongst the crowd, and quickly made his way through to it.

“Brand,” he said once he had reached him.

“Luca,” said Brand, grinning and holding his shoulder. “I’m glad to see you’re alright. Where’s Emila?”

“I sent her somewhere safe.”

“Ah. I see.”

“Do you know what’s going on? How did these Acarians get through the temple grounds, and what are they attacking us for?”

Brand shook his head. “I’m afraid I know nothing about that. Nobody does. That’s probably what Allma is going to announce to us.”

Luca drew closer to him, and spoke in a hushed voice. “What about the princess? Is it possible they’re here for her?”

He shook his head. “There’s no way they could know she’s here. All we knew was that the emissary was on its way. We had no idea who it would be. And even that was kept hushed, and was only a rumour among the students.”

“In that case – someone must have told the Acarians.”

“It’s possible.”

The crowd’s chatter died down as Allma emerged from the sanctum, wearing armour. He did not immediately address the crowd, instead he went to Dori’s side and whispered something in his ear. Dori’s eyes widened in surprise for a moment, and he looked to Allma. The temple leader nodded, and Dori hobbled away with a strange look in his eyes, heading in the direction of his chambers.

“What was that about?” Luca whispered to Brand.

He shrugged.

Allma watched Dori leave, waiting until he was out of sight, before he turned and addressed the crowd.

“Attention, students of the Allma Temple!” he spoke in a strong voice that carried over the crowd. “As you are no doubt aware, there has been an attack on us by the Acarians. We don’t know why they have done this yet, nor how they have passed through most of Torachi without hindrance, but this attack was unexpected.

“The Acarians were able to get past our walls by passing through underground tunnels, and breaking through in areas that were close to the surface. These tunnels have long been a secret known only among us, to be used as a method of escape in case of siege.

“The exits are concealed with magick, so there is only one way that the Acarians could have discovered the existence of these tunnels. There is a traitor amongst our numbers!”

The crowd broke out in indeterminable chatter.

“Hush, hush!” Allma said. “There is no need to start a hunt! We have already identified the traitor!”

The chatter only grew louder.

“Silence!” Allma shouted, his voice cutting through the noise and killing it. “I repeat, we have already identified the traitor.”

“Who is it?!” shouted someone in the crowd.

“Bring them forward!”

“Deliver us our justice!”

“Very well,” Allma said, his voice just a bit quieter. “Bring forward the traitor.”

The crowd turned away from Allma to see, as two large men approached from the back, carrying between them the beaten and bloody form of a white-robed student.

Luca gasped.

“Brand, that’s my brother!”

Indeed, as the soldiers passed near them, there was no doubt about it. It was the snowy-haired figure of Ash, being half-dragged towards the steps of the sanctum where Allma waited.

The crowd began to cheer, in twisted triumph, as Ash’s unconscious form was dropped before Allma.

“This can’t be right,” Luca said through his teeth. “It’s lies. He’s lying.”

He took a step towards the sanctum. Before he could take another, Brand grasped his arm firmly and stopped him.

He whirled about. “Let me go.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Brand whispered to him. “What could you possibly accomplish by going up there? If you did anything, you would just be implicated, too.”

“He’s my brother!”

“Just wait. It’s too early to make a move yet.”

Reluctantly, Luca stepped back.

“This is Ash, son of Lodin,” Allma announced to the students, “and the greatest failure this temple has ever produced.”

Several of the students booed.

“Ash discovered the existence of the underground tunnels and has been using them for quite some time!” Allma continued. “His jealousy of his peers led him to seek to destroy you all, and this proud temple that we call home! He was the one who made contact with the Acarians and brought them here! Your friends, your companions, have died because of Ash!”

There was more booing.

“Lies…!” Luca spat under his breath.

“So then…” Allma asked the gathered crowd. “What retribution shall we give to him?”

The students began to shout at once.

“Death!”

“Kill him!”

“Spill his blood!”

“Deliver justice to those who have died!”

“Take his head!”

“Death to the son of Lodin!”

Not a single voice was crying for his support.

Allma drew his sword and grabbed Ash by his hair, pulling his head up. The edge of the blade was pressed against his throat.

“No!” Luca cried out, though his voice was lost in the mass of others who were calling for Ash’s blood. His hand went to the sword he had found, and he tried to go towards the sanctum, but Brand’s grip on his arm was unyielding.

“Let me go, Brand! He’s going to kill my brother!”

“Luca, listen to me!” Brand nearly shouted. “You cannot save him! Allma has too much power! Everyone here will side with him against you! It doesn’t matter if Ash helped the Acarians or not, because he was doomed the moment Allma declared he had!”

“I can’t just stand here!”

“If you go up there, you will both die! And what will Emila do, then?”

He stopped struggling. “What are you saying?”

“If you try to save Ash now, you’ll be declared an ally of the Acarians as well!” Brand said to him. “And as she is your companion, they will go after Emila, once they have killed you. She’s hiding somewhere right now, isn’t she? She’d never have a chance.”

Luca stared at Brand, unable to believe what he was saying. “Everything Ash said about this place – about Allma and about you – it was all true!”

“I’m just trying to save as many lives as I can in this situation!” Brand said. Then, he drew closer to Luca and spoke in a hushed voice. “He won’t kill Ash now. You can still save him.”

“W-what? What do you mean?”

“You still have a chance. Just be patient.”

Luca turned his gaze back up to the steps of the sanctum, where Allma was holding his sword against Ash’s neck. The students were in an uproar, so unruly in fact, that his entire conversation with Brand had gone unnoticed.

“You have spoken,” Allma said. “The son of Lodin shall be killed.”

The students screamed in confirmation.

“There are yet more Acarians out there,” Allma said to the crowd. “A second wave of them is drawing near the temple. Go to your stations. Fight and protect this place. Do not forget what this traitor has tried to destroy today.”

Allma took his sword away from Ash. There were groans of disappointment among the students.

“He does not deserve mercy!”

“Have you forgotten Kevalie? Have you forgotten what he did?!”

“What point is there in sparing him?!”

“Fear not!” Allma told them. “This is no mercy! He will be killed, but later, in celebration of our victory! Go now, my students! Protect the legacy of Allma!”

There was a burst of applause. The crowd began to disperse, with the many students going off to different parts of the temple.

Allma turned to the two guards who had carried Ash. He said something to them, and they grabbed Ash by his arms and dragged him up the stairs, disappearing into the sanctum.

Brand whispered to Luca once more, “He will not kill Ash yet. He’s waiting. He may yet have use for your brother. Think about it. If he killed your brother now, what leverage would he have against you?”

“What plans could he have for me?”

“Perhaps he still wants you to go with the princess back to T’Saw. The temple has a reputation to keep up. This attack from the Acarians, whatever their intentions are, it has not affected Allma’s plans. He still wants to send Zaow his dream team, so that he might be in the Sonoian king’s debt.”

“This is all just a game to him,” Luca muttered, seething with anger.

“A game, sure,” Brand said. “But an expensive one. A lot of money goes into the training and maintenance of this temple. If Allma does not get that money back, then the temple could not function. Zaow’s requests are rare, but they always pay well. So Allma sends the best he has to offer. He has likely been planning this for a while.”

“To hell with his goals,” Luca spat. He turned to Brand. “Can I trust you? Tell me now, can I trust you, Brand?”

Brand nodded without hesitation.

“In that case,” Luca said. “I’m taking Emila, and my brother, and we’re leaving here now. Even if I have to fight my way out.”

“You undoubtedly will, with the Acarians on their way. And don’t forget that Ash is under lock and key.”

“I don’t care about that. We’re leaving.”

“Very well. What can I do to help?”

“Just tell the princess I won’t be able to join her group. We could meet later down the road, perhaps, but I have to get Emila and Ash and get out of this place.”

“Good luck, then,” Brand said. “I’ll be here, doing what I can to stop the Acarians.”

“What chances do you think the temple has?”

Brand scoffed. “Chances? This is the Allma temple. It has never fallen once, not since the time of the original Master Allma. The walls are old, but they are strong. Nobody has ever torn them down.”

“Then you won’t be needing me,” he said. “Farewell, Brand.”

“Farewell, Luca.”

<> <> <>

Luca ran as fast as he could back to the room he shared with Emila. All around him, orders were being shouted. The Acarians had, it seemed, gotten to the temple faster than predicted.

“Barricade those gates!” shouted a female master, who he recognised as Justia, the former master of Davik. “Get those supports up now!” 

“They have behemoths!” shouted someone.

Luca ignored them, racing past the chaos to the bedrooms, where Emila was waiting. As much as he wanted to help, he had to act now. It was the most cowardly thing, but there would be no better chance to get Emila and his brother away than during the fight.

While they’re all being slaughtered…

“Come. We have to flee. There’s nothing we can do here now.”

“Flee? You have been packing while these people were being slaughtered?”

“Son – sometimes you have to give things up.”

“You gave up awfully quickly. You were a better hunter than any of these people! A better fighter! How many of these people could have been spared if you would have defended them?!”

“Luca, don’t be a fool! We can’t fight these men! These are Acarian soldiers!”

“Perhaps you can’t. But I won’t let these people die in vain. I won’t let Arlea’s death be meaningless. You can run. I’m going to take out every one of these bastards!

“No…” he muttered, without realising it was aloud. “No, it’s not like that at all!”

Even he didn’t believe that. It was exactly like that. It was exactly the same situation, and he was doing the exact thing he had hated his father for doing.

“It’s different…” Luca muttered to himself. “It has to be. It has to be…”

It was not.

Luca reached the bedroom door, and he began to rap his knuckles on the wood like he hated it.

“Emila?” he called out. “Emila, it’s me! C’mon, we have to go!”

No answer.

Luca impatiently looked from the door over to where the front gate was, slightly visible from where he stood. The Acarians were attacking the temple entrance. That would be foolish under any other circumstance. But whatever was on the other side was giving the Allmans trouble. Despite the reinforcement bars they had place against the gate, the massive, powerful thing that was pounding against them was still breaking through, bit by bit.

He knocked again at the door.

“Emila are you in there? Are you okay?!”

No answer.

He heard a scream from near the gate.

“Damn it…”

Luca took a step back and kicked the door with all his strength. It burst within, breaking off its hinges as it hit the wall.

Emila was not in the room.

“Emila…?!”

Where was she, he thought in frustration. He’d told her to come to the room, and she had promised…

No. She hadn’t.

There was another scream. The monster on the other side of the gate was almost through.

He couldn’t wait any longer. His decision had been swayed.

“I pray she is alright…”

Luca drew his sword and charged down the steps towards the gate.

<> <> <>

“How is everything holding up?” Tranom asked. His armour was scratched and bloodied from the fights earlier. He was short of breath, but that was mostly from the past thirty minutes or so, which he has spent running without pause.

“As well as can be expected,” Brand muttered bitterly. “Those behemoths – the sentry didn’t report those.”

“Nothing about this attack makes any damn sense,” Tranom said. “It’s like they just appeared right under our noses. How they could have crossed over the mountains, travelling across half of Torachi without a single report… If it was just a small party, I could imagine it, but this is a full legion, just suddenly appearing on our doorstep!”

“And with behemoths, no less,” Brand said. “Something’s not adding up here. Either way, though, this is gonna be rough. If only Allma hadn’t put on that little show with Ash, we could have had a few extra precious minutes to get ready.”

Tranom frowned. “I may not agree with his methods either, but I’m sure he had his reasons.”

“How is the princess?”

“Safe and secure. She’s got her guards from T’Saw to protect her. Still, we’re ready to evacuate her just in case things get really bad.”

“They’re breaking through!!!”

They turned their attention down to the gate, where the behemoths had very nearly burst down the gate. Their tusks could be seen breaking through the wood with each charge, and the supports that had been put up had done almost nothing to help.

“Archers at the ready!” Tranom shouted. Behind him, the sound of fifty bows being drawn filled the air. Half a dozen other rooftops were doing the same.

Brand drew his sword, Salamander, and held it at his side. He was shaking, in spite of himself. Usually he was calmer. But this would be his first battle – the first real test of his skills. 

“Apprentice,” Tranom said to his student. “You should get down there, with the fighters. They could use your help.”

Brand hesitated. He had wanted to stay on the rooftops with his master. But Tranom was right. Brand was no archer. He would be a greater help down where the fighting was.

“Good luck,” he said to Tranom.

“And to you, my apprentice.”

Brand started to run, passing the five rows of archers as he made his way to the ladder at the back of the building.

But then he stopped.

“It can’t be.”

He turned back around, his eyes finding a single archer in the back row – the only one who had not drawn their bow. A head of long, black hair turned, meeting his gaze with nervous, green eyes.

“What are you doing up here?” he asked her.

<> <> <>

Luca held his replacement sword, as the behemoths on the other side of the gate made their final charge.

“Everyone, brace yourselves!” someone screamed.

The charge came, and the gate burst open. The left half swung open, striking the wall with enough force to break itself off its hinges. The right half, its hinges already broken, went flying into the air like a giant spinning missile. Someone barked an order, and two or three dozen students blasted at the airborne gate with their magick. A rainbow of fire, ice, lightning, and colourless energy struck the giant slab of wood and it burst open. Many smaller pieces of it struck the ground around them, and nobody was crushed.

“The behemoths!!!”

Two fur-covered beasts led the Acarians’ charge into the temple. The things stood two stories in height, and each had a pair of tusks as long as a man was tall. Their legs shook the ground as they walked.

“Archers, open fire!”

A rain of arrow came down from the rooftops. A hundred arrows struck the behemoths, and they gave out massive cries of pain. But still, in spite of the pain, or perhaps because of it, they continued to charge.

But the Allmans had anticipated that. Having already moved to the sides of the temple grounds, the behemoths charged straight past them and ran into a trap set by the earth magi – a massive pool of mud. The behemoths struggled and thrashed about, but the trap was already closing in around them. Massive amounts of earth-form mana ran through the mud, and it solidified, returning to its natural state of hard rock. The behemoths, unable to move, could do nothing as a second wave of arrows struck them.

So with the massive, half-buried corpses of the behemoths behind them, the Allmans turned their attention back to the shattered gate.

At least a thousand Acarian soldiers were waiting on the other side. They stood in perfect rows, unmoving and emotionless. There were no banner-men, just a thousand faceless figures in the same black armour and helmet, as still as statues. Their weapons were not even drawn.

At the head of the force stood a lone man garbed in the signature black armour. Luca could not see him very clearly through the thick cloud of dust left in the behemoths’ wake, but there was only one person that could be leading them.

“Zinoro…” he muttered.

“The enemy’s gate is down!” shouted the man at the head of the Acarian army. “Attack!”

The Acarians drew their swords and charged.

“For Allma!” shouted one of the masters. “For the temple!”

As the students and masters alike cheered the name of Allma, it mattered not whether it was for the man or the temple. They ran out to meet the Acarians.

Luca followed behind them. The sound of swords clashing, magick being cast, and blood being shed filled the air. The Acarians vastly outnumbered the Allmans, but the archers up on the rooftops supported them with accurate arrows that brought the Acarians down where they stood.

Luca charged through the battlefield, cutting down Acarians when they challenged him, but his sight was set on a single man.

Yet as he drew near him, he realised this was not Zinoro. This man wore the same armour, but he looked unlike anyone Luca had ever seen. His skin was a very ashen shade of grey, and was covered from head to toe in strange tattoos. He had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows. His eyes gazed out from within two rings of black paint that, coupled with his lack of eyebrows, gave him an intense stare.

As Luca grew closer to him, the Allmans around him grew fewer, and the Acarians grew greater. He heard the Allmans shouting to retreat. It would seem the Acarians had overwhelmed them with sheer numbers.

He fought as much as he could. He was in too deep now to get away. He had struck down a large number of Acarians, but he could not fight an entire army. The sword he had found was knocked out of his hands, and he was beaten down by half a dozen men in armour. He felt a sword against his throat.

“Wait, wait,” said the man with the tattoo, who was approaching him. “Yes, he’ll do. Send my message to Allma. Tell him I have a prisoner.”

<> <> <>

“We need more arrows,” said Tranom to one of the archers. “Send a team to the armoury for more immediately.”

“Sir, we’re out,” the archer replied. “We’ve used up the full stock of arrows already.”

“The entire temple’s stock?! Damn it all.” Tranom’s eyes narrowed in rage as he turned his attention back to the battlefield. The Allmans had retreated back into the temple, and were gathered around the centre sanctum. The only thing separating them from the enemy was the giant behemoth corpses. The Acarians were holding their position at the gate, and were not moving further into the temple.

“Why aren’t they pressing their advantage?”

“Where is he?” Brand muttered. “Did you see him down there?”

Tranom shook his head.

“How could he just disappear like that? How can it be so difficult to spot someone with white hair?” Brand turned to Emila. “You’re certain he’s still alive?”

“I-I would have felt it,” she said hesitantly. “If he would have died, I would know. Without doubt.”

“But how?!” Brand exclaimed.

Emila bit her lip, and looked with pleading eyes at the battlefield that had once been the front garden of the temple. “We’re – connected. I can’t really explain it, but whatever he feels, I feel.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Tranom said.

A messenger appeared at the top of the ladder, and ran over to Tranom. “S-sir… The Acarians have – have sent a message Master Allma. They have a hostage, and th-their leader wants to meet him.”

“Zinoro?” Tranom asked.

The messenger shook his head, still short of breath. “N-no, sir. It’s one of his acolytes. Dreevius, I think they said was his name.”

“I see Allma now,” Brand said suddenly. “He’s going out with his squire.”

Tranom turned to Emila. “Girl. You’re an ice-form magus, right?”

“Y-yes,” Emila said hesitantly.

“We have no more arrows left,” Tranom said. “I need you to make an arrow with your magick.”

“But – why?”

“Because we cannot trust the Acarians. They might be planning to kill Allma. If their leader takes any hostile action against Allma, we need to be able to support him.”

“Oh… I see.”

Emila gathered her mana and wove in into the shape of an arrow. It was slightly crooked, but the end was sharp enough.

“It’ll have to do,” Tranom said. “Draw your bow and get ready. I think I can see the Acarian leader coming through the gate.”

“You want me to shoot him?!”

“Who else?!” Tranom exclaimed, irritated. “Why did you come up here, armed with a bow, if not to shoot down our enemies? That arrow is your magick – we cannot give it to another archer. It’s up to you.”

“B-but…”

“Get your bow out now,” Tranom growled.

“Master,” Brand cut in. “We may have another archer who can use a solid mana form. This girl, she’s not a-”

“We do not have time for this, apprentice,” Tranom interrupted. “She came up here, so she’s a soldier now. We do not have the luxury of debate. There’s too much at stake here.”

With shaky hands, Emila picked up her bow and placed the magick arrow she had made upon it.

“I’ve never killed before…” she whispered. “I can’t… I can’t do this… I can’t do this…”

Brand placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Just relax. It’ll be okay.” He gave her a reassuring smile, but Emila was not reassured. In fact, tears were beginning to run down her cheeks.

“They do have a hostage…” Tranom said. “Take a look.”

He looked down at the centre of the battlefield, where the Acarian leader and Allma had gathered to meet. At the feet of the Acarian leader, was a figure with white hair.

<> <> <>

“This attack is unwarranted,” Allma said sternly. “There is no reason for this invasion. You have come into the kingdom of Torachi, and made an attack upon a protected place. This will be considered an act of war, and will be treated as such by the Alliance. By attacking this temple, you have declared war with Torachi, Saeticia, and Sono. Is Acaria really prepared for that?”

Dreevius barked out a loud laugh, and he did not move from his side. His sword was pressed up against Luca’s throat.

“This is no act of war,” Dreevius said. “Come now, Allma. Surely you received our message. Let’s not play this game any longer. You knew this attack was coming.”

Allma’s expression did not change. His reply was level. “I received no message from Acaria.”

Dreevius snorted. “So be it. Well, you know what it is we’re after. Just bring out the daughter of Zaow, and we will leave. This student of yours will be returned unharmed, and we can both go our separate ways.”

Luca looked up from the ground. So they were after Selphie, he thought.

He looked up as best he could at the man who held him captive. There had been no glimmer of recognition in his eyes when he had seen Luca. This attack hadn’t been for him, at least. It was likely Zinoro didn’t even know where he was, or if he even still lived.

His gaze shifted over to Allma to see what the man was thinking. Allma’s eyes passed over Luca for a moment, deep in thought. His squire, Rael, stood nervously behind him.

“So it is the Princess Selphie that you’re after,” Allma said. His voice was flat – so flat, in fact, that it sounded as though he were reading from a script. “Well, you should know that she falls under our protection. She was sent here by her father, the king of Sono. She is our responsibility, and thus she will not be given to you, under any circumstances. We will muster all forces that we have to defeat you, in order to protect her.”

Luca let out a sigh of relief. Surrendering the princess to the Acarians while she was in Allma’s care would have only made things worse for everyone.

“As for the hostage you have…” Allma continued, glancing at Luca for only the briefest of moments. “It is the Torachi custom, and the custom of this temple, to never abandon those who can be saved.”

Dreevius raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?”

“But those captured by the enemy are already considered dead,” Allma said. “We do not bargain with those who attack us. Kill him if you wish. He was lost the moment you took him.”

Luca’s breath caught in his throat. Dreevius had moved his sword away from his neck. His heart was beating in his chest, louder than a drum.

Dreevius started to laugh. “You’re a cold son of a bitch. Very well, then. Never let it be said that Acarians are not men of their word.”

Luca only had a half of a second to think before he felt Dreevius’ sword plunge through his chest. He choked as blood came up in his throat. As everything went cold, he looked down and saw a sword blade where his heart should have been.

It was getting hard to think. Everything was growing cold.

Luca didn’t even feel a thing as Dreevius kicked him away and he fell face-first in the dirt, blood running freely out of the hole in his chest.

Somewhere in the distance, Emila was screaming in pain.

Chapter VIII

People Die All the Time

For one single fleeting moment, there was a hushed, awed silence. The masters and students of the Allma Temple watched, as the Acarian commander stabbed the son of Lodin through the chest. Red blood flowed, staining the emerging silver of his blade. The man pulled his sword out of Luca, and then kicked him aside like a piece of trash.

Brand’s was pale. “No…”

The silence was broken by Emila’s scream of pain. She doubled over, dropping her bow and clutching her chest in pain, at the very spot where Luca had been stabbed. All eyes on the rooftop turned to her.

And then, in a single moment, the shock turned to rage. Pure, blind, white noise. She picked her bow back up, and the ice arrow she had been holding, which until then she had been terrified of using, was drawn and fired before anyone could stop her.

“No!” Tranom shouted, knowing full-well the consequences of what would happen.

“He killed him!” Emila cried out, clutching at her breast. She shook, as tears ran from her eyes. “He killed him!”

Brand ran to her, pulling her away from the edge of the building and the image of Luca’s death. She broke down, sobbing uncontrollably into his chest.

He did what little he could to comfort her.

<> <> <>

Down in the temple yard, Dreevius cried out as Emila’s arrow struck him in the leg, just above the knee, hitting the narrow gap in his armour. Then, he cried out again as the ice burst open, the shrapnel within the armour cutting his skin.

“Yeah!” he shouted through his teeth. “Now it’s a party!”

Dreevius rolled to the side, the wounded leg doing nothing to inhibit his mobility. As he vanished out of the way, half a dozen Acarian archers stepped up where he had been standing. Their bows were already drawn, the arrows pointing directly into the temple entrance.

Right where Allma and Rael were standing.

“Wait!” Allma cried.

The Acarian soldiers were like machines – they carried out their orders without a moment’s hesitation – not even the words of their leader would have given them pause once they were already in action. Six arrows sang through the air.

Allma was nicked on the arm by two of the arrows, and the other four managed to miss him by sheer luck.

“Fire again!” Dreevius called out from the sides, holding his wounded knee and grinning like a madman.

It took the Acarians less than three seconds to draw and fire a second round of arrows. But this time, Allma was prepared. He dashed behind his squire Rael, and grabbed the boy from behind, using him as a human shield. All six arrows struck the unsuspecting boy in the chest. Rael was unable to cry out from choking on the blood in his throat. Allma pushed the boy forward and ran for the safety behind the behemoth corpses.

“Get him!” Dreevius ordered his men. “Do not let him escape!”

The Acarian leader rose up and marched forward into the temple with an unsteady gait. “Raid the temple! Kill any who stand in your way, but bring me the princess of Sono alive!” His men poured in behind him, their weapons already drawn.

“Austille!” Allma shouted, as he ducked into safety behind a behemoth leg. “Austille! Alert Dori! Where are the damn earth magi?!”

Dreevius started to laugh. “No more arrows, huh? Well, we’ve still got plenty. Their strategy doesn’t quite work for sustained battle, does it? This’ll be all too-”

He froze. Something had happened. Something he had not expected.

A hand had grabbed his ankle.

<> <> <>

“Apprentice! Look at this!”

He looked up from where he was, holding Emila as she wept in grief. Tranom’s eyes were as wide as a gold coin. Brand couldn’t have cared less. Whatever was happening, there was nothing he could do. Not now. The best use he could be at this point was to help Emila.

“Master, I-”

Somebody from another roof shouted out, “The son of Lodin lives!”

Emila’s eyes shot open.

<> <> <>

Dreevius stared, the grey skin of his face growing pale, while the boy he had killed not a moment ago, pulled himself up, holding Dreevius’ armour for support. There was a small hole in his chest where his heart should have been, out of which flowed a stream of blood. More blood than a human should have been able to lose and still live, actually – his fur coat was absolutely drenched in it.

The boy’s face was just as pale as Dreevius’ was. The blood loss had left him shaking and sickly. He had to hold the sides of Dreevius’ breastplate just to stand. He looked like he was about to kneel over and die, were it for the fact that he was rising to his feet in spite of that death.

And yet, and the boy raised his head and looked Dreevius straight in the eyes, there was the fire of life in them.

The Acarian soldiers charged past them, all of this meaning nothing to them.

The people of the temple were cheering the boy’s name.

Lu-ca! Lu-ca! Lu-ca!” 

Dreevius was in shock. He could not move. He wanted to push away the walking corpse in front of him. There shouldn’t even have been a corpse. Humans didn’t leave bodies – only monsters did. Even Allma’s squire, the boy who had died in his place, had turned to mana only moments ago. Only his white robes remained now, being tread over by the mechanical Acarian soldiers.

He couldn’t be human. So then… what was he?

Dreevius wanted to do something, but he was frozen. He wanted to push the boy away, to stab him again, to kill him over and over until he stayed dead.

But he couldn’t.

He was stuck, frozen in place by fear. The fear of something he had never before seen.

The boy was growing stronger, in spite of the continually flowing blood that was even now staining Dreevius’ armour.

The cheering was growing louder. It was like they were cheering him back to life.

“H-how…?” was all Dreevius could bring himself to say.

The boy answered by bashing his forehead hard again Dreevius’.

<> <> <>

There was a sick crunch as the top of Luca’s skull connected with Dreevius’ nose. Blood began to gush out immediately. The Acarian fell back, collapsing in the dirt on his wounded leg.

Without the support, Luca stumbled, but he was feeling a bit more sure of himself. Blood was still running out of the hole in his chest, but not as much as before – he must have been starting to run out.

“How?!” Dreevius cried out, holding his broken nose in his hand. “How do you live?! I killed you!”

“It seems you did it wrong,” Luca muttered.

He too, was wondering how this could be. He already had an idea, but even that was far-fetched. He would have to wait to figure it out, though. There was still a battle going on. Thankfully, the Acarians swarming past him were ignoring him, focusing only on Dreevius’ orders, for some reason.

“You should be dead!” Dreevius said hysterically.

“And yet here I stand!” he answered.

Dreevius grabbed the hilt of his sword. “Then I’ll kill you again. I’ll kill you as many times as I have to!”

Dreevius took a single step forward, before the ground started to shake. “What the-?”

A deep rumbling sound filled the air. The magick of a dozen earth-form magi was what shook the ground, but that was not the sound they heard. There was something else. Something beneath them that was waking up.

The already unnerved Acarian went into full-blown panic at that.

“Retreat! Get out the temple now!”

His small army of Acarian soldiers froze, turning on the spot and running the way they had come.

The ground was shaking with a violent intensity now. Cracks were growing from the centre of the front garden now. A heavy aura of mana filled the air, radiating from the ground beneath their feet.

As Dreevius and his men retreated from the temple interior, a large hole opened up in the ground, revealing the deep darkness of the caverns below. Luca ran past this as quickly as his lethargic body could, jumping over the rapidly growing cracks, racing for the safety of the sanctum on the other side of the dead behemoths.

He was knocked down by a powerful wind. From within the hole, a creature began to emerge. The first thing Luca saw was the wings, long and powerful. With each heavy beat, they cast another wind about the temple. He was pushed back, unable to rise against this current.

Then he saw the creature’s back, and the ragged form of Dori, who rode on its back. And after that emerged the long neck, followed by its legs and tail.

The dragon landed at the temple entrance and leaned forward, opening its massive jaws. A stream of fire flowed forth, filling the broken entrance and the grounds just outside the gate. Luca heard orders being barked by Dreevius. The Acarians could not advance while the dragon stood at the gate – not without being roasted alive.

“That’ll do, Austille,” Dori said once the dragon pulled his head back. “I think they get the message.”

“There are yet some who live,” the dragon replied, his voice deep and resonant. “Many of them have fled beyond my reach. Some were not as swift, yet the armour they wore protected them from the flames. I would like not to prolong their suffering.”

“Very well then, put them out of their misery,” Dori said.

As the dragon, Austille, leaned forward and let out another stream of fire-breath, Luca rose on shaky feet.

“Luca!”

He turned to find a large group of students and masters emerging from the rooftops. At the front was Emila, who ran heedless of danger to him, knocking him down again with an embrace.

Luca’s muted groans were unheard. Emila wept as she held him so tightly he could not move. He wasn’t worried of her hurting him by accident – his life clearly was in no danger after what had happened.

Once Emila had calmed a bit, they were joined by others. Brand and Tranom were there, along with Wiosna, the girl who had been picked to join Selphie’s group. There were many others who he did not know.

“Luca…” Brand said, as he knelt by Luca’s side. “How – how are you…?”

“Alive?” he muttered, with a wry chuckle. “Is that what you mean to ask?”

“Well, yes,” Brand said uncomfortably. “We all saw what happened – Dreevius stabbed you in the heart.”

Emila’s eyes wandered down to his chest and she gasped as she saw the hole. It was no chasm, being no wider than the thickness of Dreevius’ sword. But if one looked directly at it, they could see out the other side.

Her hand found his neck. She felt the veins in his throat, and her eyes grew wide.

“He has no pulse…” she said in a quiet voice.

Only Brand and Tranom seemed to hear her. At the moment, everyone’s attention was on the dragon Dori had flown out of the caves. Still, Tranom’s expression grew grim, and he looked around to make sure no one was listening.

“Do you think it’s the-” Luca started to say, but Emila gave him a look that told him to stop talking, an expression he had never seen from her before. Still, the damage was done.

“The what?” Brand asked.

“We can talk about this in private,” Tranom said, quickly and discreetly. “Heal his wound. We can’t let anybody see that.”

“Of course,” Emila said. She drew up her mana and placed her hands over Luca’s chest. “I can’t believe I forgot. I’m so sorry, I just-”

“It’s okay,” he told her. “There’s a lot going on right now.”

Emila blinked, confused. “That’s strange… My mana is running low.”

“Do you have enough to heal him?” Brand asked.

“Yes, it will be fine,” she said. “Or rather – I can close the wound, but…”

“My heart isn’t beating,” Luca said for her. “I’m alive, even though I shouldn’t be. There’s blood flowing through me.”

“No, there is.” Emila had finished healing the wound. “But it’s not – blood. It’s some sort of substitute, made entirely of mana. It flows through your heart, passing right through like wind. It has no substance, but it keeps you alive. I don’t know what to think of it. I’ve never seen anything like this before…”

“This is a day of many firsts,” said Brand.

Tranom asked him, “Can you walk?”

“Yeah,” Luca said. “I feel heavy and tired, but I can manage.”

“Good,” Tranom said. “If anyone asks, you deceived Dreevius. You pretended to be killed, so that you could catch him unaware. Tell no one the truth. It is a thin lie, but it does not take much to draw a connection between your survival and your brother’s treachery, so for now it’s all we have.”

Luca nodded, now understanding Tranom’s urgency. Emila had drawn away from him, her eyes distant, lost in her thoughts.

“This tether…” he whispered to her. “Did you know this would happen?”

She shook her head. “It is – hard to explain.”

“We’ll find another place to talk,” Tranom said. “Later, once this battle is done with. For now, Dori has need of us.”

In the distance, Dori had climbed down from the dragon and was beckoning for them. Luca rose to his feet with Emila’s help. Once he was standing, he felt more stable, and he was able to walk on his own. They slowly made their way through the crowded temple grounds, to where Dori and the dragon were. The dragon did not take its eyes off the broken gate, on the other side of which the Acarian forces could be seen, watching warily just out of reach of the flame breath.

Dori’s cane hung from his belt. He was standing on his feet without any need for it.

“We have a stalemate for now, it would seem,” Dori said to Tranom, once they had reached him. “The Acarians are neither retreating nor advancing. It seems they are waiting.”

“Likely trying to come up with a plan,” Tranom muttered, scratching his bearded chin. “They think they can still take the temple.”

“These men have no life in their eyes,” said Austille the dragon, not moving a hair. “They would rush heedless into their deaths if their leader commanded it. You must be wary of them. It is unnatural.”

The students of the temple seemed in awe of the dragon before them. They spoke amongst themselves, and occasional a hand would cautiously reach out to touch the grey scales. Austille paid them no mind, keeping his attention focused on the army outside.

“There is magick in this,” Dori said. “Have you seen their armour? It is smooth and polished. There is not a single scratch or speck of dirt on any of them. Nobody stays that clean after weeks of travel.”

“I have noticed this,” Tranom muttered.

“Excuse me for a bit.” Dori took his cane from his belt, and walked away, leaning with each step.

Austille turned his large head just slightly, looking at Luca with his yellow eyes. “Young human. You were the one in the caves yesterday, with your brother.”

“Yes, I was.”

“Your brother comes to the caves often. He meditates there, and his presence does not disturb me, so I have no quarrel with him. But you – you fell into the water, and thrashed about. Your disruption brought out a creature from deeper waters.”

“Y-yes, I did,” Luca replied, feeling a bit intimidated by the creature before him.

But, the dragon did not get angry. Instead, the corner of his mouth curled into a toothy grin. “I quite enjoyed that eel. It is not often that I can enjoy such a feast. Often I must spend hours by the side of the lake, waiting for a large fish to come close to the surface.”

Austille shifted his weight, moving his front leg to where Luca was, and some of the students backed away, startled by the unexpected movement. The dragon placed his closed hand near Luca, and as he opened his claws up, Luca caught sight of a steel blade in his palm.

Siora

“You have done me a favour, whether intentionally or not,” the dragon said. “So I am repaying you. I believe you lost this in the water.”

“Yes, I did…” Luca said. He carefully took the sword from within the dragon’s palm. There was no doubt about it, it was definitely Siora. “This sword was my father’s. Thank you.” 

The dragon nodded, and then moved back to his position as guardian of the gate.

Emila turned to Brand, the surprise of wonder and amazement in her eyes. “This is incredible. How long has he been waiting underground?”

“Since the Acarian war, when he and Dori returned from Sono,” Tranom said.

“And nobody knew that he was here?” Luca asked him. “The Acarians were caught completely off-guard by this. How could something like this be kept secret?”

“But they were always just rumours, of course,” Tranom explained. “The masters knew for certain, and some of the students. Every now and then the story would leak out of the temple, but it was always quiet.”

“I heard the rumours, myself,” Brand said. “I never could have imagined they were true…”

“So that is the secret of Allma Temple,” Luca said. “You have a secret dragon you let out when things get bad.”

“He and Dori are partners,” Tranom said. “They fought together in the Acarian war. It was the first time a human and a dragon have ever worked together. It helped tip the scales in favour of the Alliance.”

“Wow,” Emila said quietly. “I never knew that.”

Luca thought of his father. Lodin must have known about it – he trained under Dori, after all. They had fought separately in the war, but they must have seen each other again, because Luca had met Dori once when he was very little. Yet Lodin had never said anything to Luca about it – or about Dori at all. What else did he not know about his father’s past, or the people he had known?

“Austille is only middle-aged by dragon standards,” Tranom said to them. “His scales are still tough enough to block arrows, so the Acarians’ archers are worthless against him. They have no way of getting back in, so long as he is keeping watch.”

“So now we must decide our next move,” Dori said suddenly, joining them from the crowd. “Where has Allma gone?”

Tranom began to speak. “He’s-”

“Run away,” Luca interrupted. “Like a coward. He used Rael as a shield, letting the boy take the Acarians’ arrows. I saw everything.”

Everyone grew quiet. Emila had a look of shock on her face, as though she was surprised that anyone could do such a thing. Brand’s eyes were cast down. Tranom and Dori stared at Luca for a moment, then exchanged glances.

“We knew that Rael did not survive,” Tranom said to him. “There was a lot of confusion after you were stabbed. Rael and Allma ran out of our field of vision before the Acarian archers stepped forth. Are you – absolutely certain this is what you saw?”

“I have no doubt,” Luca said. “I was there in the dirt, unable to move. But I could see everything in the garden. I saw Allma shove Rael forward as he fled. He did not hesitate to sacrifice the boy.”

Tranom bit his lip. “It may be best if you keep this to yourself for now.”

“You’re asking me to keep a lot of secrets today,” Luca said.

“He is our leader,” Dori explained. “He has the support of the people. And we are in the middle of a battle. Your brother is believed to be a mole. What do you think will happen if you go around telling everyone this?”

“Think about what just happened with the Acarian leader,” Tranom said. “Your survival motivated the students. But if you should tell them this? Suddenly your survival will look staged to them. It would be easy for them to accuse you of treachery, so soon after your brother. And you only just arrived here. Doubtless, the thought has already crossed a few of their minds.”

Luca’s fists were clenched, but he could not say anything, because they were right.

“We saw the hole in your chest,” Brand offered. “We know the truth. But Dori and my master are right – now is not the time for this.”

“So – where is he, then?” Emila asked.

Brand looked over to where the behemoth corpses were. “If he is anywhere, he has gone back to the centre sanctum. I will go and check, with your leave of course, Master.”

Tranom nodded. “Yes, yes. Go ahead.”

Brand gave him only the briefest of glances before he took off at a run towards the sanctum. Luca watched him go, considering. The princess was still in that sanctum. And so was Ash – locked up and in chains.

The little voice in his head was telling him to go after Brand. He needed to confront Allma, and he needed to help his brother. And yet, if he should harm Allma, what would happen? If the entire temple were to turn against him…

He touched the spot where his shirt were ripped – where Dreevius’ sword had gone through him. A wound he should not have survived – and yet, he had.

Luca looked over to Emila. She was standing alone now, watching Austille like so many others. So many students had gathered around the dragon. Others were still on the rooftops, with their bows. Nobody was at the sanctum.

A plan was beginning to form in his head.

Allma, Selphie, her men, Ash, and the two guards assigned to watch him. And Brand.

Eleven people.

He looked over to Dori and Tranom. They were talking to one another, making plans for when Brand returned with Allma’s orders. They were paying no attention to them.

Luca went to Emila and grabbed her arm. She turned to him, surprised. He placed a finger over his lips, telling her to be quiet.

“Follow me.”

She nodded, and did.

<> <> <>

Only when they were on the other side of the behemoths, and out of sight of the students, did Emila speak.

“What is it, Luca? What’s happening?”

“It’s our chance,” he told her as they ran. “Everyone is paying attention to the dragon, and making plans to fight the Acarians. I was coming to get you before, but you weren’t in the bedroom. I got sidetracked, because I wanted to help them, but they have the dragon now, so they don’t need me…”

“Luca, what are you saying?”

He stopped, and turned and looked her right in the eyes. “He has my brother. He blamed the attack on Ash. But it’s not true. I’m going to go into that temple and get my brother. I’ll fight anyone I have to. But I’m taking you and Ash, and we’re leaving this place while we still can. Whatever plans Allma has, he can make them without me.”

“But Brand is in there!” Emila said. “If they try to stop you, are you going to fight them?”

“I can fight anyone,” he said, a smile forming on his lips. “Because I cannot die.”

“W-what…?!”

“I should have died earlier!” he exclaimed. “People die when they’re killed, right? And I was definitely killed – he stabbed me right in the heart. But I’m still alive. It’s the Soul Tether. As long as you’re okay, nothing they do can kill me. I could go out there right now and fight the entire Acarian army all by myself!”

Emila was looking at Luca like he was hysterical. “We don’t know that! That technique – I was never supposed to use it! Nobody has ever done it right, not even my father and he was…” She trailed off.

Luca looked back at the centre sanctum. “It doesn’t matter if I can die or not. Even before Dreevius stabbed me, I intended to go in there and save Ash.”

“Luca, think about this for a moment – how many people are in there?”

“Eleven. I counted.”

“Brand is in there. The princess of Sono is in there! Are you just going to burst through the door, with your sword drawn, and start making demands? Look at you, you can barely walk!”

“I’m fine, I feel a lot better now.”

“Be reasonable! Now isn’t the time for this. We can leave with Ash once the battle is over.”

“That won’t work, Emila. He’s going to kill Ash in front of everyone in the temple as soon as the fight is done. This is the only chance I have. I can’t let anything happen to him, he’s the last of my family.”

Emila hesitated. Clearly, she didn’t agree with his strategy, but she was starting to realise nothing she said would convince him otherwise. “Fine. What do you need me to do?”

“Just go wait by Dori’s room. Once I join you with Ash, we’ll all escape through the caves.”

“There could be Acarians down there!”

Luca grinned and placed his hand on her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter what’s down there, Emila. I cannot die.”

She stared at him for a moment, her eyes wide. She looked like she was staring at a madman. “Luca – please don’t be reckless.” She was almost pleading.

“Just go,” he said. “I’ll join you soon.”

Reluctantly, she turned and started running in the direction of Dori’s small house.

<> <> <>

Luca placed his hand on Siora, sheathed at his side, and felt comforted that he had it back. Having his father’s blade returned to him, after surviving Dreevius’ attack – he felt like there was nothing he couldn’t do. 

Still, he needed to be careful. He might be invulnerable to death, but he could still be knocked unconscious and captured.

Hopefully he would only need to deal with Allma and the two guards he had with Ash. Selphie and her escorts were in another room, but there was the possibility that they might interfere if there was too much commotion.

Luca reached the front door of the sanctum.  He slowly pushed it open, remembering when he had first arrived with Emila.

He felt bad for sending her away yet again, but her safety wasn’t only her concern. Now that he was wounded again, she would have to keep safe or his own life would be in danger as well. It was better for the both of them if she stayed somewhere safe. He could fight enough for the both of them.

Inside, there was the chamber where they had met with Allma, and the two side rooms. Selphie and her guards were likely still holed up in one of them. And then there was the ladder that led into the basement, which was where Ash would be.

With his hand still on his sword, Luca approached the ladder.

He stopped.

“Stop!” someone shouted from the room to the right. He recognised the voice as belonging to Brand.

Luca turned away from the ladder, and instead approached the door. It was slightly open, as though the last person to go through it had not closed it all the way. As he drew near, he heard the sound of steel clashing.

Luca drew Siora and kicked the door open. Inside he saw a gruesome sight. The armour of four of Selphie’s guards was on the floor, stained with the blood of the men who had worn them. One remained standing – the man with the halberd. Behind him stood the princess herself, holding a curved shortsword in each hand. 

Before them was Allma, his sword drawn and covered in blood. Standing in between them was Brand, facing Allma, his hand on his scimitar, ready to draw it but looking like he wanted to do nothing less.

“You cannot do this!” Brand shouted at Allma. “Think of the consequences! She is the princess of Sono! Have you lost your mind?!”

“She was dead the moment she set foot in this place,” Allma said in an emotionless tone. “Whether by my hand, or an Acarian’s. She cannot leave here alive.”

“But why?!”

“It is no business of yours, boy,” Allma spat. “Now stand aside, or I will cut you down as well.”

“Princess…” said the halberd-carrying soldier. “You must flee while I fight this man.”

She shook her head. “I cannot. We have another visitor.”

Luca stepped forth, raising Siora and pointing it at Allma. “Put down your weapon. It is four against one. You have no chance.” 

Allma turned, seeing him for the first time. His eyes practically bulged out their sockets. “Y-you! You were killed!”

“Put down your weapon,” Luca told him again.

“Brand!” Allma barked. “Lock him up! He must be working with the Acarians! He is a traitor!”

Brand did not move.

“Brand, this is an order!” Allma practically screamed. “As the leader of the temple-!”

“I’m done taking orders from you,” Brand said.

Allma spun and swung his sword at Brand’s neck. Selphie’s guard sprang forward and blocked the blade with his halberd.

“Damn it!” Allma said.

Allma tried to draw away from the soldier, only to find Luca’s blade at his throat.

“Move and die,” he said.

A halberd, a scimitar, and two short swords were in Allma’s face in moments.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Selphie asked him.

Allma was silent.

<> <> <>

Luca pushed Allma into the cell which had, only moments ago, been holding Ash. Allma’s hands were bound, and his sword had been taken from him. The cell had a magick circle drawn on it’s floor, which would block any mana flowing within it, to prevent prisoners from using magick to escape.

Ash had been beaten badly. He was covered in dirt and dried blood, and dressed in torn rags. But he was able to walk without help, and as he stood on the outside of the cell, he looked down at Allma in disgust.

Brand was there with them as well. “This is the best we can do right now,” he said. “He’s the leader of the temple. We can’t kill him. But after attacking a member of the royal family of Sono, he has to be detained at least for the time being.”

Allma stared at them, saying nothing. Deep in his eyes, there was a fear that he was hiding behind layers of rage.

Brand turned to him. “He’s not going anywhere. We should go check on the princess.”

Luca nodded. He turned to his brother, but Ash raised his hand before he could speak. “I’m fine. I’ve had worse beatings,” he dismissed.

The three of them made their way back upstairs, where they found Selphie, her remaining guard, and Tranom, who must have just arrived. As he noticed their arrival, Brand’s tall master drew near them.

“Allma has…” Tranom began to say.

“Tried to kill the princess of Sono,” Brand explained. “Whether by insanity, desperation, or plot, he drew his blade on a royal. I did what the law decreed, and had him locked away.”

“I know,” Tranom said, frowning. “The princess has already explained the circumstances. This has certainly complicated things – not only are we under siege by the Acarians, but our own leader has just declared war against Sono.”

“Whatever Allma the third is plotting, I will not hold the entirety of Allma Temple responsible,” Selphie reassured him. “So long as he is not commanding you against me.”

“After this, he has no right to lead us,” Tranom said to Selphie. “Dori is the second in command, and I the third. I assure you, that if we are in command, you have no enemy in Allma temple.”

“So you are challenging Allma’s rule?” Luca asked.

“Dori and I intended to challenge it once the siege was over either way,” Tranom said. “We have had our doubts. What you told us about Rael only confirmed our suspicions. The Allma we knew twenty years ago would never have done something like that. Time has changed him. After attacking the princess – I cannot take orders from that man any longer.”

“Regardless,” said the halberd-carrying guard. “I feel that the princess should leave this place. Four of us were slaughtered here by a man who was supposed to be trustworthy. Her safety is my responsibility, and this temple is clearly not safe.”

“With the Acarians outside?” Brand asked. “She’s safer here than anywhere else.”

“He’s right, Jared,” Selphie said to her guard. “The Acarian army blocks the road, and we have no way of knowing what parties of them may be in the woods. Not to mention the bandits and monsters out there. There are only a few hours of day left – not long enough for us to make it to the nearest town. We must remain here, at least until the siege is over.”

“How can we trust them?” the guard, Jared, asked her. “One of them already tried to take your life!”

“Tranom gave me his word,” Selphie said sternly.

“As did Allma.”

There was tension in the chamber as they watched the princess glare at her guard. Whatever was to happen, it would be the result of whatever she said.

But she never did. For at that moment, the sound of a loud boom cut through the air.

“What was that?!” Tranom exclaimed.

“It came from outside!” Brand said, darting for the door. Brand threw open the door and ran outside. They all followed behind him.

Outside, there were sounds of shouting and panic. They came from the other side of the behemoth corpses – at the temple gate.

“Dori!” Brand shouted, who had already reached the clear.

As Luca drew up behind him, he saw an unexplainable sight. Acarian soldiers were everywhere – hundreds, no thousands filled the temple grounds. There were pouring in by the masses at the shattered gate, where Austille was using his claws and heavy tail to take them down by the dozens. They were coming out from behind buildings, or firing arrows from rooftops where the temple’s own archers had just been. Everywhere, white-robbed students were being stabbed or struck with arrows, their bodies vanishing. The Acarians moved with mechanical precision, never stopping or hesitating.

It was a massacre. The Allmans were outnumbered at least twofold. Acarians continued to appear, as though from nowhere, everywhere they could. The number was unbelievable – far more than the small army that Austille had chased outside.

Luca felt a shiver and prayed Emila had listened this time.

And yet, he could still feel her. His false heartbeat continued, so Emila was still alive. And he had no sudden pains from their shared connection, so she was unharmed as well.

“This can’t be…” Tranom muttered.

“How?!” Brand exclaimed. “How are there so many of them?!”

They were then noticed. A group of archers atop a nearby building turned their attention to them, and two dozen bows were aimed and drawn. The Sonoian guard Jared stepped forth, and a surge of mana filled the air as he used his magick to raise a shield of earth from the ground. The arrows were fired, but they were safe behind the stone wall.

“It does not matter how many there are,” Ash said. “So long as we have Austille, their numbers mean nothing. The masters know this, and they will react accordingly. Dori’s just waiting for everyone to get out of Austille’s range.”

Get back!” 

There was then a gust of wind, the telltale sign of Austille’s wings. The dragon, with Dori on his back, rose up into the air. In only a few seconds, he had risen above the Acarians gathered around him, and with a blast of his fire-breath, they were incinerated.

“Princess,” Jared said to Selphie. “We cannot stay out in the open like this.”

Selphie nodded. “Tranom, what would you suggest? It may be time to consider retreat.”

“Flee if you wish, Princess.” Tranom had drawn his sword. “You can take shelter back in the sanctum. But we stay and fight. If these bastards think they can smear the legacy of Allma Temple…!”

With those parting words, Tranom left them and ran out into the sea of black-armoured men, cutting them down left and right. He screamed, primal and enraged, and his sword was soon dripping red. He was joined by several students, who were beginning to gather in groups.

It was a war-zone. The once-serene temple had become a haze of screams, clashing steel, and bursts of fire. Luca looked to where Dori’s house was. Though he could not see it clearly, there seemed to be few people in the area.

“What should be done with Allma?” Luca asked, suddenly remembering the imprisoned leader of the temple.

“Leave him in his cell,” Brand spat. “Nobody will look for him down there, and he won’t be a problem, either.”

Ash turned to Selphie. “If you’re going to flee, I would suggest you go now, before any more of them come. The underground caverns have a secret passage that will take you out into the woods.”

“The Acarians first attacked from underground,” Brand pointed out. “They could still be down in those caves.”

“You could always try your luck with the front door,” Ash said, pointing to the shattered gate, where swarms of charging Acarians were being consumed by red fire.

Jared scowled. “It seems our best bet. We cannot remain here.”

“I know,” Selphie said, her eyes sad and regretful. “I’m truly sorry, Luca, Brand, Ash – I cannot stay here. It was safe enough before, but now that they are within the walls… I cannot stay, though I hate to run away. I would help you and fight by your side – but my duty comes before honour. I have an obligation to my kingdom and my father, and fighting here would put my life at risk. Were I not a princess, I would not hesitate to stay.”

“Your safety comes first,” Brand said. “Get out of here while you still can.”

“I know those tunnels better than anyone here,” Ash said to her. “It’s easy to get lost down there. I can go with you. I can’t help much here as it is. The Allmans think I’m a traitor.”

Jared frowned, but Selphie smiled and nodded. “Yes, thank you. Where are these tunnels?”

“The entrance is at Dori’s house.”

Luca placed his had on Ash’s shoulder. “Brother. When you get there, you’ll find Emila waiting for me. Tell her – tell her I want her to go with you. Tell her to get out of here while she still can.”

Ash looked him in the eyes for a moment. The implications of her waiting there for him remained unspoken. “I’ll tell her… So long, brother.”

The three started off for Dori’s house, ducking past the behemoths and making a break for it, leaving Brand and Luca behind.

Brand stared at him for a moment. “You’re not fleeing with her? After everything that happened – what made you change your mind?”

Luca looked down at Siora, sheathed at his belt. “I keep trying to run away from things, it seems. But every time I try to run, there’s always a reason why I can’t.” 

He thought of Arlea, and their secret plan to run away from Arimos. He thought of his first meeting with Emila, and how he tried to flee from the inn. And he thought of his first attempt to run away from the temple, no more than an hour ago.

“I can’t leave while everyone here is being slaughtered,” he told Brand. “I couldn’t run away before, and I can’t now. Whether I can or can not die out there is irrelevant. The Code of Uro tells me to stay and fight.”

Brand raised his eyebrows. “Well, that explains a few things. You should have told Emila.”

Luca found he couldn’t say anything.

Brand placed his hand on Luca’s shoulder. “There’s a lot of them out there. Odds are we’re gonna die. You still up for it?”

Luca smirked.

<> <> <>

Dori sent another wave of wind magick to Austille, keeping the dragon from hitting the ground as he swept low once again. His friend let out another breath of fire, and two or three dozen Acarians were reduced to nothing more than blackened armour.

The old man felt young again for the first time in years. It had been so long since he and Austille had had a chance to fly – not since a large group of bandits had tried to rob the temple nearly ten years ago. He knew that Austille was glad to be out of the underground. The caves were spacious, but a dragon only felt free in the skies.

Austille was shamed by his people – banished from his home in the mountains in the south for aiding in a human conflict. Allma the third had agreed to let Austille live in the caves beneath the temple at the end of the Acarian War on the condition that he defend the temple when Allma called for it. The leader only wanted his secret weapon out of the arrangement, but the truth was that it had saved Austille’s life. Had he not spent those years under the temple, he would have been slain by bandits, hunters, or his own kind long ago.

And the dragon was enjoying himself, as well, Dori could tell. It had been many years since they had last fought together, but he had a deep understanding of him.

The story between them was a long one, but it had a simple beginning – at the beginning of the war, Dori had found Austille, wounded by Acarians. He was a young dragon, his skin not yet thick enough to block an arrow. Rather than killing him, as most humans would have, Dori healed him, and Austille vowed to repay his debt.

The debt had been payed long ago, but the two had never parted. They were kindred spirits – both outcasts to their own people.

Dori looked down at the temple grounds. There were many Acarians down there – far too many. They were emerging from outside the temple like ants.

This new war – if indeed that’s what it came to – was far different than the one Dori and his apprentice Lodin had fought in all those years ago. The Acarians of then were just the people of another nation. They were the enemy, of course, but the Acarian soldiers had families and stories and honour in their hearts. Manorith was a ruthless leader, but he did what he did for his people. The war he launched was the desperate last resort of a dying nation. A three-year plague had killed more than half their population, and was still going. Acaria had never been a prosperous land – but it had survived. For the first time, that had been in doubt. Manorith told his people about the green grass on the other side of the mountains, and led them to Sono so that they might take that land for themselves. In the end, the war was what finished them off.

And then, under the rule of Zinoro, Acaria had emerged from its own death, with an army that dwarfed the size of Manorith’s. These soldiers were inhuman – they killed without hesitation, they never spoke, and they charged into death without a single concern.

The nation of Acaria had come back with a vengeance – in only twenty years.

There was a scream from below as one of the students was cut down. It pained Dori to see them die, but such was the life of a mercenary. Nobody expected to learn the secret training of Allma without having to pay a price – whether that was death or service to whoever paid.

He had to be careful in choosing where to direct Austille to strike. The Allmans were gathering in groups where they could, but the occasional flash of white in the sea of black meant that he couldn’t have Austille attack there. But when they were surrounded by enemies, those lone students did not tend to live long anyway…

“Dori, look,” Austille said. “Down at the gate.”

He looked down, his vision no less sharp with age. At the gate, surrounded by several dozen Acarians stood the strange acolyte who Zinoro had sent to command this attack, unmistakable with his grey skin, shaved head, and tattoos.

“He emerges at last,” the dragon rumbled. “Shall I strike there next? We can slay their leader. Without his orders, they will be confused.”

“Yes, but be wary,” Dori said. “He may be preparing some attack.”

As Austille flew down towards the gate, Dreevius beckoned and a flurry of arrows flew at Austille from archers on the rooftops. Hundred of arrows.

Dori used wind magick to keep any from hitting him – the rest just bounced uselessly off Austille’s skin.

“Fools!” Austille roared. “If that was your plan, you have wasted your chance!”

Even from where he was, Dori could make out the expression on Dreevius’ face. He was smiling – a confident smirk.

“Austille, wait!”

It was too late. Dreevius held up his left hand, revealing some sort of strange orb filled with thick black smoke. He channelled his mana through it, and it turned red.

Austille cried out and twisted in mid-air. Rather than come to a stop right before Dreevius, he crashed into the ground, thrashing and writhing in pain. Dori was thrown off of his back, and he flew a far distance and struck the wall of the temple.

Austille roared, thrashing wildly in blind agony. The Acarians swarmed on him by the dozens. In his thrashing, his tail knocked many down, and his claws tore several apart, but that didn’t stop them. They surrounded over him like black ants swarming over a piece of dropped food, and while their arrows could not piece the dragon’s thick skin, their swords had no such difficulty. They stabbed madly, wherever they could, and drew back blades covered in green blood.

Dori cried out. He rose, ignoring the pain in his old, crippled body. He took several unsure steps.

He did not get far. His body just would not move. He fell onto one knee, realising one of his legs, and at least one of his ribs was broken.

Austille cried out in pain again, whether it was from the strange orb Dreevius held or the dozens of Acarian soldier stabbing him, or both, Dori could not know.

Feebly, Dori tried to crawl to his suffering friend. A boot stepped on his fingers.

“Watch,” Dreevius said to him. “Watch as the dragon dies.”

Dori could not. He closed his eyes. There was nothing he could do, however, to block out the sound of Austille’s screams. Tears ran down his cheeks.

And then – the screaming stopped. The Acarian soldiers continued to stab at the dragon, even in death. They would continue until their leader ordered them to stop.

“Austille…” Dori sobbed in a weak, defeated voice.

“Don’t worry,” Dreevius said, as Dori heard the sound of a blade being drawn. “You will soon join him in death.”

Dori looked up at the grey man before him. He recognised what he was, and he had no adoration for his kind. But no matter what colour of skin he had, or even what species he was, there was no possibility of mercy for him now.

“Oh, how cute,” Dreevius said. “The old drunk wants to fight back.”

He took a few steps away, giving Dori the chance to climb back to his feet. The Acarian soldiers had finally ceased their mindless stabbing of Austille’s corpse, and had now gathered in a large circle around Dori and their master, cutting off any possibility of escape. Not that it mattered, as Dori had no intention of desire to get away. He knew he was finished.

But if he could help it, he would take this man with him.

He rose, leaning heavily on his cane, gasping painfully through his broken ribs. His leg filled him with intense pain, but on a second look, he found it was not broken – at least not enough to completely cripple him.

Dori looked back over at his friend, ignoring the sneering Acarian who waited for him. He sighed, reached within his coat, and drew out a flask.

“For you, old friend,” he said. He took a long swig, and when he was finished, the flash was empty. He threw it aside.

He then turned his attention back to Dreevius. The acolyte stared back at him, waiting with a cocky amusement.

“Well? I don’t have all day.”

“Sorry about this Ash,” Dori muttered. “I’m afraid I have to leave you alone now. Hopefully you and your brother can get out of this place.” He wondered where Ash was now, and prayed the boy was safe, both from the Acarians and Allma’s schemes.

“What was that you said?” Dreevius asked.

“You honourless cur,”Dori spat at him. “I curse you. The death coming for you may not be at my hand, but I pray it will be nothing but slow and agonising for what you have done. Regardless…”

Dori then burst forth, twisting the cane he held as he moved. The top of the polished wood turned, and he drew it out of the rest of it. A slender blade was freed, and he tossed the rest of the cane – in truth, the sheath of his concealed sword – aside.

Dreevius gave a start at the unexpected speed of the ragged old man before him. He hastily drew his own sword, and was able to block Dori’s assault just in time to spare himself from a fatal stroke.

Dori landed on his good leg, and as he shifted his weight back to the wounded one, he grimaced in pain. Still, his quick step back was not hindered, and he swung his blade once again, this time low, aiming to take Dreevius’ legs off.

Unable to block the attack, Dreevius clumsily stepped back, and Dori pressed his advantage. He swung his light blade in quick, masterful strokes, and it was half by luck that Dreevius was able to block them at all.

But on the fifth, he made his inevitable mistake, and Dori’s blade struck his wrist. Despite the sword’s light weight, Dori swung it with a skill only a master could. The cut was clean, and Dreevius screamed as he stumbled away, clutching the bleeding stump that has once been his sword hand.

“D-don’t just stand there, you mindless fools!” Dreevius screamed. “Kill him! Kill him!”

Dori moved to close in on him, and deal the finishing blow to his now helpless opponent. But a wall of armoured Acarians quickly formed between them, and he had no chance.

Dozens of blades were swung at him, and he fought them off as well as he could. But he was old, and he no longer had the stamina to fight for so long. Dori lasted for perhaps half a minute against the endless swarm of Acarians, slaying five or six of his opponents, before one of them finally managed to run their blade into his back.

“Damn…” he muttered, blood dripping from his lips.

He had a second or so to ponder his life. He thought of his apprentice, and his older brother, the suicidally reckless boy that Lodin had brought up. Ash was so different from his brother it was hard to believe they were related, but the one thing they shared was an intense passion. Lodin himself had had that same passion, before that business with Manorith and Zinoro had robbed him of it. That passion would drive them to their deaths one day, but it was also a source of strength.

Perhaps he should have told Luca the whole truth of what he was doing.

And then, dozens of blades were driven into Dori, just like Austille, and he was dead.

<> <> <>

Emila jumped to her feet when the door to Dori’s house opened. She clutched the ice dagger in her hand, fearing that Acarians had finally come to check the place, but she let out a sigh of relief when she saw the long white hair that could only have belonged to Luca’s brother.

But when two other people followed Ash in, neither of whom were Luca, she was grew worried.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

Ash glanced at her. “You’re my brother’s companion?”

She nodded. “He said he would meet me here with you. Who are these two and where is he?”

“This is Selphie, princess of Sono,” Ash said. “And her guard.”

“Jared,” said the guard.

“Okay – and where is Luca?”

Ash shrugged. “Off fighting, I guess. He told me to tell you to flee with us.”

Emila blinked. “W-what? I thought he-”

Jared glanced out the door’s small window. “I don’t think anyone saw us, but we should still make haste. They may have seen us enter.”

“Why would he say that?” Emila demanded. “What happened? What made him change his mind?”

He couldn’t have been in his right mind, she thought. He knew what would happen if she left without him – as soon as they were too far apart, the tether would be broken and he would die. After all that talk of his about being unable too die, and his relief at surviving, why would he just want to throw his life away?

“Emila?” Selphie said, stepping forward and smiling. “I believe that’s what Luca said your name was?”

She nodded, wary of these new people.

“I don’t exactly understand what the circumstances are between you two,” Selphie said to her. “But I feel that Luca is concerned for your safety. Whatever his reasons are, I’m sure that he means well.”

“Ash, where is the entrance to these caverns?” Jared asked.

“Here,” Ash said, stepping past everyone and opening the inconspicuous door. The cool air of the caves filled the room.

“Brand is not here either,” Emila said to the princess. “What happened to this – group that you were putting together? Has everything been tossed aside because of this attack?”

“Well, yes,” Selphie replied. “It is unfortunate, but I cannot remain here. My life is in jeopardy with this attack happening, and if I were to be killed, it could result in many more lost lives.”

“Emila, we can talk about this later,” Ash said to her.

“I can’t go with you!” Emila insisted. “I need to be near him, or he’ll die!”

The three exchanged glances.

“Emila, I owe my brother a debt,” Ash said, an edge of impatience in his voice. “I told him I would inform you of his wishes for you, but if you aren’t coming with us, we’ll have no choice but to leave you behind.”

Emila looked at the first door – the one leading to the caverns, and then at the second – the door that lead back outside to the battlefield. The room was briefly illuminated by a flash of light, caused by someone using magick not too far away. She heard the sound of a dying scream – an Allman, for the Acarians did not scream – and she flinched.

“No. I will not leave without him.”

Jared muttered something and strode past her, stepping through the door to the caverns. Selphie gave Emila a look of understanding, she said, “Good luck,” and followed after the guard.

Ash watched her for a moment. “You really care about him, don’t you?”

She nodded slowly.

He shrugged, and brushed his long hair out of his eyes. “Well, I don’t really know what to say. There’s nothing out there now but death. He made a mistake in not fleeing as well.”

“A – mistake?” Emila said. “What do you mean?”

“Because he attacked me when I spoke of you before,” Ash said, turning his back to her and taking the first couple of steps towards the door. “Clearly you mean a lot to him, as well. But in the end, he chose honour over you.”

With those parting words, Ash disappeared into the caves, closing the door behind him.

Silence took the room once more. The only thing she could hear was the muffled sounds of war outside. Dying screams.

Emila looked down at her hands.

Blood.

She had blood on her hands.

It was two years ago, and she was watching as her home was burned. She saw men she had known her whole life, being beaten and slaughtered like animals. She saw the women being thrown to the ground while Acarian soldiers stood over them with lecherous grins. She saw her father’s glasses, stained with blood. She saw her mother’s dress, alone at the table, a massive pool of blood where her head should have been. Her entire life, destroyed in a single afternoon, and all by one man.

The man with the single, red eye.

“I can’t do it…” she whispered, her voice like the flickering flame of a candle in the wind.

She remembered earlier in the day, when an Acarian, after crawling out of the ground with the others, had caught sight of her as she sat on that bench, while she was waiting for Luca to come back.

That man had charged at her, and all she could do was run from him, and put up feeble resistance with her ice daggers. She had many chances to put down her slow, weak enemy, but she never took them. She couldn’t kill, not even an Acarian, the people who she hated and feared more than anything.

Life meant so much to her, for she had seen so much of it lost. She knew what a miracle it was that she herself lived. The thought of taking a life herself…

She could never do that.

So now she waited, on the chance that Luca would make it and come back to her. What if he didn’t? What if that Acarian man caught him again, and stabbed him through the heart once more? What if Luca didn’t survive a second time?

He chose honour over you…

It was not his weakness that he did the right thing. It was a virtue, which was a quality far too lacking in the world they lived in. If there were more honourable men like Luca, then perhaps she would not have been sitting there, hoping that he made it back to her. Perhaps there would not be so much death in the world.

Luca was all she had. She had saved him, and that was the only thing that her life meant anymore. She had saved him from death, after living with the regret of causing the deaths of her family. She travelled with him because she had nothing else – the fact that he lived when he should have died meant that her life was not the pointless wandering she had so long thought it would always be.

What if he died fighting the Acarians? Then it would all be for nothing. She could not let that happen. She couldn’t take the chance that the Soul Tether would protect him from death. She couldn’t simply sit there anymore and hope.

She picked up her bow.

“I cannot take a life,” she said to herself. “I can’t hurt anyone out there, not even the people trying to kill me. I’m here to save lives. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to save him, even if it’s from himself.”

Emila pushed open the door and ran out into the war-torn temple garden.

Chapter IX

The Gullibility of the Benevolent

Luca fell backwards, hitting the stone wall behind him.

Brand said something to him that he couldn’t understand. He could hear nothing over the sound of the blood rushing through his ears, driven by the artificial heartbeat that was keeping him alive.

He was cold. He didn’t know if it was the lack of real blood flowing through his veins, or if it was simply the wind, but he shivered.

No – perhaps it was fear.

There had been a sense of optimism earlier in their fight. Never once had they considered that they might lose, and that the Acarians might win and seize the temple. After all, Allma Temple had never fallen before, so why would it today?

But then, as they ran from one safe zone to the next, he had fleetingly seen the corpse of Austille, and he knew that they were fighting a losing battle.

Brand shouted his name again. There was something strange about his voice. It sounded like it was coming from underwater. Perhaps Luca was simply close to passing out. But if that happened – he would surely die. He had been wrong to think that the Soul Tether could save him no matter what. If he collapsed in the middle of this battlefield, Dreevius would take him and cut him into a thousand pieces, and no magick could save him from that.

His sword – the blade that the late dragon had returned to him – was sheathed now. They were no longer in the middle of the battle. The battle was over, and they had lost.

They were now simply trying to stay alive.

Luca and Brand had found themselves behind one of the buildings, unable to break free from the swarm of black-armoured Acarians that seemed to fill every square of the temple walls.

The Acarians were no longer killing Allmans where they found them, because there just were no more Allmans left to kill. Near the end, Tranom and several others had used magick to break down one of the walls, and a small group had escaped. It couldn’t have been more than fifty students. That was about all that was left.

Allma Temple had fallen.

“Luca!”

He continued to ignore Brand. He had now spotted something – something that struck him to his very core and made his insides turn cold.

A pair of glasses, crushed by a heavy boot, nearly buried in the mud.

Somehow, that sight was what finished him. He felt like the very energy was drained from his limbs, as though he had been forcing through hours of fatigue with sheer willpower, and then he had stopped for a moment, and it all caught up with him. He just couldn’t go on any more.

Brand shouted his name once more.

Finally, he responded. He slowly looked up, not at Brand, but at the black-haired girl approaching them.

She didn’t run away…

“Luca,” Emila said, stopping just in front of him. Standing where she was, she was blocking his view of the glasses.

There was a worried look in her eyes. What was she worried about?

Ah, right. She wasn’t supposed to be here. She was supposed to have left with Ash and the princess. And he should be angry about that, he remembered. He should be angry that she risked herself to come here, when he need her to be okay for his own sake.

Luca did not feel angry. Truly, he did not feel much of anything.

“Luca,” she said to him, leaning in close and looking him right in the eyes. “Luca, we have to flee.”

Flee? How could they possibly flee when he could barely move? His limbs were so heavy. He just wanted to lie down and sleep. He didn’t care what happened anymore…

Emila slapped him across the cheek.

Luca drew back, startled and suddenly aware of himself. The underwater feeling was gone, like he had been pulled up into the air. Suddenly, he could hear and see everything again.

His cheek hurt where she had hit him.

“I’m sorry,” she immediately said. “But please, we have to go. The Acarians are everywhere. They will find us if we linger here.”

Luca looked over to Brand, who wore an expression of consternation. Brand noticed his staring, and nodded in affirmation.

He followed Brand’s gaze up to the temple garden. Or what was left of it. The Acarians had taken the temple, there was no doubt of that. They were relatively hidden in their alley, but the Acarians were ruthlessly efficient in their searching. Emila was right. Eventually they would be found.

“But they’re everywhere,” he said quietly. “Where can we flee to?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Brand said. “The main gate is out of the question, and the hole Tranom created is blocked off by Acarians now. Our only chance is through the underground caverns, but getting to Dori’s house could be difficult.”

“I just came from there,” Emila said. “The path was clear. They don’t seem very interested in Dori’s house. It’s like they don’t even realise it’s there.”

“Then let’s not waste our chance,” Brand said, starting off. “We must make haste!”

“Wait…!” Luca said, placing his hand on Brand’s shoulder.

Out in the open of the courtyard, illuminated faintly by the orange light of the setting sun, he could just barely see the shape of Dreevius making his way alone towards the centre sanctum. He pointed this out to Brand and Emila.

“What could he be going there for?” Brand questioned, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“Perhaps he’s looking for survivors?” Emila suggested. “Where else could anyone have gone? They’ve raided every other building.”

“Not likely,” Luca said. “The centre sanctum would have been one of the first places they would have searched. And they would have found only one person in there.”

Emila turned to him. “What do you mean? Who is there?”

Luca and Brand quickly told her about Allma attacking Selphie, and how they had locked him up in the cell in the basement.

“So – what do we do?” she asked. “We cannot just leave him in there to die.”

“He left me to die,” Luca said in a low voice. “Why should I do anything more for him?”

Emila’s eyes grew wide in shock. “Luca – that’s not how it works. Just because someone does something to you, that doesn’t give you the right to return that to them. That’s the way people like Allma think, and I know you’re not that low. No, the honourable thing to do now would be to try to help him.”

He met her gaze for a moment. She was pleading with him. She really wanted to go and try to save that man, in spite of the fact that he had all but given him up to be killed.

“Whatever it is that’s going to happen to him, he’s earned for himself,” he said, looking away from her. “If we tried to save him now, we would just get ourselves killed. Allma the third is not worth risking our lives for.”

“But…”

“He would not be in that cell if he had not tried to kill the princess,” Brand stepped in. “Luca is right. He got himself in this situation. Whatever happens to him, it is his own doing.”

“The path to Dori’s house is clear,” Luca said to them. “It’s now or never.”

Emila bit her lip. She sighed, and said, “Fine. Let’s go.”

Luca took one final glance at the crushed glasses before they made their way towards Dori’s house. He thought of the girl who had worn them, a person he had only met a single time. He had not seen her die with his own eyes, but the odds of her having survived were too low to have any real hope.

The thought of a young girl being killed was painful to him – for reasons that were all too clear. He had seen it happen, after all – and it haunted him as much as his father’s death had.

And Emila had come back for him, which meant it could have just as easily been her instead of Wiosna.

So many others had died in the attack. The dragon had fallen – which meant Dori himself had likely not survived, either. And then there was Rael, who Allma himself had sacrificed to save his own skin. And the countless students and masters of the now-fallen temple.

If Dreevius’ words to Allma were true, then he had known the attack was coming. Yet he had told no one, or done anything save for trying to frame Ash for it. Whatever Allma’s game was, he had not hesitated to send everyone who followed him off to their deaths.

If Allma had gotten his way, Luca would be dead, Ash would be dead, Selphie would be dead…

He just couldn’t believe that Emila thought it was right to risk their lives to save this man.

They would not. Even Luca could understand there were times when the only thing you could do was run away. And now was one of those times. They would leave Allma behind, along with the temple he had forsaken, the temple which was now in ruins and in flames.

The Acarians were going to burn it to the ground.

<> <> <>

“Ah, it is you,” Dreevius said with a grin. “My men informed me that you were down here, but for a moment I doubted that fate could be so generous to me.”

Allma looked up at Dreevius, trying not to let the fear in his heart show on his face. He had abandoned his honour many years ago, but he still had enough dignity that he would not resort to begging for his life.

He was trapped behind bars, with his mana sealed by a magick circle. There was no way to escape, and any effort he made to do so would just humiliate him. He would not give Dreevius the satisfaction.

But he did need to talk to his murderer – there were things he needed to know.

“How…?” he demanded of the Acarian before him. “How did you bring down the dragon?”

Dreevius stopped his pacing for a moment, and tilted his head to the side. “How do you know the dragon fell?”

“Even down here, I could hear the dragon’s dying screams. And really, how could you have made it this far if it still lived?”

“Ah,” Dreevius laughed, his cocky grin returning. “Well, wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I am a dead man,” Allma replied. “I just want to know where I made my mistake.”

Dreevius’ grin vanished, immediately replaced with a scowl of rage. He stepped up to the bars, reached his hand through, and grabbed Allma by the collar of his shirt. Allma was pulled forward, his head striking the iron bars. Mana surged through Dreevius, taking the form of electricity as it flowed into Allma. He cried out, unable to control himself as his whole world went white with pain.

After a few seconds of hell, the mana faded. Dreevius released him, and Allma fell back into his cell, twitching feebly.

“Your mistake,” Dreevius spat, “was thinking so light of the Acarians. Did you really believe that we could be so easily tricked? That we were fools?! That you could just invite us here and double cross us, and that we would be oblivious to your goals…?” His voice rose with each sentence.

Allma did not answer.

“I suppose you did not.” Dreevius laughed again, hatred burning in his eyes. “This plan of yours? A fool could see through it. You told us of the princess’ arrival, knowing that we would come here to take her. You planned to kill the princess yourself while your dragon finished us off, and then place the blame of her death of us. This would lead to a war between Sono and Acaria. Am I right?”

He paused, and when Allma did not answer, he continued. “Yes, of course I am. Because this war would line your pockets with gold, just as the first war did, twenty years ago. This temple exists in such esteem because the mercenaries you sent to Sono, specifically Dori and that dragon he rode, were what won that war.”

Allma, having regained enough strength to move, pulled himself up to a sitting position.

“So your mistake…” Dreevius said, getting close to the bars and smiling a wicked toothy grin. “Well, you just thought the old drunk and the dragon could fight off anyone, didn’t you? And to a degree, you were right. An army with all the spears and arrows in Bacoria could do nothing to those two when they were working together.

“A dragon on its own is enough to wipe out a town, but when it lands to rest, the hunters will get it. Once those beasts hit the ground, they’re finished. So having one at your disposal – well, in most cases that would be the perfect way to defend your fortress.”

Dreevius reached into his pocket and took out an orb filled with the black smoke. “Let me tell you a story. In the old days, Acaria had a lot of trouble with dragons. We’re surrounded by mountains, after all, their natural resting place. This was long before the days of the truce, so these dragons attacked us freely. Our magi, in desperation, created these little devices. When mana is channelled through one, it sends out an aura field that makes the unique blood of dragons burn like fire. In those old times, they would use these to train captured dragons to be beasts of burden.”

He stood up, placing the orb back in his pocket. “A friend lent this to me, because we knew about your dragon from the very beginning.” Quietly, Dreevius said to himself, “I don’t get why he was so reluctant to give it up – he’s got three of them.” He returned his attention to Allma. “Remember those bandits you were so proud of defeating ten years ago? There were survivors. Those survivors came to us for refuge, and they told us all about your trump card. Those survivors joined our army, and helped bring this temple down.”

Dreevius walked away from Allma’s cell, disappearing from his vision. A moment later, he returned, carrying the ring of keys for the cells. After finding the right key, the Acarian opened the door and stepped inside.

“I don’t believe in letting a man die with confusion in his mind,” Dreevius said. “So know this. We will have our war with Sono, and with all of the Alliance if they defy us. Zaow will die at the hand of King Zinoro. Sono will be nought but ash when we are through, and the destruction of your temple was just the first step in our campaign. Whether there was a princess here or not, we would have still murdered you all.”

Allma’s body was still too numb to even struggle as Dreevius placed his hands on the sides of his head.

“Your mistake was defying Zinoro at all. That cost you a merciful death.” 

It was slow – so slow that the numbness Dreevius’ electricity had left in him was gone long before it was over. The pain was unbearable, and he screamed and cried and begged him to stop, all thoughts of honour and dignity and regret lost in the unbearable pain.

Perhaps to Dreevius it lasted only a few seconds – but to Allma it felt like an eternity.

Dreevius rose when it was done, staring down at the corpse of Allma – the head of which was twisted completely backwards – for the few seconds it would exist before it faded into mana.

He smiled. “That damn drunk almost made that one impossible for me, cutting off one of my hands earlier. Were I human, I wouldn’t have been able to kill Allma in such a satisfying fashion.”

He placed his fingers together, cracking the knuckles on each hand, then he dropped the keyring on the floor and left, whistling as he went.

<> <> <>

He was back in the caverns, back in that thick darkness, with the glowing eyes of a thousand creatures watching from the shadows, warily, but not quite as afraid as they had been on his first visit. They ran, until the noise of the battle and the killing was gone, replaced by the silence of the underground.

They stopped in the tunnel for a moment to catch their breath. Emila looked exhausted, and Luca wished he could have helped her in some way. He would have even carried her, but his body was growing weaker all the time. He wasn’t quite sure how he was even still able to move, but he felt like he could just push through any amount of fatigue. Emila however, looked like she needed the break.

Brand even looked tired, but he was holding up better than either of them.

“You wouldn’t happen to know the way out of here, would you?” Luca asked him.

Brand shook his head. “From what I know, Ash was the one who always came down here. I knew there were other ways out of the temple, but I was never shown them.”

Luca’s magick sphere of light hovered close behind them, illuminating the dark maze. He looked around at the various tunnels and passages in the underground.

Now that the dragon was gone, there was really nothing to hold the monsters back. Only their caution was keeping the threesome alive – the monsters didn’t know if the dragon would come back, so they did not rush out. But there was fresh meat down there, just ripe for the taking. These dark things – they could see they were tired, and they were just waiting for them to collapse, so they could come out and have a quick meal of them. Eventually, though, their hunger would overcome their fear of Austille, and they would emerge nonetheless.

Luca looked over at Emila, who had grown pale in the hour or so since they had entered the cavern. Her eyes were hazy and unfocused, and her breathing laboured.

“Emila…” he said to her, “what’s wrong?”

She shook her head, and smiled reassuringly. “I just feel very exhausted all of a sudden. But it’s fine, I can keep going.”

She clearly wasn’t fine, but the situation demanded that they keep going. Stopping to rest would end with their deaths.

“Here,” Luca said, going to her side. “Put your arms around my shoulder. You can lean on me for support.”

She didn’t protest. Normally, he knew she would have put on a strong face and told him she didn’t need the help. The fact that she didn’t say that this time worried him.

They continued on, and after another half hour or so of wandering, they managed to find the subterranean lake where Luca had first met Ash the previous day. The blue light shone down from the gap in the ceiling, providing some faint illumination.

There, in that pale blue light, they saw something strange.

A beast sat by the lakeside, a strange creature that vaguely resembled a naked human, but clearly was not. Its skin was pale, its limbs far too long in proportion to its torso and head, and it had curved claws as long as a short sword on each hand.

It slowly turned its head as it noticed their presence, its eyes seeming to glow in the faint light.

There were various human limbs around it, lying half-eaten in a pool of blood. Enough for three people.

Luca drew in a breath. Those people – who else could they have been but-

In anger, Luca drew his sword, and Brand did the same.

The creature let out a low rumbling growl, and stood up, dropping part of an arm it had been chewing on. It started to walk towards them, moving in an unnatural way on its gangly limbs. Its long arms hung limp at its side, and the claws drew lines in the dirt, scraping against the rock beneath. The sound of it chilling to hear.

“Emila, just-” Luca began, half turning around to address her. He stopped when he realised she had fallen, her face a deathly pale shade of white. “Emila!”

She didn’t answer him.

“Brand, she’s-!” Once again, he was unable to finish. The creature had closed the distance between them with frightening speed, and it swung its long claws at them. Brand stepped forward first, slashing at the claws in the air. His blade hit them, and knocked them back. They did not break.

The creature stepped back, circling around him slowly. Its claws were so long that he could not close in and attack it, for any movement to do so was met with the creature swinging its claws through the air, keeping him at a comfortable distance. These claws, despite their length, were not flimsy. They were rigid and clearly sharp. Red blood dripped from them.

“Hang in there, Emila,” Luca whispered to her. Leaving her behind, he ran to where Brand was fighting the beast. He began to circle around to the left. Brand, realising his plan, continued to make feign movements towards it, forcing it to keep its focus on him. Therefore, it ignored Luca as he circled around to its backside.

Once he was behind it, he moved in to stab it in the neck. At that moment, it twisted its body in a sickening way, slashing at him with the claws of its right hand. At the same time, it slashed at Brand with the claws of its left hand. The two swings made a perfect circle. Neither of them were able to get close enough to reach it.

The beast seemed to be enjoying itself.

Having only barely avoided being sliced in half by its blade-like claws, Luca was forced to step back. His body was still too weak – he couldn’t trust himself to be able to move quickly enough to dodge those claws if he was closer to it. Unfortunately, Brand was on his own.

He could, however, use magick. He took another step back, and started to gather his mana, readying his needle spell.

Emila then gave out a stifled cry of pain, and he cut his mana flow off immediately. Suddenly, the cause of her condition was clear to him. After all, the mana sustaining his life had to come from somewhere.

Even in the heat of battle, the thought of him causing her pain stabbed him with guilt. he couldn’t use magick, which meant…

He would have to take a risk.

“Brand! I’ll attack, and you use magick!”

Without waiting for a reply, Luca charged. The beast turned and swung its claws at him, which he caught with his sword. He felt Brand’s mana surging.

While he held the right-hand claws in a parry, the creature tried to slash at him with the left. Just in time, he broke the parry and jumped away.

But he wasn’t fast enough. The tips of the claws caught his legs, cutting right through his clothes and leaving a line of blood.

“Argh!”

Luca stumbled, and fell. Sensing his weakness, the creature completely turned away from Brand and ran after him. Its eyes widened in vicious excitement.

Brand then threw a ball of fire from his hands at the beast. The fire struck it in the back, causing it to stumble for a moment, but left no real damage. Brand threw another, which also hit its back, and also failed to even singe it.

It seemed almost amused.

Almost panicking, Luca analysed the situation. Magick was useless against it, and it could keep two fighters at bay even when they were on either side of it. Just what was this thing? He had never encountered, or even of such a monster, in all the years he had travelled with his father.

The beast drew closer, dragging its long claws behind it like a rake. Luca lifted Siora up, anticipating the next attack. 

It never came.

Instead, a halberd flied through the air and pierced the creature’s chest.

It did not cry out in pain, nor did any blood flow from it. It just turned to see who had attacked it.

In the distance, Ash, Selphie, and Jared were emerging from another tunnel. Selphie, her two short swords drawn, ran ahead of the other two. Ash did not have a weapon, and Jared had just thrown his, so they remained behind.

Brand moved in against the creature, causing it to divert its attention back to him. Realising this was their chance, Luca forced himself back to his feet, ignoring the wave of dizziness that threatened to engulf him. He ran to the beast and swung his sword, once again trapping its claws in a parry.

The creature was slowed down by Jared’s halberd in its chest, and it was unable to fully turn to swing at them both like before. This gave Brand a chance he didn’t have before. This time, he threw a fireball at the creature’s face, momentarily blinding it. Then he swung his scimitar and cut off the thing’s hand, claws and all.

With one hand gone, and the other trapped by his sword, the creature was unable to defend itself as Selphie ran up and placed her two swords before its neck in an X-shape. She swung them both, like a scissors cutting paper, cleaning decapitating it.

The head bounced away, and the body collapsed to the ground in a twisted heap.

<> <> <>

Luca immediately ran to Emila’s side, ignoring the pain in his leg. She was alive, unconscious and pale as snow.

“What happened?” Selphie asked, as she wiped her swords off with a rag. “Was she attacked by it?”

“No, she just collapsed,” he said. “I think she’s out of mana…”

Jared walked past them to the creature’s headless body, and yanked his halberd out of its chest, green blood dripped from the axe-like blade.

Brand and Ash joined Selphie and Luca, who were kneeling beside Emila.

“It does look like mana exhaustion,” Ash muttered, looking down at her. “Has she been using a lot of magick?”

“She hasn’t used any,” Brand told him. “Luca’s the only one who has been using mana since we came here, providing illumination.”

Selphie placed her hand on Emila’s forehead. There was a faint glow of mana as the princess checked her for injuries. “No, it’s definitely mana exhaustion. She’s not sick, and she has no physical injuries.”

“Her mana…” Luca muttered, unconsciously touching the spot where Dreevius had stabbed him. “The tether. Of course.”

“Tether?” Selphie repeated, looking up at him.

In fact, everyone was looking at him now. Brand in particular, who seemed to have an idea what it was he spoke of. Their expressions demanded an explanation. Time to come clean, it appeared.

“When we first met, I was dying,” he told them. “The only way she could save my life was with this spell she calls the Soul Tether. As she explained it, my soul is connected to hers, meaning that as long as she is alive, I cannot die, no matter what injuries I sustain.”

“Even if someone stabs you in the heart,” Brand said, clearly remembering the hushed conversation from before.

“Exactly,” he said. “Her mana exhaustion must have to do with this. When we were fighting that thing, and I went to use magick, she cried out in pain. I must be leeching mana off her without realising it.”

“Couldn’t you just give mana back to her, then?” Selphie asked.

He shook his head. “The connection only goes one-way.”

The princess bit her lip, deep in thought. “I don’t know what to do for her. I’ve never heard of such a thing as this tether before.”

“Me neither,” Brand said.

“Nor I,” Jared added.

Ash shook his head.

Luca looked up at them. “None of you have ever heard of this spell before?”

“Did she tell you this spell was commonly known?” Selphie asked.

“No quite. She said it was taboo, but I don’t think she ever said it was uncommon. In fact, she rarely said much about it at all.”

Selphie sighed. “Well, the only way to recover from mana exhaustion is just with plain old rest. However, if you’re leeching off her mana, it is possible that you just being awake might be preventing that recovery. Either way, it’ll be hours before she’s fit to travel, and we cannot stay here. There could be more Acarians about.”

“More?” Brand asked.

“Those three over there,” Ash said, pointing to the remnants of the creature’s meal. “They’re Acarians who were camped out here. We managed to sneak past them on our way through, but the princess insisted we go back when we heard the sounds of battle echoing in the caverns.”

“Not to save the Acarians,” Jared added. “But we might have needed to deal with whatever killed them, in case you or any other survivors came through.”

Judging from his tone of voice, he hadn’t been in agreement with that decision. He seemed to care little for anything that could harm the princess.

“But as the princess said, we can’t linger here,” Ash said. “There could be dozens of those things in here, for all we know.” He looked down at the head of the creature. “Just one of those was enough to kill three trained Acarian soldiers. And right now, I’m unarmed, and she’s unconscious. That leaves us with four fighters, one of whom looks like he’s about to pass out. If I were a gambling man, I would not bet on those odds.”

“Our best chance is to get back above ground,” Selphie said. “However, the sun was starting to set when we first came down here. That was at least two hours ago. We must make haste if we are to find shelter before midnight. Jared, can you carry her?”

The guard nodded, sheathed his halberd across his back, and moved beside Emila, lifting her up and carrying her over his shoulder.

“Ash, lead the way,” Selphie said.

The six of them then made their escape.

<> <> <>

They managed to make it out of the caves, not long after their meeting. They found themselves emerging from the caverns into a rocky collection of hills, and as they stepped out of the opening of the cavern, it vanished into nothingness after a few steps.

“What the-” Luca muttered.

“Magick concealment, it seems,” said Ash. “Not as subtle as what Dori’s house uses, it seems. But it’s an exit, not an entrance. So it makes sense.”

Brand walked over to the now-invisible entrance and placed his hand on the rock. At the contact, the opening reappeared. He then stepped away, and it vanished once more.

“If somebody didn’t know right where this was, they would never find it,” Brand concluded. “It just looks like a stone wall from afar.”

After quickly scanning the area, Jared said, “There’s no sight of Acarians.”

“That means this entrance wasn’t how they got in the caverns, then,” Ash said.

“And it means we’re safe for now,” said Selphie.

“We should find a place where we can make camp,” Luca suggested. “It looks like there are some hills in that direction, so we might have luck there.” He pointed towards an area in the distance, on the other side of the forest before them, where larger hills sat on the horizon.

“Indeed,” Selphie agreed. “Well called.”

“Keep an eye out for monsters,” Ash warned.

They made their way through the trees to the hills overlooking the forest. They located one hill that had a flat top and was relatively easy to climb on one side. After reaching the top, the entire forest could be seen, and there was no road in sight.

“Where are we?” Brand asked, wondering the same thing as everyone else.

“I can’t say,” Ash replied. “I only ever saw the map of the tunnels once, and it was outdated even then. I’ve long forgotten where that exit took you, but if I had to guess, I would say we are somewhere south of the temple. The forest was particularly thick in that direction.”

“I can’t see the temple,” Luca observed. “It was burning when we left, but I see no smoke.”

“It’s gone,” Brand said regretfully. “The Acarians won this day, and Allma Temple has been destroyed.”

Everyone grew quiet for a moment.

Jared, who was still carrying Emila, went to Selphie’s side. “Princess, will we be making camp here?”

Selphie looked over the small plateau they were on. “Hmm. Yes, this place will do well. The only way up here is that small hill we climbed, and a lookout can easily check that for enemies. Luca, do you agree?”

He nodded.

The princess clapped her hands. “Excellent. The first thing we must do is to tend to your friend.”

The only ones who had any travel supplies on them were Selphie and Jared, as they had never unpacked. At Selphie’s insistence, they set up her tent and sleeping roll and Jared laid Emila down on it.

Some colour had returned to her cheeks, and her breathing seemed steadier. Once Luca was convinced she was okay, he left the tent along with Jared and Selphie, and they closed it up. Luca sat down at the edge of the plateau, exhausted, and relaxed by watching the stars.

A minute passed, and the princess joined him, sitting by his side. “You look quite relieved.”

“Well, like I said in the caves, her mana is keeping me alive. If she were to die, I would as well.”

Selphie chuckled, covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers as she did. “You don’t have to try to hide it. It is quite obvious that you’re concerned for her.”

He grew silent, and prayed he was not so pale as Emila had been, or his embarrassment might be very visible.

At that moment, Brand saved him by also sitting down at the edge of the small cliff, on his other side. He asked the princess, “So you don’t have a problem with us staying with you guys?”

“Not at all,” Selphie replied. “There is safety in numbers after all, and I could not simply abandon you while your friend is ill.”

“I take it you’ll be going back to Sono?” Luca asked.

“Yes, immediately. The first step, however, will be getting to the next town. Once there, I can send a messenger raven for my father. He’ll need to know what has happened here. After that, it’s a trip of about a month and a half to get to T’Saw.”

“Hopefully Emila will be recovered by tomorrow,” Luca said. “I would like to go with you to the next town, but if she is unable to travel, I must stay here with her. As for Ash and Brand, they of course are free to go as they wish.”

Brand smiled, and said, “You’ll be going with the princess, and I promised to help her. I fully intended to go with her to be part of this group her father seeks, and I see no reason why that cannot still happen. Why can we not all go to T’Saw?”

They thought about it for a moment.

“We do not have Wiosna with us,” Selphie said. “I do not know if she survived or not.”

Luca remembered the half-crushed glasses, and thought of mentioning it. He decided against it.

“However,” Selphie continued, “she was never a priority member. The actual group was never set in stone – I only asked for the ideal members for what my father requested. Were any of them to bow out, substitutes would be considered.

“The real problem is how this attack on Allma Temple will change the situation. If the king of Torachi declares this an act of war, then it is inevitable that Saeticia and Sono will be drawn into the conflict, as they are part of the Alliance.”

“Tellador is not far from here,” Brand suggested. “Perhaps if we hurry, we can tell the king the truth of what happened before he declares war on Acaria. If he hears of what Allma plotted, perhaps he will not declare war.”

Jared, who had been silently listening to the conversation up until now, suddenly looked up.

Selphie frowned. “I don’t know if that is the best idea. Tellador is in the opposite direction from T’Saw. We would have to make a complete detour to go there – and there are other reasons why that might not be the best idea. Better to make for T’Saw, stopping at Serenite along the way to speak with King Marcus.”

Brand shrugged. “Perhaps a letter, then?”

“I will have to consider it overnight,” Selphie said. “Now that I think of it, it has grown rather late. We should all retire.”

Luca and Brand nodded, and they started to rise. Luca considered how suddenly she had said that, and why she would not want to go to Tellador. He knew nothing of the king of Torachi, so he would simply have to wait until tomorrow, and see what she said then.

“Luca,” Selphie said to him as she stood up. “You should sleep in the tent with Emila. It would be best if she woke to a familiar face.”

He frowned, but he had to admit she was right. The most recent thing Emila would remember would be collapsing in the caves when they had encountered that monster. She may worry, not sure of the safety of Brand or himself, if she woke beside the princess.

“Very well,” he said, too tired to argue even if he disagreed.

Really, being honest with himself, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable if anyone but he were in that tent, or if he had to sleep alone. He had gotten so used to being in her company. He remembered the night before, how he had relied on listening to her soft breathing to get himself to sleep. And inevitably, the guilty dreams of her he’d had.

He hated himself for enjoying that so much.

Jared and Ash had retrieved the other tent from Jared’s bag, and were busy erecting it. It would seem that Selphie would sleep in the other tent, and Brand, Ash, and Jared would sleep outside. Luca didn’t feel comfortable with this, as he was the only man in the group inside a tent, but the princess had spoken, after all.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Jared said.

Nobody argued.

<> <> <>

Luca woke several hours later.

It was pitch black within the tent. The oppressive darkness of the late night was strong. They had decided not to light a fire, for it would be all too easy for an Acarian scout to spot from the woods below. Therefore, there was nothing to ease the burden of the night – whoever it was keeping watch now had only the stars to see by.

Nobody had woken him, though – he had simply stirred of his own will. Perhaps he had been having a nightmare… No, whatever it was he had been dreaming of, it was something pleasant. Not the previous dreams of Emila, thankfully. But he was relieved either way, because even though he had hated having those dreams, they were still preferable to reliving his father’s death every night.

After several minutes had passed, and his eyes were adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the shape of Emila sleeping peacefully beside him. Her complexion had returned to its original healthy shade, for which he was immensely relieved.

A bird somewhere was singing.

Almost without even noticing, he leaned in a little closer. He wasn’t sure what he was doing – perhaps he just wanted to be able to see her better in the thick darkness? Yes, that was surely it.

A single strand of Emila’s black hair had fallen over her face. It rose and fell with each breath she took through her nose. A funny thought struck him, and he just couldn’t resist. He reached out and gently brushed the lock back, out of her face.

Her eyelids fluttered open.

For a moment, everything was frozen. Their eyes met. His hand was still there, the tips of his fingers touching her temple. Their faces could not have been more than a few millimetres apart. Her green eyes shone with an unspoken ebullience. A faint blush filled her cheeks.

Luca pulled away.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath.

“I feel better,” she said quietly. “Much better. More importantly, how are you?”

For a moment, the question confused him, and then he remembered that he was the one who was supposed to have died.

“Somehow, I pulled through. There were no strange complications or anything.”

She smiled, and sat up in the sleeping bag. She rubbed her eyes, and looked around a bit, taking in her surroundings for the first time.

“We’re in a tent?”

“It’s the princess’. We met up with the others in the cave, after you collapsed. They helped Brand and I take care of that monster, and we’ve decided to stick together for now.”

Emile tilted her head slightly. “Monster?”

“That thing by the lake – you must have passed out before seeing it.”

“I see. It looks like I missed a lot.”

“Not really. As I said, we’re all going to travel together for now, at least until its safe. The princess wants to go back to T’Saw, and Brand wants to stay with me, wherever I choose to go. I haven’t really thought about it much yet.”

“What to do next, you mean?”

“Right. Things have gotten rather chaotic.”

Emila looked down at her feet, and she sighed. A moment passed, then she asked him, “Who all has died in the attack?”

Luca thought about it. “Of whom I know? Allma’s squire, Rael. Dori. The dragon, Austille. Wiosna – the girl who was supposed to be in the princess’ group. Almost certainly Allma himself. Tranom managed to get away with about fifty or so students. Everyone else who was in the temple was killed. The Acarians took no prisoners.”

Emila’s eyes were heavy with guilt and regret. “I see,” she said in a hesitant voice. “They were certainly ruthless.”

He looked to her, searching in her eyes for the reason for her pain.

But he had to remind himself that not everyone was so numb to death as he was. A person with a caring heart, especially someone as caring as Emila, could not simply hear that so many had died and just shrug it off.

How many people had been in the temple to begin with? Several hundred students, and at least three dozen masters, he estimated.

All of them had been wiped out. All those lives were lost, and a temple that had stood for three generations was burned to the ground. The survivors would never be able to forget the horror of that.

And yet, to Luca, it was just a Tuesday. Nobody he cared for had died, so he felt nothing for it all – unlike the Arimos attack where he had lost Arlea and his father. He felt guilty that he was so relieved that Ash, Brand, and Emila were all okay, but he just couldn’t bring himself to care for any of the others. Even Dori he felt no sorrow for. The only exception was Wiosna, and probably only because she reminded him so much of Arlea.

“Is your brother okay?” Emila asked him, out of nowhere.

He nodded. “He is fine. He needs new clothes and a weapon, but he’s okay. It’s funny really – everything he told me about Allma – it all turned out to be true. At the time, I had written it off as irrational paranoia.”

“You need to watch out for him, okay?” Emila said with a very serious look in her eyes. “You’re the older sibling, right? Older siblings need to take care of the younger one. It’s your responsibility.”

“I know,” he said. “But there’s only so much I can do. The way he was back in the caves, when we first met – well, he’s not the most agreeable person.”

Emila looked away again, her eyes heavy and tired. It was difficult to tell in the darkness, but it looked like she was holding back tears.

A tense and awkward silence settled over the small tent. Luca felt like he should say something – like he needed to say something. He just didn’t know what it was she needed from him. It was so hard to find the right words. She looked so troubled at times, but she would never tell him what it was that bothered her. 

“Emila – why did you come back for me?” He was certain this wasn’t the right thing to say, but it was something that he needed to know. 

She looked up at him, surprised and confused. “What do you-?”

“I told you to stay in Dori’s house. Don’t you understand why I said that? The tether was keeping me alive, and it would continue to do so as long as you are alive. So long as you stay out of harm’s way, nothing can hurt me, not even a blade through the heart. But you didn’t listen. In fact, this was the second time today that you ventured out into an open battlefield, when I specifically asked you not to. Why would you go out there, risking both of our lives, when you cannot even bring yourself to take a life?”

Emila stared at him for a moment, shocked. Her surprise slowly faded, and was replaced by anger.

Then she slapped him.

Again.

“First of all,” she said bitterly. “You’re not my father and you don’t own me. If I don’t want to just stay put where you tell me, I don’t have to.”

“I’m sorry. When I say I ‘told’ you – I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Are you an idiot? Why do you think I came after you?” 

“I-”

“I care about you,” she said, her voice softer. “Do you not understand that? I came to get you, so we could flee together. Because after you sent Ash, with a message that I was to flee with him, what in the world was I supposed to think? That you just wanted me to run away without you, until the tether broke, and you just dropped dead?

“Because that’s exactly what would have happened. You would have stayed with Brand, fighting a battle you could not win, until I got so far away that my mana stopped keeping you alive. What was I suppose to do? Listen to your stupid self-destructive orders?

“I came back for you because I care about you, even if you don’t care about yourself. I passed out in the caves because you were pushing yourself so much that I was running out of mana to sustain you. If I had listened to you, and left with Ash, you would never have survived.”

He sat there, quietly listening as she spoke.

“Luca – do you want to die?”

“No,” he said, his voice coming out thin and tight. “I just – I don’t know why I said that. You’re right, it would have been better if you stayed at Dori’s house. I – must not have been thinking.”

Emila sighed. “No, you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to say. Don’t you understand how I feel? Or even how you feel? You wanted me to flee because you were worried about me. People do things that don’t always make sense when they follow their hearts.”

Now he was the one who looked away.

“You’re right – it was a mistake.”

Indeed, how could he not have seen how mistaken he was? If he had died in the temple, he could never have his revenge on Zinoro.

He would need to be more careful. He would have to plan out his actions in advance, if he ever wanted to reach Acaria. Perhaps he couldn’t die, but that didn’t mean he was invincible. He had to separate his emotions from his goals. He had just been so lost in the feeling of fighting honourably that he had forgotten all about Zinoro.

“I think I’ve learnt something today,” he said quietly.

Emila smiled. “I’m glad. I’m sorry I hit you. I just – well, sometimes I feel like you just don’t understand anything I say.”

Luca nodded, and laid back down on his side of the tent. “We should get some rest. We’ve got a long day of travel tomorrow, and you still have to recover your mana.”

“Indeed,” Emila said, lying down herself. “Goodnight, Luca.”

“Goodnight, Emila.”

Silence returned, save for the bird outside that sang alone to the night. In a few minutes, Emila’s steady breathing was back. She must still have been tired to fall asleep so quickly.

Going with Selphie would be the best chance he had of ultimately reaching Zinoro – that hadn’t changed. Whatever their mission was, be it preventing a war, or killing Zinoro in his sleep, it didn’t matter to Luca, because it was just a means of getting to him.

And when he did reach Zinoro, if Emila was in his company, he would not be able to lose.

He couldn’t be so reckless. He had to stop caring so much for Emila if he wanted to kill Zinoro. She was holding him back. He needed her, for sure, but he couldn’t let himself be so drawn in.

Glancing back at her sleeping form, her light skin contrasting with her black hair. There wasn’t a particularly beautiful girl most of the time, more cute than gorgeous, but at night, when under the moon’s light, there seemed to be something mystical about her.

He knew he had been drawn into her. Even now, he could feel her soft beauty threatening to pull him back in again. But if he wanted to kill Zinoro, he couldn’t let that happen. Just a few hours ago, he had been willing to throw away everything – both his life and his father’s justice – all to protect her.

Noble sacrifice, as Uro had written of, was indeed the honourable thing. But honour would not get his father justice.

Honour would get Luca killed.

Chapter X

A Message

Morning came with an icy wind from the north. The moment his eyes were open, Luca felt the cold air cut right through the tent and blanket, chilling him to the bone. He yawned and stretched, feeling stiff after having slept on the ground. The only two sleeping bags had gone to the girls, and while he had been in the tent with Emila, he still had only the thin fabric of it between him and the hard earth.

Emila was rising as well, he noticed. While Luca still felt weary and exhausted after yesterday’s events, Emila rose with a bright smile. She seemed to be recovered completely from her mana exhaustion.

Emila rose up and slid out of the sleeping roll, stretching and yawning as she did. She didn’t seem to think much of the cold air. But then again, she was an ice-form magus. Luca, on the other hand, was right back in Arimos.

“Good morning, Luca,” she said cheerfully.

He murmured something in reply and stumbled his way out of the tent. Outside, Brand sat at the edge of the cliff, stretching. It seemed like he’d had the last turn keeping watch.

“Nobody ever woke me to take a turn keeping watch,” Luca said to him.

“That would be the princess’ doing,” Brand said. “She said you needed rest as much as Emila did.”

“Ah.” He couldn’t argue with that. He had needed it.

Selphie and Jared were busy unfolding the other tent, while Ash was pacing around the edge of the plateau, looking over a map and shivering. Emila emerged from the tent and joined the two boys.

“Is there anything to eat? I’m starving.”

Come to think of it, Luca’s stomach felt tight as well.

“Yeah, the princess saved some breakfast for you two.”

After thanking Brand, they went over to where Selphie was. She and Jared had just finished folding up the tent, and were talking. The princess smiled as they approached.

“You look much better,” Selphie said to Emila. “And you, too,” she added for Luca’s sake.

“Thank you very much for everything you’ve done,” Emila said. “Luca said you helped us get out of the caves. And lending me your tent to sleep in – well, I probably wouldn’t have pulled through without your help.”

“I think everyone here helped each other,” the princess replied.

“Brand said you saved something for us to eat,” Emila continued modestly. “I hate to impose, but I’m very hungry.”

“Sure, here.” Selphie looked through her bag and produced a small plastic bag containing some strips of beef jerky. “It’s nothing fantastic, just travel rations. When we get to town I’ll be able to get you something more substantial.”

“Town?” Emila asked, as she bit down on the rough meat. “Which town?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Ash said, not looking up from his map. “Unless we figure out where we are, we could spend the whole day wandering in the wrong direction. I need some kind of landmark or something.”

“There’s a river in the distance,” Jared told him. “Does that help?”

“Possibly, but I’d have to know which river it is. Would it be possible for us to go there first? If I get closer, I might be able to figure out where we are.”

“How far do you think this river is?” Selphie asked her guard.

“It couldn’t be more than two kilometres,” he guessed.

“In that case, absolutely.”

The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant, in spite of the frigid morning air and the rather dire situation. They had no idea where they were, what direction they needed to travel in, and if any Acarians were around. No words were uttered about the bloody events of yesterday, as though nobody wished to sacrifice the mood by bringing it up. But still, regardless of all this, everyone seemed to be in a fair mood.

Except Luca, that is, because he really hated the cold.

As if reading his mind, Emila then said, “It sure is cold out today. Maybe we’re north of the temple?”

“We couldn’t be that far north,” Brand said, who had suddenly joined them without a sound.

Selphie and Jared went to pack up the other tent, while Emila and Luca sat down to finish their small breakfast. Brand joined them. Ash was still analysing the map, as if the answer he sought was hidden somewhere on it in tiny print.

“There are quite a few towns in this area,” Brand said to him, noticing his troubled expression and mistaking it for worry. “Even if Ash is unable to figure out where we are, I’m sure we’ll be able to find civilisation in time. We’ve got enough supplies to last a few days, at least.”

“That’s not it. I’m just wondering how it got so damn cold.” Luca pulled his fur coat closer around himself, feeling thankful he had held onto it since Arimos.

“It’s cold enough that if it rains I could make it snow!” Emila suggested enthusiastically.

“You’d be letting the Acarians know where we are,” Luca muttered bitterly. “Might as well just march over to them and present our necks.”

Emila frowned, but determined not to let her good mood falter, she turned to Brand. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Brand. Your skin is a shade darker than ours. Are you from the south?”

He nodded. “Yup. Guess where.”

“Mainyu?” Emila guessed. “Or perhaps Samgo?”

“Sendora.”

Emila and Luca exchanged glances, their eyes going wide in surprise. “You jest,” Emila said.

“Nope. I was born and raised in the city of Sendor.”

Emila got really excited, took a big bite of her jerky, and leaned in closer to Brand. “That’s incredible. I’ve never known anyone from Sendora. You must have known many Sendorai.”

“Many,” Brand said. “In fact, I knew more Sendorai than humans growing up. I only had one human friend, but there were about three Sendorai kids we would hang out with.”

“That is so cool. What are they like?”

“The same as you or me, in most ways,” Brand said, before laughing. “You could say it is cliche of me to say this, but we’re really all the same inside.”

“Did the lizardmen hate you because you were different?” Luca asked in a quiet voice. “The same way northerners hate them?”

Brand stared at him for a moment, frowning. “Some did, of course. There are always some who will hate. Certain people need to hate something. If it wasn’t someone who looked different, it would be someone else, like a mundane.”

Now, Emila frowned. “Do you really believe that? You don’t have any more hope for the human race?”

Brand didn’t seem to have an answer for that. Instead, it was Luca who spoke. “Look at what the human race has accomplished so far. Look at what it accomplished yesterday.”

As she stood up, Emila said, “You’re never satisfied until you ruin something good, aren’t you?”

“We’re done!” Selphie called out. She and Jared were joining them, carrying two backpacks. “Let us go look at Ash’s river, shall we?”

Luca looked over to Emila, to see if she had more to say, but she was smiling, as though she had already forgotten.

<> <> <>

They made their way through the woods, and they quickly located the river Jared had pointed out. Ash went over to the edge of the water, checking his map, and looking around at the hills and trees.

“Princess, you’re bleeding,” Emila said, pointing to Selphie’s hand.

Selphie held up her hand, and sure enough there was a small cut. “Oh. I must have cut myself on a branch earlier.”

“Here, allow me.” Emila took Selphie’s hand in her own. She glowed faintly with mana, and when she took her hand away, Selphie’s cut was gone. “You took care of me earlier, so I’m in your debt.”

“It was nothing,” Selphie said, her cheeks faintly red. “Really, there was nothing I could do. All I could do was give you somewhere to sleep.”

“Still, that probably saved us,” Emila said, indicating Luca as well.

“Ah, that reminds me,” Selphie said, addressing everyone now. “When we get to town, none of you are to address me as ‘princess’. There could be Acarian spies anywhere, and even if there aren’t, we shouldn’t draw that kind of attention to ourselves. Until we get back to T’Saw, I’m just Selphie, and that’s what you should all call me. In fact, you should all start doing this now.”

“Why not just use an alias in town?” Brand asked.

“It’s not really necessary. Selphie’s a fairly common name. More trouble could result in someone forgetting what they were supposed to call me. It’s far easier and more natural-sounding if you just call me by my real name.”

“Is it really so difficult to remember a name?” Luca asked her.

“You would be surprised,” she said, with a touch of sadness. “My escorts have made such mistakes in the past. Those poor men…”

“Princess…” Jared started to say.

“This rule extends to you, Jared,” Selphie chastised him. “I know it makes you uncomfortable, but this is for our safety.”

He frowned. “I understand – Selphie.” He said it hesitantly, like it was a foul curse, and his eyes glanced over the others as though they would demonise him for it.

“Ah-hah!” Ash shouted suddenly. A moment later, he returned to them, grinning. “I’ve got it. I know exactly where we are.” He pointed to a spot on a map, next to a river.

“We’re actually southwest of the temple,” Brand pointed out. Emila looked slightly disappointed.

“There’s a fairly prominent town quite close,” Jared said. “We can easily make that in a day’s travel.”

“Indeed,” Selphie agreed, looking at the map over her guard’s shoulder. “If the Acarians are going to go right back to Acaria, they will travel east from the temple. This is good, as it will put us out of their path.”

“But still, Pri-,” Jared began to say, before catching himself. “I mean – Selphie… The attack on the temple was aimed at capturing you, was it not? It seems unlikely they will leave without completing that objective.”

“Yes, so we will be extra careful,” Selphie said. She took a step away from the small huddle and clapped her hands. “Listen everyone. When we reach this town, don’t trust anyone. Though we likely will not see any more Acarian soldiers, there could be people who have been promised rewards for turning us in. Be sparse with any details you must give, and if possible, do not even tell them your names.”

Everyone nodded.

“And don’t forget what I said just a moment ago. Do not call me princess under any circumstances, even if there is no one but us around. Understood?”

The five of them muttered replies of varying enthusiasm.

“Good,” Selphie said with a bright smile. “Now there isn’t a moment to lose. Let’s get moving!”

And with that, they started off, with Selphie leading the procession. With his navigation skills no longer needed, Ash rolled up his map and put it away, and sullenly went over to the back of the group, lingering behind.

Luca glanced at his brother as they walked. Ash did not look up from the ground.

“Odd,” he muttered. “He was so excited just a moment ago…”

Brand looked but said nothing.

<> <> <>

Now that they had their bearings, they made their way southwest towards where the road should be. After about an hour, they managed to make it out of the forest, and onto the road. According to Ash, it would take them half a day to get to said town.

The morning gradually turned to noon, and the air grew a bit warmer, though the wind still remained cold. They made conversation amongst themselves as they walked, with the girls contributing the majority of it. Even Ash and Jared joined in from time to time, and as the day went on, it was easy to forget what they had escaped from.

Still, Luca kept his eyes open for any sign of their enemies. He did not spot a single Acarian, nor any bandits or monsters, of which he was both relieved and disappointed. The familiar weight of Siora’s sheath rested on his belt, and as he looked on the blade he swore he would not lose it again. 

As the afternoon drew closer, and they drew closer to town, the woods began to thin, and they started passing farms. As they had skipped lunch, and had an already small breakfast to begin with, the temptation to steal a few turnips or a carrot was hard to resist. But Selphie continued to promise them a large supper when they got to town, so they let the farmers be.

While they were all used to travel, it was still an immense relief when the town finally appeared on the horizon. They arrived just as the sun was beginning to set.

This town, whose name turned out to be Kasma, was sparsely populated and just a bit seedy. But it had all the essentials – an inn, a blacksmith, a general store, etc.

“Here,” Selphie said, handing Luca a small purse of coins. “Could you go and reserve our rooms? You two can get something to eat while you’re there. I know you and Emila are really hungry, so please help yourself. Jared and I will go stock up on supplies, and there are letters that need sent. We will meet up with you once we are done.”

Luca nodded, and took the coins.

“I’ll go with you, if that’s okay,” Brand said to the princess. “I’ve got some shopping of my own I’d like to do.”

“That’s fine with me,” Selphie said. “We should be back in less than an hour.”

“Be careful,” Emila said.

“Well as long as there’s no Acarians around, we should be okay,” Brand said with a slightly nervous laugh. He, Selphie, and Jared then disappeared down the streets.

<> <> <>

Ash, Emila, and Luca went to the inn. They walked in, finding it mostly empty. There were only a few people there – a man and woman who were dining in private, a bearded man who drank at the counter and looked like he was about to pass out, and a man seated by himself at a dark table in the back, smoking from a pipe.

They went over to the innkeeper. He was a portly man, which according to everything Luca had learnt from books meant he was trustworthy (skinny innkeepers were the ones you had to watch out for, especially if they had moustaches – every adventurer knew this).

The inn turned out to be as empty as it looked, so Luca was able to get three adjacent rooms as a very reasonable price. Two men, Two men, and two women. He wasn’t sure if that was how they would be divided up, though. Jared would certainly want to be near the princess, and he and Emila were used to sleeping in the same room. But he doubted Brand would want to share a room with Ash.

Ah well, he figured. They would sort that out once the others were back.

In any case, he ordered their food, and they found a table and broke their fast with vigour.

With the exception of Ash, that is, who did not taken a bite.

“What is it?” Luca asked him.

After a long moment, Ash said, “Master Dori probably did not survive that, did he?”

Luca and Emila exchanged a glance. “No, he almost certainly didn’t,” Luca said as gently as he could. “He was riding the dragon when it fell, right? If the fall didn’t kill him, there were still Acarians everywhere. And he was old.”

After another long pause, Luca added, “In fact I doubt anyone who was still within the walls made it. Only the few that fled through that hole with Tranom. Everyone else…”

Emila looked at Luca for a moment like she wanted to hit him. She said to Ash, in a soft voice, “I’m sorry, Ash. He was like a father to you, wasn’t he?”

Ash didn’t answer that. He just stared into the untouched meal on his plate.

“I know it’s tough, losing your home, and the only people close to you,” she continued. “Believe me, I know. If there’s anything you want to talk about-”

“That man in the corner,” Ash said suddenly, without looking away from his plate. “He hasn’t looked at a single thing in this room but us since we walked in.”

Emila’s eyes widened in surprise, but she was smart enough not to look over at the guy. Instead she looked over at Luca.

“Do you think he’s an Acarian?” she said quietly.

“He’s not dressed the part,” Ash replied. “A spy perhaps, but I can’t imagine what could have given us away. None of us are wearing anything of Allma.”

Indeed, Ash was still dressed in the tattered rags that he had been wearing while imprisoned. Selphie had promised many times during the day’s travel that she would get him fresh garb in town. As for Luca and Emila, they simply had on the same travel clothes as always. The only person in the whole group who wore Allma robes was Brand, and even those were beneath leather armour.

“Of course, it’s also possible he’s just a drunk ogling Emila,” Ash muttered.

After a few moments had passed, Luca slowly looked over out of the corner of his eye. Whoever he was, he was dressed in a cloak, and he had the hood up. He had stopped smoking his pipe some time ago, and was now very clearly watching them with his arms crossed. He looked almost expectant.

“He doesn’t look drunk,” Luca said. “I think he knows that we’re aware of his staring. But he’s not doing anything. He’s just sitting there… I’ll go talk to him.”

“Luca, are you insane?” Emila hissed.

“We can’t just ignore him,” he said. “If he’s just eyeing you up, I’ll tell him to keep away from you. If he’s an Acarian, or a spy, we’ll need to know so we can get out of here.”

Emila reluctantly accepted this. “Alright, just be careful.”

Luca nodded, and rose. He strode towards the hooded man, keeping Siora sheathed and hidden under his coat. As he drew near, the man kept his eyes on him the entire time. 

“Is there something you want?” Luca asked him.

“I was wondering if you were gonna come say hi to me,” he said. His voice was immediately familiar.

“Who are you?”

He threw back the hood of his cloak, revealing his face.

“You failed the test,” Tranom said. “Were I an enemy, you could be in serious trouble right now.”

<> <> <>

The three of them found themselves over at Tranom’s table, finishing their meal with him and talking.

“I managed to escape with as many students as I could,” Tranom told them. “We fled through the woods, but the Acarians came after us. I stayed back and held them off, while the students escaped. I don’t know where they went, but hopefully they were able to get to safety. I was slightly wounded after the fight, so I was unable to catch up with them. I managed to limp my way to this town, and I rested here for the remainder of the night, and most of the day. I had just gotten up, and finished eating my breakfast when I spotted you entering.”

“It’s fantastic that you’re okay,” Emila said. “Brand will be happy, when he gets here.”

“Ah, Brand is with you,” Tranom said, nodding. “That’s very good.” He leaned in closer, and asked them in a hushed voice, “And the princess? Is she with you as well?”

Emila nodded.

Tranom smiled, a relieved look on his face. “That’s great. Things would be very bad if anything were to happen to her. Will she be here soon?”

“She had some shopping to do,” Emila said. “Her, Brand, and Jared will be here in about an hour. That’s what she said.”

“Jared?”

“Her last remaining escort,” Luca reminded him. “The halberd guy?”

“Ah, of course. I’d forgotten him.”

Ash was simply stirring at his food with his fork, as quiet as usual. Luca still hadn’t seen him take a bite.

“Were there any others that were with you?” Tranom asked.

“Just the six of us,” Luca said.

“I see,” Tranom muttered, looking despondent. “It’s a shame we weren’t able to save more. So many died in that attack. I should have ordered a retreat sooner. Those Acarians – we underestimated how powerful they are.”

“The temple has fallen,” Luca agreed. “But it was Allma’s scheming that brought its end. Had he been a more honourable man, this could have been avoided. But still, that bastard Zinoro will pay for the lives he has taken. I guarantee it.”

Tranom slowly nodded.

“What happened back there?” Emila asked. “When the dragon was guarding the gate, the Acarians were not able to get through. How were they able to kill him?”

Tranom frowned, and shook his head. “I don’t know. Their leader, that Dreevius – he had some kind of orb that made the dragon fall out of the sky. After it was dead, there was nothing to stop them from entering the temple. They just had far superior numbers.”

He sounded very troubled, like he was having trouble finding the right words. Doubtlessly, he was even now reliving the carnage and bloodshed in his mind. He probably felt responsible for all the Allman students who had died.

“This goes without saying, but tell no one about the princess,” Tranom said to them. “Those Acarians are still out there. Watch what you say, and trust no one at all.”

“Are there any Acarians here in this town?” Luca asked.

“There could be,” Tranom said. “But the Acarians themselves are not what you should worry about. There are many spies for them – people who would sell you out in a second for a few pieces of gold. Anyone you see could be one, even the people here in this inn. Be extremely careful.”

Ash sat up suddenly, leaving his untouched plate behind. “I will go find Selphie and the others, and tell them we found you.” He walked away without another word, before anyone could stop him. Tranom frowned at his hasty departure.

Luca watched him go, thinking of the conversation earlier. His brother, much like Luca himself, did not seem to be the kind of person who was able to discuss the things that troubled him. Ash had looked profoundly uncomfortable through the whole conversation with Tranom.

“So where are you going to go?” Tranom asked Luca and Emila.

“Selphie needs to get back to T’Saw,” Emila said. “She fears that if she does not hurry and tell King Zaow what happened, that war might break out between Torachi and Acaria, and Sono would be dragged into the conflict.”

“Ah, that is a real possibility,” Tranom said. “Sono has long tried to avoid war, while Torachi never backs down from it. What Saeticia decides will determine whether the full Alliance is brought in, or if it remains an affair between Torachi and Acaria.”

Alliance matters were always decided on a two-out-of-three vote. If two of the countries sought war, then all three were required to be part of it. If only one of them wanted the war, then it simply became their problem alone. In this case, if Torachi wanted war with Acaria and Sono did not, then Saeticia would be the deciding vote.

“The princess will be sending a letter to the king of Torachi,” Luca told Tranom, “telling him about Allma’s treachery, and urging him not to declare war on Acaria.”

“Her plan is to convince King Edmund that the Acarian attack on the temple was part of some scheme of Allma’s, and not an act of war against his land?” Tranom muttered, scratching his chin and thinking. “While the temple itself was technically a neutral entity, the Acarians still needed to cross Torachian land to get to it, right? I doubt he will be swayed by such a thing.”

Emila rested on her hand for a moment, looking rather tired. “Let us hope that war is not the result of this.”

“If it is, then Zinoro will fall, just as his father did,” Luca said. “He cannot win against the entire Alliance. His way is schemes and plotting, which is how the temple fell. In an open battlefield, his army would be crushed.”

Tranom said nothing, merely turning over the pipe in his hands.

Luca heard a thump from across the room. The couple dining together had collapsed onto their table.

“What the-?”

“You are wrong, my friend,” Tranom said in a low voice.

“Wrong? What are-”

“Zinoro will not lose. He is the chosen heir. It is prophesied that he will destroy Sono.”

Emila slid out of her chair and collapsed on the floor. She was unconscious.

“Emila!” Luca pushed his chair back and sprang to his feet, only to feel the entire room spinning around him. He grabbed the table to keep himself from falling.

He looked to Tranom as he stood up, strange symbols appearing on the man’s skin. These symbols ran over him, running over every visible part of his flesh and leaving it changed wherever they passed.

When they settled, his entire appearance had changed. He was now a different man, bald and grey-skinned, covered in tattoos.

“I told you to trust no one.”

His smirking face was the last thing Luca saw before he hit the floor.

<> <> <>

Luca stirred back to the world of the waking slowly and in confusion, battling against the wall of sleep as though it were trying to keep him submerged forever. He did not immediately return to lucidity, and that frightened him, for that meant that something was indeed fighting to keep him asleep. In response, he fought harder, urging his sluggish and weak body back into awareness.

His vision was hazy and unfocused as he opened his eyes. He could make out the vague shape of a pair of legs, but little else. When he tried to move, he found that he could not.

He was bound by rope, at his hands and legs.

In time, he fought away the lethargy and gained an awareness of his surroundings. Emila was bound, just as he was, and she was unconscious. They were in a large tent, and a two figures in Acarian armour stood by the entrance. While not even a patch of flesh could be seen through their armour, the helmets were faced square in his direction, so he had no doubt they were watching him.

Bound both by his sluggish body, and the ropes around his wrists and ankles, it took him a while to sit up from the awkward position he had woken in. The Acarian guards watched him like a pair of statues.

Once he was finally sitting, he was able to get a better view of the tent they were in. There was one other person there with them.

Tranom. The real one.

“Are you alright?” he asked. He looked ragged and exhausted, and was covered in dried blood.

Luca nodded.

“How did they get you?” Tranom asked.

He thought back, his memory of the last few hours hazy. “Dreevius. He was at the inn, and he looked like you. They drugged us…”

That portly innkeeper he had assumed trustworthy had been working for the Acarians the entire time. He had drugged all the food and drink there. The man at the counter had not been drunk after all – he had simply been there longer than anyone else.

“A trap to catch any survivors,” Tranom muttered, his voice sad. “I heard them talking about the princess. Was she with you?”

“Yes. But we split up when we got to town. She was not at the inn. Hopefully she was able to get away.”

Tranom nodded in agreement.

“He looked just like you,” Luca said. “His hair, his skin tone – even his voice. The disguise was perfect.”

“He drank my blood,” Tranom said. “He is a shapeseeker, a being able to take the form of someone whose blood he consumes. I’d thought they were all gone from the world.”

If that was the case, Dreevius could easily take the shape of Emila or himself. And the others could fall into the same exact trap…

“Where is he now?”

“Here,” Tranom said. “For now, anyway. The army is on their way back to Acaria, or so he said. He’s still here with a group of thirty or so men, trying to find the princess. I do not know exactly where ‘here’ is, but we’re in the woods, somewhere out of sight.”

Luca looked over at the two guards, who watched them silently and without even a single movement. It was unnatural, how still they were. It was inhuman.

“My apprentice, is he-?”

Tranom’s question was answered when the Acarian guards suddenly moved aside, to make way for the arrival of three of their peers. These three Acarians entered the tent, each pushing a bound prisoner to the ground.

Brand, Selphie, and Jared.

The three Acarian soldiers left the tent, and a moment later, their leader entered.

“If I had known it would be this easy, I would have waited to send the army back,” Dreevius said as he stepped inside. “Your companions here made it quite easy to find you.”

Selphie looked over to him, but said nothing. Brand and Jared had not moved from where they hit the ground. They seemed to be unconscious.

Dreevius noticed Luca glaring at him, and his smile grew. “Ah. You’re finally awake, my very interesting friend.” He walked over and squatted down to look him right in the eyes. “I’m afraid I haven’t gotten your name.”

Luca said nothing, but there was a faint spark of realisation in his eyes.

“When I saw you walk into that inn, I considered myself a lucky man,” Dreevius continued. “But when you said the princess was with you, well – I knew it was fate. After the attack was over, I had feared I would not get another chance to talk to you.”

Dreevius took out a long dagger, and began to twirl it around in his hands. “I killed you back there. I gave you an injury that no man could survive, and yet here you are. So – how is this possible?”

Luca kept his eyes fixed on Dreevius’. He did not allow himself, for even the briefest of moments, to glance at Emila.

“Not even my king is immortal,” he said. “He takes pride in the fact that he knows what the only thing in the world is that can kill him, but he never allows himself to forget that he is mortal. No human is deathless – vampires can survive mortal injuries, but they have other weaknesses that can easily end them. And you are no vampire. So how is it that you still breathe in spite of me killing you?”

Still, Luca did not answer him.

Dreevius smiled again, and shrugged. “Well, I knew you would not tell me so easily. I’ve wondered since then, if it was a fluke somehow, or if you could only escape death once. Let’s try it and see.”

He then lunged forth, bringing his hand down upon Luca’s breast, plunging the dagger he held into the very same spot as before. Luca cried out in pain, and at the same moment, Emila screamed and thrashed in her bonds, writhing from the same pain that Luca felt.

Dreevius pulled the dagger out, blood dripping from it. He looked back and forth between Luca and Emila.

“So – once again, you are not dead – and yet this girl cries out in pain as you do.”

He walked slowly over to where Emila was gasping. He placed the dagger beneath her throat.

“This is quite interesting. So what will happen to you if I kill her…?”

“My lord.”

Dreevius looked up. An Acarian soldier stood at the entrance, between the two guards. This man had his helmet off, which was the first time Luca had ever seen an Acarian do so.

“Captain, you’re interrupting me,” Dreevius told him impatiently.

“Forgive me, my lord, but I must insist that you do not kill her.”

Dreevius raised an eyebrow. “And why is that?”

“King Zinoro will no doubt be interested in this boy who cannot be killed.”

“What does that have to do with her?”

“They are clearly connected in some way. What if killing her would cause him to die as well, or remove his ability? It is safer not to take any chances with them.”

Dreevius frowned, and thought for a moment. “I am here to bring back the princess, which I have succeeded in doing. I was not sent to bring the king either of these two. Should these two never make it to Acarienthia, what will this change? Nothing. But I don’t like to leave my business unfinished. I want to see what will happen when she dies.” He placed his dagger back under Emila’s throat.

“Word of what happened at the temple will reach King Zinoro,” the captain continued. “Rumours will spread about this boy who cannot die. What if the king wishes to learn of this power he has? What if he should want this immortality himself? Do you wish to be the one to tell him that you had them both as your captives, but chose to kill them instead of taking them to him?”

Dreevius’ frown was nearly a scowl now, but he seemed less sure.

“You overstep your bounds, captain, but you make a good point.” He reluctantly sheathed his dagger. “They live – for now, at least. Go wait for me outside.”

The captain nodded, and departed.

The moment he was gone, Dreevius’ dagger was drawn again.

“My scheming captain may have saved you for now, but do not take comfort in that,” he said. He nicked Emila under her chin, and a bead of red blood ran down her neck. Luca felt a stinging pain in the same spot.

Dreevius leaned forward and ran his tongue over the spot, licking up her blood. Tears ran down Emila’s cheek, whether from the pain or what he was doing to her, Luca could not know.

“Tonight, I will try out your form.” He rose, and sheathed his dagger. “I shall see what other secrets you’re keeping.”

He started to leave, but then stopped. He smiled once again. “You kids just get more and more interesting.”

And then he was gone.

Selphie was watching them, aghast. “Are you alright?!”

Luca ignored her, and squirmed over to where Emila lay. “Emila…?”

She blinked, forcing herself not to shed any more tears. Her mouth was a tight line. She pushed herself up to a sitting position. “I-I’m okay. He didn’t hurt me – I’ve just never woke to something like that before.”

“I’ll make him pay for that, I swear. As soon as I find a way out of here…”

“Luca, please. Just forget about it. I’m more worried about you. He stabbed you again…”

“It’s okay,” he reassured her. “It doesn’t even hurt this time.” But that was a lie, and they both knew it – because they could both feel the same sharp, throbbing pain.

“You’re really alright…” Selphie muttered. “That’s incredible. Is this the second time your connection has kept you alive like this?”

“The third, actually.”

Selphie just stared at the wound in his chest, in awe.

“I have a thousand questions I’d like to ask you about that,” Tranom said. “But for now, we should think about a way to escape.”

The two guards continued to watch them, machine-like. Luca frowned. “Not while those guys are there, we aren’t.”

He looked back to Selphie. “Do you know where my brother is?”

She shook her head.

<> <> <>

“Everything is in order,” the captain said to Dreevius. “We’ll be ready to leave for Acaria in the morning.”

“Good,” said Dreevius. He glanced inside his tent. “I’ll write a letter informing the king about our success here.”

The captain frowned. “I take it you will not informing him about that boy who cannot die?”

“We’ll surprise him,” Dreevius suggested.

The captain looked like he had more to say, but he wisely kept silent.

Dreevius began to pace at the entrance of his tent. He asked the captain, “Have those four men we sent back to the village returned?”

“They have, my lord. They were not able to find the other Allman, but they told me that someone matching his description hastily bought a number of items in the market, including weapons and travel supplies. It is likely that he fled.”

Dreevius smirked. “Ah. I believe I made some mistake and gave away my disguise, but rather than save his friends or warn the princess, he decided to save his own skin. The right choice, of course, but I expected these folks to have more honour.”

He stopped pacing for a bit, and turned to face the captain. “It matters not. We have the princess, the unkillable boy, his woman, and even three others. Let the coward go.”

The captain nodded. “As you wish, my lord.”

“This mission was a complete success, in spite of the complications. Allma the third is dead, the dragon is dead, and the temple is ruins. We have the princess. You have served me well, captain. I shall have good things to say to the king about you.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“You are dismissed.”

The captain nodded, and strode away. Dreevius watched him go, while wearing his usual grin. The captains were the only Acarian soldiers who were able to speak, the only ones who were any more than mere drones. Why King Zinoro even bothered to send them was beyond him. All that was needed were the soldiers, and someone to give them orders, and Dreevius himself was already good enough at that.

Dreevius’ smile turned to a frown.

The captains were usually smart enough to keep quiet in the presence of an acolyte. But this one – he said things Dreevius did not like. He did not know his place, and Dreevius would have to put him in it. He had no intention of telling Zinoro about the boy who would not die. It was egg on his face – a moment of humiliation in what should have been his moment of glory.

He’d had Allma backed into a corner, and the man had assumed Dreevius’ threat was a mere bluff. He had shown him it was not, then drove him back into his temple to hide behind his dragon. It had all played out exactly the way he’d planned…

But then that boy had the audacity to get back up.

So he would pay for that. It would be a few days before his message got to Zinoro – in the meantime, he would amuse himself with this boy. That brat would regret his inability to die, Dreevius swore.

And the captain – for now, Dreevius needed him. If he returned without him, it would look bad on his part. But once they were back in Acarienthia – he would no longer be needed. There were others who could take his place.

Nobody would take him for a fool again. For years he’d hid from the world, using his abilities as a shapeseeker to blend in. But the forms he took only lasted an hour at a time, and he would always be found out and hunted wherever he went. He had narrowly avoided death too many times to count.

When he had finally grew tired of hiding amongst lepers and mundanes, he’d fled to Acaria, the haven of outlaws, as it was called back then. There, Zinoro himself had personally selected him to be his acolyte, as his ability to change forms was very useful to him.

The thing that had made him an unwelcome freak had finally begun to earn him some respect. And there was no way in hell anyone – not some boy and certainly not his own captain – was ever going to get away with making a fool of him again.

Dreevius was certain of this, yet he could not shake the feeling that he was forgetting something very important…

Shaking his head, Dreevius disappeared within his tent to write that letter.

<> <> <>

Selphie kicked Brand and Jared until they woke up, and then they all exchanged stories. The others had been doing their shopping back in Kasma, when ten Acarian soldiers had appeared and attacked them in the street. Jared and Brand had fought, telling Selphie to flee, but things had happened too quickly for her to either help them or get away. The two boys were knocked out, and Selphie was forced to surrender or forfeit their lives. Any witnesses to all this were either killed or paid to keep silent.

They had not seen Ash before or after this happened. Nobody had.

Luca thought about this, and he remembered how quickly Ash had left the inn. He prayed that his brother had not realised that the Tranom at the inn was an impostor, and abandoned them. He thought about his first meeting with him in the caves, and how despite his cold words, Ash had saved him when he fell in the lake. Luca did not know him well enough, but it did not seem like him to forsake them.

Especially not after they had saved him from Allma.

No, his hopes were that he had come upon the fight and lingered back, realising he could not help Selphie yet. Dreevius would have taken Emila and himself from the inn long before Ash returned, if he came to tell them.

Perhaps he was planning to come and help them.

But the cynic in him shot down such hopes. What chance could Ash alone have? Dreevius’ army may be marching back to Acaria, but he still had thirty men with him. Their only chance was to somehow escape during the night, but even then it would be difficult for a party of six to move quietly.

Their weapons had been taken from them, which only made escaping more difficult. Luca could not leave without Siora – he would have to stay until he found it. Alone, if need be. He had lost his father’s sword once already, and he would not do so again. 

Using magick to escape was without question, because the tent they were in was marked with a mana-blocking circle, as anything meant to hold someone in Bacoria would be.

And the men watching them – it wouldn’t be too wild of a guess to say that they could stay there twenty-four hours and continue to watch them. Luca wondered if they even blinked beneath those helms. If even a single one of them began to break free of their binds, those guards would thwart that attempt in a second.

Overall, things didn’t look very good.

“We cannot give up, though,” Selphie insisted. “There has to be a way out.”

Emila was strangely quiet. There were no optimistic words of reassurance from her, no smiles and no hope. She looked defeated. Perhaps it was the threat of Dreevius’ knife from earlier, or the lecherous way he had touched her, but Luca thought it was more likely the hopelessness of the situation finally crushing her.

It was heartbreaking to see.

“Zinoro…” Emila said very quietly. “He’s going to come here, isn’t he? Because they’ve captured the princess, and Zinoro always does these things himself. He’s going to come here, and see us…”

“I will kill him,” Luca swore. “No matter what they do to me, no matter how bad things may seem. I swore I will avenge my father, and I always keep my word. Even if they cut off my arms and legs to stop me, I will still squirm my way over to him and bite him until he bleeds to death.”

“You don’t understand, Luca!” Emila shouted. “It’s not that simple. We’re caught – there’s nothing any of us can do. And even if we were not, and we had our weapons, it wouldn’t mean anything against Zinoro. He’s a monster. He’s inhuman. And he has a Rixeor Fragment. His blade would cut right through yours like a knife through butter.”

Luca bit his lip, refusing to let the subtext of that last line get to him.

“There’s something very important we haven’t thought about,” Brand said, nudging a little closer to them. “If they wanted to start a war with Sono, why not just kill Selphie? That would have been easier than going through all this effort to capture us. They haven’t killed any of us, so they must have some reason to need us alive.”

“Dreevius was going to kill Emila,” Luca said.

Brand frowned. “But that other guy talked him out of it. Perhaps Dreevius is just a fool who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“My apprentice is right,” Tranom said. “Dreevius is a fool – a man who should never have had any power. But Zinoro is not a fool. The attack against the temple was expertly planned. Hundreds died yesterday, and millions more will follow if Zinoro has his way. Whatever it is he needs the princess for, we cannot allow her to fall into his hands. Even if it kills the rest of us, she at least must escape.”

They all grew quiet, realising the gravity of his words.

The two guards continued to watch them, not reacting to anything they said. Were they even comprehending their words? Human captors would have beaten them to silence at this point.

“We aren’t going to get far while those two clowns are standing there,” Luca said.

And then, as though he had made a wish, something truly unexpected happened. Two figures, not dressed in Acarian armour, stepped in through the opening of the tent and each grabbed an Acarian from behind. Daggers were drawn, and the throat of each guard was slit.

The bodies slumped to the ground, and vanished, leaving only their armour.

One of the assassins Luca immediately recognised as his brother. The other was a blond-haired girl who looked strangely familiar, but he couldn’t quite remember…

Then it clicked. Ah, of course. How could he have forgotten? The glasses weren’t there, because she had lost them in the battle. Luca had seen them on the ground. But she at least was alive, and seeing that made Luca’s heart leap.

“We must make haste,” Wiosna said, coming towards them with her dagger. “It won’t take them long to miss the guards outside. We have to get you all untied before I give the signal.”

Signal?

“Ash, the weapons,” she said, already having started to cut the ropes binding Emila, who was closest to the entrance. Ash, who Luca just now noticed was carrying a rolled up cloth, tossed the bundle to the ground. Wrapped up were their weapons – Siora, Brand’s scimitar, Emila’s bow, Selphie’s swords, Jared’s halberd, and a sword that must have belonged to Tranom. 

Ash went over and began to cut Luca’s binds.

“You figured out who he was, back at the inn,” he said to his brother.

“I did,” was his short reply.

“You didn’t tell us.”

“He was sitting right beside you. I’d have gotten you both killed.”

Ash finished cutting through the ropes around his feet, and he moved on to Brand. There would be plenty of time to discuss this later, Luca figured. He went to the pile of weapons and picked up Siora

“We’ll have to move quickly if we’re going to escape,” he said.

“We’re not escaping,” Wiosna said, now freeing Tranom.

“What do you mean?” Selphie asked, as she placed her swords back in their sheathes.

“That’s everyone,” Ash said, interrupting her.

“Then, I’ll give the signal.” Wiosna closed her eyes, and glowed with mana for a few seconds. The energy faded, and she opened her eyes. “They’re on their way.”

“You came back,” Tranom said to her. “Even though I told you not to.”

“Allmans have more honour than that,” she said with a proud smile. She turned to Brand. “Could you please start a fire? Let’s let them know we’re here.”

Brand raised an eyebrow. From outside, a dying scream was heard. His confused expression changed to a smile as realisation dawned. “Oh, I see. Sure.” He summoned his mana and threw a fireball at the wall of the tent. It was instantly ablaze.

“Let’s go!” Wiosna shouted. “We’ve got Acarian blood to spill!”

The eight of them ran out of the tent into the darkness. Outside, a small crowd of people wearing white robes beneath armour were in battle with the black-armoured Acarians. The numbers were with the Allmans this time, outnumbering the Acarians by nearly double, and they had the element of surprise. Several Acarians were being dragged out of tents, where eager Allmans waited with bloodied steel.

Apparently they did need to sleep, Luca noted.

Wiosna gave a battle cry unbecoming of the bookworm she had once appeared to be, and charged out into the carnage, swinging her sword with a vengeful fury.

Brand grinned, and lifted his heavy scimitar. “Master, let’s not let this opportunity pass us by. This time, there aren’t enough Acarians to go around.”

A smile appeared on the lips of the usually grim man. “Indeed.” The two charged out and joined in the fight.

Jared, holding his halberd over his shoulder, turned to Selphie. “They don’t need our help. Let’s just stay back, so I can focus on keeping you safe.”

Selphie nodded. Emila had not taken out her bow, but she merely lingered behind, watching the battle with an uncertain expression.

“Emila,” Luca said to her, “just stay with them for now.”

“Where are you going?” She asked him.

He looked over to the tent farthest from where they were, the largest one in the camp, where a figure with pale skin had just emerged.

“I have a promise I need to keep.”

<> <> <>

Dreevius watched with horror as his men were slaughtered. Several of the tents were on fire, and there were only a few of his thirty men remaining.

At his feet, the captain crawled feebly towards him, blood dripping from his lips.

“My – lord – don’t – the girl is…” he choked on his words, blood dripping from his mouth.

A girl stepped up and stood over the captain. She was a small cute thing, or she would have been, were it not for the blood covering her face, and the terrifying grin she wore. She placed the tip of her sword at the back of the captain’s neck, and drove it in slowly, until the point of the blade emerged from beneath his chin. The captain gave one last pitiful cough of blood, and disappeared.

“Look at how stupid his dying face was,” the girl laughed.

Dreevius was frozen, not in fear, but in disbelief. He simply could not comprehend what was happening in front of him.

“H-how…?”

“Your mistake was underestimating the Allma Temple, Acarian,” the girl spat at him. “Did you really think that we were cowards, or that we would abandon our companions and flee? You’re a special kind of fool.” She raised her blade, pointing the blood-cover tip right at his face. “I’ll give you the chance to surrender. Please say no. I would be overjoyed to cut open a shapeseeker and see what’s inside.”

He backed away slowly, shaking his head. And then, rage flashed across his features.

“NOOO!!!” he shrieked. He blasted at the girl with lightning magick, and then turned and fled into the woods.

Wiosna, after easily blocking the attack, shook her head.

“So the fool chooses death.”

After looking back at the camp to ensure that things were okay – which they were – Wiosna sheathed her sword and pursued Dreevius into the woods.

<> <> <>

Knowing that Dreevius’ only choice would be to flee, Luca passed by the battle and his tent and waited in a deeper part of the woods.

He stopped. Someone was following him.

He turned around, dead leaves crackling beneath his feet. Though his visibility was limited under the veil of darkness, he could easily see the white dress that Emila always wore.

“He’s gotten away,” she said to him. “C’mon, let’s go back.”

Luca shook his head. “I told you stay with Selphie and Jared. Even now, you still won’t listen to me? It’s too dangerous out here. There could still be Acarians about.”

“I was just worried about you,” she said. “You shouldn’t have gone after that guy alone.”

“I can handle myself,” Luca told her. “I’ve already fought this guy a few times. I know his tricks. But I have to kill him myself. So just go on back to the camp and wait with the others. I’ll be fine, no matter what happens. You have nothing to worry about.”

“You know I won’t just leave you,” she insisted. “I guess I’ll just have to wait here with you until he shows up.” She crossed her arms, indicating that she wasn’t budging.

Luca chuckled, and took a step towards her.

“Emila – what’s my name?”

She froze.

Luca sprang forth like an uncoiled spring, drawing his sword and bringing it down. Unable to draw his own blade in time, all Dreevius could do was dodge to the side. However, the footing on the leaf-covered hill betrayed him, and he slipped and tumbled down. He rolled all the way down the hill, landing in the muddy bank of a river.

He no longer looked like Emila, having returned to his grey-skinned, tattooed appearance. The white dress was also gone, replaced by the black Acarian armour.

“You can even imitate clothing,” Luca said as he casually followed him down the hill. “Impressive. Tranom told me there weren’t many of your kind left in this world. It’s almost a shame I have to kill you.”

Dreevius stumbled around in the mud until he was back on his feet. His sword appeared in his hands.

“Shut up!” he shouted. “It is you who will die tonight! I wasn’t kidding when I said you shouldn’t have come after me alone!”

Luca ignored what he said, and continued. “But don’t worry. You will not completely vanish from the world.”

Dreevius charged, bringing his sword down. Luca easily parried the blow and countered. He jumped back to avoid it, and stumbled back into the mud.

Luca shook his head.

<> <> <>

Wiosna quickly located Dreevius, who had ran to a small valley in the woods. She saw him, with his sword drawn, thrashing around in the mud.

He wasn’t alone.

For a moment, Wiosna considered running down to help Luca, but then she saw he was unwounded, standing confidently over his opponent, who was clearly flustered and demonstrating a poor imitation of swordplay. There was something quite familiar about the situation.

She smiled.

“Hmm – perhaps I’ll just let things play out and see what happens.”

She sat down behind a large rock, obscured from view, and watched the rest of the show.

<> <> <>

Dreevius swung his blade once again, and as with the previous times, it was easily knocked away by the boy in front of him.

The rage in him was building.

“Dammit, stop laughing!” he screamed. “I am Dreevius, acolyte of Zinoro, king of Acaria! I WILL NOT BE MOCKED!”

His opponent, still smiling, stepped back a few metres. “In that case, climb on out of the mud, acolyte, and show me why you should be taken seriously.”

Dreevius was so angry he was shaking. He climbed up onto solid ground and raised his free hand.

“Fry, you punk!”

Electricity sprang from Dreevius’ fingertips. It never touched the boy. He countered by creating a shield of mana around himself. The lightning struck the shield, wrapping around it, crackling and even burning the ground. But it did not touch the boy.

It continued for some time, but once he realised he was wasting his mana, Dreevius ceased the magick.

“Is that all?” the boy asked. “You shouldn’t have announced your attack like that. It gave me plenty of time to shield myself.”

The boy then raised his free hand, and mana surged. Dreevius went to summon his own shield, but he wasn’t fast enough. A few dozen needles of white mana were thrown at him like arrows, striking him anywhere he wasn’t wearing armour. They did not hurt greatly, but the flesh they struck immediately seized up and would not move. Not numb, just paralysed. This included his arms and legs, for the needles had hit him where the armour plates met.

His rigid body collapsed into the leaves, face down.

“I did not tell you I was about to attack. See the difference in outcome?”

“Shut your mouth! I will not be told how to fight by someone half my age!”

The boy approached him, stuck his sword in the ground, and turned him over. Unable to move, Dreevius could not stop him. His own sword had fallen beside him, but even if he were able to reach out and take it, it would mean nothing. Seeing his eyes on it, the boy kicked it beyond his reach.

Dreevius fought his paralysis with all his might. He began to regain some movement. The needles in him started to dissolve back into mana.

“You’re a one-trick act, Dreevius, and I’ve already seen the trick,” the boy said, drawing close to him. “Your combat abilities are feeble even at your peak. Without dozens of men to command, you’re no tougher than a common bandit.”

“Shut up!” Dreevius shouted, his hand finally breaking free of the paralysis. He reached and grabbed the boy’s throat with all his might.

The boy didn’t even react. With an emotionless face, he took Dreevius’ hand in his own and removed it from his windpipe. He then held the hand in place, and took Dreevius’ index finger in his other hand.

With a snapping sound, the boy broke the finger clean off.

Dreevius screamed. He tried to twist around, to get away from beneath this kid, but he could not move. His body was still stiff and unyielding.

The boy took the bleeding finger and placed it in a pocket in his shirt. He buttoned it closed. “Even your fingers have those tattoos on them. I’m sure when he gets it, there will be no mistaking who it came from.”

Even through the haze of pain clouding his mind, Dreevius could still understand his words. “What are you g-going to do…?”

“I am going to send your king a letter. This finger I took from you will go with it, so he knows the message is sincere.”

“Wh-what message?”

The boy smiled. “I’m so glad you asked. You see, when he gets this letter, he will know just how completely you failed him. Earlier, when you were in the form of my companion, I asked what my name was. You did not know the answer. You really should have. My name is Luca, son of Lodin, and I am going to kill your king.”

Dreevius’ heart stopped.

He really had made a mistake. The biggest mistake he could have possibly made. This boy likely didn’t even realise how completely Dreevius had indeed failed his king.

<> <> <>

The five acolytes were gathered in full for the first time. In a half-circle, on one side of the table, they stood. Counter-clockwise – Dreevius, Trunda, Gordon, Verra, and Serpos.

And on the other side of the table was their king, Zinoro.

“I have gathered you here to tell you of a great revelation,” Zinoro said to them. “This is the first time you have all been gathered before me. Fitting, in that what I have to tell you is something great. The seer in the dungeons has told me the conditions of my death. It is an Absolute Truth. There are only two in this world who may end my life. The first is one of my own blood. My family is wiped out, save for my mother. As we two are the only ones of my blood still in this world, this first condition is of no concern. The other is of the blood of the man who killed my father. But only his firstborn child. This means that there are only two alive who can kill me in any possible future.”

“The son of Lodin?” Serpos asked. “That would be the one he took with him when he fled into the wilderness.” A tall and powerful man, Serpos was the most cold and ruthless person Dreevius had ever met. Zinoro had chosen him for his skill in combat, and his military experience, of which he refused to speak of.

“Indeed,” Zinoro answered. “It is good that Lodin did not die in our first encounter. I would have spared the child back then. Now I know it would have been a mistake.”

“Lodin’s other son is no threat, then?” Verra asked. The only woman among the acolytes, Verra was a healer who had turned against the craft. Healing magick could be inverted and used as a tool for killing, but it required the same precision as its proper use, so it was unwieldy in battle. Verra used inverted healing as a deadly technique of assassination.

“The other son is in Allma Temple, if I remember correctly,” Gordon said. He was the oldest of their number, a fighter who had risen to their ranks through sheer ability, without the unique skills the others had. Gordon had known Zinoro longer than any of others – and it was no secret among them that he was easily the weakest and most spineless person at the table.

“Yes, being trained by the man who trained his father,” Zinoro said. “Or so we have heard. But as I said, it is Lodin and his first son we must concern ourselves with. We cannot go forth with the plan until Lodin is dead, and this now includes his son. But finding them has been a challenge. Lodin received protection from an old friend before he left, and it still hides him from me to this day.”

“Send us, my king,” Trunda offered. “We will find them and put an end to their lives.” Where Serpos was a powerful and deadly warrior, Trunda was simply a brute. The man was massive, a living giant. Dreevius had seen him crush stone with his bare hands.

“No,” Zinoro said. “It must be my hand that ends Lodin’s life, regardless of what threat his son may be to me. I swore an oath to end the life of the man who killed my father, and I will see it honoured. When I am through with him, I will kill the boy as well. It must be me who does this, or my victories will mean nothing. Until the son of Lodin is dead, I will not take my army to T’Saw.”

“My king,” Verra said, “are you certain this is wise?”

“I will destroy Sono when the time is right, and not a moment before,” Zinoro answered her. “Until then, finding Lodin is the highest priority. Dispatch men to every corner of the known world. Have them report back if they find where Lodin is living. You, my acolytes, have other tasks to carry out. Preparations that must be made…”

<> <> <>

He couldn’t believe it. All this time…

He had forgotten his silent vow to kill the son of Lodin for his king. Other matters had come up in the years since then, and he had let what should have been his greatest achievement slip right through his fingers.

But he had killed the boy. Twice, in fact. He just would not die. Some magick was keeping the spiritual realm from retaking him.

That girl – she must be the answer after all. She had felt the same pain as the boy when he had stabbed him. If he had just ignored his captain, and killed her then and there, while he had the chance, the son of Lodin would likely be dead. The Allman survivors would still have come and annihilated them, but at least Zinoro would be safe. Perhaps Dreevius would even have been able to escape back to Acaria to tell him.

But instead, he had let that chance go, all because he had forgotten to remember what hair colour the boy was supposed to have. He should have known the moment he saw that white hair!

And now, the son of Lodin was standing over him, invulnerable to death, and desiring his king’s blood.

And he could have prevented it all.

For the first time, Dreevius admitted to himself that he was, indeed, a fool.

<> <> <>

Luca slowly drove his sword into Dreevius’ stomach, and the Acarian cried out in pain.

“It is not the oath I made to kill Zinoro that I am keeping here, though,” he told him. “I made an oath to myself that anyone who threatened to hurt Emila would die. And not only did you threaten to kill her, but you spilt her blood, molested her person, and made her feel the pain of being stabbed. But the worst of it is that you dared to take her form and try to pass as her. That is an insult I could never forgive, much less spare you for. So instead of a quick death, or even an honourable death in combat, I am going to kill you slowly.”

Luca drove the sword in a little bit deeper, and Dreevius let out a cacophonous shriek of agony. Then, he pulled the sword out, letting loose a free flow of blood.

“You aren’t even worthy of what I am giving you,” Luca spat at him. He wasn’t even sure if the man was still listening anymore, as his eyes were glazed over in pain. But it all needed to be said. “You killed Rael and Dori and the dragon. Countless good Allmans died on your orders. You even killed Allma himself – he was scum as well, but even he had some modicum of honour. You are less than the lowest of the low. The things that slither about in the mud are royalty next to you. And that’s exactly where you deserve to die – in the mud.”

Luca grabbed Dreevius’ foot and dragged him through the thick leaves, back to the river. His blood left a trail behind him. Once there, he threw him back into the mud. Dreevius no longer even had the strength to struggle.

“I have truly forsaken the Way of Uro,” Luca said, now talking to himself. “No warrior-philosopher would throw a dying man into the mud. I have abandoned the teachings I used to hold higher than life itself. But some people deserve nothing, not even a decent death.”

In the filth, Dreevius twitched feebly.

As Luca stared down at his work, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was becoming a monster. But then he remembered everything Dreevius had done, and he told himself he deserved it.

Perhaps one had to become a monster to slay one.

Luca got on his knees and drove his sword through Dreevius’ chest. The Acarian tried to scream again, but all that came out was a choked cry. Blood ran from his lips, flowing down his chin in a crimson waterfall. He had another spasm, and he coughed blood up, which hit his face.

Then he fell back into the mud, and disappeared into mana.

Without another word, or thought, Luca rose.

The smoke-filled orb remained within its pouch, hidden within Dreevius’ blood-covered armour. It sank into the mud, forgotten.

<> <> <>

A bright smile graced Wiosna’s lips.

Luca, the son of the legendary hero Lodin. A formidable swordsman with hair as white as snow. A handsome face with blue eyes. The one who had fought against the Acarians at the temple, and had not died when his heart was pierced.

And he was of her kind. An artist who painted in the most deepest red.

“He is perfect,” she said. “Perfect in every way. A beautiful angel of death. I must have him.”

She had made up her mind. Luca would be hers, in mind, body, and soul. The very thought of having him made her warm. It had been so long since she had been so happy. Not since…

Well, not since her parents had died.

“But not yet,” she said. “He can’t see me here. He mustn’t know I saw him. Not yet.”

Wiosna rose from behind her rock and ran back to the camp before Luca saw she was there.

Chapter XI

Strange Pleasures

Luca, carrying within his coat pocket the severed finger of Dreevius, made his way back to the Acarian camp. When he finally emerged from the dense forest, he saw the remnants of the camp. The fires were out and the Allman survivors who had saved them were busy looting what was left of the place for weapons and supplies. A large pile of bloody Acarian armour sat at the edge of the cluster of tents.

Quickly enough Luca spotted Emila, standing right where he had left her, by the edge of the camp with Selphie and Jared. He started to make his way over to them, when one of the Allmans approached and spoke to him.

“Are – are you the son of Lodin?” The dark-haired boy addressing him couldn’t have been more than year apart from him in age, yet there was a sort of deference in the way he spoke to Luca – like he was speaking to an elder.

“I am,” he replied.

“The others say you cannot die,” the boy said to him. “They say that back in the temple you received a mortal wound, yet you did not disappear.”

He considered what to tell him. The truth? There could be consequences. Already someone had taken an interest in him because of his inability to die – and Emila had only survived the encounter through sheer luck.

But could he lie about this? What had happened at the temple was something he could not hide. Many people had witnessed it, and even though few had survived the attack, already rumours were spreading. He was the son of Lodin, which was something of note to those who knew of his father. As Ash had told him back at the cave, people expected things of him just from that.

He looked to where Emila was. She had not yet noticed his return.

“I did not,” Luca said, deciding there was no sense in lying about it. Things were already beyond his control – in fact, they had never really been in his control in the first place. “Dreevius stabbed me through the heart, but I did not die.”

The boy had wonder in his eyes. “But – how?”

“I am not certain.”

“The others have been speaking of you. When we were on the road, some believed you had died in the attack. I told them they were wrong. I wanted to believe – and I was right.”

Luca sighed, feeling weary.

“I will tell the others,” the boy said. “I will tell them of the immortal son of Lodin!” The boy ran off excitedly, before Luca could stop him.

He sighed again, wondering what he had started.

<> <> <>

Luca returned to Emila after that, who smiled in relief that he was okay when she saw him. He sat beside her, feeling tired from the long and eventful day – hours of travel, followed by the capture at the inn, and their rescue.

“What happened out there?” Emila asked him quietly.

“I found Dreevius,” he replied. “I killed him.”

That was all he needed to say. No need to fill her in on the details – like how Dreevius had impersonated her, or the cruel way Luca had killed him. She’d been through enough tonight without knowing those things.

“Are you alright?” she asked, the usual concern in her eyes.

“Just tired.”

And then, Emila did something he was not expecting. She wrapped her arms around him in a warm hug. She smiled, and rested her head on his shoulder.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He wasn’t sure what she was thanking him for, but he accepted her embrace. In any other situation, it would have felt awkward to him, but no one was watching and he was too tired to reject her.

Besides, she was warm, and the night was cold.

After a minute or so, she released him. They sat in silence by the edge of the tent, while Selphie and Jared spoke quietly. Brand was off with Tranom somewhere, and Ash was nowhere in sight. For the moment, it was just the two of them, and that was okay.

Then, a blond-haired girl was suddenly in front of them, beaming.

“Hello,” said Wiosna. “I’m glad to see you’re all alright.”

Selphie and Jared walked over, and they both bowed. “On behalf of the kingdom of Sono, I thank you for what you’ve done,” Selphie said. “By rescuing us, you’ve likely prevented a war. We are in your debt.”

Wiosna blushed and waved her hand. “I wouldn’t have just left you to them. Really, it’s Ash who deserves the real credit. He found us and told us what happened.”

Luca frowned.

That reminded him of something he hadn’t had the chance to think on yet. Ash had fled from the inn, likely after realising that the Tranom they were talking with was false. But he had not gone to warn Selphie and the others as he’d said he was. So while he had eventually come across the Allmans and led them to back to save everyone, the question remained as to whether that was his intention all along, or if he had simply found them while attempting to flee and save his own life.

Luca had brought the question up briefly when Ash had saved them, but he had given no answer.

Though he didn’t want to admit it, the truth was that Luca simply did not know Ash well enough to trust him.

Wiosna then said to Selphie, “We couldn’t let these Acarians run free after what they did, much less after we learnt they took you.”

“Are you in charge of this group?” Selphie asked.

“It would seem so,” Wiosna said. “After Tranom led us out of the temple, he stayed behind in the woods to hold them off while we escaped. There wasn’t really anyone else in our group who was willing to take charge, so I took over while he was gone. Our plan was to meet up with him later, but he never showed up.”

“At Kasma?” Luca suggested. “Specifically, at the inn?”

Wiosna nodded slowly.

“Perhaps it was a stroke of good fortune that we got there first,” Luca muttered grimly. They all exchanged silent glances, the same thought on their minds.

“It seems Dreevius was able to escape into the woods…” Wiosna said in a funny voice.

“He did, but I followed him,” Luca told her. “I took care of him.”

Wiosna smiled knowingly. “Is that right? That’s fantastic. In that case, we don’t need to stay here.”

“Do you have a camp of your own?” Selphie asked.

“We do. It’s not as big as this one, but nobody here wants to sleep in an Acarian tent. So we’re taking what we can and heading back there. I trust you will be joining us?”

“I would be honoured to be your guest,” Selphie said humbly.

Wiosna turned to Luca, giving him a strangely warm smile. “Let’s get going, then.”

He had a strange feeling about her, like she knew something she wasn’t telling them.

<> <> <>

The Allman company of fifty or so, and Luca’s group, finished gathering what they could from the Acarian camp and prepared to depart. Before they left, Luca slipped off on his own one last time, going to Dreevius’ now-empty tent.

In the middle, there was a desk where the Acarian acolyte had left various maps, letters, and battle plans. Beside it, on a shelf, was a small caged bird which was untouched by the fire. It fluttered about in its cage, and blinked at Luca as he approached.

On the desk, Luca spotted a half-written letter, describing the attack against the temple, and its success. It was just beginning to get to the part of Selphie’s capture when it ended abruptly.

Luca turned to the bird. “I’m afraid you’ll be delivering a different message.”

He sat down at the desk, discarded the unfinished note, and took a fresh piece of parchment and a pen. He wrote a single sentence across it.

Luca then withdrew the small, severed finger from his coat pocket, wrapped it up in the note, and returned to the bird cage. The raven squawked as he took it out, but he was able to settle it long enough to tie the small letter around its leg.

Luca then carried the bird outside.

“Now go back to Acaria.”

He released the bird, which took off into the air. It flew up high, and drifted off towards the mountains in the east.

<> <> <>

They made their way through the woods and back to the road, walking in a process of about three or so abreast. Luca walked beside Emila and Brand, with Wiosna, Selphie, and Tranom before them, talking about the princess’ plans to return to T’Saw. Jared strode behind him, as silent as always.

A few rows away, Ash was walking with his arms crossed. He noticed Luca looking over at him, and met his stare. His expression said nothing. Luca turned away.

There was little to talk about as they walked. Everyone was tired, and the Allman camp was a few kilometres from where they were. They made good time, though, and before they knew it, they had arrived.

The camp was much humbler than the Acarian one had been, with only six tents. There was a large fire in the centre, which was watched over by two Allmans who had stayed behind, and around that were many sleeping bags.

Wiosna promised a tent to Selphie, which Selphie in turn offered to share with Emila. Before they left, Emila wished Luca a good night.

Brand muttered the same, and he went to go find a comfortable spot by the fire. Jared and Ash and the other Allmans all went and found things to do, and Tranom tossed his bag down by a tree and used it as a pillow.

Feeling rather tired, Luca was about to do the same when he felt Wiosna’s hand on his shoulder. She cocked her head over to one of the tents, with a look that said she wanted to talk with him.

Seeing no reason to decline, Luca followed her over to the tent. Wiosna looked over the camp quickly, to make sure no one was looking, and then she grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. At that moment, it occurred to him that maybe he shouldn’t be doing what he was doing.

“What is it?” he asked her.

Wiosna unbuckled her breastplate, and pulled it off, now wearing only a white robe of Allma Temple, soiled by dirt and blood. “You have had a rough night. You deserve to sleep somewhere comfortable.”

“No rougher than any of the others.”

Wiosna shook her head and said, “No need to be modest. Go on and take that heavy coat off and relax.”

“You want me to sleep here?”

“What do you think I invited you in here for?”

A thousand ideas went through Luca’s mind. If anyone saw them, there was only one thing that they would think – the same thing anyone thinks when they see a boy and girl going off somewhere alone. But there was no chance that was what she had in mind, she clearly just wanted him to sleep there. Yeah. Definitely.

Which, if he did, would be the second time he had slept in a tent while the other male members of his group were out in the cold.

Wiosna blushed and laughed, looking away shyly. “There nothing wrong with you sleeping in here with me. I know you won’t try anything.”

“I still don’t think this is the best idea,” he insisted. “I should go back outside with the others.”

“Please,” she asked, giving him an adorable pleading look. “I didn’t come to save you just so you could go lie in the dirt.”

He turned back around. There was something off about what she’d said. “You didn’t come back for me. You came back to save Selphie and Tranom.”

“They were important, sure,” she said. “Especially the princess. But you were the one I was really worried about. When your brother told me they had you, I feared the worst, and it worried me until the moment we found you.”

“But – why?”

Wiosna shrugged. “Who can say? Sometimes we feel things we don’t fully understand. The ‘normal’ view of emotion is too narrow, and too often inaccurate. Feeling an emotion whose origin you can’t identify does not make it wrong. That’s just what I felt. I was worried about you the most.”

“I suppose I can understand that.” Indeed, too often he felt things like that about Emila.

“Come. Sit down.”

He didn’t want to insult her, which he realised that his leaving would at this point, so he took off his heavy fur coat and sat down. There were two bedrolls in the tent, he noticed.

“You were expecting me this whole time?”

“All the other tents have two in them.”

“Ah.”

Wiosna sat down on her side of the tent, stretching and cracking her neck. “There has been talk about you.”

“That I cannot die?” he guessed.

“Some of the students claim they saw what happened at the temple,” she said, her eyes wide with interest. “Is it true?”

He nodded.

She smiled excitedly. “How?”

“I’m not sure how it works, exactly.” It was as much as he could say. He didn’t want many people to know about the tether with Emila. After what had happened with Dreevius, he worried for her safety now more than ever.

“So – if I were to stab you and cut you open, you would not die?” Wiosna asked, her eyes full of excitement. Her breath had quickened a bit. “No matter what sort of injury I inflicted, you would not disappear?”

“I would prefer you didn’t do those things, but no, I would not.”

“That’s – incredible,” she said. “You have quite a gift.”

He frowned. It wasn’t really a gift. In fact, it was something he shouldn’t have at all. If he were a better warrior, he wouldn’t continually find himself in these life-threatening situations.

“What – what did it feel like?” she asked bashfully.

“I’m sorry?”

“When he stabbed you.”

Luca sat back for a moment, thinking about it. “Well, it was different each time.”

“Each time…?”

“Er, yes. He stabbed me again when we were being held, also in the heart.”

Wiosna shook her head disapprovingly. “What a piece of work.”

“Indeed. In any case, the first time I didn’t really feel anything. Everything just went cold and I couldn’t move for a while. I honestly thought I was dead for a while, but then I realised I was still breathing. The second time – well, that was just excruciatingly painful.”

He remembered Emila, and how she had screamed and thrashed around, feeling the same thing he felt. He hadn’t cried out, but she had – likely because she wasn’t used to such pain. It hurt him when he thought about that, and he hated that it was the result of his foolishness that had led to her feeling that pain. Deep down, he knew it wasn’t his fault, but he could not relieve himself of the feeling of guilt gnawing at him.

“I thought you died back in the attack,” Luca said to Wiosna. “I saw your glasses on the ground, half-crushed by an Acarian boot.”

“Ah yes, my glasses. I’ll have to get a new pair when we get to a city. I mostly use them for reading, but things do look a little fuzzy right now.”

“You look better without them,” he said.

Her cheeks flushed red. “Oh, stop it.”

“You were quite the fighter back there,” he continued. “And you’ve been leading the survivors, as well. I must admit, I’m surprised. When we first spoke I’d thought you just a quiet scholar.”

Wiosna smiled. “I have a passion for books. I’ve read ever since I was a child. It was great, because no matter how bad things got, I always had my books to keep me company. I could escape into them.”

“I read a lot, too,” Luca admitted. “My father and I were always travelling, and he would always get new books for me when we reached a new town. Mostly fiction, but I did quite enjoy learning the Way of Uro.”

She looked up, surprise and perhaps a bit of worry in her eyes. “Are you a follower of the Way?”

He thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. Perhaps once he could have called himself that in truthfulness. But after tonight – after what he had done to Dreevius…

“I once admired it, but it’s an impossible ideal.”

Wiosna nodded. “I agree. I’ve met a few who followed the Way so strictly they would die before they violated one of the rules. They were bitter, sad shells who gave everything they had and received nothing in return. People took advantage of their generosity when they wanted to, and mocked them any other time. Nobody cared for them, not even themselves.”

“It is certainly a hard life.”

“The rules of life are hard enough without making more for yourself,” Wiosna said. “Enjoy the things you enjoy, and never feel guilty for it.”

He sat back, thinking about that. Simple enough, he decided. There was no sense in feeling guilt over the things you enjoyed. People will always judge someone, no matter how perfect they strive to be. Sacrificing one’s own joy to appease those people was simply foolish.

“So what do you enjoy?” he asked Wiosna, not sure why he was so curious.

She smiled, and scratched her cheek. “Reading, undoubtedly. But I also like to just go out and take in the simple beauty of the world. The leaves in the woods, the cool breeze, the sound of a flowing stream. The serenity brings peace to the mind. My greatest passion, however – that would be the rush of battle. That’s why I travelled to Allma Temple in the first place. I enjoy the excitement of a fight.”

Luca remembered the excitement in Wiosna’s eyes when the Allmans had attacked the Acarian camp, slaughtering the people who had destroyed their home. Wiosna had screamed for their blood. He had attributed it to the rush of vengeful passion, but it seemed the girl’s real passion was for combat. Then again, it made more sense than someone who spent all their time in a library coming to a place like Allma. Everyone there was a warrior at heart – one had to be if they wanted to make it through the training.

“Your turn,” Wiosna prodded playfully.

“My turn?”

“Tell me what you enjoy in life. I shared, so you have to as well. It’s only fair.”

He had to think on that one for a bit. There wasn’t really much. Back when he travelled with Lodin, he read, but mostly because that was all there was to do. He cared nothing for the little things that Wiosna spoke of, and he when he fought – it was something he was good at, and proud of, but not quite a passion, like it seemed to be for Wiosna.

The only thing that really drove him in life was honour. Honour was the whole reason he was going after Zinoro in the first place, because he wanted to see the man pay for killing his father. But in his efforts to reach that goal, he had already forsaken it. Honour would not get him to Zinoro – pragmatism would.

Dreevius had no honour, so why should Luca need to feel guilty for fighting him without it? Dreevius really did deserve to die slowly in the mud. But no honourable warrior would have dragged him over to it. But it was what Luca had decided was right.

So why did he feel such guilt? He had felt so satisfied when he had broke off Dreevius’ finger, and he had felt even more so when he had dealt the killing blow. Perhaps the guilt wasn’t that he had killed Dreevius in such a dishonourable way, but that he had enjoyed doing so.

Wiosna was waiting for his answer with a concerned look.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted.

“You don’t know what you enjoy?” she asked.

He shook his head.

The blond girl bit her lip. “Er – perhaps I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It was in your right,” he assured her.

“Still, I feel guilty if I made you sad,” Wiosna said. She looked awkwardly over to a bag in the corner of the tent. “There’s uh – wine in there if you want it.”

Luca considered that. A few weeks ago, he would have flat out refused the offer. It was part of the Way of Uro, which he had wanted so badly to be a follower of.

A warrior will resist the vices of the world, as drink and…

To hell with that. Uro has been dead for over a thousand years. Luca deserved to live.

“Thanks, I think I do.”

He reached over Wiosna and took the wine bottle out of the bag. The small blond girl looked at him uncomfortably as he did so, perhaps from his closeness. She seemed to relax a bit as he pulled away, and pulled the tight cork free of the bottle.

Luca had only ever consumed alcohol once before in his life. While he and Lodin had been staying at an inn somewhere – he couldn’t remember where – his father had ordered a mug of ale. After several minutes of incessant pestering, Lodin had finally given Luca a glass of his own. The younger version of him had been so eager to try it, but he had hated the taste so much he never wanted to try it again.

Luca found himself smiling at the memory of his father’s roaring laughter at the disgusted face he had made. How old had he been that day, he wondered. Ten? Eight? Possibly even younger than that…

Shrugging, Luca took a swig of the wine bottle. He shuddered as he swallowed. It tasted about as bad as he had thought it would.

“Is – it good?” Wiosna asked him.

“I suppose so,” he said. He took a second drink, and it didn’t taste as bad as the first. “I guess I could get used to this.”

He offered the bottle to Wiosna, and she recoiled like it was a striking snake. She gasped aloud, and shuffled away from him.

“What is it?!” he asked her. “Are you alright?”

“Y-yes,” she said, looking increasingly uncomfortable. “I just don’t drink, that’s all.”

He looked at her, trying to puzzle out what she was afraid of. “It’s not going to hurt you.” Still, he did not hold the bottle out to her, returning it to his own person.

Wiosna moved back to where she she had been sitting, looking a bit embarrassed at the outburst. “I know. It just makes me really comfortable to even be around the stuff.”

“Why did you have it, then?”

“One of the other students brought it with him when we escaped,” Wiosna said. “The temple had a whole wine cellar, and he said he was determined to save even one bottle if he could. It’s not the oldest the temple had, but it’s pretty old.”

Luca turned the bottle over, and found the date marked on it. Thirty-three ten. His eyes went wide. 

“That’s over a hundred and fifty years ago…!”

“That’s nothing,” Wiosna said, her smile returning. “There’s wine in that cellar that was bottled in the age of Markiran empire. The library had one book that was penned in the twenty-five hundreds – it was kept in a glass case, because it would probably fall to pieces if someone tried to read it.”

Luca hesitated to take another drink. He suddenly felt like he was holding a piece of history.

“The temple itself has only stood for three generations, but so many people and things found their way there,” Wiosna said sadly. “And now it’s all gone.”

“Just another thing Zinoro has stolen from the world,” Luca said bitterly. “He’ll pay for all this, I promise you.”

Wiosna looked to him, and said, “You should finish that. Otherwise, it’ll just go to waste.”

Luca thought about it for a moment, and then took a long swig. When he finished, his head was spinning.

Wiosna watched him drink, and smiled.

<> <> <>

Emila sighed, turning over in her sleeping bag for possibly the hundredth time. She was restless, unable to sleep in spite of her fatigue. Beside her, Selphie was fast asleep, having drifted off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. Emila had no such luck. Something was bothering her, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.

Or perhaps she knew exactly what it was, and she just didn’t want to admit it.

She looked out at the camp outside, through the small gap between the folds. Dozens of sleeping white-cloaked figures were scattered around the large fire in the centre. Some others were awake, and seated at a table, talking over a drink. Under the faint starlight, and the orange glow of the fire, she spotted Ash and Tranom among the ones sleeping around the camp. Jared was lying on a roll close to her and Selphie’s tent – she couldn’t be sure if he was sleeping or not.

As her tossing and turning might wake Selphie – which was something she’d feel bad for doing – Emila rose as quietly as she could and went outside. She made her way over to the fire. Jared did not move or say anything as she passed him, so he must have been sleeping after all.

Emila sat as close to the large fire as she needed, and stretched her arms out to warm up.

“Can’t sleep?” said a voice right next to her.

She stifled a gasp and nearly jump. Brand was sitting beside her, having joined her without her even noticing.

“No, I can’t,” she said, trying to calm her beating heart.

“I can’t blame you,” he said, “after what happened.”

That feeling of being stabbed – she had felt that once already, back in the temple the first time Dreevius stabbed Luca. The pain had been unbearable, and she had screamed and screamed in  pain and enraged grief at the thought that Luca had just been killed. But that wasn’t what was bothering her.

She could possibly talk about it – but she didn’t feel like Brand would understand.

“I can manage,” she said. “How about you? You’re reunited with your master.”

“It’s good to see him again.” Brand put his hands behind his head and sat back. “But I knew he’d be alright.”

Emila looked around the camp, wondering where Luca was.

“I have to apologise,” Brand said.

“For what?”

“I should have been with you at the inn. If I had stuck with you guys, instead of going shopping with Selphie, I would have realised that the guy you met there wasn’t the real Tranom. I would have realised a lot quicker than Ash, and unlike him I wouldn’t have run off without telling you anything.”

“He drugged us,” Emila pointed out. “The innkeeper was drugging all the food served there. We were caught the moment we started to eat.”

“You still had time to get away. I could have fought the guy and held him off. He wouldn’t have been able to tell his men about Selphie. You would have been able to get to her first, and you all could have escaped.”

“But you would have died…”

He didn’t answer that. A moment passed before he spoke again.

“Now that I think about it, we should have all stuck together from the beginning.” Brand spoke quietly, staring deep into the flickering fire. “We shouldn’t have split up at all, at least not until we were certain the town was safe. You and Luca could have been killed back there. We all could have been, once were caught. It’s only thanks to that other Acarian guy that Dreevius didn’t kill you. He didn’t need any of us alive, save for Selphie.”

“Brand,” Emila said sternly, “don’t think about things like that. There are thousands of times where doing something different could result in a better outcome. But unless you’re a seer, there’s no way to know that when you make those decisions. Don’t torture yourself over ‘could-haves’.”

Brand smirked. “You’re right, I shouldn’t be moping uselessly like this. That’s Ash’s job.” He sat up and looked into the fire.

Emila looked around the camp once again, trying to spot a particular white-haired figure among the sleeping crowd. “Where is he, anyway?”

“Ash?”

“No. The other brother.”

Brand frowned. He pointed over to one of the tents. There was a lit lantern inside it, but the light was too faint to make out anything inside.

“He’s in there?” Emila asked. “Isn’t that Wiosna’s tent?”

“It is,” Brand said.

Emila blinked, not quite understanding. “Wh-why he would he be in there?”

“She invited him back to her tent,” Brand explained. “They were trying to be discreet, but I saw them. That’s all I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on it since, but I haven’t seen anything.”

“…oh,” she said softly, in spite of herself.

“I’m certain nothing’s happening,” Brand reassured her. “You know Luca, he’s wouldn’t do anything with a girl he hardly knows.”

“No, this is great,” Emila said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. “It’s good he’s spending time with a girl who isn’t me.”

Brand had an expression that said he didn’t quite believe that. “Emila, if you’re upset, you can tell me. I know you two are very close, and-”

“No, it really isn’t like that,” she said, more certain this time. “The thing is – the magick that I used to save him is pretty much completely untested. Nobody knows much about it at all – I had no idea it would save his life the way it did. But one of the things I do know about it is that the two connected are drawn together. Any attraction that he and I might feel for each other isn’t real. It’s not actual affection, it’s more like a forced obsession. If he were to have a relationship with another girl, that would help things a lot, because in the worst case scenario, we could become so obsessed with each other that it could warp our personalities and drive us insane.”

“So you’re not jealous at all?” Brand asked her.

“If I am, it’s not real jealousy,” Emila replied. “It’s the tether pushing me towards him. If I give into it, then things could get very bad. The obsession could lead us to see any interaction with another person as a potential threat. That kind of jealousy is very dangerous. So if I do feel anything, it’s wrong and I have to do the opposite of what I feel.”

“That wasn’t really a yes or no,” Brand said.

Emila sighed. “Yes, I do feel jealous. More jealous than I should. But I don’t own him, and I know that if he wants to spend the night with another girl, that’s good, because that means he isn’t as dependent as I am.”

“Emila…” Brand sounded very concerned.

“Really, this is a good thing,” she insisted. “It’s better for both of us, even if it hurts me.”

Brand frowned, but he said nothing more. He picked a twig up off the ground, and twirled it around in his hand. Then he broke it in half and tossed one piece into the fire. “If this tether thing is so dangerous, why don’t you just stop it?”

“That was the plan, but things keep happening,” she said. “His lung was healed the other day, so I wanted to break the tether, but then Dreevius stabbed him in the heart. Twice. If I broke it now, he would die. I have to wait for whatever mortal injuries he sustains to fully heal before I break the tether. And while I can use magick to close a wound, if his body still thinks he’s dead, he would vanish if the tether was broken. Time is the only thing that can fix that.”

“So when he was stabbed by Dreevius it all started over again,” Brand muttered.

“Indeed. But that’s just it, though,” Emila said. “He keeps getting into situations where he suffers injuries that set him back. How quickly would he be killed if I broke the tether and left him on his own?”

“So you’re saying that you have to subject yourself to this dangerous magick because otherwise he would run off and die?” Brand asked. “That’s very noble of you, even though I don’t necessarily feel it’s the right thing to do.”

“I didn’t save his life in Forga just for him to go off and get killed anyway,” she said. “He’s gotten too confident after he survived Dreevius stabbing him. He knows he can’t die, so he hasn’t been trying to avoid it. He even told me after it that he could fight the entire Acarian army if he had to. And if left on his own, he would do that. I have to protect him from himself, and from all the ways he can get himself killed.”

“You just said a minute ago that you can’t let yourself get dependent on each other,” Brand said. “But from what you’ve just said, that’s already happened.”

“That’s – not the same thing. I was talking about being obsessed due to the emotional draw…”

“I came to ask if you were alright after what happened back at the Acarian camp. Instead of answering that, you’ve talked about Luca the whole time.”

“You’re just manipulating what I said!” Emila insisted.

“What’s the real reason why you can’t sleep?”

Emila hesitated. He knew. He’d backed her into a corner. She bowed her head in shame. “It’s because Luca isn’t with me.”

“Ah,” Brand said. “I thought it might be something like that.”

“Please don’t tell him,” she pleaded. “Don’t tell him any of this. I don’t want him burdened with the knowledge. I don’t want him to feel guilty for me keeping him alive.”

“It’s not my place to say anything,” Brand assured her. “That’s for you to decide. But you should still rethink things nonetheless. This situation – things like this never end well.”

Emila sighed. He was right, and she knew it. But there was nothing she could do. She would not abandon Luca, not after everything she had done to save him, and especially not with what she was risking to keep him alive. To throw that all away for her own sake would be selfish. And yet she couldn’t rely on the magick of the tether to protect him – both from Zinoro and his forces, and himself – it was simply a bandage covering a larger wound. Brand’s points were valid, yet the situation was simply too complex to just do what one felt was right. Things in real life rarely were.

Luca seemed to have difficulty understanding that concept. That was partly why he continued to make mistakes that would have killed anyone else.

<> <> <>

Luca opened his eyes, finding that his head ached sorely and the bright morning light streaming in from outside did nothing to ease the pain. His head was resting on something warm and soft, which he realised with a bit of a start was the hand of a young girl sleeping beside him.

The events of the night before came back to him, and his momentary bit of panic died away, as he was sure nothing had happened that he would have regretted. Still, things were awkward enough for him, waking this close to a girl he had only known for two days, and would only get more so when Wiosna woke, so he quietly gathered his things and stepped out in the cold air. The empty wine bottle sat forgotten in the corner.

The Allmans were waking gradually. The large fire from the night before had died out, and some of the students still trying to cling to sleep were wrapping themselves tightly with their sleeping bags in denial.

There was something he wanted to do, which he had wanted to do the night before, but had been too tired to. He spotted his brother Ash, sitting alone against a tree at the fringe of the camp, and he stared towards him. Ash made no attempt to escape.

“I need to talk to you about yesterday,” Luca said to him.

“Go ahead,” Ash said, his voice and expression level and guiltless.

“Back at the inn, you left very suddenly,” Luca said. “You said that you were going to go find Selphie and the others. But they were on their way back already, and they never met you. You really left because you figured out that the Tranom we were talking to was not really him.”

“That’s correct,” Ash replied. “Anyone who has known Brand and Tranom long enough would realise what Dreevius’ mistake was. I’m surprised you didn’t notice it.”

“But you left Emila and I there. You didn’t tell us, or give us any sign of what was going on. You completely abandoned us to him. We could have been killed.”

“Any way I could have alerted you would have done the same for Dreevius,” Ash explained. “There were Acarians in the town, and Selphie needed to be warned. Her safety took priority. As for Dreevius killing you, I believe he tried it once already without success.”

Ignoring that last part, Luca continued. “You say you went to Selphie to warn her, but she told me you never showed up.”

“I wasn’t familiar with the town, and I didn’t know where to look for them. By the time I found them, the Acarians had already made their move.”

“But you didn’t try to help.”

“There were a dozen of them, and I was still unarmed. All that would have accomplished was that I would have been caught myself.”

Luca stared at his brother. There was no hesitation in his eyes. If he was lying about any of this, he was a damn good liar.

But most of that was plausible anyway. So far, his story checked out. The next part, Luca both dreaded and anticipated to ask.

“Very well. After Selphie, Brand, and Jared were captured, what did you do next? Did you already know that the Allman survivors were around and you had not told us? Or were you fleeing from the town, abandoning us and saving your own skin, when you came across them by accident?”

There was no simple explanation to this one. Either he had deceived them, or he had abandoned them.

“You’re so certain I’ve wrong you, aren’t you, brother?” Ash said with a faint smile of wry amusement. “I knew that coming to your rescue on my own would be a futile effort. Those Acarian soldiers are machine-like in their efficiency. No prisoner escapes from them, and nobody sneaks past them. So, no. I was not going to simply take up a sword and fight my way in to save you.”

“So you were-!”

“Let me finish. Even with the Acarians, there is room for error. Dreevius was a foolish leader. My plan was to watch his camp from afar and wait for him to make a mistake. Sooner or later he would get confident he had won, and would let his guard down. Then I would make my attempt to rescue you. It wasn’t the best plan, but it was all I could do at the time. However, while I was buying the weapons and supplies I would need, the shopkeeper mentioned that several people wearing the same white robes as I had come through and bought weapons and supplies of their own. I managed to get him to tell me where they were, and then I set aside my previous plan and went to them for help.”

Luca frowned. The story has some holes in it, but it was believable. While he did want to believe that Ash would have tried to save them despite the futility of it, his inner cynicism told him that Ash would not have, and he would have left them behind. There was really no way to know for sure, as all he had to trust Ash on was his word.

“You freed me when Allma had me locked up,” Ash continued. “Why would you suspect that I would not do the same for you? I did come back and free you all, so why are you coming to me with this suspicion? Just accept that I helped you and move on.”

With that, Ash rose and walked away, leaving his brother behind by that tree.

“Perhaps I should trust him more…” Luca said quietly to himself.

Back in the caves, when Luca had fallen into the lake, Ash had thrown the rope down and pulled him to safety. If he wanted Luca dead, he could have just let him drown there. Ash was certainly quiet and secretive, but that didn’t mean that he was untrustworthy.

Still, Luca couldn’t help but feel that there was a period, however brief it may have been, where his brother had considered leaving them all to die.

<> <> <>

By midday, everything was packed up and the group was on their way.

The three people who were ostensibly in charge – Selphie, Tranom, and Wiosna – sat together that morning to discuss what should be done. It was agreed that the princess needed to return to T’Saw, and meet with the king to discuss what had happened. She had sent her letters earlier while in town, one to T’Saw, and another to Tellador, informing both kings of her safety, the treachery of Allma, and urging them not to act against Acaria. There was no worry of Sono declaring war, but what King Edmund of Torachi would do was still to be determined.

Selphie told everyone that the king of Saeticia, Marcus, would grant them passage in Serenite if they needed it, and as it was right in the path to T’Saw, it would be wise to stop there and seek his aid.

Tranom met with the fifty or so survivors of the attack, and told them that he needed them to accompany the princess as far as Serenite, at which point they were free to go back to their homes or wherever they wished. This was their final debt to the temple. As for Tranom himself, he swore to see Selphie safely back in Sono.

So then everything was decided. Tranom, Wiosna, and the Allmans would go with Selphie first to Serenite, and then to T’Saw. The original plan – of Selphie taking her team into Acaria to reach a peaceful agreement with Zinoro – was still more or less in action. She had back all the original members she wanted – Luca, Brand, and Wiosna. The attack on the temple and the efforts to abduct her may have put the possibility of resolving the conflict peacefully in serious doubt, but until King Zaow himself told them otherwise, they were not to give up on the possibility of avoiding war with Acaria.

But first she had to get back to T’Saw. She now had fifty Allmans to protect her, so the Acarians were less of a threat than before. Caution would still be needed, however.

Luca himself had little hope in this pipe dream actually coming true. Zinoro clearly was not the kind of man who would accept a peaceful solution if he did not want it. His actual motivations for wanting war with Sono was still a mystery, but it seemed he was out to fulfil his father’s original vision.

During the rule of Manorith, Acaria had been deep in poverty and plague. Sono, their eastern neighbour, had been wealthy and prosperous, and a land of dream in contrast to their near-dead home. Manorith promised that dream to his people, and set out to take Sono for himself. He had failed miserably, and now Zinoro seemed to want to finish his work.

Regardless, Zinoro would not be swayed by Selphie’s words. And whatever it was she planned to do with Luca, he himself was not going to enter Acaria with peaceful intentions. Luca could not rest until Zinoro was gone from the world.

Luca almost felt guilty for planning to sabotage Selphie’s mission, but he had already convinced himself that it was doomed to fail anyway.

<> <> <>

As they walked, Luca tried his best not to look at Wiosna.

She had some interest in him, and he could not be sure if it was of an intimate kind, but she had still invited him into her tent in the middle of the night. She had given him wine and they had spoke of vulnerable aspects of their lives. When morning came, he had left before she had awoken. All that was really missing from the situation was actual intimate contact.

At the same time, he was also trying not to look over at Emila. She had been rather distant and quiet all morning. He wasn’t sure if she knew where he had been, and was upset at that, or if what had happened the night before was bothering her. He wasn’t sure, but he made a promise to himself that when they made camp for the night he would go and talk to her.

Luca himself was confused. He had only known Wiosna for three days now, yet he found the girl very easy to talk and relate to. His time spent in her tent, while awkward, had been enjoyable. Speaking with her had taken his mind off of Dreevius and Zinoro and all the dark little things that usually clouded his mind. Compared to Emila, who he cared for very much but found difficult to understand and relate to, Wiosna was a breath of fresh air. She was a warrior, a student of literature, and there were no magick complications like there were with Emila.

He felt guilty for enjoying it so much, because he felt like he was betraying Emila by going to her.

He wondered if Emila felt the same.

Chapter XII

Altair

“Of course it hurt,” Emila said, her fingers unconsciously brushing over her heart. “It wasn’t as bad as it looked, really. I just wasn’t expecting to be awoken in such a way.”

Selphie absently poked at the fire with a stick. “You look tired. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I am, I am,” Emila said, waving her hand. “Really, you don’t have to worry about me. Your concern is touching – everyone’s is. But I’m fine. Really.”

Selphie frowned. She didn’t quite looked convinced. Behind her, the sun was beginning to disappear behind the horizon, casting an orange glow over the camp. It was the third day of their journey, which so far had been quiet and uneventful. Serenite was still well more than a week’s travel away, and while they were certainly not taking their time to get there, the group was not filled with any desperation to travel quickly. The group of nearly sixty was slow to travel.

“I get the impression that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to burden others with your troubles, Emila,” Selphie said to her. “And I want you to know that if that’s the case, you don’t have anything to fear. I’m always here if you need someone to talk to.”

Emila smiled faintly. “Thank you. You’re so kind. I never imagined a princess would be so…” She trailed off, realising that perhaps she might have just said something offencive.

Selphie raised an eyebrow, her smile gone. “Oh? What were you going to say?”

“Um – humble?” Emila said, suddenly looking worried.

“I’m teasing you,” Selphie said with a mischievous laugh. “I understand what you mean. Royalty isn’t know for such things – I’ve met plenty of lords who outright hated commoners. The attitude always made me sick. People are people, regardless of what status they were born to.”

“Y-yeah,” Emila said.

“I’ve never thought of myself as being above anyone else.” Selphie then frowned again, casting her eyes into the fire. “If only everyone in my family had the same attitude…”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s nothing,” Selphie said. “I suppose you’ll see for yourself when we finally arrive at T’Saw.”

“I actually lived in T’Saw for a while,” Emila said. “Two years.”

“Really?” Selphie said, a bit surprised. “I didn’t know that. How did you end up involved in all this, then?”

“It’s – kind of a long story.”

“You only lived in T’Saw for the past two years, you said? Where are you from originally?”

Emila hesitated a moment, then said, “A town called Sulin in Saeticia.” After a second, she smiled mirthlessly and added, “It’s actually not very far from where we are now. A slight detour on our path to Serenite, and we could stop there – and see what’s left of it.”

Selphie’s eyes widened. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear to that. I take it you left because of the attack?”

Emila nodded.

“I remember hearing about that when it happened,” Selphie said. “It was the first strike of the resurrected Acaria. A war very nearly broke out right then and there over it, but somehow things quieted down for a while. The city still stands, from what I’ve heard, but a lot of lives were lost in that attack.”

“I know…” Emila muttered, her eyes lost in the pain of the past.

Hesitantly, Selphie asked, “Your family?”

“They didn’t make it.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

Silence settled over them, and the only sounds were the flickering of the fire between them, and the idle chatter of the others around the camp.

Finally, to change the subject, Selphie said, “Your hair is very dark for a Saetician.”

“Yeah,” Emila said, taking a black lock from her shoulder and twirling it between her fingers. “I got it from my mother. She wasn’t born in Saeticia.”

“I see. Your hair is gorgeous. Your mother must have been very beautiful.”

“Really?” Emila said, her cheeks turning red. “I’ve always been a bit conscious of it, actually.”

“That’s silly. I wish my own hair could be so smooth all the time.”

Emila smiled. “My mother used to fuss over it all the time. When I was very young, I would go out and play in the woods with my little sister, and I would come back absolutely filthy, and Mother would sit me in a chair and brush my hair until all the twigs and brambles were out. She would go on and on about how irresponsible I was. I used to hate it – but later she would sing to us before bed and it was like there was no sweeter sound in the world. She was such a kind person…” Her eyes glistened faintly, but she rubbed them and no tears were shed.

“She sounds like she really cared for you. And your sister, as well.”

“She did.”

After a long while, Selphie said, “I never knew my own mother.”

Before Emila could say anything, they heard the sound of footsteps drawing near. The two girls turned to see a third approaching them.

“It’s chilly,” Wiosna said. “Mind if I join you?”

Emila moved over to the edge of the log she was sitting on. “Not at all.”

For the briefest of moments, Wiosna hesitated, as though she really wasn’t that cold if it meant she had to sit beside Emila. But she said nothing, and took her seat at Emila’s side.

“We haven’t spoken much, but I’m glad you’re with us,” Selphie said. “We feared you were gone in the aftermath of the attack.”

“Yeah, you wanted me to be part of your team,” the small blond girl said. “I would have liked to go with you and the others to Acaria. Unfortunately, Acaria ended up coming to us instead.”

“Indeed,” Selphie said. “It may still happen. It’s hard to say – things are complex right now. We won’t know what’s going to happen until we get to T’Saw.”

“And before that, we have to stop at Serenite.” Wiosna sighed. “Serenite is still far away. And T’Saw is even farther. I’m not used to travelling. The only place I ever travelled to was the temple.”

“From your home, right?” Emila asked. “Where are you from?”

Wiosna looked away, suddenly looking very uncomfortable. “Um…”

“I’m sorry,” Emila said, immediately realising what was wrong. “I didn’t mean to bring up anything painful-”

“Just Samgo,” Wiosna quickly said to them. “Nothing noteworthy.”

“Ah,” Selphie said. “I’ve never been there.”

“It’s not part of the Alliance,” said Wiosna. “So it’s not a nice place.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over the three girls, and they found themselves staring into the fire. Emila glanced very briefly at Wiosna, who did not return the look. From the very quick, dismissive way Wiosna had answered her question, Emila felt like she had committed some sort of slight. Her previously cheerful and excited demeanour was gone, replaced with a sort of quietly restrained rage. Wiosna had spoken to Emila very little so far, and Emila couldn’t help but feel that the girl had some sort of grudge against her.

“Wiosna,” Selphie said suddenly. “The reason you were picked to be in my group was because of your knowledge of Bacorian history and the world. You have a passion for literature, do you not?”

“I do,” she said.

“There’s a large library in the Serenite palace,” Selphie said with a smile. “Twice as large as the one in Allma Temple, from what I’ve heard. If you wanted, once we get there, I could ask nicely and get you permission to access it.”

Wiosna’s face lit up in excitement.

<> <> <>

Brand and Tranom had a number of stories that they would share with Luca, and whoever else was listening as they walked. Tranom had found Brand a few years ago in Sendora and saw potential in the boy, so he had taken him back to Allma Temple for the proper training. On the way there, they had run into a number of misadventures, some of which were amusing, and others were difficult to believe.

Tranom, while tired-looking and rare to smile, was a very approachable and friendly man. He fit naturally into the role of a mentor, which was something the Allman survivors very much needed. There was much doubt among them as to the future of the temple. While Tranom himself doubted that the temple would ever be restored, he would always reassure them the best he could. He told them that once they saw Selphie safely to Serenite, they were free to go if they wished. Some of the students wanted to return home, and others wanted to stay with Tranom. There were other temples that they could go to, and many wanted Tranom to take them there and continue their training under his guidance. Tranom was not certain yet what he would do.

One thing certain, though, was that Brand’s training under Tranom was complete. While the temple was gone, Brand had still considered Tranom to be his master. At dusk on the first day of travel, Tranom formally declared Brand was graduated, and they were henceforth equals. To confirm this, they began addressing each other by their proper names.

Now that Tranom had resumed leadership over the survivors, that left Wiosna free from the duty. Luca’s suspicions of her having an interest in him seemed to be accurate – he often found her at his side as they walked. They talked about any number of things, including things Luca normally didn’t feel comfortable discussing, like his father.

He learnt that Wiosna had grown up in a town in Samgo, and a few years ago her parents had died. With no other way to feed herself, she had joined the local guild of hunters. Some time after that, a master of Allma Temple had passed through and noticed her talent, and had invited her to the temple to train. She had accepted, partly for access to the large library of the temple.

While they walked, Wiosna asked about Dreevius, and how he had captured them.

“He was a shapeseeker,” Luca told her. “I’m not entirely sure what that means, but he was able to alter his appearance. He impersonated Tranom, and that’s how we were caught.”

“Ah,” Wiosna said, nodding. “A forgivable mistake. The remaining living shapeseekers in the world could likely be counted on one hand. His illusion powers were most likely the reason he was working for Zinoro in the first place. It certainly wasn’t his combat expertise.”

“What happened to them?” Luca asked.

“People didn’t trust them,” Wiosna explained. “The shapeseekers had a tendency to work as spies and assassins, due to their powers. People hated them for that, and killed them off whenever they were caught. Over time, they were unable to reproduce faster than they were being killed, and they started to vanish.”

“Some say there’s a secret organisation of them down in the south, in Samgo or Mainyu,” Brand added in. “But I would just write that one off as a rumour. The shapeseekers avoided the southern lands especially, taking refuge in the north.”

“Why is that?” Luca asked him.

Brand frowned. “Well, a lot of people didn’t consider them to even be human. And as they have the ability to regrow lost limbs and body parts – Well, I don’t know how true they were, but there were stories of towns capturing shapeseekers and using them as a never-ending supply of meat.”

Luca felt like he was going to be sick. At his side, Wiosna had only a regretful frown on her face, indicating that she too had heard the stories.

“In any case, the shapeseekers first vanished from the southern lands. So I doubt they’re hiding down there now – if they’re in hiding at all. Most likely there’s too few left in the world for that.”

As they continued on their way, Ash mostly kept to himself, as he always did. There was initially some tension between him and the other survivors, but any potential arguments quickly died when Luca appeared. The students had the same level of respect for Luca as they did for Tranom, Brand, Wiosna, and Selphie – though it was different in his case. The first three they admired due to their accomplishments in the temple, and Selphie because she was royalty. The reverence they had for Luca was the result of the stories they passed around. The group of survivors was small – the head count totalling fifty-three, not including Brand, Ash, or Wiosna – so word spread quickly among them.

Back when he had first arrived at the temple, he was the mysterious son of Lodin who appeared to take the role Ash had failed to fill. His surviving of Dreevius’ fatal blow had only reignited the discussion and reverence, and confirmed the suspicions that he was a great figure.

A few of the Allmans had still believed the story Allma had told at the steps of the centre sanctum – that Ash had betrayed the temple to the Acarians. When he had first come to them for help in saving Selphie, they had accused him of selling out the princess, and trying to lure them into a trap. Thankfully, Tranom had told Wiosna about Allma’s treachery, and she had convinced them to save Selphie. A few of these doubters still persisted, in spite of Ash’s actions proving them wrong.

But Ash seemed to be used to people hating and not trusting him, so it didn’t seem to bother him. He just kept walking, ignoring them as they spoke behind his back.

Convincing the Allmans that Allma himself had sold them out was difficult, and none of them seemed to want to believe it. Selphie told them about what had happened, and how he had tried to kill her. Jared, in a rare moment of speaking up, told them of how Allma had killed the other escorts. Still, they had their doubts. But Tranom, Brand, and Luca all stepped in to confirm this, and they had no choice but to accept it.

Selphie also told stories as they travelled. She told them about T’Saw, and what they should expect when they got there, about her father, Zaow, and her brother, Trist. And she also told them what little she could remember about Serenite from when she last been there, at the age of eight.

“I remember it was a very beautiful city,” she told Luca and the others. “So beautiful, it put T’Saw to shame. King Marcus was a kind man, and I remember his sons being very friendly.”

Selphie was rather impressive, now that Luca thought about it. With her braided hair, her leather travel armour, and the little bit of dirt caked on her face, she looked nothing like what he had always imagined a princess would. She treated everyone equally, rather than being haughty and condescending. She was a skilled fighter and had no problem drawing her blades to protect herself, rather than relying on others to protect her.

There was only one person who he did not spend much time speaking to.

Emila was very quiet and distant. Whenever he looked to her, she wore a melancholy expression. Several times, he asked her what was troubling her, but she would always dismiss his concern and tell him she was fine, though she clearly was not. At first he suspected that she was upset by him spending time with Wiosna, but whenever he brought that up, she would encourage him to talk to the other girl. He didn’t understand why, but Emila seemed to be going out of her way to avoid him. He asked the others if they knew what was wrong, but they all told him that Emila was avoiding them as well.

That is, all except Brand.

He often saw them talking, usually quietly, and when they thought he wasn’t looking. Emila would often go to Brand, and they would spend long periods of time talking to each other. When the group made camp, Emila and Brand were usually close.

Luca couldn’t help but feel jealous. He knew why he felt jealous, and he hated that he did, but he couldn’t just make the feeling go away. He couldn’t ask them to stop talking – that would be petty and cruel and unreasonable of him to do. So he just bit his tongue and kept his silence.

But of course, Wiosna was always there for him to talk to.

<> <> <>

It was a full two weeks after they had set out that they finally arrived.

Serenite, the capital of Saeticia, was a city of ivory white walls and towers nestled between two mountains. It stood a proud, untouched beacon of the Saetician nation’s pride – known across Bacoria for its magick college and a massive library that was said to contain a copy of every published book.

The strange party was stopped at the gates, but as word of the attack on Allma Temple had spread quickly, the guards allowed them in. Selphie, the proof of command, walked at the front, with Jared and Tranom at her sides. The rest of the group followed behind her. The Allman survivors were staying at the inn.

As they passed through the streets of Serenite, Luca saw that Selphie’s words about the  city’s beauty were not an exaggeration. The streets were paved cobblestone, the buildings tall and white and shining. The trees were the most impressive of it all, though, as they had golden leaves.

“How are the leaves gold?” Luca asked Wiosna as they walked.

“Magick, I would guess,” she replied uncertainly.

“You would be right,” Brand told them. “The magi of Serenite are known for being able to do a number of things not commonly seen anywhere else in the world. One of these is growing trees with golden leaves. It’s a source of pride for the people of Saeticia.”

“It’s quite a sight,” Wiosna said.

“Just wait until night falls,” Brand said. “You see those strange lines running along the walls? Those are what they call ‘neon’. When night falls, those lines light up in many different colours, providing illumination to the entire city. Against the contrast of the dark night, it is a very incredible sight.”

“I believe I read about that once…” Wiosna muttered.

The people of the city watched with wide eyes as they passed, merchants and peddlers and those who had come to buy from them. While the clothes Selphie were wearing were no cleaner or finer than what the commoners had on, she carried herself in a dignified fashion that Luca had not yet seen of her. She was undoubtedly royalty.

As they drew near the palace, they ascended the steps up to the palace gate, passing a stone balcony that overlooked the entire city. A man stood there on that balcony, polishing a blade.

“What’s that about?” Luca quietly asked Brand.

“Executions, it would seem,” he replied. “Notice the grate beneath him, to catch the blood?”

Luca looked, and saw that there was indeed a sewer grate at the man’s feet, which was stained a dirty brown, in contrast to the white marble around it.

It would seem not every bit of the city was so white and pure.

The guards at the gate moved and opened the doors for them, allowing them into the hall. The palace was a fine place with long tables at either side and a large fire in the centre. At the far end of the hall, upon the throne, sat the king – an ageing man in fine clothes, who had a sheathed blade at his side. The queen was in her seat beside his, and two young men stood nearby.

As Selphie entered, the king rose from the throne and stepped down to meet her. A warm smile crossed his bearded face.

“I was told you were on your way through our kingdom, and I wondered if you would stop by,” he said to her. “My, I haven’t seen you in – how many years has it been?”

“Twelve, your majesty,” Selphie said, with a low curtsy.

“Please, take a seat,” King Marcus said, gesturing to the tables. “You and your entourage are welcome here.” The king sat down, with the queen, and his two sons.

Luca found a place to sit on the right side, with Selphie and the other members of their group. He found himself between Ash and Brand, with Emila on the far end of the table, as far from him as she could be.

“We’ve received word of what happened at Allma Temple,” Marcus said to Selphie. “I cannot say how relieved I am that you’re alright.”

“I have my companions to thank for that,” the princess said. “Without them, I would never have made it. The Acarians were not the real danger, your majesty. There was treachery within the temple.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow as he took a drink. “Treachery? You get right to the point as always, Princess. What sort of treachery was this?”

“We do not know why, but Allma the third made some sort of deal with the Acarians,” Selphie told him. “The temple was caught off guard in a way it should not have been. Allma seemed to be expecting something that the Acarians did not deliver, and when they tried to betrayed him, he retreated into his sanctum and tried to kill me. He killed the guards my father sent to protect me – Jared here was the only survivor. If it were not for the intervention of these two,” she beckoned to Luca and Brand, “I might not have survived.”

“I see,” Marcus said, ruminating. “So you do not know why Allma attacked you?”

“We do not know for certain, but we suspect that Allma planned to have me killed and place the blame on the Acarians,” Selphie said. “We believe he hoped to start a war between Sono and Acaria, that he might profit from by sending his students to assist in.”

“Allma Temple would indeed benefit from a war,” said one of Marcus’ sons. “They certainly did in the last.”

“Aye, I remember it well,” Marcus said. “You were just a boy then, Halt, were you not?”

“I was but eleven,” his son replied. “Gera was only seven.”

“I do remember you talking about it, though,” the younger son, Gera, spoke up. “You had a lot of meetings regarding whether or not to help Sono. You said that it was not an Alliance concern unless Zaow requested your help.”

“I did,” Marcus said. “But Sono needed no help. Manorith certainly had the numbers, but his men were poorly trained and even more poorly armed. And Manorith was a stranger to the battlefield. He led many of his men to their deaths. He did not even order a proper retreat, he just told his men to save themselves and run. The war was already in Zaow’s hand before the Allmans even showed up – once they were there, the Acarians had no chance.”

“But Zinoro is not as foolish as his father was,” Selphie told them. “He is a very clever strategist. He knew exactly what to do to bring Allma Temple down.”

“News spread fast,” said Marcus. “We have heard that Dori fought them mounted on his dragon, and even that was not enough to stop them. Is this true?”

“It is,” Tranom said regretfully. “Dori and Austille are both dead. As is Allma, and almost everyone who was there. I am likely the last surviving master, and the small group of students I brought with me are all I could save. It was a massacre.”

“In that case, Zinoro has made his first move,” Halt said. “And it was against the kingdom of Torachi.”

“The temple was on neutral ground,” Selphie pointed out. “It was not officially part of the Torachi kingdom.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Gera told her. “They still would have had to cross Torachi soil to get from Acaria to the temple.”

“Either way, Edmund will not simply ignore this,” Marcus said. “He has been itching for battle ever since he inherited the throne from his father. I have already received letters from him. He wants to gather at the Elder Hall.”

Those last two words caught Luca’s attention. The Elder Hall – the sacred ground where the Alliance kings met in times of war. If the king of Torachi wanted to meet with the other two kings there, then there was no doubting he wanted war.

“Will you be gathering?” Selphie asked.

“I have not yet received word from your father,” Marcus replied. “As you know, if we both were to demand it, he would have no choice but to come.”

Selphie seemed surprised. “But you have not yet?”

“Zinoro has been a rising threat for some time now,” Marcus said to her, taking another drink from his cup. “The destruction of Allma Temple is too great an act to ignore. Who knows what else he is capable of? Allma Temple had some of the best trained fighters in all of Torachi, if not all of Bacoria, and yet it fell in a single day. The Alliance cannot ignore someone capable of this, especially with the knowledge that he has already expressed hatred towards Sono.

“And yet, I trust in your father’s judgement. I consider myself a wise man, but I know that Zaow is wiser than I. It is not fear that stays his hand. So I am waiting. I hope I will not have to force your father’s hand, but if Zinoro becomes too much of a threat to ignore, and Zaow continues insisting that we do ignore it, I may have to.”

There was a strange mix of relief and disappointment in Selphie’s eyes. Her mission – to prevent a war with Acaria – was successful, at least for the moment. However, that did not guarantee that it would stay that way.

As much as Zaow sought to avoid war with Acaria, if both Torachi and Saeticia declared war, Sono would have no choice but to aid them. Declining that would make Sono an enemy as well. The Alliance of Kingdoms was as much a burden as it was protection.

“I take it that is what you have come here to do?” Marcus asked her. “To ask me not to go to war with Acaria?”

“It is.”

“Your father has told me of your mission, and how he plans to keep the peace,” Marcus continued. “Are you still planning to go through with this, even after what happened at the temple?”

Selphie hesitated, and then nodded slowly.

“I see,” Marcus said. “You are far more forgiving than I am.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over the hall. There was something more to those words. Marcus seemed to be disappointed in something, and Selphie seemed very regretful. Luca looked over at her, and saw Jared meet her gaze and give her a reassuring nod.

“I have heard another rumour regarding the attack on the temple,” the younger son, Gera, said suddenly. “As we all have, I am sure. It is said that during the attack, one of the temple’s students received a mortal wound from the Acarian general, but did not die.” He looked over to Ash and Luca.

Marcus looked up from his meal and said to Selphie, “Ah, now that my son mentions it, I also heard such a rumour. At the time, I dismissed it as silly.”

“It is no rumour, your majesty,” Selphie said. “It’s the truth.”

“Was it really the son of Lodin?” Gera asked.

“It was,” the princess replied. “He is here with us now.”

All the eyes in the room slowly drifted over to Luca and Ash.

Luca, having not touched a single bite of the plate before him, slowly stood.

“It is true,” he said to them. “My name is Luca, son of Lodin. During the battle, I was stabbed in the heart by Zinoro’s acolyte.”

“Impossible,” Halt said. “How could you have survived that?”

“I cannot say,” Luca said. “But it is not the first time I should have died.”

“The blade must have missed your heart,” Halt said. “Or perhaps those who saw you were fooled by some sort of optic illusion. You could not have survived that.”

“I was there,” Brand said. “I saw him right after it happened. There was a hole in his chest, one you could see out the other side of.”

“Well, I will not believe it until I see it,” Halt said, sitting back down.

“It would seem everyone in your family is special,” Marcus said, with a hint of amusement. “Your father has quite the reputation. I’ve often wondered what happened to him. After the war, he seemingly just disappeared. I hear he is dead now.”

“He is,” Luca said.

“A shame, I suppose,” Marcus said, looking deep into his drink. “He was quite an idol in Allma, as well as here in Saeticia, where he was born.”

Marcus set down the drink and looked right at Luca. “When I was young, I was a paladin. Do you know who the paladins are, son of Lodin?”

“I have heard of them,” Luca replied.

Marcus frowned, for some reason, then continued. “The paladins are a holy order, who dedicate themselves to the Way of Uro and fight to keep the evils of the world at bay. They are an elite group, who accept only the most skilled of light-form swordsmen. Did you know that in his youth, your father was one of them?”

Luca blinked, as did Ash. “No, I did not,” he said.

“Right, I doubted you would, as it was not something Lodin was proud of,” Marcus continued, his frown nearly a scowl now. “Your late grandfather was a lifelong member of our order. He raised your father to be a paladin since he was a child. When your father was a young man, he betrayed the order and deserted them during a battle. He stole one of our two great treasures, a potion of Absolute Truth. From that day forth, Lodin was branded an enemy of the order, and a servant of evil. That potion he carried was too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands. I don’t suppose he gave it to you?”

“He did not,” Luca said.

“I figured as much.” Marcus chuckled mirthlessly. “Doubtless he drank it himself and foresaw something that drove him mad.”

“My father was no madman,” Luca said through his teeth.

“Then did he abandon his wife and youngest son and hike off into the wilderness with his firstborn?” Marcus asked, disdain clear on his features. “Did he ever tell you, boy?”

Luca said nothing. He noticed that Selphie was staring at him, with a look in her eyes telling him to drop the matter. Too much was at stake to argue this, he realised. He could not fight with the king of Saeticia. Looking away from Marcus, he sat back down.

The king snorted. “Like father, like son. When Lodin betrayed the paladins he consorted with dark beings. I have heard he travelled with a vampire lord. I’ll bet the reason his son cheated death is because of some demonic contract he made.”

Lies, all of it.

The king was quite worked up, but nobody in the room dared to say anything.

“Lodin was scum,” Marcus continued, unable to let it go. “He stabbed Manorith in the back, but was too afraid of what would happen because of that. Instead he lied and let Zaow take credit for it, and then he ran away. But the past caught up with him, didn’t it? Well, good riddance, I say. I’ll bet he died like the coward he was.”

Rage filled Luca. He started to rise from his seat, a thousand curses on his tongue, but he was unable to. A firm grip found his sleeve and pulled him back down. Ash let go of him, and then stood up in his place.

“A lot of the things you say are true, your majesty,” Ash said to the king. “Our father was certainly a thief and a coward. But in the eyes of many I have known, he was a hero for killing Manorith. I have spent my whole life being judged by the things my father has done, both honourably and otherwise. And my brother has, as well. But we are not Lodin, nor are we responsible for what he has done. My brother fought with honour when the temple was attacked, and he saved lives in doing so. I would ask that you judge him by his own actions, not by those of his father. It is largely thanks to him that Princess Selphie is here today.”

Marcus stared at Ash for a moment, blinked a few times, and then he started to laugh. “I like you. You’re certainly made of better stuff than your brother.”

There was no apology, but Ash’s words seemed to have calmed Marcus down. Ash sat back down, and Luca all but glared at him, in spite of his help. He would rather have had the king’s ire than to have Ash further insult their father.

“It’s getting late, and I’ve grown tired,” Marcus said, finishing off his glass. “Princess, I would be honoured if you would stay here the night.”

“As would I,” Selphie said, with a kind smile.

“Very well, I’ll have my servants prepare rooms for you and your entourage.”

Marcus rose and left, his wife following behind him. Prince Halt also rose, said something to a servant, and left to a different part of the palace. Only Prince Gera remained, sitting at his seat and finishing his meal alone. Everyone else, the lords and other members of the court, were gone within minutes.

Luca turned to Ash. “Why did you say that? Why did you tell him what he wanted to hear?”

“Because it’s the truth,” Ash muttered, before getting up and leaving as well.

<> <> <>

Luca wandered through the dimly-lit corridors of the palace, passing guards and servants who did not spare him even the briefest of looks. It was odd to him – he was used to drawing gazes due to his white hair, but these palace servants were so used to keeping their eyes to themselves that even that didn’t divert their attention.

He wasn’t sure where he was going, nor did he really care. He was mostly just walking off the anger from earlier. He was still furious about what Marcus had said, and even more so about Ash’s response. He didn’t want to stay in the palace, but Selphie had explained to them that she couldn’t say no Marcus’ offer without looking rude, especially after he had insulted one of the people in her group. A lot of the delicacy had to do with the fact that they were at Marcus’ palace – were Marcus the one who was the guest in Sono, and he had said those things to one of Selphie’s guests, things would have gone down very differently.

Luca hated pretencion, and he was at a royal palace, the kind of place where pretence was most easily found. He was too frank, and he had no respect for authority, so seeing people saying things they clearly did not mean to avoid angering the king was unbearable for him. He wanted nothing more than to go to Marcus and give him a piece of his own mind, as he very nearly had, but he now realised he could not without making Selphie look bad. Doing so could compromise the mission, which was the whole reason they had stopped in Serenite in the first place.

A massive shadow passed over Luca, and he looked up to see a massive guard in his path, who stood a whole head higher than him. The guard had a trimmed black beard, just faintly visible within his helmet, and cold eyes.

There was a tense silence as they stared at one another.

“Excuse me, sir,” the guard said very politely, before stepping around Luca and continuing on his way.

Luca blinked. “That was weird,” he muttered.

He heard a shout of revelry from a nearby room, and he looked around and quickly spotted it. Within the guard barracks, a group of five or so off-duty guards were laughing over a pint. As Luca drew closer, he heard a familiar voice, so he decided to step inside and see what up.

Brand sat at a table surrounded by around half a dozen guards. They all had pints of ale in their hands, and they were laughing at some joke Brand had told. As Luca drew near, Brand noticed his presence, and the guards followed his gaze. The smiles dropped from their faces as they gradually realised who was there.

Luca stood there for a moment. The guards stared at him, their expressions telling him that he wasn’t welcome. Without a word, he left and continued down the hall.

He heard footsteps following after him. He didn’t need to turn around to know who it was.

“Luca, wait up!” Brand called after him.

Luca turned around as Brand reached him. “I don’t think your new friends like me very much.”

“Yeah,” Brand said apologetically. “It seems they agree with what the king was saying.”

“I passed one of them a second ago,” Luca said, looking down the hall where he had come from. “A really big guy.”

“Ah, him,” Brand said. “Devith, his name is. The other guards call him the bear. Things got really quiet in the barracks when he came in. They all waited until he was gone before they started talking again.”

“I don’t like this place, Brand,” he said. “There’s a lot of tension here. I feel like something is going to happen.”

“I know, I feel it too,” Brand replied, drawing closer. “Listen, I’ve learnt something interesting I think you should know. Remember how you said that Zinoro’s sword is a Rixeor Fragment?”

“How could I forget?” Luca muttered, remembering how the blade of his short sword had ended up in his lung after being cut clean off by Zinoro’s magick blade.

“In order to match him you would need a Rixeor Fragment of your own,” Brand continued. “The sword that Marcus carries, Altair – it is one.” 

“Marcus’ sword is a Rixeor Fragment?” Luca said slowly, disbelief in his voice.

“Remember how he said he was once a paladin?” Brand said. “He wasn’t just a member, he was their leader. Altair was the holy treasure of their order, and he took it with him when he left.” 

Luca found that he’d made a fist. “That hypocrite!”

He calmed himself, and thought rationally. “That does me no good,” Luca said. “Unless I were to kill Marcus, I could never wield his sword. A Rixeor Fragment is bound to its master and no one else. It will burn anyone else who tried to take it.”

“Indeed. I just thought you should know.”

“Besides, I would never consider stealing from him – that would just be proving him right.”

<> <> <>

A few minutes after parting with Brand, Luca found himself at the palace library. He wasn’t sure why he had ended up there, but he wasn’t surprised to find a certain blond-haired girl there, seated at a table with a thick tome open before her.

Wiosna looked up from her book as he approached, and she beamed. “Look who it is.” She had a new pair of glasses on.

“Indeed,” he muttered with only token enthusiasm, sliding into the seat next to her. “What are you reading?”

A History of the Nations,” she replied, taking a bookmark and setting it between the pages. She closed the book. “Are you still upset over dinner?” 

“I am.”

“I trust you haven’t done anything rash.”

“I’m not that foolish. Have some faith in me.”

“We are of the same kind, you and I,” Wiosna said, smiling. “I do have faith in you, but I understand that you would have trouble accepting what happened back there.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“Then what is bothering you?”

What was bothering him, indeed? There was far too much on his mind. He had no idea where to begin.

Yet he knew what it was he wanted to tell her.

“It’s Emila,” he said.

Luca noticed a very slight change in Wiosna’s expression. Surprise, or perhaps disappointment. He wasn’t quite sure.

“What about her?” Wiosna asked gently.

“She hasn’t been herself lately,” he said. “She’s been distant and melancholy. We’ve hardly spoken since we left the Acarian camp, ever since you and I…”

Wiosna frowned. “Do you think she has the wrong idea about us? Exactly what is your relationship with her?”

“It’s – hard to explain.”

“Were you two – together?”

He shook his head.

“Well, I don’t really know what to tell you. It could be something between the two of you, or it could be something ailing her that’s her own business. The only thing I can suggest is going to her and talking about it.”

“I’ve tried that. She always brushes me off.”

“Find a situation where she cannot. It’s possible that she’s nervous. Sometimes you have to be a little forceful.”

Forceful? Luca doubted that under any circumstances would Emila tolerate him being ‘forceful’ with her…

Still, it wasn’t a bad idea. If he went right to her and gave her no option to get out of talking with him, perhaps he could find out what it was that was causing the distance between them.

Luca nodded, and began to rise. “Thank you for the advice. I think I’ll go talk to her now.”

Wiosna said nothing as he left, watching him go with a strange look in her eyes. He left the library, and shut the door behind him, leaving the large room in silence.

“She causes him nothing but confusion,” Wiosna said to herself. “She is too weak for him, and she only burdens him with her indecisiveness. I am not like her. If she were out of the way, I would not trouble him like she does. Things would be much simpler.”

She returned her attention to the book.

<> <> <>

Night came quickly as Luca made his way once more through the palace. Soon there was only the flickering magitech lanterns hung on the stone walls to provide illumination. Luca was making his way to Emila’s bedroom. He had earlier asked a servant where she was staying, and he was now doing his best to find the right room.

Eventually, after asking a second servant to make sure, he was led right to her door. He took a deep breath, hoping she was not asleep, and knocked.

“Coming,” was her muffled answer.

He took a step back as the door swung open. Emila stood there, wearing only her white nightgown, and looking rather surprised to see him.

“Luca…” she said. “What is it? Is there something wrong?”

“There is,” he said. “Can I come in? We need to talk.”

Emila hesitated, biting her lip and glancing in the room for a moment. “Okay…”

She moved aside to let him in, and closed the door once he’d passed the threshold. Inside, there was a candle lit on the nightstand, and a book set beside it.

“What do we need to talk about?” Emila asked him.

“I think you know,” he told her, giving her a stern look. “Something’s wrong. You’ve been avoiding me for the past two weeks. It’s been bothering me.”

Emila looked away from his gaze. “It’s nothing to worry about. I just wanted to give you space, that’s all…”

“Space? Emila, c’mon…”

She sighed, and walked past him, taking a seat at the edge of the bed. “Brand and I have been talking,” she said. “He thinks I should tell you, and I’m wondering if he might be right.”

“Tell me what?” Luca asked, following her over to the bed.

Emila beckoned to a chair on the other side of the room. Luca went and grabbed it, and pulled it over to the bedside. He sat down.

“Luca, what do I mean to you?” she asked quietly.

He froze. What sort of thing was that to ask?

“I – I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say.”

Emila frowned, and looked away slightly. “I guess – a better way to ask would be what your feelings are towards me.”

“My feelings towards you…?”

He still didn’t know what to say. What would…?

Ah, of course. His first suspicion had been right after all.

“Emila,” he said, placing his hand over hers. She looked up and met his gaze. “There’s nothing going on between Wiosna and I. She’s a good friend, and she’s easy to talk to, but I have no strong feelings towards her.”

Emila frowned again. “You joined her in her tent that first night.”

“I’ll admit, I was a little confused about that, but nothing happened then, and nothing has happened since. She just wanted to talk to me then.”

Strangely enough, Emila looked disappointed.

“What, you don’t believe me?”

“No, I do,” she sighed. “That’s the problem.”

Luca blinked. “I don’t understand.”

Emila looked to him, and slowly placed her hand over his heart. It beat, but it was the artificial beat, fuelled by her mana. His true heartbeat had yet to return, for his heart still had yet to heal from the two times Dreevius had stabbed it.

“We’re no good for each other,” Emila said to him. “The Soul Tether – it’s altering the way we think and act. Whatever feelings we have for each other are false. It’s fake emotion, just like your fake heartbeat. If we don’t distance ourselves from one another, it will only get worse, until we’re so obsessed with each other that it drives us both mad.”

“That’s – no, that can’t be right.”

Emila looked him right in the eyes, her expression hard and challenging. “Tell me you don’t feel something.”

He looked away, unable to answer that.

“I was actually hoping that there might be something between you and her,” Emila continued. “If you had feelings for her, it might keep you from becoming too obsessed with me. And it would keep me from being around you too much. So I hoped that if I kept to myself and left the two of you alone…”

“And you want to be with Brand?” he asked her, feeling that bit of jealousy again.

Emila shook her head. “Brand has zero interest in me. It will never happen. But he’s a friend, and he’s easy to talk to. He’s the only other person I’ve told these things to.”

Funny, that was nearly the same as what Luca had told her about Wiosna.

“Even though if it hurts me, it’s better in the long run,” Emila said. “I hadn’t realised this before, but the thing in the Acarian camp was sobering. We shouldn’t spend so much time together. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“How can you know this for sure?” he asked her instead. “You didn’t know that I would survive when Dreevius stabbed me back at the temple. You said that this magick is taboo and little is known about it. So what makes you so sure that it’s messing with our heads?”

“My father told me the dangers of using this magick,” Emila said, bowing her head. “He taught it to me, and he told me to never use it unless to save a life. It’s an old magick, but he was able to rediscover it. He knew little about it, and was wary of the side-effects, but as a healer he could not deny the life-saving possibilities it had.”

“Did he ever use it himself, or was he just making guesses?”

Emila did not answer that.

“I just can’t believe something like this,” Luca insisted. “I know myself well enough. What I feel for you, the things I do for you, these are my decisions.”

“But don’t you see?!” Emila cried suddenly, sitting up and looking at him with pleading eyes. “You’ve already done awful things for me! You killed that Davik boy in the woods, just because he threatened me.”

“I would have done the same were it a stranger he held hostage.”

“But the way you did it…!”

Luca thought back to the encounter with Dreevius, how he had thrown the man into the mud and watched him die. Indeed, when he had thought of Emila, it angered him. Dreevius had come so close to killing her, and that was something he could not have spared him for. Had Dreevius not done those things to her, Luca likely would not have killed him in such a fashion.

“Regardless of whether this is true or not, I cannot just stand by and leave you be. You’ve looked so lonely and miserable these past two weeks. It pains me to see it.”

Emila looked away sadly. “But what else can I do…?”

“Balance, Emila,” He said, taking her hand in his own. “If being together is bad for us, then we just have to be careful not to let things get too far. But avoiding each other completely is no good, either. It just causes us pain. So we just have to be aware of what we’re doing.”

Emila thought about it for a moment, then a smile graced her lips. “Maybe – just maybe – we could-”

She was cut off by the sound of the bedroom door slamming open. Luca released her hand and rose from the chair, turning to face the source of the disruption. Standing in the doorway was the massive guard Luca had passed earlier, the one Brand had called Devith.

“What are you doing…?!” Emila cried out.

Devith blinked, staring at Luca. “You – you shouldn’t be here.”

“Neither should you!” Luca retorted. “Why are you here?”

The guard reached for his hip and drew his sword from its sheath. “I am the princess’ escort. You’re in the way, so you’ll have to die.”

“Emila, run,” Luca whispered to her, drawing his own blade. “Go find Selphie and tell her about this.”

“Be careful,” Emila whispered back.

Devith closed the distance between them, bringing down his large sword with brutal force. Luca parried the blow, but was pushed back onto the bed, with Devith pressing down against him. Emila leaped from the bed on the other side and darted out the room.

“You can try to protect her,” Devith said to Luca with a cruel smile. “You will fail.”

“Why are you doing this?!” Luca demanded.

“My king demanded I bring him the princess.”

Luca broke the parry and rolled to the side, as Devith’s sword came down and slashed at the sheets where his head had been mere seconds before. Luca hit the floor and continued to roll, putting as much distance between himself and Devith as he could.

As Luca climbed back to his feet, Devith pulled his sword out of the bed and turned slowly to face him.

“You fool,” Luca laughed.

“What makes you say that?” the guard asked, tilting his helmeted head slightly.

“Marcus asked you to bring him Selphie, but you went to the wrong room!” Luca said. “So he intended to betray us, after all. I should have told her not to trust that man.”

Devith merely chuckled.

Luca now took the offencive. He charged at Devith, aiming to swing Siora at a vulnerable spot where his opponent was not armoured. 

Devith’s response was to hurl his sword, blade-first, at Luca like a spear.

He did not have time or strength enough to block it, so he was forced to dodge instead. He ducked in mid charge, Devith’s sword flying past him and burying itself in the wall.

“Hmm,” Devith said in his low voice. “The son of Lodin, isn’t it? I expected more.”

Luca made to charge the now-weaponless opponent, but before he could take a single step, a strange feeling filled the air.

“What the-”

Luca raised his hand, to cast his light needles at Devith, but the mana simply fizzled out in the open air before he could make the weave.

“Don’t worry. I was told not to kill you.”

Devith closed the distance between them with surprising speed. Luca tried to dodge the inevitable attack, but his body was suddenly weak and sluggish, and he was unable to get away in time. An armoured leg struck his chest in a merciless kick. He gave a choked cry, and spat a mouthful of blood out on the floor.

“No…”

Luca felt Devith’s hand tightening around his throat. The gauntlet he wore was cold and firm – there was no chance of his breaking free. The guard lifted him up off his feet with his incredible strength.

The last thing Luca saw were Devith’s emotionless eyes.

Chapter XIII

Where Strides the Behemoth

Princess Selphie sighed and allowed herself to fall face-first onto her bed in a very unprincessly fashion. It was always such a relief to be behind closed doors, when she no longer needed to carry herself with grace and composure.

She rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes. She could fall asleep right then and there, if she let herself, but she had to change. It had taken longer than she’d thought it would to wrap up her business. The king had gone to bed for the night, but his son Halt had stayed with her and helped her set her affairs in order. Marcus had given her as good a guarantee as she was going to get – he had no intention of declaring war against Acaria, at least for the moment. That left only one country – Torachi – in favour of war, and two against it. Unless either Saeticia or Sono were to change their minds, things were stable for now.

The first part of her father’s plan was a success. Now came the second part, which was where things got difficult.

For the moment, she needed to get back to T’Saw. Her and her company would leave Serenite in the morning. There was no guarantee that the Allmans would be coming with her, but she likely wouldn’t need their help anymore, so close to the Sonoian border.

Everything was good, as long as nothing happened to change Marcus’ mind. That was what worried her. The man she had dined with earlier did not match the one from her memories. Age had made Marcus angry and bitter.

Luca had handled things better than she had expected he would. She felt a little guilty for not having more faith in him. He had been put in an unfair position. Marcus had invited them in as guests, and then proceeded to pick a fight with one of her people, even after she had told them that she owed him her life. Had she not been there to ask favours of him, she would have called Marcus out on his treatment of Luca. Still, he handled things well. She had been worried for a while, fearing that Luca would draw his sword on the king of Saeticia.

Ash’s reaction had been entirely unexpected. The younger son of Lodin was the strangest member of their company. She knew little about him, and he spoke little. All she knew about him was that he had accidentally killed another student during his time at Allma Temple, and that there was some sort of ugly history between him and Brand. He was so quiet it made her a little uncomfortable, but Luca vouched for him, and he had helped them out considerable in escaping during the attack.

Her head was starting to hurt. She reached up and started to rub her temples. The young princess was exhausted, both physically and mentally. Now wasn’t the time to worry about these things. She needed to get to sleep, for the dawn would come early tomorrow, and they still had a way’s to go before they reached T’Saw.

She reminded herself that she still needed to change, but the bed was so nice and soft. She’d just close her eyes for a few minutes, she thought. Just a few…

Selphie woke with a start at the sound of someone banging on her door.

She climbed up from the bed, her head hurting, and wondered how long she had been out. Not too long, she reasoned, as the night seemed no darker than when she’d gone to her room.

The knocking at the door was not the polite, measured knocking of someone having come to see her, but a panicked, frantic rapping. Realising this was something urgent, Selphie crossed the room quickly and stopped at the door.

She was in a foreign palace, and something was wrong. It would be foolish to just throw the door open.

“Who is it? What’s going on?”

“S-Selphie? Is that you?”

She knew the voice immediately. She unlocked and opened the door to find Emila standing in the hallway, shaking and pale-faced.

“Emila, what happened?” Selphie asked her.

“A guard came to my room and attacked Luca,” Emila told her, her eyes wide and worried. “He told me to come tell you. Luca had to fight back, he had no choice.”

Selphie bit her lip.

Damn it all, she thought. And here she’d thought things were going so well.[_ _]“The guard came to your room?” 

Emila nodded.

“And attacked Luca? So Luca was already there?”

Emila nodded again. “Yes, he came to talk to me.”

“He must have followed him to your room…” Selphie pondered aloud. “Keeping him here after what happened at dinner was a mistake. I should have sent him to stay with Tranom and the Allmans back at the inn…”

“I don’t think he was there for Luca,” Emila told her, looking around the hall to make sure nobody else was listening. “He seemed surprised to see him.”

“Then why would he…?” Selphie shook her head. “Never mind that, we’ll have time enough to figure this out later. Emila, do you know where Brand’s room is?”

She nodded.

“I need you to go there and stay with him. He can protect you if anything else happens, but hopefully I can get this settled before anything does.”

Selphie darted over to the room next to hers and knocked on the door three times in a clear pattern. Then she returned, went past Emila back into her room, and grabbed her swords from off the dresser.

“Where are you going?” Emila asked her.

“Straight to the king,” she declared. “I know Marcus well enough to know that he wouldn’t have ordered something like this. This guard was acting on someone else’s orders. The best way to deal with this would be to tell Marcus what happened.”

The neighbouring door swung open and Jared stepped out, already dressed and armed. When he spotted Selphie and Emila, he relaxed and lowered his halberd, but he glanced warily around the hall.

“Will you be alright?” Emila asked. “What if it isn’t just this one guard? What if they want to kill us all?”

“If that was the case, they would have come after me first,” Selphie assured her with a smile. “Don’t worry about us, just go find Brand and stay with him. Don’t talk with anyone in the palace, and no matter what, if they attack you, do not fight back. Just run.”

Emila nodded, and after a moment’s hesitation, took off down the hall.

Selphie finished putting on her weapon’s belt, and looked up to see Jared waiting for her. “What’s happened?” he asked her.

“It seems one of the guards went after Luca,” she told him. “I don’t know what faction ordered this, but we’re going to Marcus to tell him so he can set things straight.”

“Do you think this has anything to do with what the king said at dinner?”

“It might, but something tells me there’s more to it than that.”

“Luca’s not dead, is he?”

“He and Emila have that magick connection thing, remember? She would know if he was killed.”

“That’s right. I’d forgotten.”

“Let’s go,” Selphie said, glancing down the hallway. “Be ready, my knight. We don’t know what to expect.”

<> <> <>

Emila ran through the halls, past the occasional bewildered servant, on her way to Brand’s.

Through the Soul Tether, she could feel that Luca had been knocked unconscious some time ago. He hadn’t suffered any mortal injuries, so thankfully that guard hadn’t been trying to kill him. Unfortunately, she didn’t know where he was. It was harder to sense his location through the Tether when he wasn’t conscious.

A few minutes later, she made it to the room Brand was staying in. She knocked a few times and announced her presence, and when there was no reply she turned the handle and was surprised to find the door was not locked. Suddenly she feared the worst, and she pushed the door open and felt around for the light switch.

The lights came on, and Brand was not there.

Have they gone after Brand as well, she wondered?

Emila heard a tssk-sound behind her, and her heart skipped a beat. She spun around and took a step back. 

The guard from before, Devith, was standing in the hallway, with his arms crossed. He had an amused smirk on his face.

“Looking for your other friend?”

Emila backed away slowly, glaring at the man before her. “Why are you doing this?”

“Come now, princess,” Devith said, starting towards her. “Struggling will only make things more difficult.”

“I am no princess,” Emila told him in a voice that did not sound as confident as she’d hoped it would. Devith did not answer, he merely continued to advance at his slow pace.

And then he sprang forward with speed surprising for a man of his size. Emila jumped out of the way, rolling to the side to avoid him. She just barely managed to keep from being grabbed.

Devith rose from his knees and continued to slowly stride towards her, seeming to be more amused by her show of resistance.

“Stop it,” she said. “I’ll fight back if you keep this up!”

“Please,” he said with an amused smile. “Fight me.”

He started to charge again, so the unarmed Emila did the only thing she could. She gathered up her mana and wove it into an obstacle between them. A row of icy blocks appeared on the floor before the guard, covered in sharp spikes.

Devith tripped, not expecting the sudden obstacles. He fell forward, driving his upper legs through the icy spikes below him.

Emila grimaced. She hadn’t expecting him to actually fall on them…

But that wasn’t enough to stop him. He looked up at her with a savage grin, and started to stand, seeming completely unaffected by the razor-sharp blades of ice that had cut into his thighs. And as he rose, Emila saw something really strange – even though her ice magick was manifested physically, Devith had not taken any actual damage from it. Rather than stabbing into his legs, the icy spikes seemed instead to have phased through him. When he pulled out of them, there were no cuts and no blood on him.

Emila backed away from him, circling around the room until she found herself at the doorway.

“Run, little rabbit, run,” Devith taunted her.

She ran.

<> <> <>

“Princess Selphie.”

She stopped. Prince Gera, the second son of Marcus, was standing in her way, just in front of Marcus’ bedroom. “What are doing running through the halls, dressed like that in the middle of the night?”

“I need to see your father, my prince,” she said to him. “It’s urgent.”

“My father has already gone to bed for the night,” Gera told her. “Whatever it is you need, perhaps me or my brother can help you? Or if it is just some trivial thing, perhaps you could just ask a servant? I don’t know how they do things in Sono, but here in Saeticia, we have respect for our king, and we do not come barging at his door at all hours of the night with every little problem we have.”

Jared frowned, and looked to her.

No, Jared, she silently told him with a look. Things were bad enough already. They could not afford to be seeking fights with their guests.

“This is no trivial matter, Prince Gera,” she said in a firmer voice. “One of my men has been attacked-”

“And locked in the dungeon for the night,” Gera finished for her. “Where he belongs. Doubtless, the person you heard this news from had their own version of the story, but the truth I heard is that your escort was the one who attacked our guard. This is the same man who angered my father during dinner, and you think it fair of you to wake him in middle of the night for this person’s sake?”

“I can vouch for Luca,” Selphie said. “He did not start that fight, I swear it.”

“The son of Lodin, no less,” Gera continued, ignoring her plea. “The boy who made claims of immortality. No doubt this person went out looking for a fight, angry and bitter after being humiliated by my father. Is this the kind of person you bring with you to our hall, princess?”

Selphie bit her lip. She was putting a lot at stake for Luca’s sake.

The dim lighting of the lamps on the wall cast long shadows over Gera’s face. “You should go back to bed, princess. My father can deal with this in the morning. Unless you would rather give your friend’s sentencing up to me to be decided right now?”

She said nothing.

“That’s what I thought,” Gera said, before snapping his finger. One of the guards by the door came over to them. “Escort Princess Selphie and her guard back to their rooms. Make sure they stay there.”

Under the circumstances, they had no choice but to comply.

<> <> <>

Emila ran through the palace, now more worried than ever. She had no idea where to go – both Luca and Brand had been taken, and Ash had disappeared after dinner, likely going to town to stay at the inn with the Allmans. Selphie and Jared were off to see the king, but until they reached him and got his help, she needed to fend for herself. Even without her inability to take a life, she doubted she could handle this Devith man, especially as he seemed completely unaffected by her ice magick. She had no idea who, if anyone, in the palace could be trusted, and all her companions were unavailable, which meant…

No, wait. There was someone she had forgotten.

Even in her panicked state, she frowned at the thought. The only person she could go to for help, and it was the last person she would have liked to ask.

And yet, she had no choice. Devith was still following after her, somehow keeping up with her even though he was walking at the same slow pace as before.

A few minutes later, Emila burst through the doors to the library. Wiosna was the only person there, sitting at a table engrossed in some dusty tome. The blond girl looked up in surprise and confusion as Emila came dashing in through the doors, tripping over a stack of books on her way.

“Emila?” Wiosna said, looking at her like she was insane. “What in the world are you doing?”

Emila faced the doorway and backed up to the table Wiosna was sitting at, raising her shaking hand and pointing at the man who had followed her. Devith stood with his arms crossed, shaking his head.

“H-he’s after me…” she told Wiosna. “He beat Luca and Brand already.”

Wiosna frowned and rose from her seat. She said to Devith, “Who are you exactly?”

“The princess’ escort,” Devith said. “Do not stand between us.”

“He thinks you’re Selphie?” Wiosna whispered to her. Emila did not reply.

Devith drew his sword from his sheath and slowly approached them. “If you try to resist, I will have to beat you as well.”

“Whose orders are you acting on?!” Wiosna demanded, her hand going to her side where her own blade was sheathed.

“My king’s orders,” Devith said.

“Marcus?” Wiosna looked to Emila. “Does Selphie know about this?”

Emila had grown a shade paler. “I told her first, and she and Jared left to go see Marcus – I didn’t know this man was acting on his orders…”

“This makes no sense,” Wiosna said. “If Marcus ordered this man to go after Selphie, he would know who to send him after. Something’s not adding up.”

Devith stopped, standing only a few paces from Wiosna and Emila.

“Are you going to hide behind this one too, princess?” he asked Emila with a smirk.

“I’m sorry,” Emila said to Wiosna. “I have no weapon, and my magick doesn’t affect him…”

“Your magick doesn’t affect him…?!” Wiosna gaped. “Just who is this guy?!” 

Devith drew his sword and swung it at Wiosna. Emila jumped away, and Wiosna sidestepped the attack, drawing her curved sword and countering with a stroke of her own. Devith did not try to dodge, instead blocking the blade with his gauntlet.

“I am fully armoured,” Devith told her. “And magick cannot harm me. Attack me all you like – as you grow tired, I will grow stronger.”

Wiosna pulled back, holding her sword with both hands and circling around Devith, keeping her gaze locked on him. She looked over his armour, searching it for any gaps or weaknesses. Unfortunately, it seemed things were as he said – his massive form was covered in armour from head to toe.

Devith lunged again, and Wiosna fell back, switching to defence. Her opponent was overwhelmingly strong – she wouldn’t be able to hold out for very long without a way to fight him.

The guard knocked her back again, and she fell on one knee. As he brought his blade down on her, she kicked back, pushing herself away from him.

“Emila!” she called out. “Get out here while you can! I won’t be able to hold him off for very long!”

Devith took one more step towards her before a blast of ice crystals struck him in the head. His helmet, which was frozen through, was knocked off his head. The helm flew across the room and struck the far wall, shattering apart.

The guard rose up from the temporary distraction, looking irritated for the first time. His face was now revealed. He had black hair that he kept pulled back, a trimmed beard, and a single lock of braided hair that hung over his left ear.

Wiosna gasped.

“Y-you’re!”

<> <> <>

Luca opened his eyes.

He tried to sit up, but he slipped on something and struck the back of his head against a stone wall.

“Fuck – ow…”

Trying to ignore the pain in his head, he looked around to figure out where he was. It only took him a moment to realise he was in a prison cell, complete with iron bars and a mana-sealing circle carved into the stone at his feet.

“Fantastic…”

He thought back to what had happened, to get him where he was. He had gone to Emila’s room to talk with her, when the massive guard they called the bear, Devith, had shown up out of nowhere and tried to take Emila. Devith had told him he was sent by Marcus to bring him the princess, and apparently he had mistaken Emila for Selphie.

Except… Marcus clearly knew who Selphie was. He had known her since she was a child. There was no way he would have gotten her mixed up with Emila. In that case it had to be the guard’s blunder, but it seemed like Marcus wouldn’t have sent him off to kidnap a princess without making sure he knew which girl to go after. And what reason would Marcus have to kidnap or kill Selphie anyway? He had been honoured to have her at his palace – it was Luca that the guy had had a problem with. In that case, it made sense that Luca had ended up where he was – except that the guard clearly hadn’t expected to run into him.

Something about this wasn’t adding up – but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. He felt like he was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Luca rose, being careful this time not to slip and hit his head. He went over to the bars and peered outside. The gaol he was in was empty, save for a single guard who sat at a table by the stairs, flipping through a small book in his hand and occasionally chuckling.

“Hey, I’m not supposed to be here!” Luca called out to the gaoler.

“Shut it,” the gaoler said, not even looking up from his book.

“One of your people attacked one of my people!” he insisted.

“Not what I was told,” the gaoler replied. “I heard you picked a fight with Devith, and got your ass handed to you like you deserve. Sit back down and keep quiet and we’ll see about all this in the morning.”

“Damn it!” Luca grabbed the iron bars of his cell and pulled them apart with all his might. They did not budge.

“Settle down, or I’ll come over there and whack you over-”

At that moment, the gaoler gave out a cry, and collapsed, dropping his book on the ground. Brand stood behind him, holding a metal rod.

“The head?” Brand guessed. He tossed the rod aside and knelt down beside the inert guard. A moment later, Brand stood back up, carrying the key ring.

“Did Selphie send you?” Luca asked as Brand tried out the different keys on the ring, trying to find the right one.

He shook his head. “I heard it from one of the other guards. There are only a couple in the palace at night, and this Devith guy has them all paid to keep quiet. But one of the guys I befriended earlier told me anyway.”

“Wait, you knew this was going to happen?”

“He told me after the fact. I just found out you were locked up.”

“Where is Emila?” Luca asked.

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen her.” There was a click, and the door of the cell swung open with a rusty sound. “Ah, that’s the one.”

Luca stepped outside of the cell. Brand handed him a sheathed blade.

“Thank you,” Luca said, returning Siora to its rightful place at his side. 

Brand looked over at the unconscious gaoler. “One thing I know for sure is that Marcus is not behind this. This Devith guy has been planning this for some time, according to the guard I talked to. He’s been bribing a lot of people to make this happen.”

“And yet he’s made the dumbest of mistakes,” Luca said. “He went after Emila, not Selphie. He seems to have gotten them mixed up.”

Brand frowned. “Is that right – so where’s Selphie?”

“She went to go see Marcus.”

“In that case, let’s hope the king will pardon my springing you once he learns of the circumstances.”

Luca started off for the stairs. “We have to find Emila. That guy could still be after her.”

Brand nodded, and followed him out.

<> <> <>

“Acarian,” Wiosna hissed at the man before them. “You’re an Acarian.”

Devith did not move, but his lips curled into an amused half-smile.

“Why would you not remove the braid?” Wiosna asked him. “It gave you away.”

“My actions had given me away well before,” he answered. “My braid is a symbol of my pride, and my allegiance to my true king. I would sooner be found out and slain before my mission is done than have it cut from me.”

“And that mission is…?”

“To bring the princess back with me to King Zinoro.”

Wiosna glanced back over to Emila, who had retreated as far into the library as she could, all but cowering behind a shelf and staring out at the massive Acarian in fear.

“Fool,” she whispered, meaning the both of them. She turned back to Devith. “So who are you really, then?”

“Devith was a name I used long ago,” he said to her in a voice that carried the weight of history. “Nobody remembers the man I was then. Devith is dead. I am Trunda, one of the five acolytes of Zinoro.”

Wiosna frowned, biting her lip. She didn’t like the implications of that. If he was indeed one of Zinoro’s acolytes, then why would he so readily offer up that information? If he was after the princess, then he should be trying to capture her no matter what…

She turned her head just enough to see Emila out of the corner of her eye. This guy – Trunda. He didn’t seem to be the brightest bulb in the batch if he didn’t even know the basic appearance of the princess he was after. Zinoro clearly wasn’t putting a lot of faith in this mission if this dumb brute was who he sent. And after Dreevius, who was the biggest fool she had ever seen in a position of power, Wiosna was starting to have serious doubts about Zinoro’s supposed strategic brilliance.

But regardless of how much a fool this guy was, he was tough. Wiosna didn’t think she could beat him by herself. However, as he was here on Zinoro’s orders and not Marcus’, then hopefully help was on its way.

Trunda shrugged, and held up his sword. “It matters not. The princess and I will soon be far from here. And you will be dead.” He charged at her, clearing the distance between them in a few seconds.

Wiosna dodged the attack and did the only thing she could thing of – she ducked behind a massive bookshelf and pushed it forward with all her strength. Cringing in self-hatred at her act of literary sacrilege, she was nonetheless saved from Trunda’s next attack as he was buried under a few hundred pounds of books.

She felt sorry for the librarian who would have to clean up the mess.

A few moments passed, and Trunda did not rise. Wiosna let out a sigh of relief, and turned to see Emila stepping forward hesitantly. “Is – is he dead?” she asked.

Wiosna looked back over at the collapsed bookcase, and the small mountain of books Trunda was buried under. There was no sign of movement.

“I doubt that killed him, but I would be surprised if he was still conscious,” Wiosna said. “Either way, he’s not going anywhere. You would need superhuman strength to climb out of that.”

“Thank you for helping me,” Emila said, with a grateful smile.

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” Wiosna muttered dryly. “You weren’t going to protect yourself.”

Emila’s eyes widened, and she turned away, looking at the floor in shame.

“I’m sorry. I-I can’t…”

“You can’t kill. I know.” Wiosna went over to Emila and looked her in the eye. Emila could not turn away from her intense gaze. “But here’s the thing. This mission is no place for someone like you. In fact, this world is no place for someone like you. There’s only two types of people out there – those who want something from you, and those who want to kill you. A person like you, who only wants to make friends and doesn’t want to hurt anyone – you have no place in Bacoria, and much less a place here with us. It is human nature to kill. I know that better than anyone. Peace is just a pipe dream of those who do not understand the world.”

“Do you not agree with Selphie’s mission?” Emila asked her.

“I was hired to help her. Whether I agree with her goals or not is irrelevant.”

Emila looked at her for a moment, and then her gaze returned to the floor, full of sorrow and shame. She wasn’t thinking of herself, or Wiosna, but of Luca. She thought of how he had spoken of Wiosna earlier in the night, of how easily he was able to relate to her. Was this the kind of person that he connected with?

Wiosna’s words meant nothing to her. Emila refused to believe that humanity was nothing but killers. She had seen enough of it to know otherwise. But Luca could believe something like that.

“You’re only going to hurt him,” Wiosna said to her. “You’re the worst kind of person he could have around.”

Emila looked up slowly, staring at Wiosna incredulously, as though she could not believe the other girl had just said that. And then, she suddenly found herself filled with an anger she rarely felt. Before she could stop herself, her hand was moving.

Wiosna stumbled back a moment later, her hand on her cheek where Emila had slapped her. She had dropped her sword.

“You’re wrong,” Emila said to her in a low voice.

Wiosna stared back at Emila for a moment, then she charged at the other girl and tackled her right off her feet. Emila cried out as they went flying backwards, falling onto the pile of books. Emila’s eyes widened in shock as she realised that Wiosna’s hands were wrapped tight around her throat.

The cute blond-haired bookworm was gone, replaced by a savage, bloodthirsty killer. Behind the glasses she wore, Wiosna’s eyes were wide, her pupils just tiny black dots. There was a smile on her face, that was slowly growing into a terrifying grin.

“P-please,” Emila choked out.

“You’re in the way,” Wiosna whispered to her, tightening her grip just a bit more. “Sssh, it’ll all be over soon.”

Emila was growing lightheaded. She started to panic. She struggled to break free, but the other girl was straddling her and pinning her down, and Wiosna was much stronger than Emila was from her many years of training. Emila tried to summon up her mana, to form some kind of weapon, but she couldn’t concentrate enough to make the proper weaves.

Her hand found something and instinctively grabbed it. A very thick doorstopper book. That would work.

Emila brought the book down on the top of Wiosna’s head, with as much strength as she could swing it with. The other girl cried out and fell back, releasing her grip.

Emila dropped the book and desperately crawled away from Wiosna, coughing and gasping for breath. The other girl collapsed on the pile of books, holding her head and moaning.

“W-what is w-wrong with you?!” Emila managed to shout at her.

Wiosna looked up at her slowly, her eyes half-closed. She looked confused.

“I – I just…”

She never got to finish, because at that moment a thick, muscular arm burst out of the pile of books and grabbed Wiosna’s arm. She cried out in panic, and tried to pull away, but she could not.

Wiosna looked to her sword, lying on the floor several metres from where she was. She reached out for it, despite the futility of the act. Now, rather than Emila’s, it was her face that was full of panic.

Emila did not even hesitate. Still coughing, she climbed to her feet and ran to where the sword was. She grabbed the blade and tossed it over to where Wiosna was.

Trunda’s head began to rise out of the pile of books. There was a cold fury in his eyes. Still holding Wiosna, his other arm emerged next, still holding his sword. He swung it down.

Wiosna caught her sword, and tried to block Trunda’s attack, but she wasn’t fast enough. The Acarian’s sword struck her, aimed for her throat, but luckily she was able to move enough to take the blow in the shoulder.

Emila gasped.

Trunda’s sword was buried deep in Wiosna’s left shoulder, blood gushing freely and staining both of their faces with spots of red.

Wiosna did not cry out.

Instead, she started to laugh.

Trunda frowned. “What the…”

Wiosna started to crawl backwards, despite the blade stuck fast in her shoulder. With a sickening sound, she pulled herself off the blade, blood running freely and dripping off her onto the floor below. She crawled back a few paces, and fell back onto the floor. She had a dreamy and satisfied look on her face.

“Mmmmm….” she all but moaned. “Thaaat’s – niiiiiice…”

Wiosna gave out one last content sigh, and passed out, her cheeks flushed red.

Trunda simply raised an eyebrow.

<> <> <>

Selphie and Jared passed through the halls almost solemnly, their heads bowed. The guard behind them followed closely, keeping an eye on them for any treachery. He had heard of the trouble earlier with the man she had brought to the palace. The princess and her guard were smart enough to comply, he figured, so there was no need to be forceful with them. Still, at this point Selphie and her company were Marcus’ guests in name only. If they tried anything, he would be charged with taking them to the dungeons and locking them up with the son of Lodin.

And the princess was rather fetching, so it would be a shame if he had to strike her.

The group of three passed a corner, and Jared looked up from the floor in irritation.

“This is all your fault,” he said to the princess. She stopped walking, and stared at him, aghast.

“What did you just say?” she demanded.

“I didn’t want to stop here,” Jared said to her. “It was a bad idea, and I told you as much. But you insisted. You told us that Marcus was a good, honourable man. You said he would help us. Now look at the trouble we’re going to be in tomorrow.”

Her eyes wide and enraged, Selphie took a step towards Jared. “How dare you? Who do you think you are, questioning my decisions? If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s Luca’s for getting into a fight with a guard in the first place!”

The Saetician guard sighed. “Enough. You can argue all you want when you’re back in your room…”

They ignored him. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, you know that?” the princess growled.

“Maybe it’s about time I spoke my mind to you!” Jared yelled. “You’re nothing but a spoilt brat. My fellow guards were slaughtered back at Allma because you trusted that liar, and now we’re in trouble again thanks to your bad judgement. Your father should never have put you in charge of this mission!”

Selphie’s face twisted in rage, and her hand went flying, striking Jared on the cheek. The Saetician guard moved immediately, pushing Jared out of the way and grabbing the princess’ wrist.

“Enough, I said! Do that again and I will have you locked up. I swear I – huh?!”

The last thing he remembered was the feeling of Jared’s gloved hand grabbing the back of his neck, and dashing his helmeted forehead against the stone wall of the palace.

Selphie looked down at the unconscious guard, and absentmindedly rubbed her wrist where he had grabbed her.

“I apologise, princess,” Jared said to her.

She looked up. “Why? It was all part of the plan, right?”

“I know, but I still hate myself for saying those things.”

She smiled sweetly, and gently caressed Jared’s chin with her hand. “That’s very kind of you to say that. Still, even though it was an act, I wonder if there might have been some truth to it. I did trust Allma, and that cost those other guards their lives. Perhaps I am too trusting…”

“You cannot doubt yourself, my lady,” he insisted. “You are our leader. You must remain resolute.”

She smiled and nodded, but it was clear her doubts had not gone away so easily. “We passed an empty room on our way here. Let’s get this guy moved out of the open, and go see Marcus. Gera will not be expecting us to return.”

Jared nodded.

<> <> <>

Luca stopped, suddenly filled with pain in his throat. He coughed, and fell one one knee, struggling to breath.

Brand, noticing this, stopped and went to his side. “Are you alright?”

Luca nodded, and rose to his feet. “Not me…” he choked out. “Emila.”

A look of panic crossed Brand’s face. “Is she…?”

A few moments passed, and the pain went away. Luca coughed a few more times, the pain not lingering through the tether.

“She got away.”

Was the guard trying to kill her? According to Dreevius’ words before, Zinoro wanted the princess alive…

“Where could she have fled to?” Luca asked.

Brand thought about it. “With Selphie and Jared gone, there’s only one other person who could protect her.”

“The library, then. That’s not far from here.”

They took off again. Luca’s heart was beating in his chest so hard he thought it might burst out. His hand found the hilt of Siora, and he gripped it tightly, ready to draw it in an instant. 

That bastard was going to pay for touching her.

They arrived at the library a few minutes later, pushing through the swinging double-doors. They saw Trunda standing by an overturned bookcase, wiping blood off his sword. Then they saw Wiosna lying unconscious in a pool of blood, and Emila at her side, glowing with mana. Emila looked up from her healing at Trunda, who was barely paying attention to her.

“Keep running if you wish, Princess,” he said to her. “I’ll continue to cut down your companions until I have you.”

Luca drew his sword and strode into the room. “Hey!”

Trunda looked up and grinned. “Well, if it isn’t the son of Lodin.”

Ignoring that, Luca took a few steps towards Emila. “Are you alright?” he asked her.

She nodded. “But Wiosna…”

“Is she stable?” Brand asked.

Emila nodded again. “I closed the wound and stopped the bleeding.”

“Move her out of the way,” Luca said. “I would have you take her somewhere else, but we don’t know who we can trust. So just take her to the edge of the room and protect her if need be. Brand and I will fight this guy.”

“He’s an Acarian,” Emila told him. “His name is Trunda. He’s one of Zinoro’s acolytes.”

Luca looked over at Trunda, and their eyes met.

“Son of Lodin,” the Acarian said. “I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”

“Have you heard about what I did to Dreevius?” Luca said with a smirk.

“There is nothing to pride yourself in that,” Trunda replied. “Dreevius was a fool, who attained his position thanks to a useful gimmick. He had long ago ceased being useful. We are stronger without him.”

“Will the acolytes be stronger without you?” Luca said to him, raising Siora. “I’ll kill as many of Zinoro’s men as I have to. He can continue to hide in his city, sending you lot off to die. And when there’s none of you left, I’ll come for him.” 

Trunda started to laugh, the sound echoing through the room. “You fool boy. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”

But the Acarian did not attack. He instead dropped his sword, and started walking towards them. Luca and Brand braced themselves, but Trunda did not attack them. He walked right past them, looking not at them, but at the doorway.

“Isn’t that right, Gera?”

The three others in the room – Luca, Brand, and Emila – turned to the open doorway that Trunda was staring at. Prince Gera stood there, a long dagger clutched in his hand.

“Devith, what are you doing?” Gera demanded. “These people know who you are! We have to kill them! They know far too much!”

“They actually do not know as much as you think they do,” Trunda said to him. “For example, they do not know of our plans. They do not know that you are in alliance with the Acarians, and that Zinoro has promised you the throne of Saeticia once he has annihilated the Alliance. They do not know that you have drugged your father’s wine to send him to bed early today. And they most certainly do not know that Zinoro never planned to give a fool puppet like you anything at all.”

Gera’s eyes were wide, and he stared at Trunda, unable to believe what was happening.

“W-why are you doing this?” he demanded. “Why are you throwing away all our plans?!”

“Plans?” Trunda said to him, staring at the young prince in disgust. “King Zinoro has no use for a boy who schemes to betray his own kin. You were a fool to think that he would secure your father’s throne for you. But he would not pass on the chance to use you. Like me, you were only ever just a means to an end.”

Luca and Brand took a step back, staring at Trunda as he strode past them. Trunda moved past Gera, who was frozen in shock. The giant stopped, and placed his hand on Gera’s shoulder. The prince flinched at the contact.

“I think there are enough witnesses now,” Trunda said quietly to him. “Do you now see the true plan, hidden in the shadows of the false one you were following? The pieces are slowly coming together. Your father should be on his way. Try talking your way out of this one, prince of fools.”

Trunda turned around one last time, and looked into the room at Emila, who was still kneeling beside Wiosna. “We will meet again, Princess.”

“Like I’m just going to let you leave!” Luca shouted. He took a step towards the doorway, only to be stopped by Brand grabbing his fur cloak.

Brand shook his head. “Let him go,” he whispered to Luca. “Something is happening. Just let things play out for now until we know what’s going on.”

Luca scowled, but he did not move. Trunda continued on his way, leaving the library and heading into the palace halls.

Gera remained at the doorway, fear and dread written in his features. The young prince shook, clutching the dagger in his hands.

“I have to… I have to get away…” he said in a low, panicked voice. “I have to – kill the witnesses.” He raised his dagger high and ran towards Luca.

“Can I at least deal with him?” Luca asked Brand. A nod confirmed.

Luca sheathed his sword. He stepped forward and grabbed Gera’s wrist in mid-swing, the clumsy attack nothing to a trained fighter like Luca. He then made a fist, and delivered a punch right to Gera’s jaw. The prince stumbled back and fell onto the library floor, unconscious.

“This explains a few things,” Brand said. “That guy was an Acarian agent, but he was working with the prince all along.”

“But for what?” Luca asked him. “What was the point of all this?”

“My guess is that Gera thought the plan was to capture Selphie,” Brand said, looking to Emila. “But the Acarian clearly wasn’t after the same thing. I think he knew he was going after the wrong girl the whole time.”

Emila nodded slowly. “That makes sense. He chased me at a very leisurely pace, and he had a few opportunities to catch me, like just before you showed up, where he just loitered.”

Wiosna stirred, but did not awaken. Emila looked down at her patient with a strange expression, then she wiped her hands clean of blood and stood up.

“It did seem strange that he would make such a huge mistake, in thinking Emila was Selphie,” Luca muttered. “And when he beat me, rather than killing me, he just locked me up in a dungeon, knowing full well that I could easily escape. You’re right, his heart was never in it. He was just playing a game, causing a commotion and waiting to leave.”

“And it seems it was all to back stab Gera,” Brand said, looking to the unconscious prince.

“Luca! Brand! Emila!”

They turned back to the library entrance once more to find Selphie rushing in, with Jared at her heels. Following after them was King Marcus, and half a dozen guards behind him.

“Uh-oh,” Brand muttered. “We’re gonna be in trouble now.”

Marcus pushed past Selphie, looking first at Wiosna, lying in a pool of blood, and then at his unconscious younger son.

A great rage filled his eyes.

Chapter XIV

True Companions

It started to rain.

The morning had come with grey clouds, but Luca had found himself hoping the storm would not break. The mood was already sombre enough at the gates of the Serenite palace without rain. It was like a funeral – in a way it even was. Nobody said anything. They just stood atop the steps, waiting for King Marcus to emerge. Many townspeople were gathered outside, watching from the bottom of the steps. At the top of the steps, all the members of the court were gathered, the various lords and nobles who controlled the kingdom of Saeticia. The queen and her first son, Halt, were there. Selphie and her company were there too. Luca wasn’t sure why they were staying to witness this. Marcus clearly wanted them gone as soon as possible.

The falling raindrops helped to wash the blood away. It flowed down into the iron grate, the very one Brand had pointed out when they had first arrived. There had been twelve executions already – one for each of the guards who had been on duty. They had all admitted to taking bribes from the man they called Devith to ignore his actions that night. All of them, from the gaoler who Brand had knocked out, to the guard who had been escorting Selphie and Jared back to their rooms, they were all put to death as traitors.

There was one execution left, but the executioner could not carry this one out. Prince Gera was of royal blood, and only the king was allowed to end his life.

So they were waiting. Waiting for Marcus to come out of the palace and kill his son.

Luca turned to Emila, who was staring at the grate, just as he had been a moment ago. She was staring at the blood. She looked tired, still needing sleep after the eventful night. Her cheeks were a bit wet from the raindrops…

No. Those were tears.

He placed his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him. He knew what troubled her. Emila, who valued life more than anyone he had ever met, had just watched twelve people die.

They didn’t say anything. She just moved very close to him, resting her head on his shoulders. He pulled his fur cloak over her, to keep her warm and dry.

Why in the world was Selphie making them watch this?

Luca looked to Selphie, who was staring at the gate of the palace. She was waiting for Marcus. She would likely not have any other chance to speak with him.

The others in their group – Brand, Jared, and Wiosna – they looked no better. Everyone was tired, cold, morose, and soon to be wet. Wiosna in particular looked troubled – Luca noticed the occasional worried glance at Emila. Her wounds were treated and she was fine, but she looked very miserable. Luca wondered what had happened in that library that had the usually bright and cheerful girl so concerned. Perhaps she was worried for Emila? He would have to talk to her later.

Wiosna noticed his staring, and she quickly looked away.

Everyone on the steps looked up as the front doors of the palace swung open, and Marcus emerged at last. Nobody spoke, nor did the crowd of people gathered cheer. His eyes were hard and weary, as he strode out into the rain. His sword Altair was sheathed at his side. 

Selphie watched him with an expectant, yet pleading expression. He turned his head to her for the briefest of moments, offering nothing more to her than an emotionless glance. He then continued on his way down to the grate, where Gera was bound and waiting.

“My son,” he said to Gera. “You have been brought here for the crime of treason. You made a secret alliance with the Acarians, and plotted to aid them in war against us. You betrayed the Alliance, you betrayed your home kingdom of Saeticia, and you betrayed your kin, the royal family. Do you deny these charges?”

Gera shook his head. “I do not.”

Marcus’ eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Then tell me. Why did you do this?”

Gera looked over to where his brother was watching. “My brother Halt is the cause of this. Being the eldest child, he is promised to be the next king of Saeticia.” Gera turned away from Halt, and looked out to the crowd of people. “But my brother is not fit to rule this land. Neither were you, father. Saeticia deserves a king who is wise and fair and just. A king who will look to the future, rather than dwell on the past. The Way of Uro, which you brought with you to the throne, and raised up Halt to believe in, will bring Saeticia to its death. The old ways only cause pain and weakness, and a paladin should never have sat on the throne.”

Marcus showed no visible reaction to this. “And you would have done better?”

“I could have saved Saeticia,” Gera replied, his voice certain and resolute. “Instead, it will now die under Halt’s rule.”

“I see,” Marcus said. “So you do not even regret what you have done. So be it. I will not regret what I am about to do.”

Marcus drew his sword from it’s sheath, and a powerful wave of mana flowed through the area. Marcus’ mana flowed into the sword and radiated through it, wrapping the blade in white fire – manaflame, the same power Luca had briefly seen Zinoro use. Everything Marcus channelled into the sword was amplified tenfold by the blade’s ancient power.

Luca felt it, light-form mana, just like his own. His hand went to the hilt of Siora, without him being aware of it. What he was looking at was one of the nine fragments of Rixeor. However, unlike Zinoro’s mana, which radiated vile dark corruption, Marcus’ was a strong purity that certainly did not reflect his soul. 

Luca could almost feel the scar across his cheek tingle faintly.

Marcus slowly raised the blade and placed it beside Gera’s throat.

“For your treason, I sentence you to die.”

Marcus swung the blade with both hands, though there was no need to – the blade would have cut through solid rock with mana surging through it like that. Gera’s head was instantly separated from his body, flying up high in the air. It never hit the ground – by the time it would have, both it and the body had vanished into mana. Gera’s clothes were all that remained, lying on that grate, stained red.

Marcus wiped off his sword, tossed the rag aside in disgust, and sheathed the blade. He then turned, without looking at anyone who was on the steps or watching from below, and started to walk back towards the palace gates.

But Selphie would not let him go. “King Marcus,” she said almost nervously, taking a step forward. Her hair was soaked at this point from the rain.

Surprisingly, he stopped and looked at her.

“King Marcus, please,” Selphie pleaded with him. “I know what you’re thinking. My father, he-”

“To hell with your father,” Marcus spat, causing everyone at the steps to exchange glaces and hushed conspiratorial words. “To hell with peace and to hell with Zinoro. This man corrupted my son, filling his head with delusions of grandeur and turning him against me. Because of Zinoro I just had to murder my son. And you still expect me to go along with whatever plan your father has to delay war with this man another few years?”

“He isn’t just-”

“Had Zaow finished the job twenty-one years ago and followed the Acarians over the mountains, none of this would have happened. Instead, he let them flee and regroup, to groom up Manorith’s son in preparation for the next war. Zaow is lying to himself with this peace nonsense. There’s no way out of this war, and there will not stop being wars until everyone who calls themselves an Acarian is dead. Vengeance is something they never forget. And it is not something I ever forget, either. I will have justice for what has been done today. So go crawling back to your father and tell him that Saeticia and Torachi are demanding he join us to invade Acarian. If he refuses, he will be next.”

And with that, Marcus returned inside the palace, followed shortly by the queen and prince, and then by all the lords and nobles of the court. Finally, the only ones who remained out in the rain were Selphie’s company, and a few guards.

Luca looked to Selphie, and in her eyes he saw a look of hopelessness. Jared went over to her, said something quietly, and she nodded. Jared seemed to be trying to cheer her up, but she looked no happier. She turned to everyone else there – Luca, Emila, Brand, and Wiosna – and she spoke.

“Let’s go back to the inn.”

<> <> <>

Trunda had apparently caused quite a fuss on his way out.

Naturally, after giving Marcus the full story, he ordered the guards to go after the Acarian spy. Bribed or otherwise, they could not ignore a direct order from their king. The guards had managed to catch up with Trunda out in the city streets, where they had attempted to arrest him.

Attempted, anyway.

In total, eighteen different guards had tried to stop Trunda on his way out of the city. None had died trying to do so, thankfully, but they all suffered injuries of varying severity.

When Selphie and her company arrived at Serenite’s local inn, a few such guards were there, wrapped in bandages and drowning their pain in alcohol. They looked up as she entered, giving her looks that were not quite friendly.

“It seems I’m not longer welcome here,” she said quietly.

The person that she was there to see, Tranom, rose from his seat as soon as he saw her and approached. Luca looked around the room, noting the presence of many of the Allman survivors. He did not see Ash among them.

“I’ve just heard about what happened,” Tranom said to Selphie. “I’m very sorry, Princess. I should have stayed with you at the palace, instead of here at the inn.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Selphie said, waving away his apology. “We’ve come to the conclusion that this was all part of Zinoro’s game anyway. They never actually wanted to capture me, they wanted to make a scene and reveal their presence here.”

“For what purpose?”

“To reveal the treachery of Prince Gera,” she explained. “To push Marcus into rage. To make him hate Zinoro, and the Acarians. He’ll never hear my father’s plea of peace now, not after losing a son to this. Zinoro wants a war with all three nations of the Alliance, it would seem, and he’s manipulating Marcus to make that happen.”

The guards’ scowls deepened at her words. Tranom looked over at them, giving them an intense glare. After a moment of token defiance, the guards looked away, finding their drinks more interesting.

“You probably shouldn’t linger in the city, Princess,” Tranom told her. “These people – things are very tense right now. The prince was just executed, an Acarian traitor was revealed in the palace, and everyone in the city is just waiting for the formal declaration of war they all know is coming,”

Selphie blinked. “What do you mean? Will you not be accompanying me back to T’Saw?”

Tranom frowned, looking very guilty and torn. “I’m sorry, Princess. I really am. The students have been talking. They want to go back to Torachi, and aid Edmund in the war. They want to avenge the friends they lost in the attack, and I can’t deny them that. As the last master of Allma Temple left, it’s my responsibility to protect them.”

Selphie smiled, and nodded, but in her eyes she looked absolutely crushed. “I see. Very well. Thank you for everything you’ve done so far. I-I…” She was trying very hard not to cry.

Jared stepped up, glaring at Tranom for a brief moment, before placing his hand on her shoulder. “Perhaps we should get going, Selphie.”

She nodded, and forced herself to keep smiling. “Take care of them, Tranom. They’re the last remnants of a great temple.”

Luca stepped forward. “Where has my brother gone?”

“He got into a fight with the others when they said some – things about Selphie,” Tranom replied with a frown. “He’s decided to wait for you at the city gates.”

Of course he wouldn’t be going with them, Luca thought. The Allmans always hated Ash.

“I never knew your father, but I’m sure he would have been proud,” Tranom said. “Of you both.”

A few minutes later, they were back in the streets outside the inn, under the now pouring rain. Brand had lingered behind to say farewell to his former master. After taking a few moments to compose herself, Selphie spoke to everyone in the group – Luca, Emila, Wiosna, and Jared.

“It seems that our mission is becoming more of a farce every minute,” she said to them, her words heavy. “The Acarians do not want peace, and neither do the people they have hurt. Zinoro wants this war, and he’s clever enough to get it. Attacking the temple angered Torachi, and eliminated the threat of Allma’s skilled fighters. And now he’s made an enemy of Marcus, by turning his son against him. With both Torachi and Saeticia determined to have this war, my father will have no choice but to support them. If he does not, then Sono will become an enemy of the Alliance, and they will invade us next.”

She took a deep breath, and her lips formed a tight line. “But I’m not going to give up, no matter how impossible or pointless it seems. War should not be something we aspire to. So I’m going to give you all a choice. Torachi is already preparing for battle, and the Allmans are going to go join them. It won’t be long before Saeticia is doing the same. If you want to go and join them, that’s fine. I won’t stop you. But I’ll be going back to T’Saw to meet with my father. I’m not going to give up on this stupid mission of peace, but if any of you want justice as well, like Tranom I will not deny it of you.”

Nobody moved or spoke.

A moment passed, and Selphie looked to Wiosna. “Do you not want to go with them? They’re your companions. The Acarians burned down your temple and killed so many of your friends.”

Wiosna looked at Emila for a moment, then at the inn, hesitating. Then she said, “I don’t think I have the right. I like to fight, sure. And I hate the Acarians for what they’ve done. But I swore that I would help you. And honestly, I know that a lot of good people will die in a war. I only kill bad people.”

Emila looked at her, a strange unspoken moment passing between them.

Selphie then turned her attention to Luca. “Zinoro killed your father. You don’t want to have revenge?”

“I do,” Luca told her. “And I will. I swore that I will kill Zinoro, and I always keep my promises. But that will be decided by a battle between the two of us, not between tens of thousands of people. Other people do not need to die for my sake. If your father can keep a war from breaking out, it would make it far easier for me to get to Zinoro.”

Emila frowned, but said nothing. Selphie turned to her next, and said, “Emila, that man went after you tonight. I don’t know why, but he thought you were me and he tried to hurt you. Do you really want to go with us? There might be more danger on the way. Trunda is still out there…”

The small girl shook her head, and went to Luca’s side, hugging his arm. “I go where Luca goes.”

Selphie frowned, seemingly disappointed in their answers. Then a smile slowly crossed her face. It was impossible to tell with how soaked she was, but she might have been crying again.

Jared went back to her side. “Are you going to try to convince me to leave, as well? Because I think you already know what my answer will be.”

Selphie shook her head. She then looked over at the door of the inn. “Brand’s still in there, talking to Tranom. Maybe, at least he might-”

The door then burst open, and Brand stepped out, his eyes wide. “Those guys in there are seriously pissed. Let’s get Ash and ditch this city before we have to fight our way out.”

Selphie stared at him for a moment, and then started to laugh.

<> <> <>

They indeed found Ash waiting at the city gates, with his belongings in a bag over his shoulder. He didn’t say much, and Selphie didn’t try to talk him out of going with them. The seven of them just went through the gates and were on their way.

The rain started to let up after about an hour or so, to which they were immensely grateful.

Emila kept close to Luca as they walked. He’d noticed her odd behaviour earlier, but now it was impossible for everyone not to be aware of it. She was very quiet, staying close to Luca and hardly leaving his side. At times, she would even wrap her arms around his, and rest her head on his shoulder. There was fear in her eyes.

Eventually, once they had stopped for lunch at the side of the road, he asked her what was bothering her.

“I-” She couldn’t form the words. Her eyes glanced at Wiosna, betraying her thoughts.

“You can tell me what’s wrong,” Luca gently urged her. “Are you worried about what happened at the palace?”

She nodded slowly.

“According to Selphie’s theory, Trunda was never really after you,” Luca told her. “He was just playing a game, making a commotion so that Gera’s treachery would be revealed. That’s why he didn’t go after the real princess.”

For a moment, Emila looked like she wanted to say something. She bit her lip, and cast her gaze to the ground.

“Nothing will happen to you,” he promised her. “Even if I’m not around, the others will protect you.”

Emila chuckled mirthlessly. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

Away from Luca and Emila, Wiosna was watching their conversation with a pale face.

After their brief lunch, the group continued on their way. Despite not being very good at consolation – a flaw he readily admitted to – Luca seemed to have cheered Emila up a bit. Perhaps she had simply been shaken up after the chaotic night, and the bloody executions of the morning. She seemed better now, walking on her own and no longer clinging to Luca. Still, she remained close to him, and occasionally looked to Wiosna.

The other girl, unable to wait in limbo any longer, approached Emila while Luca was busy talking with the others.

“Can we talk?” Wiosna asked her. “I feel I need to explain.”

“What is there to explain?” Emila asked her, her eyes narrow and her voice low. “After what you did to me, I should think your intentions are very clear.”

“It’s not like that,” Wiosna insisted. “Sometimes, I – I just lose control. I didn’t want to hurt you, I just…”

“You’re very lucky that Luca thinks it was Trunda who did that,” Emila told her. “He was aware of what was happening to me the moment you were doing it. We share pain. Anything I feel, he feels. Our souls are connected.”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you think he survived back at the temple, when Dreevius stabbed him? We’re connected by magick, he and I. Nothing can hurt him, so long as I’m alright. But if something were to happen to me, he would die.”

Wiosna looked even more guilty than before, if that were possible.

“You said I was bad for him because I’m not a killer, like you are,” Emila told her, contempt in her eyes. “But which of us put him in more danger last night? Had I not been able to get away from you, I would be dead, and so would Luca.”

“I said I was sorry,” Wiosna said, trying to keep her voice down, lest the others notice. “I wasn’t in control of myself!”

“If you can’t control your murderous impulses, then how can I trust it won’t happen again?” Emila asked her. “Why are you even with us, in any case? You should have stayed behind in Serenite when Selphie was asking you to. We’re on a mission of peace, the very thing you seem to loathe the most.”

“You don’t understand me at all…”

“On the contrary, I understand you very well,” Emila said coldly. “You’re a killer. I’ve seen plenty of killers in my life. I’ve seen what they can do. I’ve lost everything I ever had because of people like you, and if you think I’m going to stand aside and let you turn him into someone like you, you’re wrong.”

“Are you – going to tell him?” Wiosna asked, visibly worried.

“No,” Emila said. “I won’t tell him what you did, because if I told him, he’d kill you. And I’m trying to keep him from killing people.”

And with that, Emila left her, rejoining Luca. Wiosna lingered behind, looking very dejected and confused.

<> <> <>

“There’s something that’s been bothering me, Luca.”

Luca looked over at Brand as they walked. It was unusual to see Brand burdened by anything, much less his own thoughts. Out of all of the members of their group, Brand was the most upbeat and optimistic of them all, and he never let anything really weigh him down. To see something troubling him…

“What is it?” Luca asked. Emila, at his side, and Selphie and Jared, behind him, all listened.

“Today I said my goodbyes to my former master,” Brand said. “He was my last connection to Allma Temple. He was the man who found me all those years ago in Sendor City, and brought me to the temple. I would not be the man I am today were it not for him. I’ve always tried to live my life without regrets, and I have largely succeeded. But I do have one thing I need to get off my chest.”

“Sure, what it is?” Luca asked.

“I have a secret,” Brand said. “Something that I am not proud of, and have tried my whole life to put behind me. When I was at Allma Temple, Allma the third found out this secret, and he blackmailed me. I was well-liked at the temple, and Allma wanted to know the secrets of anyone he could, for the use of blackmail. He made me tell him things about the students, things they confided in me.”

Luca frowned. He had heard something like this before, when he’d met with Ash at the underground lake. Ash had told him Brand was in Allma’s pocket, and anything he told Brand would go straight to Allma.

“To my knowledge, he never actually used any of the information I gave him,” Brand continued. “Largely because I was very selective in what I did tell him. I couldn’t keep everything from him, because he would have known I was withholding information. I told him as little as possible, but even that tormented me. I told him things about you, Luca. I told him that you went to meet with Ash, and I told him about you and Emila. It has been tormenting me ever since we left the temple, and I feel I cannot go any farther without telling you. Whatever you wish to think of me, I will accept it.”

Luca thought about it for a moment. “You did what you could under the circumstances. We haven’t forgotten about what you did when Allma was trying to kill Selphie. He gave you orders, and you refused him. That’s what’s really important. This really isn’t that bad, actually. A lot of people are tormented by much darker secrets.”

“You’re a hero, Brand,” Selphie said to him. “You’ve done so much good, that such a minor little thing is nothing.”

“Whatever secret it was that Allma was using against you died with him,” Luca said. “Let the past be the past.”

Brand smiled. “Thanks, you guys.” When they weren’t looking, however, Brand turned his head and looked behind him. In the back of the group, Ash was following them. He looked up, and met Brand’s gaze. Nothing was said between them. Ash gave no indication of whether he had heard the conversation or not, but he wasn’t so far behind that he couldn’t have.

<> <> <>

Selphie led them forth with renewed vigour, her hope seemingly restored by their choice to stay with her. Like the vanishing rain, her mood improved as they day went on. Emila also seemed to be doing better, and Wiosna, though still quiet and withdrawn, spoke up a few times to chip in to the conversation.

It would take them around a week to reach the Sonoian border, and then a few weeks more to reach T’Saw. They made good time on their first day, but they were still far from the next town. So as the sun began to disappear under the horizon, they found a spot off the road and made camp.

They had four tents now, having picked up two more in town, and enough sleeping rolls and supplies for all seven members of the group. They lit up a fire and enjoyed a nice meal of meat and bread. Other travellers and groups of Saetician soldiers on patrol would occasionally pass by on the road, but these were starting to die down with the coming night. They were no longer worried about Acarians – they were deep enough in Saetician territory that an Acarian squad would not be able to get from one town to the next, much less find and attack them. There was only one Acarian whom they needed to concern themselves with – but in a few days a wanted poster with his face on it would be plastered on every city wall in Saeticia and Sono. He was either on his way back to Acaria, or lying low to avoid capture.

After finishing their supper, they paired up and went to bed. Emila and Luca ended up sharing a tent – surprising absolutely no one. And Jared of course insisted on being close to Selphie, thus the second tent went to the two of them – although Jared slept just outside of it, not wanting to intrude on the princess’ privacy. And Brand and Wiosna ended up as the last pair, as neither of the former Allma students wanted to be around Ash. This left Luca’s younger brother with the fourth tent all to himself.

<> <> <>

Ash was used to being alone – in fact, he preferred it. So he went to his tent and closed it up and tossed himself down on his bed roll. He closed his eyes, and did his best to fall asleep. He was relieved just to be away from Brand, and his accusing eyes. There was still much bad blood between them. Brand would likely never forgive him, but he didn’t really care if he did or not.

However, he was still troubled. He found it difficult to drift off. He wasn’t sure why, but something had triggered the memory of his mother. Now he was stuck there, replaying the moment of her death in his mind again and again.

He had only been three at the time, though he could remember it like it was yesterday. He had always been odd – one of the odd things about him was his ability to recall events from so long ago that he should have forgotten them. He could remember all the way back to his first solid meal, his first steps, his first words. It was unnatural, so he never told anyone about it.

When he was only three years old, his mother had been carrying him and running through the night. Lodin had left them already, taking Luca with him and disappearing into the fringes of the world to hide from Zinoro. As the Acarian king cared only about Lodin and his first born son, he ignored Ash and his mother. Lodin doubtlessly thought this would keep them safe. But he had been wrong.

Vampires were after them.

They had chased them down, his mother letting go of him and commanding him to run. He had tried, but his mother’s screams of pain had drawn him back. He had found her just in time to see the vampires tearing into her throat like wild animals. Somehow, they had not seen him – perhaps they had been so occupied with his mother to notice. With tears in his eyes, he had crawled away and hid under a tree until morning.

He remembered the last commands of his mother – to get to Allma Temple and find Dori. Torachi was far away, and he was only a small child. But he had nothing else to do – and nothing else to live for. He got up, on his tiny legs, and made his way very slowly in what he had hoped was the right direction.

It took him two whole years to get to Allma Temple. He had managed to survive thanks to his intuition – he was able to detect danger and avoid it almost every time. When that wasn’t enough, he just ran. He had to take a lot of detours and spent a lot of time in small villages doing menial work to keep himself fed. But finally he was able to make it to the temple, and meet with Dori.

He would not have lived were it not for that grumpy old dwarf. That day, when he was sparring with Kevalie…

He knew Allma had arranged for that to happen. He could see the guilt in the old bastard’s eyes – he had made a mistake, and gotten the wrong student killed. Unlike Kevalie, Ash had never had any friends in that temple. The blame had been placed entirely on him. Were it not for Dori – the students likely would have lynched him right there.

But none of that mattered now, he told himself. Allma Temple, his home of twelve years, was gone. Dori, the closest thing he’d ever had to a father, was dead. And all those people who had hated him were killed – with the exception of Brand, Wiosna, and the fifty or so survivors who were with Tranom now.

Perhaps that was what was troubling him. While he had hated Allma Temple, it had been his home. His life had been shattered, and was now thrown into uncertainty. Just what was he doing with Selphie and his brother? What was their goal – to prevent a war between Acaria and the Alliance? What was the point of that? The Alliance would crush Acaria in open war. Zinoro had destroyed Allma Temple through trickery and smart planning, but there was no way be had the numbers to match the three greatest nations in Bacoria. The previous king, Manorith, had been crushed by Sono alone during the previous war, and there had been a much bigger population in Acaria in those days.

It just seemed to be better judgement to just let Zinoro have his war. He would be crushed, just like Manorith was, and the world could move on.

If the Allmans hadn’t hated him so much, he could have just stayed with them in Serenite. He could have let the others go, and let Selphie have her little dream.

The tent was too small. He felt like he was going to suffocate if he stayed in it any longer. He sat up, grabbed his cloak, and stepped outside.

Outside, Ash could just faintly see the camp with the red glow of the dying fire, and the illumination of the stars and moon. Jared was lying just outside Selphie’s tent, his giant halberd at his side. He was supposed to be keeping watch, but it seemed he had fallen asleep. Ash chuckled quietly. That guy acted big and tough, but he was just as vulnerable as everyone else.

Ash walked over to his brother’s tent, and opened it slowly, just enough to see inside. Luca was lying on his back, and Emila was at his side, her arm over his chest. Their clothes were all on, and undisturbed. Ash shook his head. How ridiculous.

He quietly closed the tent back up, and wandered over to the remnants of the fire. There was nothing else to do – checking Brand and Wiosna’s tent for any signs of naughtiness would be pointless.

As he sat by the fire, his eyes caught a faint sign of movement over by the edge of the woods, far from where their camp was. It was too brief to reliably trust, but he could have sworn it looked like a person.

It was possible someone was out there, watching them. He went back to his tent, grabbed his sword, and set off in the direction of the woods. There was a good chance it was just his imagination. He wouldn’t want to have woken the others if there was nobody out there. So he would just check it out himself.

He went to the edge of the forest, where he was sure he had seen the movement. He stepped past the first few trees, soon being swallowed up by the darkness of the forest. The pale moonlight did not reach through the thick foliage, and Ash soon found himself wandering blindly into the woods.

He listened carefully, having to rely on his hearing and touch with the lack of his sight. He found it difficult and frustrating to be unable to see. He was soon stumbling over tree roots, quietly cursing and wondering if perhaps he had made a mistake.

But a moment later, he stumbled through a bush, and emerged to a small cliff. He stopped, managing to keep himself from taking those extra couple of steps that would have sent him falling over the edge.

“Oh, it’s Ash.”

Sitting at the edge of the cliff, with her bare feet dangling over the edge, was the princess.

Ash blinked a few times. It was Selphie he had seen?

“How did you get out here? Jared was right in front of your tent.”

Selphie chuckled. “Sleeping, yes. Growing up in a palace, I learnt how to slip away from the people in charge of watching me long ago.”

He stared at her for a moment, not quite sure he was believing what he was seeing. She smiled, and pat the spot on the ground beside her. “Join me,” she offered.

Ash hesitated. He would have much preferred to just go back to his tent and try to go back to sleep. But by discovering the princess out here, he was now in charge of her. It was their responsibility to keep her safe, and if he left and something were to happen to her, it would be his fault. He should have just ignored what he saw.

Selphie seemed to realise what he was thinking, because she said, “I’m not going back until we have a talk.”

He wasn’t getting out of this one. Sighing, he went to the edge of the cliff and sat next to her.

“I’ve been wanting to talk with you for a while,” she said to him. “Perhaps fate has given us this opportunity for just that reason.”

“Why?” he asked dryly.

“You’re the only member of the group I haven’t had a chance to really talk to yet,” she said. “Is it odd that I would want to get to know the people I’m travelling with?”

“There’s nothing interesting here,” Ash told her, brushing his long platinum hair back behind his ear where it belonged. “I’m just Luca’s little brother, the son of Lodin that isn’t immortal and isn’t a hero. The one who walks in his shadow, and carries the things he cannot be bothered with.”

“You sound like you resent your brother.”

“I don’t. I resent everyone else. But he’s family – I’m not allowed to resent him.”

“He tells me you resent your father,” Selphie said.

“That’s different. He-” Ash trailed off, seeing the playful look in Selphie’s eyes. “Why am I telling you this? This is amusing you.”

“You act so stoic,” Selphie said. “But I can see, deep down, you really want someone to talk to.”

Ash stared at her for a moment. “Is that what this is all about? You just want to know what makes me tick?”

“You always look so bitter. I was hoping I might be able to cheer you up.”

He scoffed. “Don’t bother. I have plenty to be bitter about. It’s what I know, and I’m fine with it that way.”

“You enjoy being miserable?”

“Contentment lures one into a false sense of security. It makes you foolish, and more prone to making mistakes at the worst of times. As I am now, I’m smart. Take a look at my brother – he is happy, whether he would admit it or not. How many times over would be be dead already were it not for that girl’s magick?”

Selphie frowned, and looked away from him, at the expanse of terrain visible over the large valley. “I don’t think that’s true. That’s just something people say when they’ve been hurt before.”

Ash blinked.

“No, that’s not…”

C’mon, Ash! Let’s go train!

Even the slightest of thoughts seemed to trigger the flashback. How many times had he replayed her death in his mind’s eye?

“This conversation is over,” he asserted.

Selphie frowned. “Ash, why are you here?”

“Because I saw you wandering off by yourself, and as the princess, you need to be watched over,” he told her impatiently.

“That’s not what I mean,” Selphie said. She stood up and walked over to him. “I meant, why are you here?” 

“I…” Ash struggled to find the words. He couldn’t answer because he didn’t know. He was just going along with the flow, following with them because that was where his brother was going.

Hadn’t he been pondering that very question earlier that night?

Selphie moved a little closer to him. She reached up, and placed her hand on his cheek. He almost recoiled from the touch like it were the bite of a poisonous insect. But she held him, both gently and firmly. Her blue eyes looked deep into his.

“It’s not your fault,” she said to him.

“W-what…?”

“It’s not your fault,” she repeated. “The thing that happened to you. I don’t know the details of it, but I can see the guilt clearly enough.”

“Shut up,” he said to her, not caring in the slightest that he was talking to royalty. “You don’t know anything about that.” He tried to push her away, but the little princess was surprisingly strong. Her other hand grabbed his shoulder and held him fast.

“It’s not your fault.”

The way she was looking at him – she knew exactly what she was talking about. She knew exactly what it was that tormented him. His mother… Kevalie… She knew, somehow. Had Luca or Brand told her? 

“Let me go, princess!” he insisted. He grabbed her wrist, the one holding his shoulder, and pushed her hand away.

Surprisingly, she let him go. She smiled, and said, “We should get back. We’ve got a long day of travel ahead of us tomorrow.” And then she started back, as though nothing had happened at all.

Ash stare at her as she walked away, completely baffled.

“Are you coming?” she asked as she entered the thick forest between them and the camp.

“Is she mad?” he quietly asked himself.

She would have to be mad to think that her power alone could prevent a war between Acaria and the Alliance. This mission they were following her on was idiotic. Perhaps he really should consider why he was with them.

Sighing, he brushed his white hair back behind his ear and followed after her.

Chapter XV

Phantom Pain

“At long last!” Selphie declared. “I’m almost home!”

They were nearing the border of Saeticia and Sono. The road, strangely empty today, led up to the guard outpost that watched over the border. A stone wall followed along the border, separating the two kingdoms. It was a relic from an old time, when the lands were filled with great towers and machines that flew through the sky.

As they drew closer to the guard station, the banner of Sono could be seen flying high atop it.

“Once we pass through there, we’ll be in Sono,” Selphie informed them enthusiastically. “I’m sure the guards here will be relieved to see me back. We passed through here on our way to Allma Temple, and I’m sure they’ve heard by now what happened there, and at Serenite.”

No guards came out to greet them, however. As they reached the station, there were no sounds.

“Odd…” Selphie muttered. “Where are the guards?”

“We should check inside,” Jared suggested.

Emila, who was walking at Luca’s side, suddenly looked worried. He noticed, and gave her a reassuring nod.

Once inside the guards’ station, however, they saw what was wrong. The guards had not come out to greet them because they were all dead.

In total, there had been ten guards. All that remained of them was their armour, and large amounts of dried blood covering the walls and floor.

Jared looked furious. “Someone will pay for this,” he swore quietly.

“Who could have done this?” Selphie asked.

Brand approached the scene of the crime and looked it over. “The blood is already pretty dry. I would say this happened a day ago, maybe two.”

“An entire group of people would be needed to overpower this many men,” Wiosna said.

“Take a look at the armour,” Brand said. “There are no cuts in the paint. These men were killed by a bludgeoning weapon. A mace, or…”

Brand slowly picked up a breastplate. There was a perfect fist-shaped hole punched through it.

“…or someone’s fist,” he concluded grimly.

“There’s no way someone could have done this with their fists,” Wiosna insisted.

Brand was examining another piece of armour now – a helmet. It was also punched in at the side. “Perhaps they used reinforcement magick on themselves.”

Jared shook his head, and said, “Even so, that’s not possible. I’m an Earth-form magus myself, and I’ve used reinforcement many times. You can only strengthen your skin with it, in order to block external damage. But your bones and internal organs are still just as vulnerable – the magick would keep a sword or spear from drawing blood, but it would not stop a mace or hammer from hurting you. Therefore, a punch with enough force to put such a dent in reinforced plate mail would undoubtedly have still broken his hand. He could not have done it twice, much less ten times.”

Brand set down the helm. “It looks like all the armour in here has damage like that. So how else could he have done this?”

Jared scratched his trimmed black goatee, thinking. “The question isn’t how it was done, but by whom and for what reason.”

“Trunda,” Emila said immediately. “It had to be Trunda.”

Everyone in the room looked at Emila. Under the pressure of their gazes, she shrank back a little bit.

“That Trunda guy was certainly big and tough,” Wiosna said. “But I don’t think even he could so this…”

“Putting that aside, it makes no sense that Trunda would have gone through here,” Selphie said. “Why would he flee into Sono, and not back to Acaria? He’ll be the most wanted man in the entire Alliance soon, and he doesn’t exactly blend into a crowd.”

Luca looked to the small girl, who was standing close to him. Something was definitely bothering her of late. She had grown very quiet, sticking close to him often. Now, at her mentioning of Trunda, this behaviour had gotten worse. “Emila, what makes you so sure that it’s Trunda?”

She hesitated, and then said, “Because this didn’t need to be done. He could have easily slipped through, or climbed over the wall. But Trunda – he knows what he’s doing. You could see it in his eyes. The things we think are mistakes are just part of his plan. Killing these guards like this – it was a message for us.”

“A message?” Selphie repeated quietly. “You think he’d trying to tell us something by this? Like he’s trying to frighten us?”

“I don’t know what the message is supposed to be,” Emila said quietly. “I just know that he’s ahead of us, and he knew we would be coming through here. He wanted us to see this.”

Everyone pondered her words silently for a few minutes.

“Now that we’re out of Serenite, he may be going after you for real this time,” Jared said to Selphie. “He could be picking up where Dreevius left off.”

“Then why announce it like this?” Selphie asked him. “Why sacrifice the element of surprise?”

“Perhaps he has a degree of honour?” Jared muttered, before glancing around the blood-stained room. “Hard to believe a man who would kill so many innocent people could believe himself honourable, but I’ve seen men who have their own twisted view of the concept.”

“In any case, we should clean this place up,” the princess said to everyone. “It wouldn’t be right to leave it like this, when other travellers could come through and see this. They likely have messenger ravens here. I’ll write a letter to my father and let him know what happened.”

Luca looked to Emila, who had grown quiet once again. Her eyes were downcast, like she was doing her best to avoid looking at the blood before her. She had an unreadable expression on her face – a mix of fear, disgust, and guilt.

<> <> <>

After finishing their business in the guard station, they crossed the border and Luca found himself on Sonoian soil for the first time. In his travels with his father, they had never passed through the largest and most populated of the eight kingdoms of Bacoria. They had often stuck to the inhospitable southern nations, and later, the far north of Arimos. But he had never gone through Sono before, so he was excited to see what it was like.

For the first few hours of their trip, it was much of the same – green fields and farms. They were travelling on the highway, which led straight from Serenite to T’Saw. There were enough small towns between them and T’Saw that they would no longer need to camp in the woods. So many travellers used the highway that inns set up by it had little difficulty staying open.

They spoke little as they walked, the guard station having left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. Emila had her head bowed, and she said nothing the entire time.

The sun had just set when they reached the town of Reven. It was a quaint little village beside a river, which did well enough for itself off the business of the travellers who passed through on the highway. As they walked in, the streets were all but empty. The inn, which was conveniently placed at the town entrance, glowed golden from within.

They went in, paid for their rooms, and sat down to eat. All except for Selphie and Jared, who left the inn and went into the town for something.

Luca, Emila, Ash, Brand, and Wiosna sat at their table in an uncomfortable silence, picking at their food while they waited for the princess to return. Brand initially tried to get a conversation going, but when the others responded with only short answers and grunts, eventually he gave up.

Ash was the first to leave, as usual. Wiosna followed shortly after, and Brand some time after her, leaving Emila and Luca alone at the table.

Noticing he was looking at the door once again, Emila asked Luca, “What do you think is taking them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know what they left to do.”

“Do you think we should go look for them?”

He shook his head. “Selphie said to stay here.”

Emila looked worried. Luca turned and saw the worry in her eyes, and he took her hand in his and gave her a reassuring smile.

It was late – everyone else staying at the inn had already gone to bed. Even the innkeeper had gone to bed already. They were the only ones around. Their seclusion was suddenly strongly felt.

He didn’t say anything to her, he just put his arm around her and pulled her close. She did not object. She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. They remained like that for a while – neither of them could say just how long.

Knowing that he was concerned for her, she spoke to him in a soft voice, “Luca, I’m afraid.”

“I know you are,” he replied.

“That man won’t stop. Nothing is going to stop him.”

“Trunda?” he asked.

She shook her head, still against his chest. “Zinoro.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“You have nothing to fear from him. He’s – he’s my enemy, not yours.”

Her hand tightened around his cloak. She looked like she was about to cry. “I wish we could just leave. That we could just forget about Zinoro and go away. Somewhere far away, where he would never bother us.”

She sounded like Lodin, in those last moments before his death.

He didn’t voice those thoughts. “We could never hide from him. And I could never hide from him. Not after what he did to my father. He has to pay.”

“Why?” she whispered.

He looked down at Emila like she had just uttered something incomprehensible. She looked up and met his gaze, her eyes silently pleading.

“What?” Luca asked her.

“Can’t you just let it go?” she asked him.

“How could I just let it go?” he demanded. “He killed my father. If I just – forgave him for that, I would be betraying his legacy.”

“You don’t have to forgive him,” Emila said. “Just – don’t become a monster in the name of revenge. You’re a good person. Don’t throw that away…”

An image flashed in his mind’s eye. He remembered himself, standing over the dying form of Dreevius, whom he had thrown into the mud. He remembered the horrible, cruel way he had let Dreevius die, his justification for it, and his disregard for his prior code of honour.

“Emila, you seem to be wrong about me,” he said. “Whatever it is you see in me, you’re mistaken. I am a killer. I always was. I killed Dreevius, and if Trunda comes after us again I’ll kill him, too. And when the time comes, I’m going to either kill Zinoro or be killed by him. Regardless, the man must pay. I will not turn away from my father’s justice.” He didn’t quite believe those words, but he hoped Emila would.

“It is easy to excuse atrocities in the name of justice,” Emila said slowly, her lip trembling. “Please, Luca. I can see the path you’re on. Don’t become him. Please.”

He blinked. “Become him? Become who? What do you mean?”

“Sometimes I see the things you do and the things you say, and I’m frightened by how similar you are.” A single tear had gone down her cheek. “I’m not afraid of what Zinoro can do, Luca. I’m afraid of you, because you’re turning into him.”

Luca stood up. He was staring at Emila like she had just plunged a knife into him.

“You’re wrong,” he insisted, as much to himself as to her. “I’m not him. I’ll never be him. He killed my father, Emila! Don’t you understand that?”

“Your father killed his father,” she countered, wiping her tear away.

“That’s different, it-”

No, it wasn’t different at all, he realised. At least not to Zinoro.

“Luca, I’m so torn,” Emila continued, her eyes growing hazy again with the coming of yet more tears. “I can’t follow you to Acaria, but I can’t leave you, either. If I just abandon you to die, I’ll have failed at my last chance to do something good.”

“So this has all just been you trying to save me?” he demanded. “All I ever was to you was just something broken to fix?”

“It’s not like that! It was never like that…” She looked heartbroken. The tears were running down her cheeks freely. Luca felt a sharp stab of guilt in his chest, knowing that he was the reason she was in so much pain.

“Then what has this all been for, then?” he asked her, refusing to back down even at this point. “Why did you save me at that town? Why did you follow me to Allma, and continue to follow me after the temple was destroyed? Why are you still here, pleading with me to give up my mission, if not because you feel you need to fix something that’s wrong with me?”

“Because I care about you, damn it!” she all but shouted. “Because I-!”

At that moment, the door to the inn swung open, cutting their argument short. The silhouettes of Selphie and Jared stepped in, looking tired and disappointed.

“I’m sorry. Are we interrupting something?” Selphie asked. The words were not sarcastic – she was actually concerned.

“It’s nothing. We’re fine.” Emila had turned away from them, presumably to hide that she was crying.

Selphie frowned. She didn’t look convinced, but she seemed to understand that the matter was personal, and she had no right to get between them. The young princess turned to Jared. “I’ll be going to bed now,” she said to him.

Jared nodded. “I’ll be up in a bit. I need a drink before I retire.”

Selphie nodded and smiled.

“I’m going to bed, too,” Emila said, before starting up the stairs, not waiting for anyone else.

Luca watched her go, wondering if he should perhaps follow her and apologise. She vanished up the stairs before he could make a decision. A moment later, he felt Selphie’s hand on his shoulder.

“Everything will be alright,” Selphie said to him. Despite how tired she looked, her smile was not diminished in the slightest.

Luca nodded in reply, and Selphie went up the stairs as well. Luca knew that Selphie’s words were not just a kind lie to cheer him up. The princess was a true optimist, much like Emila. She genuinely believed that things would work out fine if they just believed they would. The two girls were a lot alike, but they had their differences. Selphie was an optimist because she was naive – all her experience came from her father’s teachings in the palace. Emila on the other hand, had experienced awful things – things she had yet to fully tell him about, and perhaps never would. All Luca knew was that the Acarians had destroyed her home, and that she had lost her family. Emila knew what people were capable of – she just chose to believe they were good at heart in spite of that.

Luca didn’t know how much of Selphie’s cause Emila believed in, if any of it at all. She wanted to run away with him. Perhaps, like Wiosna, she believed that the war with Acaria was inevitable. What did the others think? Did Brand believe in the cause? Ash certainly didn’t.

Sighing, Luca turned away from the stairs. Jared had found his way over to the bar, where he had poured himself a beer from the tap. His halberd had been placed against the wall beside him. Luca went over and sat next to Jared, pouring a drink for himself.

“What were you two doing out there?” he asked.

“We went to the town’s mayor,” Jared replied. “We talked with him about the guards at the border station, and about Trunda. We asked if there had been any sightings of the Acarian nearby.”

Jared took a drink from his glass. “He said there were none.”

“Do you believe him?”

“He didn’t seem to be lying. There was no fear in his eyes. But I’m wondering where else Trunda could have gone, if not here. Eventually, he would run out of supplies. Hunting for food is tough in Sono, where we have paid hunters whose job it is to keep monster populations low. Out here, it is harder to come by such things. Sooner or later, he will have to show his face.”

“Perhaps he isn’t in Sono, then,” Luca suggested. “Emila thinks that those guards back at that station were a message for us. Maybe, whatever that message was, he left it and went back home. Perhaps he’s playing games with us, just like he was at Serenite.”

Jared frowned and stared deep into his mug, as though the answer were hidden deep within the golden drink inside. “Perhaps,” he finally concluded. “Either way, we must be careful. Even here in our homeland, there are still enemies. We must protect Selphie until she is safe, back in T’Saw.”

Luca took a drink from his own glass. He set it down, feeling tired and melancholy. “And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“When we get to T’Saw, what happens next?”

Jared thought about it. “At that point, it will come to what King Zaow decides for us. By the time we get there, he will likely have received a letter from either King Edmund or King Marcus requesting his presence at the Elder Hall to discuss the possibility of invading Acaria. Whatever he decides to do, it is my duty, as well as Selphie’s, to carry out his orders and support him. I don’t know what his plan for you and the Allmans was, but if he still wishes to carry it out, then we shall do that.”

What Jared hadn’t said was that Zaow would have two options once he got that letter. Either he could go and meet with the other kings, and give the support of his armies to the war with Acaria, or he could refuse. But if he did refuse, then once Saeticia and Torachi were done with Acaria, it would be Sono they invaded next.

Zaow, the king who preached peace in a world of bloodshed, would not want two of Bacoria’s most powerful nations marching on his very doorstep. It was said that King Zaow cared for his kingdom and his people more than he cared for anything else. There was little chance that Zaow would refuse Edmund and Marcus and become their next enemy. What Zaow had been trying to do was delay the summon as long as he could, sending Selphie to Serenite to try and convince Marcus against the war. He had been trying to hold things off until he found a way to stop the war from happening.

So did sending for the Allmans mean that he had figured it out? Did Zaow have some sort of secret plan to stop the war from happening even as it knocked on his door, demanding that he come and face it?

Was Luca the answer? It was odd timing, that the son of the man who had killed Manorith would appear just as Zaow sent for a team to deal with Manorith’s son. Did Zaow believe that he could somehow do to Zinoro what Lodin had done to Manorith?

“She has a lot of weight on her shoulders,” Jared continued, after taking another drink. “And yet she remains so strong, so full of hope and belief. She really believes in her father’s words – that peace really can exist, even in a world like this. It’s a shame that she has to give up so much for her cause. She doesn’t deserve the burden that has been placed upon her.”

Luca looked over at Jared. The man’s eyes were cast down on the wood of the bar he was leaning on, distant and filled with longing and regret. Luca knew why he felt the way he did. They all did. The way he doted on her, and rushed to protect her from even the slightest of threats…

“She really means a lot to you,” Luca said to him, thinking of his own connection with Emila.

Jared nodded. “We grew up together. From an early age, I was trained to be her protector. Normally, I would not have seen her much, being the princess and all, but she was no ordinary princess. She had a fire in her, and the captain of the guard, Gareth, he trained her in secret. Well, I’m sure that the king knew, but he pretended not to notice. In any case, Selphie and I spent a lot of time together. We were close friends, in spite of the fact that I was a commoner, and she was the princess of my kingdom.”

He took a long drink – longer than any of the others – and when he set his mug down, he had finished it off.

“But no matter what we feel, we can never be together. She is the princess, and she will sacrifice her personal happiness for the sake of her kingdom – and for her people. She has already been sworn to something that is not me.”

Luca blinked. The way he said that – it seemed the feelings were reciprocated. Or at least they would be, were it not for duty getting in their way.

Jared looked down at his empty mug and pushed it away. He seemed to have realised how much the alcohol had loosened his tongue, because the next thing he said was, “I’m going to sleep now. We’ve another long day of travel ahead of us. You should do the same.”

The guard rose, picking up his massive halberd and taking it with him upstairs. Luca sat alone at the bar, feeling his solitude.

He looked down at the mug of beer in his hands. He finished it off in a few drinks, and then poured himself another. After finishing that, he poured a third. And then a fourth. After finishing that, he set the mug aside. His head was spinning, and he felt like he would throw up if he drank anymore.

Luca couldn’t be sure how much time had passed since Jared had left. It was certainly quite late, but he had no desire to go to sleep. Part of that had to do with the fact that, once again, he was sharing a room with Emila. And he was rather afraid of what might happen if he went up there now. She was likely already asleep. But perhaps she was not, and if he went up there now, they would end up fighting again. Or they might make up, and then his intoxicated mind might lead him to do something he would regret in the morning.

Instead, Luca decided that a little fresh air would do him good. He stepped outside, the night air cool but not cold. It was just refreshing enough to clear his head a bit. He started to wander. He stumbled a bit at first, but eventually he managed to find his footing.

He was filled with so many doubts. Doubts about his father, doubts about his plans of revenge, doubts about Emila, doubts about Selphie’s mission of peace. He felt lost, wandering through life without a clear focus.

Things used to be so much simpler, back in the old days when it was just him and his father. They had passed through so many odd places – Samgo, Sendora, Mainyu, and lastly, the Arimos. They had fought so many enemies, from monsters to bandits. Nothing had ever deterred Lodin. The man had been a fighter unlike any Luca had ever seen, his age and world-weariness doing nothing to slow him down. Luca used to watch him with awe, cutting down groups of armed men like they were made of butter, and once finished, sheathing his sword with a grin. Luca now knew how much pain Lodin had hid behind that grin, but he had never let his regrets burden him. Though he had spent fourteen years hiding from Zinoro, Lodin had never been haunted by him.

It had already been months since that day, when Luca had watched Zinoro kill his father in that frozen hell-hole. He was still plagued by nightmares. Luca didn’t understand how one could just let that go. He didn’t understand how Lodin had forsaken his wife and second child, all to save his firstborn son. Had Lodin truly been free of the guilt, or had he just been good at hiding it?

Ash had spoken ill of Lodin. Marcus had spoken ill of Lodin. But Luca would not forsake his father’s legacy. They had not known the man. He had. He could judge Lodin where they could not.

Lodin deserved justice. And if Luca just left with Emila, to go hide somewhere, Lodin would never get it.

Luca had wandered, so lost in his thoughts he had not been paying attention to where he was going. He was in the woods, quite a distance away from town. He was walking alongside a river, making his way up a tall hill. The change in elevation was what had caught his attention – his tired and sluggish body requiring extra effort to get up the hill. Turning around, he could see the faint orange twinkle of the few lights that remained lit in the town at the late hour. He really ought to go back now, and return to the inn and go to sleep.

He could hear a sound, though, coming from the atop the hill. It was a loud roaring sound – probably a waterfall. He took a few more steps, going up the hill a bit more until he could see it – there, at the top of the hill was indeed a small waterfall that was feeding the river he had been following. Well, he had come this far already – he might as well go see the falls.

He continued his way up the hill, forcing his exhausted feet to keep moving. Why he was making himself go up this hill to see this waterfall was beyond him – he didn’t really care that much about it. Perhaps he was stalling. Perhaps he really didn’t want to go back.

Luca stopped.

What was he doing? He couldn’t run away. Even if he really wanted to, he was still bound to Emila through the Soul Tether. Even now he could feel the beginning of the strains that came when he drifted too far from her.

He could not leave her. Especially not now, when she so clearly needed his support. He couldn’t give her what she really wanted, which was to give up on killing Zinoro and leave with her. But he could still be there for her. He could try to understand why she felt the way she did. She’d given up so much for him already, and she would continue to give to save him. How heartless would he be to take advantage of that?

There was a time when the thought would not have crossed his mind. Not too long ago, he was more than willing to drag Emila with him all the way to Acarienthia if he had to, taking advantage of what she had given him to be able to fight Zinoro without the chance of losing.

But something had changed. Whether it was the magick of the tether affecting his mind, or just his own foolishness, he had allowed himself to let this girl grow on him. And now the thought of hurting her pained him. He couldn’t run away with her, but he couldn’t take her with him either.

So the obvious solution was that he needed to leave her.

That was it, he decided. She would have to stay behind. Not here, though. It wasn’t safe. Once they got to T’Saw, he would make her stay there. Emila would stay in T’Saw, while he would go with Selphie and Zaow and the others to the Elder Hall, and then onward to the inevitable conflict with Zinoro. There, he would avenge Lodin, and whatever happened to him afterward would happen. But at least he could do so without hurting Emila any more.

It wasn’t what Luca wanted, and it certainly was not what Emila wanted, but it was for the best.

Now that he had gotten that out of his mind, he turned back around to return to the town.

Or he would have, were it not for the man standing on the path before him.

The figure blocking his path stood only a few paces away, wearing a black cloak with the hood drawn over his head. The man pulled back the hood, revealing a face with short black hair and a trimmed beard.

“Did you get my message?” Trunda asked.

“Y-you!” Luca exclaimed. He reached for his sword, his trembling hand only managing to grasp it after a few tries.

“Yes, me,” Trunda replied, approaching him with slow, confident strides. “Did you think I would just vanish? I told the princess, back in Serenite, that we would meet again. And I am here to pick things up where I left them. And the first part of that is getting you out of the way.”

Trunda charged forth like an uncoiled spring. Luca pulled Siora free from its sheath, but he was unable to swing in time. His body was simply moving too slowly – his combat reflexes were entire seconds off. Trunda brought his fist down, delivering a punch to Luca’s gut that felt like a strike from a sledgehammer. Luca heard a crack, and even in his inebriated mind he knew that that was the sound of bones breaking. 

Another punch – this one to Luca’s sword arm – and he felt something shatter. When he looked over at his arm he saw it was bent in a way it should not have been. Thankfully he wasn’t really feeling any pain. Perhaps he was simply in so much pain that his mind just couldn’t handle it.

He wasn’t thinking logically. He should be trying to get away. He couldn’t fight Trunda as he was now – in fact, he wasn’t even trying to fight now. He was backing away on legs that didn’t feel strong enough to hold him up. Trunda simply continued to approach him, his steps confident. Luca saw now that Trunda wore no armour, having only the most basic of leather clothes to protect him. Not that it mattered – there was no way Luca could fight him now. All he could do was get away.

Trunda was upon him in seconds, delivering a series of brutal punches that sent Luca falling back, collapsing in the dirt and spitting out blood. He lay there for a moment, no longer able to even move, while Trunda stepped up and stood over him, staring down at his conquest.

Luca could definitely feel the pain now. And he felt guilty, because he knew that Emila had to be feeling the same pain he was.

“Pathetic,” said the man above him. “You stumbled out here, alone and drunk, knowing full well that I was after you? This is the second time I’ve beaten you so easily. What protection could you possible offer the princess when you can’t even take care of yourself?”

The next thing Luca felt was Trunda’s hand grabbing the back of his head, and then he was being dragged up the hill, towards the top of the waterfall he had been approaching earlier.

Unlike before, the connection with Emila was not growing weaker as he was taken away from her. He realised there was only one reason why that could be, but he prayed he was wrong.

“Weaklings like you have no place in this world,” Trunda said as he dragged Luca up the hill. “My king warned us about you. He said we were to take you to him if we found you. That he and he alone would be the one to kill you. But I will not dishonour my king by presenting him with such a pathetic sight. You can die here, along with your companions and that girl you’re so fond of, and Zinoro’s legacy will be secure.”

The sound of the waterfall was deafening now. They had stopped going uphill – they must have reached the top.

Luca opened his eyes to see his head was close to a tree trunk. Trunda pulled his head back a bit, and then hit him off the hard bark of the tree. His vision grew hazy, and everything was spinning. And then Trunda hit him off the tree again. And again. And again. And again. He lost count of how many times Trunda bashed the side of his head off the tree. But when it was finally over, Luca was barely conscious, and a thick red pool of blood ran down the side of the tree.

Trunda said something else – Luca could no longer make out his words. And then he felt the man’s hands grabbing the front of his cloak and dragging him somewhere. He felt himself being dropped into running water.

Now he was drifting. It was a kind mercy compared to the head-bashing from before. He opened his eyes – or one of them, as one was too swollen to open – and he looked up at the stars above in the sky.

He drifted for a few seconds more before he went over the edge of the waterfall.

<> <> <>

Trunda stared down at the body before him.

The son of Lodin did not move. The side of his head was split open, his arm was broken, as were at least a few of his ribs. He had just taken a dive over the edge of the waterfall, and spent a few minutes underwater before he had resurfaced.

He should be dead. And yet he was not.

Trunda scratched his beard. The boy had endured all that, and yet his body had not vanished. He was still there, floating by face-down in the river. He could not possibly have been breathing.

Somehow, the boy was not dead.

Trunda had heard the rumours of what had happened at Allma Temple, but he had assumed those to be born of a combination of hero-worship and Dreevius’ incredible ineptitude. But the proof was right before him.

Perhaps this was why Zinoro had wanted the boy for himself. Perhaps Zinoro sought to make himself unkillable in the same way Lodin’s son was. And perhaps to do that, he needed the boy to be brought before him.

But what need was there for that? Zinoro already had a guarantee. An Absolute Truth, spoken to him by that prophet from Mainyu. Only the firstborn son of Lodin, or a member of his own kin could slay him. And Zinoro had already taken care of one of those two uncertainties, so why would he risk leaving another open?

Well, sometimes even the greatest leaders made mistakes. Trunda would not allow his king to be slain in some sort of prophecy twist. He would make sure the chance died here, with Lodin’s son. Even if he could not truly kill the boy, he could ensure that the boy was made to be no threat to Zinoro. It would be messy, but if the boy were separated into many pieces, even the greatest healing magick could not bring him back.

He may not be able to die, but he would certainly wish he could.

Trunda stepped into the river. He would have to hurry and get this done – he still had to get back to town and finish things with the princess, after all.

An arrow buried itself in Trunda’s back before he could take another step.

He spun around, gritting his teeth through the pain. Running down the path towards him were six figures, each with weapons drawn. The one who had fired the arrow was the black-haired girl, whose face grew pale when she saw Lodin’s son floating in the water.

“Luca!” Emila cried.

She ran past Trunda, tossing aside her bow and wading into the water where Luca was floating face-down in the river. She had no worries about the Acarian attacking her, as the remaining five members of her group – Brand, Wiosna, Ash, Jared, and Princess Selphie – immediately surrounded Trunda.

“Give it up,” the princess said. “You cannot fight all of us.”

Trunda smirked, like he didn’t quite believe that, but he raised his hands in surrender anyway.

“Luca!” Emila cried out again, in shock at the state she’d found him in. She pulled his unbroken arm over her shoulder, and was carrying him out of the river as best she could. Trunda looked over to her with disdain.

“Let’s get him out of here,” Brand said to the princess.

“Yeah.” Selphie nodded. “Emila, are you alright?”

Emila put on a strong face, though she looked like she was about to break out in tears at any moment. “I can heal him. Get Trunda out of here.”

The Acarian was led away by the others, while Emila and Luca remained beside the river.

Trunda smiled once again, his eyes amused with secret knowledge.

<> <> <>

He felt himself returning to the waking world, carried back by a soft, comforting voice. As he opened his eyes, he saw a dark-haired beauty sitting beside him, her green eyes filled with regrets and unshed tears. She was holding his hand in her own, her thumb tracing circles in his palm. Her words were quiet, so quiet he could not make them out. But he could hear the sound of her voice, even if he could not make out the words they spoke, and it was so beautiful to him that he could have fallen back asleep right there. But he could see she was worried, so he made his lucidity known by sitting up.

“L-Luca…” Emila said slowly, surprised by his sudden awakening. The worry was still there in her eyes, but it was now being replaced by relief.

“I’m okay,” he said to her, wanting to dispel that worry as quickly as he could. His body ached, especially his head and chest. There was a large wet spot on the ground close by, where he seemed to have coughed up a lot of water. But otherwise, he was fine.

She smiled. “I was really worried about you. I-I felt a lot of pain, and I knew something was happening to you, so I woke the others. It looked like we were just in time…”

“What happened?” he asked. His head only hurt more when he tried to remember.

“It was Trunda. He attacked you. He beat you really bad, and it looked like he was trying to drown you.”

Those words jolted his memory. He remembered everything. Trunda breaking his arm, bashing his head against the tree, and pushing him into the river to fall over the waterfall. And with those memories, came the accompanying feelings of guilt.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her. “I’m sorry you had to feel that. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have gone off on my own like that…”

“Luca, no…” Emila said softly. She moved closer to him, wrapping her arms around him and embracing him tightly. “It wasn’t your fault at all. I-If I hadn’t felt that pain, I would never have know you were in trouble. When we got to you, I was so worried. I though that he might have done something to you, something that even the tether could not have saved you from. I didn’t know if you could survive drowning or not. I was so afraid, because if you were gone, then our last words would have been that fight at the inn.”

She was so close to him, he could feel her heartbeat. It was racing, much like his own was. He realised something then, something that he had known for a while, but had not seen. Or perhaps he had just been denying it. But he realised just how much this girl had come to mean to him, and how much he had come to rely on her, not just because of the tether, but because of the warmth she brought into his cold life.

He knew that if he didn’t push her away – if he didn’t stop what was growing between them now before it had the chance to grow into something more – that it would make the time when he had to leave her all the harder.

“I know you can’t forgive him,” she said, holding him closely like she was worried he would disappear right then and there. “You have to avenge your father. It was wrong of me to ask you to throw that away. I don’t care where you go, I’ll go with you. Just please don’t leave me. Don’t go. Please… Please…”

He could not answer, because that was the one thing he could not promise her. So he remained silent, while she held him close and wept into his shoulder.

Emila could not see that he shed tears of his own.

Chapter XVI

Broken Vows

The night was still young when Emila and Luca returned to Reven. Despite the late hour, however, the town was well awake from the chaos caused by Trunda’s attack. The town guard had been gathered, and they had placed Trunda in chains and locked him up in the small dungeons under the guard’s barracks. In such a small town, it was the best they could do, but they were smart enough to not take chances with such a dangerous man. A fast messenger raven had been sent off to T’Saw with news of his capture, but in the meantime it seemed they were going to be keeping him there.

Many villagers were awake and asking about the commotion. The guards were doing their best to send them away as Emila and Luca approached. They spotted Jared standing with his arms crossed by the entrance to the barracks, a sour expression on his face.

“Where is Selphie?” Emila asked him once they were able to get past the guards.

“Inside,” Jared grunted with a tilt of his head. “She wanted to talk to him. She made me wait out here.”

“Is she alone?” Luca asked, surprised.

Jared nodded, not looking particularly pleased at being reminded of that. “She insisted on it.”

Emila frowned. Luca knew why she was worried. He knew better than anyone.

“Where are the others, then?”

“Brand and Ash are back at the inn,” Jared said. “Wiosna is – somewhere.”

Luca looked around, wondering where Wiosna could have possibly gone. He didn’t see the familiar bespectacled girl anywhere close by.

“You did a good job patching him up,” Jared said to Emila. “The Acarian did a number on him.”

For Jared, that was as close to admitting he was worried as he was going to get. The guard seemed a little more open lately. Perhaps he was finally starting to trust them.

Emila smiled politely at Jared’s compliment, but the worry was still there in her eyes. She glanced at Luca for a second, quickly looking away when she saw that he had noticed.

“Begone! Nothing to see here!” A grizzled looking guard had appeared, looking tired and more than a little irritated. It would seem he had been woken from his home by the news of Trunda’s capture. He shooed away the spectators, who scattered quickly at his frightening shouts. This man, apparently the captain of the town’s guard, approached the other guards and started asking questions.

“You two should get back to the inn,” Jared told them. “You need your sleep. These men have the situation under control.”

Emila shook her head. “We’ll wait for Selphie to be done. Then we can all go back together.”

Jared considered for a moment, then shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

The grizzly captain then came over to them. “I hear you lot are the ones who caught this man.”

“We’re Princess Selphie’s escort,” Jared told him. “We’re on our way back to T’Saw.”

“So he followed you here, then?”

“So it would seem.” Jared didn’t seem to like this guy, which was the most shocking twist of all. “This man is one of Zinoro’s personal acolytes. He was at Serenite, conspiring with King Marcus’ younger son against the throne.”

“Royal business,” the captain spat. “I keep my nose out of that. We all do around here. You brought this guy here, so you can be the ones to take him back.”

“But the letter you sent…” Emila started to say, but the captain cut her off.

“You said you’re on your way to T’Saw. Well this man belongs in the T’Saw dungeons, and not here in our small town. The last thing we need is for Zinoro to send a hundred of his men here because we’re holding his acolyte. Take him with you when you go.”

“You cannot make such demands of the princess,” Jared all but growled at the captain. “As Sonoian citizens, it is your duty to hold this war prisoner until soldiers from T’Saw come for him.”

“Sonoian citizens, huh?” the captain said, his unshaven face scowling. “It’s easy to make demands of us, isn’t it? But where were you when the Acarians came here six months ago and slaughtered our people? We were one of the villages in Zinoro’s attacks. We sent letters to the capital, begging for aid. We got nothing from you. All we had to defend us against further attacks is the twelve men who work here as the guards, including myself.”

The captain took the cloth of his trousers and pulled up, exposing his ankle and lower knee. Instead of flesh, he had an iron prosthetic from the knee down.

“Those damn Acarians were brutal,” he muttered. “They showed up out of nowhere – one minute things were fine, and the next screams filled the air. They cared nothing for a human’s life, not ours and not their own. They killed anyone they could get their hands on – man, woman, child – it made no difference to them. I lost my leg, but I was able to keep fighting. My wife and son were not. They were slaughtered along with many others – at least a third of our people. The Acarians were monsters. They didn’t do this for gold or weapons or resources. They just did it to kill. It was – inhuman.”

The captain’s face had grown pale. Luca knew what he meant. The Acarians – he himself had doubts about whether there really were human beings under there, or if Zinoro had somehow used dark magick to turn them into mindless servants.

“We don’t want that man here, and we don’t want you here.” The captain pulled his trouser leg back down and glared at them. “I want you all gone by the morning.”

The captain walked past them and entered the guard station, completely ignoring Selphie’s insistence that she be left alone. Jared watch him go, looking like he was about to go murder the man.

“How dare he…?! He has no right to make demands of the princess like that!” 

Emila frowned sympathetically. “He’s just doing what he thinks is best for his people. He has a point. The Acarians might come here to rescue Trunda if we just leave him here.”

“We cannot take him with us, though…” Jared muttered. “We cannot take the risk.”

At that moment, Wiosna emerged from somewhere, appearing as out of the shadows of the night. Her face was flushed, and she was breathing heavily, but otherwise she appeared to be fine.

“Where were you?” Luca asked her.

“N-nowhere!” Wiosna exclaimed. “Just – taking care of something, that’s all.”

“Okay, relax,” Luca said. “You’re certainly jumpy.”

“Just tired,” she sighed.

“Is Selphie almost done in there?” Emila asked. “I think at this point we all need some sleep.”

Jared looked over to the door with a scowl. “With the captain having gone in…”

As though on cue, Selphie pushed the door open, looking angrier than Luca had ever seen her.

“The nerve! Who does he think he is? Were we in the capital, talking to me that way would have him in the dungeons…!” 

Jared did not go to comfort her like he usually did. He actually moved aside, giving her some space. Selphie stepped out of the guard station, turning to Luca.

“I’m glad to see you’re alright,” she said, after taking a deep breath to calm herself. “I was worried. I guess I let that get to my head, as I wanted to interrogate him by myself.”

“Did he tell you anything?” Luca asked.

“Not a thing,” Selphie said sadly. “He was as silent as a statue the entire time. He only spoke once – he said he wouldn’t mind speaking with you, if you survived.”

“He wants to talk to me?”

“Indeed,” Selphie said patiently. “I don’t know if he was serious about it. I think he might have been taunting me, but – I guess it’s up to you if you want to go in there or not.”

“Yeah,” Luca decided. “I have a few things I want to say to him.”

Emila didn’t seem to like that. She was biting her lip, which meant there was something she wanted to say, but was too nervous or uncomfortable to bring herself to.

“Go on back to the inn,” Luca told her, placing his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”

“Alright…” Emila gave in. “Just be careful. Don’t let him get in your head with his mind games.”

What an odd thing to say. Emila herself must have been bothered by something Trunda had said to her back in Serenite. Luca would have to ask her about it later.

The others gave him reassuring nods, and Luca stepped inside the guard station, closing the door behind him. As he walked in, the captain was seated at a table. He looked up when he heard Luca’s footsteps.

“What are you doing in here?” he asked. “I thought I told you all to get out of here.”

“The Acarian tried to kill me tonight,” Luca told him. “I want him to see that he failed, and there’s some other things he should know about me.”

The captain studied him for a second, considering. After a moment, he nodded. “Very well. Just don’t be a fool and try anything. He’s a lot bigger than you, and the doors are locked anyway. You would just be letting him free. Say whatever you want, but let him rot in there.”

Luca nodded, and continued on, going down the steps that led to the small dungeon. There were only three cells in it, though they were made of the same iron as any other, and they had the mana-blocking circles that any cell needed. Even a man like Trunda could not escape from a cell like that.

He was sitting there in the middle cell, his legs crossed and his eyes closed. He looked like he was meditating. He did not open his eyes as Luca approached, though the sound of his footsteps echoing off the stone walls were unmistakable.

“So you survived, after all,” Trunda said to him. “Those wounds I gave you were no mere scratches. By all the laws of nature, you should be dead now.”

“Dreevius thought he could kill me,” Luca said. “I killed him instead, and left his body in the mud.”

“Indeed,” Trunda replied, opening his eyes. “We all know about Dreevius. King Zinoro told me about the present you left for him. He told me to tell you that he appreciated that you returned a piece of Dreevius to him. And that he looks forward to his next meeting with you.”

Luca chuckled. “I don’t think he will. Because I’m going to kill him.”

“Wrong,” Trunda said in a perfectly level voice. “My king is a god among men. He has powers that nobody else in Bacoria can even dream of. And you – you are but a child wielding a stick who thinks he is invincible. I have beaten you twice now. How do you think you can kill Zinoro if you cannot even last an encounter with me? I have had two opportunities now to grind you into dust, which you have survived only thanks to my mercy. Do you think the girl’s healing can patch you up if you’ve been torn into a hundred pieces?”

Luca had nothing clever to say to that. He couldn’t deny that he had lost to Trunda twice, and Zinoro was far stronger than his acolytes. Until he had a Rixeor Fragment, Luca stood no chance against him.

“Did you kill those guards at the border station?” Luca asked.

“I did.”

“Why?”

Trunda smiled. “It was a message.”

So Emila was right after all, he thought. The dungeon suddenly felt a bit colder.

Luca asked him, “And what kind of message was that supposed to be?”

“A fair warning. I was showing you what I am capable of.” Trunda had not moved a muscle, but Luca felt like he had been drawn closer to him. “We acolytes are all special. That is why Zinoro found us, and brought us together. Dreevius was one of us only because of his gimmick – the ability to take another’s appearance. But if you think a self-righteous, pompous weakling is what to expect from the other four of us, you are sorely mistaken. I am not even the strongest among us, and I could kill all seven of you in a fair fight. Against Serpos, you would be as insects on a summer day – an annoyance for him to swipe away.”

“Then tell me how you were captured,” Luca said.

“I am waiting,” Trunda said. “Waiting until I feel like it. This is all just a game to me, you see. If I took this more seriously, I would have just pulled the head off your shoulders and punted it over that waterfall. Or I would have just crushed your skull into thick paste back in Serenite, when you were helpless before me. But why win so easily? There is no fun in it unless the other side at least thinks they have a chance. Just as you do now.”

“I know you think it’s a game. That’s why you went after Emila in Serenite, instead of Selphie, when you knew full well she wasn’t the real princess. You were just playing the fool.”

Trunda laughed aloud, the sound reverberating off the walls. “Indeed. The fool.”

Luca looked around at his surroundings. “Well, it looks like you waited a bit too long. You’re trapped now. And while your reinforcement magick might be enough to let you punch through a guard’s armour, you’re trapped within a mana-binding circle right now. Good luck bending those iron bars with the strength of your arms alone.”

“You make too many assumptions, son of Lodin.”

“As do you!” Luca exclaimed, feeling that he now had some ground in this verbal jousting match they were playing. “Because you said that you could kill all of us in a fair fight. But you have yet to face me in a fair fight. In Serenite – something happened and I lost consciousness. And earlier, I was so drunk I could barely lift my sword. Some accomplishment of yours this is, to brag about your own strength after having beaten a man in his weakest conditions. Only a coward would choose to duel a man only when it best suited him.”

Trunda thought about that for a moment, then smiled. “You’re right. Perhaps I have been underestimating you. I would like to see you in your ideal conditions. Would you say you would be there by the morning?”

“After a meal and a few hours of rest, I would certainly put up a better fight than I had before.”

“I see,” Trunda said, closing his eyes and returning to his meditation. “I will hold you to that.”

Luca, sensing that Trunda was ending their conversation and had no more to say, turned around and went back upstairs. The captain was still there at the table, though the six on-duty guards from outside had joined him, and were standing around, impatiently waiting for Luca to be done.

“You certainly got more out of him than the princess did,” the captain said to him as he passed.

Luca stopped, turning to the captain. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Not a lot,” he admitted. “Just echoes and the sound of him laughing.”

“He’s pretty confident,” Luca said. “I think he has some kind of plan to escape. Make sure there’s men watching him at all times. Take no chances. This guy is brutal – his punches break bones. And he’s a lot smarter than he looks. Take no chances at all with him.”

“You seem like you know what you’re doing,” the guard captain said. “Very well. Just remember that you’re taking him with you when you leave. So get back to the inn and get some rest.”

Luca turned back and continued on out the door. The captain waited a few minutes, while his men stared blankly at him.

“What are you waiting for, you blank-faced dolts? Get down there and watch the damn Acarian!”

Three men immediately darted downstairs.

<> <> <>

When Luca stepped back outside to the night air, there was a girl waiting for him. But it wasn’t Emila.

“What are you still doing here?” he asked.

“Obviously, I was waiting for you,” Wiosna said with a big smile. “I wanted to walk with you back to the inn.”

Luca raised an eyebrow, somehow not believing that. “Emila went back without me, but she had no problem with you staying behind?”

Wiosna giggled girlishly. “Nooo… Emila doesn’t know I’m here. I went back with her and Selphie and Jared, and then I waited until they were asleep, and then I came back here.”

“Why do all that?”

“Because I want to talk to you, Luca,” she said. “I was worried too when I saw you in the river. We were all worried. But Emila – well, she’s so clingy. She tries to keep you away from me. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you since we were in Serenite.”

That was true, he had to admit. Emila had been rather clingy lately – but after what had happened in Serenite, and again tonight, he understood that she was upset and worried about him. And it was also true that he hadn’t spent much time with Wiosna lately, either. There was no harm in walking back with her. Besides, what was he going to do, send her away? They were both going to the same place.

They started down the streets, passing houses on their way, the lights once again off now that the excitement had died down. The only illumination was the stars in the sky. Luca could have used magick to create an illuminating orb, but he could see fine.

He wasn’t sure about Wiosna, though. As they walked, she had taken off her glasses, placing them in a case and putting them in her pocket. He couldn’t fathom why, but he wasn’t complaining, because it reminded him of how much more fetching she was without them.

“What was fighting Trunda like?” she asked.

What an odd question. “Painful,” he answered truthfully.

“I know,” she said, wincing and rubbing her shoulder. “I remember, back at the library. He put his sword through my shoulder. But he wasn’t carrying a sword now.”

“No, he was just using his fists,” Luca said. “He doesn’t need a sword – he’s actually better at fisticuffs. He does a lot more damage with his reinforced fists than he does with a blade.”

Although, that didn’t quite explain how he wasn’t breaking his hands at each punch.

“What did he say to you in there?”

“Not much,” Luca muttered. “Mostly just bragged about how tough he was. He said he could kill all seven of us at once in a fight.”

Wiosna scoffed. “That’s a bunch of crap. I was matching him fine in that library before he caught me off guard. “Against all seven of us, he’d have no chance.” She then smiled, and added, “Fighting him was fun, though.”

Luca silently disagreed with that.

They arrived back at the inn, and Luca went inside, with Wiosna following behind him and closing the door a bit more quietly than she needed to.

“Um – Luca?” Wiosna spoke, her cheeks tinted red.

“Yeah?”

“Well, I have something I need to confess,” she said, laughing nervously. “Don’t laugh, okay?”

Well, that had aroused his interest. “I won’t laugh. What is it?”

“Well – I kind of need your help with something,” she continued, looking more and more nervous with each word. “Can you do something for me? It’s not very difficult.”

“Sure, what is it?”

Wiosna’s expression immediately changed, her eyes lighting up in excitement. “That’s a yes, then?”

Now Luca was the one who was nervous. “Err – I guess?”

Her pink lips curled into a mischievous smile. “Good.”

Wiosna separated the distance between them, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck and pressing her lips against his. Caught completely off-guard, Luca fell back, tripping and fall on his back on the floor. Wiosna followed him, straddling him and pinning him down to prevent any escape.

“Wh-what are you-?!”

“Shh, you said yes,” Wiosna giggled, capturing his mouth again with her own.

Momentarily stunned by the confusion and the not-unpleasant sensations he was feeling, it took Luca a few moments before he was finally able to bring himself to push Wiosna off of him. He pushed a bit harder than he meant to, and she hit the polished wood floor right on her behind.

“Ow!”

“What do you think you’re doing?!” he demanded.

Wiosna looked like a child who’d been caught taking a cookie. “But – you said yes…”

“Not to this!” Luca said. “If I’d known this was what you were intending, I wouldn’t have.”

Wiosna looked confused and hurt. She looked down in shame, pulling her knees close to her chest.

Luca stood up, shaking his head to clear it. And that was when he noticed that Emila was standing at the top of the stairs, with a look of shock and betrayal.

“No…” Luca said. “This isn’t…”

Emila turned around and ran upstairs.

Swearing to himself, Luca followed after her. Wiosna watched him go, wishing that he would have stayed and comforted her instead. But she knew that Luca cared more about Emila than her. Wiosna made a fist and pounded it against the floor in frustration.

“Why didn’t he want me…? I asked him, and he said yes…”

“Because he’s a grown-up. I’m not a little kid, and neither is he. This isn’t a stupid game. When am I going to learn that?”

“It’s that stupid little Emila’s fault, it is. If she wasn’t around, he’d have eyes only for me.”

“I remember when I almost killed her. If she had told him about that… They’re both better people than I am. I shouldn’t come between them like this. It’s not fair to them…”

“No, it’s fair enough. She’s weak. She’s so weak, always clinging to him and sobbing about how hard it is to be her.”

“I – I think maybe I should go to bed.”

Wiosna stood up, her behind sore from hitting the floor. Now she felt guilty for what she had done.

“In the morning… He’ll hate me, too. I’ve really screwed it up now, haven’t it?”

Defeated, and choking back tears, Wiosna went up to the room she shared with Brand.

<> <> <>

Luca found Emila sitting on her bed in their room. She wasn’t crying, though she looked up at him with hurt eyes as he entered.

“Emila – that wasn’t what it looked like.”

She took a deep breath, and nodded. “I know. I saw all of it. I’m just… I’m just hurt, that’s all.”

He sat down beside her, putting his hand around her shoulder.

“I can’t believe she did that,” Emila said.

“Me neither.”

“I don’t know why she hates me so much,” Emila said sadly. “Everything she does is some effort to hurt me.”

Luca frowned. He now had a lot on his mind, at the worst moment for it. He’d just wanted to go back to the inn and go to bed, putting Trunda and everything he’d said out of his mind until the morning. Now he had Wiosna to think about.

“Was that – your first kiss?” Emila asked.

He hesitated. “No.”

Emila blinked. “It wasn’t? Who was your first?”

“This girl named Arlea, back in the Arimos village my father and I were staying at,” he told her. “She was a nice girl. She liked me, but I didn’t really return the feeling. She was killed when Zinoro attacked.”

Luca realised that a few months ago, he would not have told her that much if she had been trying to pry it from him. Now he was all but offering such personal information up.

Emila looked regretful. “I’m sorry to hear that. But – I’m glad that wasn’t your first kiss.”

He looked at her, confused. “Why’s that?”

“Your first kiss should be in a different situation than that. It should be something you know is coming, so your heart is beating in anticipation. Something you never forget, and not a random attack from someone like Wiosna.”

Luca sighed, realising that this conversation was getting a bit uncomfortable. But still, now that he’d told her, he was curious why she felt this way. “So what about you?”

“Well,” Emila said, smiling and blushing cutely. “I had a little boyfriend back in my hometown. Nothing serious, just a few kisses here and there. I was still very young then. But I didn’t have much time for romance, as I had to train to be the next healer.”

Luca had grown quiet. He had realised the direction this conversation was going, and he didn’t like it. They were coming dangerously close to saying aloud that thing they both knew, but could not admit to each other or themselves.

Emila seemed to realise this too, for the slight smile of her nostalgia had faded, replaced with a hesitant frown. Her hands were in her lap.

They sat there for a few moments, not sure what to say or do. The tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife.

Luca felt like he just couldn’t stare at the floor any longer, so he forced himself to look at the girl. Emila was looking away at something in the room. Her eyes were downcast, filled with disappointment and self-loathing. Somehow, he knew what was going through her mind. She was frustrated with herself, and her inability to just come out and say what she was feeling. She was upset that Wiosna had gone and done what she was unable to do.

That Emila could have any degree of doubt in herself was something Luca found very difficult to understand. Was she feeling like she was losing to Wiosna somehow? Because she certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t Wiosna that haunted his dreams. It wasn’t Wiosna whose beauty caught his eye in moments when he was least expecting it. It wasn’t Wiosna who he eagerly expected to see every morning. And it certainly wasn’t Wiosna who was quite literally the very person keeping him alive.

He didn’t want her to think that Wiosna had stolen him from her. He didn’t want her to think that she wasn’t enough for him. Though he had refused to allow himself to accept what he was feeling since he had met her, he couldn’t continue to lie to himself. He had already broken all of his other “rules” – so what was the sense in breaking one more?

But then he remembered – he was going to leave her behind in T’Saw, wasn’t he?

He was, and he knew that from everything he had learnt in travelling with his father all those years that the closer he was to Emila when he left, the harder it would be on him. And though he was so tempted to do this one thing with her, he knew it would just make things hurt more later. He had known that pain many times before, by getting close to people and then having to leave them behind.

But somehow, he didn’t care about that. For once, his mind was unable to overcome the desires of his heart. He was being weak, and giving in. Because he wanted her to know that she meant more to him than Wiosna. That was more important to him than easing his own burden.

He stood up, catching Emila’s attention with the movement. Her mouth opened, as thought she were about to ask him what was wrong, but the look in his eyes stopped her. Her own eyes grew wide with realisation.

He drew close to her, sitting beside her on her bed and facing her. She did not move away, or protest, or ask him what he was about to do. His hand moved up slowly, cupping her cheek and gently holding her. And then he leaned in, his lips coming into contact, ever so slowly, with her own.

It lasted for a few moments, neither could be sure exactly how long, before Luca pulled away.

“It was you. It was always you.”

She broke into a happy smile and threw her arms around him, reciprocating the kiss.

<> <> <>

Trunda sat meditating in his small prison cell, as still and quiet as a statue.

Three guards stood on the other side of the bars, keeping a constant eye on him. They were different guards now than the ones who had come down after Luca left, as the shifts changed every six hours. They were watching him diligently, as was their job. Commendable, really. But futile.

Trunda could feel the mana-blocking circle around him. He could feel it trying to block his mana. How futile. He did not use his mana outwardly as most people did. His mana flow was completely different, which was the first reason he had been chosen to be one of Zinoro’s acolytes.

Trunda could feel the warmth of the rising sun’s rays hitting his back. It was nearly time.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” he heard one of the guards mutter to his companion.

“Yeah,” the other agreed.

“He’s just been sittin’ there, the whole damn time,” the first guard continued. “Is he even alive?”

“Maybe he’s projecting,” the second guard suggested. “Like maybe he’s sending his spirit out to Acaria to tell Zinoro what’s going on.”

“Then we should stop him,” the first guard. “If he’s contactin’ his master…”

“I don’t think he’s really projecting. Nobody’s been able to do that in thousands of years. Hey, wait! No, don’t do that!”

Trunda felt something poking at his shoulder. The hilt end of the first guard’s spear. The fool was poking him with the back of his spear to see if he was still alive.

“He’s not doin’ anything…”

In one swift movement, Trunda grabbed the spear with both hands, wrenching it free of its owner’s hands. The man only had a single second to look shocked with his stupid face, before Trunda thrust the spear back towards him, the pointed end driving deep between a gap in his armour, into the man’s stomach and bursting out the other side. The dumb man screamed in pain, dropping to his knees, and spitting a mouthful of blood out onto the stone floor.

The other two guards started to panic, shouting for the captain. Trunda stood up and started to stretch, his body stiff after having sat in one position for eight hours.

The captain was there, along with three other guards, barking orders and questions. The two guards who had been watching Trunda were trying to explain why their companion was skewered. The guard with the spear in him was sobbing and coughing up blood.

Trunda counted up the men in the room. Seven. Perfect. Exactly the number he needed.

The five guards, the wounded one, and the captain all turned to him. They hadn’t noticed it yet, but they were growing pale.

“You Acarian bastard,” the captain spat at him. He approached the cell. “You’ll pay for this.” He swayed as he took the last step.

“Captain – urgh…”

“What’s – happening…?”

“My mana! He’s…!”

The guards were collapsing one-by-one, not dead, but so drained of life they might as well have been. Only the captain, by far the strongest of them, remained standing.

“H-how?!” he demanded.

“You thought your mana circle could stop me,” Trunda said, looking down at the carving in the stone floor at his feet. “And it would have, for a normal human. But I am an abnormality. I cannot use magick, but I have no need to. The mana of others flows into me, making me stronger. And these circles do not stop mana that flows inward.”

Trunda grabbed the bars of his cell, pulling them apart from one another. He now had the strength of eight men – the bars bended under his grip like cheap plastic. He was easily able to pull them far enough apart to step through.

The guard captain stared unbelieving at what was happening.

“You freak Acarian bastards – you’ll pay for this one day. I swear it – I swear-”

Trunda grabbed him and punched him in the head. The captain’s skull burst like a pumpkin dropped from a window. A massive blood stain marred the wall. Trunda dropped the body, which faded into mana a few seconds after hitting the floor.

The remaining guards, who had grown too weak to move, but not weak enough to die, were watching the horror show before them, knowing full-well there was nothing they could do.

Trunda looked over at one. The Acarian’s face was caked with the captain’s blood, and his eyes were alight with a merciless cruelty. He stomped down on the man’s knee, crushing it immediately and splitting the leg in two. The man screamed, trying feeble to crawl away, his fingernails scratching against the stone floor. But there was no escape.

Trunda took his time with them.

<> <> <>

Luca yawned. The morning had come far too early for him. Beside him, Emila look rather tired as well. As did Wiosna. And Brand. And Ash. And Jared.

Selphie seemed rather energetic, though.

“Don’t you people ever sleep?” the portly innkeeper asked her. “All night, you were running around town, in and out of here, keeping everyone else up.”

“Sorry,” Selphie apologised, handing back their three room keys.

“Your business is your business, just try to keep it down next time you stay here,” the innkeeper muttered. “It’s tough enough managing an inn with crazy folk always bursting in-”

At that moment, the inn’s wooden door burst, flying off its hinges like it had been hit by a cannonball. The door flew back several metres, landing on the floor before them and shattering. At the doorway, a man stepped inside the inn. Trunda looked different from usual – his eyes were wide and bloodshot, and his clothes were ripped and torn in several places, particularly his arms, where the muscles were swollen up as though he had just put on twice his mass. He was covered in blood, from his face to his arms.

“Fight me now, you all,” he all but hissed out through his teeth. “Fight me and die!”

He screamed in pure aggression and punched the stone wall beside him, his fist breaking clean through without a scratch. He withdrew his hand, laughing maniacally.

Needless to say, Luca’s company had all drawn their weapons.

“How did he escape?!” Selphie demanded.

“Forget that!” Brand shouted. “Did you see what he just did to that wall?!”

Trunda cracked his knuckles and started to advance into the room.

“Stop this!” the innkeeper shouted at everyone. “Don’t do this in my inn! Take this outside!”

Trunda swung his arm, throwing a piece of the stone wall he’d been holding at the innkeeper. The small piece of stone struck the innkeeper in the forehead, hitting his skull with enough force to shatter into dozens of pieces. The innkeeper collapsed, blood already running down his face.

Wiosna screamed and charged, oblivious to everyone’s shouts of caution.

“Don’t worry,” Trunda said with a smile as she drew close. “I’ll go easy on you.”

Wiosna swung her sword, which Trunda avoided by jumping back – moving with surprising agility for someone his size. But just as soon he lunged forward, catching Wiosna off-guard. With a single well-placed punch, Wiosna was disarmed. And then Trunda had her by the throat, lifting her off the ground.

Luca and the others were already running to her rescue.

Jared brought down his halberd on Trunda’s shoulder, which struck the man’s skin and bounced off like it had just hit metal. Brand and Ash’s sword were equally ineffective.

Wiosna’s eyes found Luca’s. There was something in her pained expression – an apology, or perhaps pleading. He couldn’t tell.

“Let go of her, you bastard!” Brand shouted to Trunda.

“Fine,” Trunda responded. He threw Wiosna aside, the girl’s body soaring through the air like the door from moments ago, and hitting the stone wall on the far side of the inn. She let out an involuntary gasp of pain, and collapsed on the floor. She did not move.

The four of them – Luca, Brand, Selphie, and Jared – surrounded Trunda now, their blades ready. Ash and Emila lingered behind – they were not fighters and would only get in the way. Emila had rushed to Wiosna’s side, the warm of healing mana flowing from her. Ash was watching cautiously, an uneasy expression on his face.

“I could crush your bones into powder with my very fists,” Trunda laughed. “And I likely will, once the fight is finished. But for now I will fight you with my own strength, and show you just how weak you truly are – Luca.”

Luca responded by running in and thrusting his sword forth. The blade struck true, piercing Trunda’s side. The Acarian groaned in pain through his teeth. Luca tried to pull the sword back out, but Trunda’s hands wrapped around the blade, holding it where it was. Luca didn’t have enough time to let go and back away before the back of Trunda’s hand struck him with enough force to send him flying back.

“Luca!” he heard Emila and a few of the others cry out.

Everything spun. He felt himself hit a table, crashing through the wood and hitting the hard floor. Something inside him hurt badly, and he coughed up a mouthful of blood. For several moments, he just lay there, trying to get his aching body to move again. Nobody came to help him – he wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

Finally, he managed to get back up. Just in time to see Trunda and Brand locked in vicious fighting. Trunda was delivering punch after punch, which Brand was expertly deflecting with his sword. Luca was again reminded of how much better Brand was at swordplay than he was.

The impact of Trunda’s fists hitting Brand’s sword drew no blood, nor did the attacks of Selphie or Jared at his unguarded back. Only Luca’s sword, still sticking out of his side, had done any damage to him. As Luca used the busted-up table to pull himself back to his feet, Trunda managed to slip a punch through, hitting Brand in the gut. Brand dropped his sword and doubled over, groaning, which allowed Trunda to knee him in the face, knocking him unconscious.

Jared’s halberd hit Trunda’s back once more to no effect, and the behemoth whirled around and brought his fist down in pure rage. Jared managed to jump back, just in time, as Trunda’s fist smashed right through the bar behind him.

Things were looking bad – two of their number were down already, and they had done almost nothing to Trunda. Luca realised then that everything Trunda had told him in that prison had not been a bluff – Trunda really could kill them all if he wanted to. That Wiosna and Brand had even survived those punches – which were not even of his full strength – was proof of that.

Luca started back towards the fight. He had to get his sword back.

Jared had lost his halberd in the chaos. He was now matching Trunda with his own fists – which he had used magick to reinforce into solid rock. The two were exchanging blows now in a super powered fistfight. Selphie could do nothing, and she realised it, so she was keeping her distance, and watching the brawl with worry in her eyes.

Jared managed to get a punch through Trunda’s guard, hitting him on the side of the face and knocking him aside. Trunda stumbled, spitting out blood. When he rose, he was grinning.

“Not bad,” the Acarian said. “You’re certainly putting up a better fight than those guards at the border did.”

Jared’s eyes narrowed in anger.

“They screamed and cried and begged for mercy. One even tried to run. I killed them all like the cowards they were.”

“Silence!” Jared shouted. “You speak nothing but lies!”

Jared charged at Trunda. The Acarian kicked at a table between them, which flew up and hit Jared, knocking him back. Trunda used his momentary advantage to close in, grabbing Jared’s head and bringing it down into what remained of the wooden bar.

“No!” Selphie cried, her face white.

Trunda tossed aside the unconscious form of Jared, who rolled off. He was still alive, likely thanks to his reinforcement magick.

Selphie’s eyes narrowed in rage. She brought her hands up, the room filling with the heaviness of mana. At the spot in the centre of her hands appeared a blue circle of energy, from which a torrent of water sprayed out with the intensity of a high-pressure hose. The water hit Trunda square in the chest, pushing him back against the wall. Under the intense pressure, he was unable to move.

“Emila!” Selphie called out. “Freeze it!”

Emila, who had gone from healing Wiosna, to healing Brand, to healing Jared, looked up at the princess’ beckoning.

“Hurry!” Selphie shouted. “This uses up a lot of mana! I can’t maintain it for long!”

Emila ran over to them and clasped her hands together, gathering her own mana. She placed her hand as close to the rush of water as she could, and in seconds it had frozen solid in midair, all the way down to Trunda. The Acarian was trapped within the ice, pinning him to the wall.

Selphie gasped, her face whiter than it had been moments ago.

Trunda looked down at the ice holding him and chuckled. “Not a bad strategy. It would have worked against anyone else.”

And then, as though the ice was not even there, Trunda got up and started to walk, his body phasing right through through the ice.

Selphie stared, aghast. “How?!”

“My source of power is my ability to absorb mana and draw my own strength from it,” Trunda told her. “Magick is completely wasted upon me. In fact…”

He placed his hand on the ice, which started to glow, turning back into mana. It flowed into him, and the prominent veins in his arms seemed to swell up with energy. His muscles seemed to grow just a bit larger.

“…all it does it make me stronger,” he finished. “Fool girl, I thought you would have remembered that.”

Knowing that he was about to attack, Luca pushed Selphie aside and took her place. Trunda charged, sneering at Luca’s efforts. As Trunda reached him, Luca crouched down and tried to grab the hilt of his sword. He came close, but Trunda was faster than he was. He felt Trunda’s hand grabbing his wrist, and lifting him into the air.

“Not yet,” Trunda told him. “You’re last. Wait your turn.”

And then Trunda’s fist tightened around his wrist, shattering the bones of his sword arm. Luca cried out, and Emila gasped, clutching her own wrist. He was dropped.

“Now – where were we?” Trunda asked, stepping towards Selphie.

He took only two steps before crying out in pain, at the feeling of the sword in his side being drawn out of him. Trunda spun around, expecting to find Luca, but instead he saw the younger brother there, holding Siora

“Leave her alone,” Ash said. He swung the sword in a wide stoke, cutting through Trunda’s clothes and leaving a bleeding red cut across the Acarian’s chest.

Trunda looked down at the wound for a moment, almost surprised. “You little shit,” he spat. Trunda stepped towards Ash. The younger brother swung the sword again, but this time Trunda was ready, easily dodging his clumsy swordplay. Trunda kicked Ash in the chest, sending him flying back and hitting the wall. The sword fell uselessly on the floor. One could not be sure if Ash was unconscious or not, but he did not get back up.

“So many little insects biting at me,” Trunda muttered. He turned back to Selphie, who stood with a firm expression, and Emila, who was backing away in fear. “And now all that remains is these two girls.”

“Do you intend to take me back to Zinoro?” Selphie asked him.

Trunda laughed deeply. “What makes you think Zinoro has any interest in you? We got your letter. We had a good laugh at it.”

Selphie’s mouth was drawn tight in anger. “But you sent Dreevius-”

“Off to die,” Trunda finished for her. “He was a nuisance that we no longer needed. We needed to tell him something, so he wouldn’t realise what we were actually sending him for. The fact that he actually managed to destroy the temple, and even briefly capture you, was nothing more than a pleasant surprise. But if those things had been our true aim, we would have sent Serpos instead.”

Selphie blinked, confused by his words. “So the attack on Allma was nothing more than a diversion?”

“You could say that,” Trunda said, shrugging. “I am now doing what King Zinoro was truly planning. I am going to kill the princess of Sono.”

Selphie raised her two short swords. She had no illusions about being able to kill Trunda herself, but at the very least she could wound him.

Trunda attacked, and she struck at the first vulnerable point she could find – the cut on his chest Ash had made. She drove one of her short swords into the small gap between his reinforced skin, burying it up to its hilt in Trunda’s chest. He cried out in legitimate pain, but he did not stop. He grabbed her other hand, which held her seconds sword, and then put his other hand around her throat. Selphie struggled, but the sword fell from her hand. When she had passed out from the choking, Trunda released her.

He started to laugh. “Yes, just believe whatever I tell you, foolish girl.” He turned around to where Luca was collapsed on the ground, still conscious, but too weak to get back up. In the corner of the inn, Emila was curled up in a small ball, hugging her knees. Tears ran down her face. Her mind was somewhere else – somewhere far away.

“Weakling,” Trunda muttered with a spiteful glance at her. He strode over to Luca and picked him up from the ground. “I have already sated my blood lust with those men in the prison. Believe it or not, I’m actually not a mindless killer. Your friends can live, because you’re the only one here who needs to die today.”

Trunda lifted Luca up off the ground. His reinforced fist was at Luca’s throat, his fingers curling around his throat.

“That seer must have been mistaken about you,” Trunda muttered. “What threat could you possibly pose to my king? Nothing here but weaklings, the lot of you.”

Trunda’s fingers tightened around Luca’s throat, the pressure so strong, but so slow. Luca could not breathe. He felt like his windpipe was being crushed, but it actually had not even begun to be.

“Prophecies have been wrong before,” Trunda continued. “And the one about you will be, because you are going to die right here.” After a moment, he smirked and added, “Along with that girl over there. That weak, foolish girl who refused to even fight for herself. She clearly cares nothing for her life, so I will be glad to take it from her. And to think, I truly thought that I could-”

Trunda stopped. His eyes had grown as wide as saucers. He released Luca, who fell to the floor. The tip of Siora’s blade was sticking out of the front of Trunda’s chest, right where his heart was. 

“C-can’t be…” Trunda choked out, blood running down his chin with each word. “I thought it…”

Trunda fell to his knees, his eyes staring in disbelief at nothing at all, before vanishing into nothing, leaving behind only his bloodstained clothes.

Standing behind him, holding the sword that had taken his life, was Emila.

She wore a look of horror on her face, unable to believe what she had just done. She looked down slowly at the sword, and saw Trunda’s blood on the end of its blade. She threw it aside like it was on fire.

Her hands were shaking.

<> <> <>

With Trunda now gone, the town’s healers and remaining guards just happened to arrive. They went to everyone that was wounded, using their magick to patch them up. The guards went to Emila, the last conscious person in the room, to ask her what happened, but she was too in shock to speak with them. After checking everyone, they declared that everyone had survived with only minor injuries, except for the innkeeper.

When Luca was healed enough to get up, he saw Emila sitting at what remained of the bar, an untouched glass of water in front of her. He went to her side, and she looked up and saw it was him. She started to cry, and he held her close, knowing why she was as upset as she was.

To Emila, there was nothing more horrible than taking a life. She had just broken her most important belief in order to save him.

<> <> <>

Once she had awakened and recovered enough, Selphie met with the mayor of Reven outside the ruined inn. They talked only for a short while, and when Selphie returned she told them they had to leave immediately.

When they stepped outside, it was apparent why. The townspeople were gathered, demanding an explanation for the events of the morning, as well as the night before. The remaining six guards were doing their best to keep things in order, but things were getting tense. A few townspeople had weapons. They managed to hear the name ‘Selphie’ shouted a few times. It would seem someone had leaked the news of who was staying at the inn. Thankfully, they were able to slip away without anyone noticing.

Back on the road again, they travelled without much to say. Nobody was in a particularly talkative mood.

Jared looked to Selphie but could not say anything to her. He was ashamed in himself, for being unable to keep her safe. Selphie looked up at him, and gave him a reassuring smile, despite the doubt in her own eyes. Though the day’s events had been little more than another failure in their mission of peace, there was one small consolation among it that Selphie had told him about shortly before they had left. Though he had not been particularly enthused, it was still nice to know that they would not be separated. He returned the smile, though his heart was heavy.

As was hers.

Emila was just also troubled, haunted by the memory of what she had done. But she was also happy. After thinking about it for a while, she had come to the conclusion that she had done the right thing. Killing a single bad man did not make her a monster. Though she was not happy to have broken her vow of peace, she was happy nonetheless, because Luca, as well as everyone else in the group, was still alive.

They walked beside each other, in the back of the procession. Knowing that no one would see, Emila took Luca’s arm and pulled him close, kissing him. He returned it, and she broke away, laughing, her cheeks flushed red.

Little did they know, someone had seen. Wiosna’s head was turned, watching their affection with cold eyes.

Her fist was clenched so tightly that her nails were drawing blood.

Chapter XVII

Scaramouche

On the horizon, they finally saw the rising form of the city of T’Saw.

Out across the long, barren Markira Fields, the great and majestic city of T’Saw was carved into the side of a mountain. The mountain was alone, surrounded by kilometres of empty fields on all sides.

It took them a whole hour to cross the Markira Fields, travelling down the highway with other travellers before and behind them. Selphie kept her hood drawn as they walked – she did not want her people to yet know she was back. Eventually, they reached the great marble steps that led up the mountain to the gates of the city. After so many weeks of travel, making their way up all those steps was tiring. But those steps were essential to the city’s defence – no army could cross that giant open field and then make it up the steps of the city. No more than three men could walk abreast up the marble steps, and carrying a battering ram up like that was all but impossible. T’Saw’s defences were impregnable, and the city had never fallen.

At the top of the steps, before the massive, ornately carved iron gates, a group of guards waited to question them on their business in the city, like all the other people who entered the city. It took them no less than a few seconds to recognise Jared, and Selphie beneath her hood. They let them inside without another word.

T’Saw was the largest city in the known world, and as they stepped inside, the four in their group who had never been there were greeted by its wondrous sights for the first time. The buildings were tall, carved from the stone of the mountain. The market was bustling, the sounds of hawkers and shoppers and laughing children filling the air. And in the distance, at the top of the mountain, the Ivory Palace stood over the city like a beacon.

“That’s where we’re going,” Selphie said to them. “My father is waiting for us.”

“He already knows we’re here?” Brand asked her quietly.

He shook her head. “No, but he will know before we get there. I’m sure a messenger is already on his way.”

They made their way down the main road towards the palace. As they walked, Luca took note of Emila’s odd expression. She had told him several times that she had lived in T’Saw for a short while, and as she looked around at the sights, there was a clear look of nostalgia in her eyes. They passed a rather large inn, and Emila looked up at it wistfully.

“What is it?” he asked her.

“N-nothing,” she said quickly. “I used to stay there, was all.”

“We can get a room there after we’re done at the palace,” he suggested. Seeing her blush, he added. “To stay the night, that is.”

“I’m sure the king will let us stay at the palace.”

“After Serenite, I don’t think I’ll be staying in a palace again any time soon,” Luca muttered sardonically.

Emila thought about that. “I see. We can stay at an inn if you like, but I would prefer a different one.”

“Why?”

She frowned, looking uncomfortable. “Well – I used to work there. It would be a little weird if I stayed there. The innkeeper could remember me.”

Luca wasn’t sure why that would be so awkward for her, but he respected her feelings. They would find a different place to stay the night.

A large number of people were ahead, Luca noticed. They were gathered around a bearded man in a white robe who stood atop a wooden crate. As they drew close, he could make out the man’s words.

“And what does the king do? Nothing! He sits in his palace and ignores the plight of his people! Zaow has grown old and fearful of the Acarians! Do you not remember the days when Zaow would take his sword and lead the charge into battle?”

Several of the bystanders muttered in agreement.

“The king of Sono has lost the fire that made this nation great!”

“You tell them, Jorus!” someone in the crowd shouted.

This man continued, “Zaow preaches a peace than cannot be! Because Zinoro will not rest until Sono is ashes, and he is the only man left alive! He is filled with the dark powers of Ekkei, and the vengeful fury that Acarians hold sacred! He has already taken his dark army to several villages and destroyed them! And now Allma Temple has fallen! It will not be long before he attacks T’Saw as well!”

“The walls of T’Saw have never fallen!” shouted one of the bystanders.

“Is that right?” Jorus asked him. “Well before Zinoro attacked them, the same was said of Allma Temple! And now it is nought but ash and dust. The temple was destroyed, and the elite fighters who trained there are all wiped out! What makes you think this city is better protected? Allma the Third was a man of war! Zaow is a peace-preaching old fool!”

Jared wore an ugly scowl. His hand was on the shaft of his halberd, ready to draw it from its sheath on his back. Beside him, Selphie’s eyes were hard beneath her hood.

“Zaow is no longer fit to rule this great nation!” Jorus continued, several of the bystanders nodding or muttering in agreement. “His inaction will be our destruction!”

“That’s quite enough.” They turned to find a man in the armour of the captain of the guard approaching, flanked on each side by a spear-carrying guards. The guards approached Jorus. “Continue this disruption and we’ll have to arrest you.”

“You seek to silence my protests?” Jorus exclaimed, directing his words more at the bystanders than the guards. “Has the king sent you? He’ll act against his own people, but he’ll stand idly by while Zinoro prepares to annihilate us!”

“I’m warning you,” said the captain. “Continue this nonsense and you’ll spend the night in the palace dungeons.”

The guards held their spears at the ready, waiting for the captain’s command. The captain stood there before Jorus, not in the slightest intimidated by the man’s efforts to turn the crowd against him. Several of Jorus’ listeners had already quietly slipped off, and those remaining were backing away and watching things carefully. Jorus himself, realising that there was no sense in continuing this, was hesitating.

“Just keep on blindly following orders, fools,” Jorus said to the guards. “You’ll be the first to die when the revolution comes.” He jumped down from his crate and ran off somewhere.

Jared stared after him for a moment, then shook his head. He stepped towards the captain, and called out, “Captain Gareth!”

The captain, who had started back in the direction of the palace, turned at the beckoning, and saw them. His bearded face broke out in a grin. “Jared!”

The two of them ran to each other and met in a big bear-hug. “It’s good to see you again, friend,” said the captain. “I’m relieved you’ve made it back safely.”

Selphie stepped beside them. “Gareth.”

“Princess,” he said with a nod. “I’m very glad to see you, as well. Your father has been eager for your return. Let’s get you back to the palace. Are these other folks your companions?”

Selphie turned, acknowledging Luca, Emila, Wiosna, Brand, and Ash. “They are. These are the recruits my father sent me to Allma Temple to bring back. I would not have made it back alive were it not for them.”

“We’ve heard about the temple,” Gareth said. “Everyone in the city has by now, it seems. It’s a tragedy, and one that could not have come at a worse time. The citizens are growing restless. People like this guy,” he kicked at the crate, “are speaking out against His Majesty and making things all the worse. Zinoro has had them worried for a while, but Allma Temple was frightening for everyone.”

“I cannot blame them,” Selphie said. “The Acarians have turned out to be more dangerous than we anticipated. I have a lot to tell my father. Can we go see him now?”

Gareth frowned. He turned to the two guards with him. “Return to the palace. I’ll escort the princess back.” When they hesitated, he added, “She’s got me and the six members of her entourage. She’ll be plenty safe. Get back and let the prince know she’s on her way.”

Selphie’s eyes went wide with worried interest at that. As the two guards ran off in the direction of the palace, she drew closer to Gareth. “Why are you sending them to my brother? Is my father alright?”

“He’s fine, but…” Gareth hesitated. “You should hear it from the prince.”

Selphie looked worried now. Gareth took them through the streets now, and as they walked Jared put his hand on Selphie’s shoulder to comfort her. Luca watched them, noticing the odd looks Gareth gave them. The captain saw how close they were, but he said nothing.

They ascended the steps to the Ivory Palace, and Luca saw there was a man at the top waiting for them. He was a slightly hunched man with a thick moustache and slightly balded brow. His clothes were fine and quite expensive looking. His face broke out in an excited grin as he saw who it was approaching them.

“Is that the p-princess I see under that hood?” he asked, his voice shaky and thin.

Selphie smiled, though her eyes were still full of worry. “Yes, I’ve returned.” She turned to address Luca and the others. “Everyone, this is a dear friend of the royal family, Lord Balzac.”

A stifled giggle came from Brand, who did everything he could to hide it.

“P-princess, I am so g-glad to see you back, safe and sound,” Balzac told her. “We’ve all been so w-worried for you.”

“I’ve sent letters,” Selphie reminded him.

“Yes, b-but what if the letters stopped?” Balzac said. “W-with all those Acarians out there, how could we b-be sure you were okay? B-but you’re home now, and that’s all that matters. P-please, come inside.”

Balzac stepped aside to allow them in, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process. Inside the Ivory Palace, the floor was smooth marble and the walls were high, with large stained glass windows. Within the colours of the windows were depictions of Sonoian kings of the past. At the far end of the hall was the throne of Sono. It was empty.

The sound of footsteps filled the halls. A young man with curly blond hair, a handsome face, and fine clothes approached them.

“Brother,” Selphie said excitedly, pulling back her hood.

“Selphie,” Prince Trist said to her. “Welcome home.”

The two siblings embraced.

Once they pulled away, Trist looked over her companions. “You only have Jared with you. What happened to the others who were sent?”

“They were killed at Allma Temple,” Selphie said sadly. “I’ll tell you and father everything, but only after I see him.”

“I see,” Trist said. He looked to the captain. “Gareth, could you go let my father know that Selphie is back?”

“At once, my prince,” Gareth said, leaving for the king’s chambers.

Selphie frowned, glancing at the empty throne. “Is he alright? These are usually the hours for audiences.”

“He needs his rest,” Trist told her. “His health has been – declining lately.”

Selphie’s face was pale. “His health? Will he be alright? How bad is it?”

“Not terrible, P-princess,” Balzac told her, moving to their side. “It is fortunate that we caught it as soon as we did. W-with the p-proper medicine, he should recover. B-but one must remember that the king is growing old, and that he will not live forever. Therefore, P-prince Trist has b-been p-preparing for the throne.”

“I have been the acting king since Father fell ill,” Trist told her. “It happened shortly after you left. His condition differs from day-to-day. One day, he might spend the whole day in bed. Those are the bad days. On a good day, he’ll usually be up and moving around for a few hours.”

“And today?” Selphie asked, looking like she feared the answer.

“We’ll see,” Trist said, glancing away. “He hadn’t been up yet. The thing is – Father’s health is the least of our problems. A few days ago, we received a summon. Marcus and Edmund are demanding Father’s presence at the Elder Hall to discuss war with Acaria.”

Selphie bowed her head and sighed. “I expected as much. I had hoped Marcus was speaking only in anger, and that time would calm him down and he might rethink things. But I doubted it could be that easy.”

“There are rumours,” Trist said. “They say that an Acarian man infiltrated the palace at Serenite and was working with the second-born prince to overthrow Marcus and seize control of Saeticia.”

“That’s close enough to what happened,” Selphie said. “We were there. The Acarian was one of Zinoro’s acolytes.”

Trist’s eyes grew wide, and Balzac gaped. At that moment, Gareth returned.

“His Majesty is awake and waiting for you all in the meeting room,” Gareth told them.

“Let’s not keep him waiting,” Trist said, starting off. They followed him.

Luca noticed the worry in Selphie’s eyes as they walked. She was concerned for her father’s health. After travelling so far to get to T’Saw, she had returned to find that not only was her father terribly ill, but that he had been summoned by the other kings. Considering his health, he would likely not be able to make the journey. Selphie or Trist could certainly be sent in his place, but that would reflect badly on Sono in the negotiations. Even if they told the truth about Zaow’s health, it could look like an excuse of cowardice to the other kings. But that all depended on how bad Zaow’s condition was.

Gareth pushed open the double doors for them, and the large group stepped into the meeting room. It was a spacious room, with a large table in the centre and a lit fireplace. Sitting across from them at the head of the table was King Zaow.

The king was seventy-eight years of age, and he looked it. His beard was long and full of grey, as was the hair on his head. He looked thin and haggard, and his breaths were heavy and slow. His clothes and golden crowd looked heavy on him.

Luca saw the betraying look of shock on Selphie’s face, though she quickly covered it up with a smile.

“Father!” she said, running to his side and kissing his cheek. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you as well, my dear,” Zaow said with a smile. His voice was tired. “I’ve read all your letters. I was greatly worried for you. But alas, we have so much to discuss.” He looked up at the others. “Balzac and the captain may leave us. The rest of you can find seats.”

Gareth nodded and stepped past Luca and the others. Balzac followed him, looking for a moment like he wanted to argue. Gareth pulled the door closed behind them.

Trist walked over and joined Selphie at their father’s side. He asked quietly, “Are you feeling up to this, Father?”

Zaow shook his head. “This is far too important for that.”

Trist and Selphie sat on either side of Zaow, and the others all found seats across from them. The king looked over them all, his eyes lingering over Luca and Ash for a bit longer than the others.

First, he spoke to Jared. “You’ve done your duty well. Thank you for protecting my daughter, Jared.”

Jared bowed his head slightly, unable to meet the king’s gaze. “It was my duty.”

“Rarely do our duty and our heart’s desire lie on the same path,” Zaow said to him. “I know how difficult it was for you to take this mission in the first place. But you have done well. You brought your princess back safely. I hope that you can continue to protect her, and serve the kingdom well.”

Luca looked to Jared, a bit confused by the king’s words. What was difficult about protecting Selphie, he wondered. But Jared’s stoic face told no tales.

“Selphie,” Zaow said to his daughter. “Tell me everything that has happened on your travels. Spare no details.”

Selphie then did exactly that. She started with Allma Temple, telling him about her arrival, and the meeting between her and the recruits. Then she told him about the surprise attack by the Acarians, and then of Allma’s betrayal. She told him their theory – that Allma’s intention had been to kill her and pin the blame on the Acarians, thus starting a war. Zaow’s expression grew dark at this part. His daughter’s life had been in danger, all because of a man he had once trusted. The men Allma had sent had aided Sono greatly in the first war with Acaria. Allma the third had been an honourable man then. Zaow had thought Selphie would be safe in his charge, but he had been completely wrong.

She then told Zaow about their escape from the temple, and the subsequent capture in Kasma. She told him of how Wiosna had led the Allma survivors back and rescued them. Zaow asked Wiosna several questions about this, and then thanked her for her help.

Next, Selphie told him of the events in Serenite, and how Trunda had gone after Emila, whom he seemed to mistake for herself. In reality, he had known all along that Emila was not the princess, and he was simply betraying Gera in order to turn Marcus against the Acarians.

Next came the story of the events in Reven, of how Trunda had tracked them down and attacked them once more. Selphie concluded her story with his death in the inn.

“You’ve slain two of Zinoro’s acolytes now,” Zaow mused. “I doubt he has taken kindly to that.”

“Trunda spoke of Dreevius with little respect, but I would imagine that Zinoro valued Trunda more.” Selphie said with a frown. “I have little hope for our backup plan at this point.”

Zaow thought about that for a moment, stroking his grey beard, and glancing at Jared. “Indeed. Doubtless, Zinoro and his men have torn my letter to pieces and laughed at my proposition of peace. But that was the backup plan because the chances of its success were slim to begin with.”

Zaow coughed for a moment, before continuing. “Allma and Marcus both were manipulated by Zinoro. He put his men in place and had them carry out their orders, with the appearance of a simple plan – to capture you, the princess of Sono. The truth was that his intention was to simply play on their emotions, getting from them what he wanted. From Allma, he wanted the temple destroyed. Allma Temple’s men turned the tide of his father’s war, and he was well aware of that. Thus, he eliminated them first. And he got that by playing on Allma’s overconfidence. Had Allma led his men more carefully, the temple may very well still stand.

“As for Marcus, the man is nearly as cautious as I am. But Marcus cares for his family. Zinoro struck him right in his heart.”

“But why?” Trist asked. “Why do all this if Zinoro wants war? Why not simply declare it?”

Zaow stroked his beard, thinking. “The answer is simple, if you think about it. Manorith’s war failed because it was fought here, in Sono. Even without the help of Allma Temple, we would have almost certainly won. The few hundred men Allma sent turned the tide of the last battle, and the arrival of the dragonrider was their death sentence.

“Zinoro is a far greater tactician than his father was. He knows the only chance he could have to win a battle with any of the kingdoms of the Alliance is if that battle were fought on his own land. An army marching into Acaria would be at a disadvantage, just as one marching out of it would also be. So the reason Zinoro does all this is because he wants us to invade him – and not the other way around.”

“But surely he understands how the Alliance works,” Trist said. “If he hopes to have Sono invade him, he is a fool. In the two-hundred years that this nation has existed we have never invaded another land.”

“One-hundred and ninety-two, my son,” Zaow corrected. “And that is not entirely correct. In my grandfather’s time, the Alliance declared war against the kingdom of Freidu. Sono fought in that war, alongside Saeticia and Torachi.”

“Freidu is nothing but ruins now, even after all these years,” Selphie added. “They were annihilated.”

“And Zinoro will meet the same end, if it does come to war,” Trist said. “Acaria was almost wiped out in the previous war. Their numbers were down after that plague, and the men they could muster up were slaughtered when they attacked Sono. Zinoro could not have possibly raised an army large enough to handle the entire Alliance, not after only twenty years.”

Zaow looked to his son with disappointed eyes. “Just because we can defeat them, doesn’t mean we should.”

“Zinoro is a monster,” Trist said.

“Not every Acarian is Zinoro.”

Trist grew quiet, retreating into his seat sullenly.

Zaow sighed, the breath far heavier than one of mere fatigue. He looked to Luca and the others, looking over them once more. He said to Selphie, “Not counting Jared, you have brought five others with you from Allma. My instructions were to bring three students with the skills requested.”

“The students you asked for are here,” Selphie told him. “Brand, Wiosna, and Luca were the best fighters the temple had to offer, though Luca was not technically a true student. The other two, Ash and Emila, are Luca’s companions. Ash helped us escape from Dreevius, by telling Wiosna and the Allman survivors where we were. And Emila is an experienced healer – better than I am, in fact. The seven of us have proven to be quite effective as a team.”

Brand grinned.

Zaow turned his attention back to Luca and Ash, and said to them, “You two are related?”

“We are,” Luca replied. “He is my brother. We are Lodin’s sons.”

Zaow’s eyes grew wide. “Yes, you are…” he said after a moment. “How could I forget that hair? As white as snow – I haven’t heard from Lodin since some time after the war.”

“He is dead,” Luca told the king. “Killed by Zinoro.”

Zaow drew in a sharp breath. His eyes narrowed, no longer looking tired anymore, and looked away from Luca. “This changes things, then. You were present when this happened?”

“I was,” Luca said. “I watched it happen with my own eyes.”

Zaow turned back to Selphie. “You did not tell me that Lodin’s sons were in your company.”

“I found out that Ash – the younger son – was at the temple on my way there,” Selphie explained a bit nervously. “And when I arrived, I learnt that Luca was there as well. I intended to take only Luca with me, because I thought that his family history might be of use to our cause.”

Zaow looked almost angry with her now. “And how do you think things would have worked out if he had been there when you went before Zinoro? Everything could have fallen apart the moment Zinoro saw him.”

“Father, I doubt it really mattered. As you said, it was the backup plan because it had little chance of working to begin with.”

Luca was curious now as to what this backup plan was. He looked around to Selphie, and then to Jared, but neither of them met his gaze.

Zaow turned his attention back to Luca. “Tell me of Zinoro.”

“He wore black armour,” Luca said. “He was missing an eye – and the other was a glowing red. His sword was a Rixeor Fragment, and the blade was wrapped in a black fire when he drew it.”

“What did he say to your father?”

“Not much. My father refused to fight him, and that angered Zinoro. My father told Zinoro that if he wanted to kill him, he would have to do so in cold blood.”

Zaow frowned. “And I suppose you know why Zinoro wanted your father dead.”

“Because my father was the one who killed Manorith. And not you, as most people believe.”

Brand and Wiosna looked to Luca nervously. They knew this, as well – he had made no secret of it – but they seemed surprised that he had brought it up so brazenly. On the other side of the table, Selphie was biting her lip. Trist was looking at him with barely-hidden irritation. Ash was as quiet as he always was.

King Zaow watched him for a moment, then smiled. “Indeed. Publicly, it was I who took credit for the killing of Manorith. But it is indeed the truth that your father was the one who did it.”

The king sighed again, his eyes growing heavy as they remembered years gone by. “I met him, some time after it had happened. Nobody yet knew, only the men in his team. He had Manorith’s armour with him – with the exception of his sword, which was lost – in a chest. We went to my tent, where we drank and spoke long into the night. He was the one who suggested that I take credit for ending the war. I’d wanted to make a knight of him – the first knight of T’Saw in so many years. But – he told me that he had no desire to be a hero – he only wanted to go live a quiet life with his sweetheart who waited for him in his home town. He was a good man, your father. It saddens me that he is no longer with us.”

Zaow paused for a moment, then he asked Luca, “What are you here for, son of Lodin?”

Luca blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Your father clearly meant a lot to you,” Zaow said. “But we are not here planning vengeance. If it is revenge you desire, you have come to the wrong place. We are trying to prevent a war, not start one. When I look in your eyes, I see someone who is after blood. So I am asking why you are here.”

He sees right through me, Luca thought.

“Indeed, I cared very much for my father,” Luca said. “That is why I am here. Too many people have died already, and the war hasn’t even started. I’m fighting for peace because I know the rage of grief. But I’m not letting that control me. We cannot be slaves of our pasts – we must look to the future, and make the sacrifices necessary that it is a better world we leave behind.”

Zaow thought for a moment, and then he nodded approvingly. He glanced over at Selphie, and then at Trist, and furrowed his brow, stroking his beard deeply in thought.

Luca was then aware of Emila’s eyes on him. He turned his head and saw her beside him, smiling happily. She looked proud of him, and relieved. He felt sick in the stomach.

Because it was a lie.

“What you have told me has given me a lot to think about,” Zaow said to Selphie. “The summon of the other kings cannot be ignored, but it is possible that I might be able to persuade them against this war.”

“You’re actually going?” Selphie exclaimed. “But your health…!”

“My health is irrelevant,” Zaow told her sternly. “The summon cannot be ignored. I will be setting out for the Elder Hall in a few days. I will have you all join me there, to share your stories with the other kings. We cannot yet give up on our mission. War can still be prevented. For now however, I have grown weary. I will retire for the night. We will speak more of this in the morning.”

Zaow rose from his seat, and when he stood up, he gripped a walking cane that had been hidden until then under the table. When Selphie saw it, her expression told Luca that Zaow had not been using it when she had last seen him.

“You are all welcome to stay here in the palace,” Zaow said to them. “I’m sure Balzac can arrange rooms for you.”

Brand giggled again, earning a confused stare from both Zaow and Trist. Selphie all but glared at him, and he coughed awkwardly and bowed his head.

“Well, I will retire now.” As he left the room, Zaow took one last long look at his daughter, looking like there was something else he had to say. But he was silent as he closed the door behind him.

Once he was gone, everyone rose from the table. Prince Trist was the first to leave, brushing past Luca and giving him a dirty look as he left.

“It seems your brother doesn’t think much of me,” Luca said to Selphie once the prince was gone.

“That would be your fault, Luca,” she said to him. He blinked, surprised to hear her say that. “You haven’t been addressing my father or brother with the proper honorifics. I remember you did the same with Marcus, back in Serenite. I was going to say something earlier, but I forgot.”

“I – don’t understand.”

“You should be calling King Zaow, ‘your majesty’,” Emila stepped up and told him. “And Prince Trist, ‘your highness’. You should technically be calling Selphie the same, but she’s our friend and she told us not to.”

“I don’t use titles,” Luca said defiantly. “I call someone by their name, no matter who they are.”

“In a kingdom like Torachi that could get you thrown in gaol,” Selphie said. “My father is very forgiving man, but my brother has less patience than he does. Could you please just watch what you say around him?”

“It doesn’t matter. Emila and I are going to be staying in the city.”

“You are?” Selphie asked, looking to Emila, who nodded.

“I used to live in T’Saw,” Emila told her. “There are some places I would like to visit while I have the chance. Some people I would like to see again.”

“I see. That’s fine,” Selphie said. “What about the rest of you?”

“I’m fine here,” Brand said, who was still seated, his feet kicked up on the table.

“Me, too,” Wiosna said. She was leaning against the wall, looking away from Luca and Emila.

“Very well,” Selphie said. “What about you, Ash?”

Ash was nowhere to be seen.

“Typical,” Selphie muttered. She turned back to Luca and Emila. “Well, just make sure you’re back here tomorrow morning.”

“Of course,” Luca assured her as they left.

“Have fun, you two! Try to wait until you make it to your room at the inn” Brand called after them.

Emila’s face was red as they left the meeting room. Luca looked to her as they walked, and asked, “What is it?”

“It is that obvious?” Emila asked.

“I think they knew before we did.”

Emila bowed her head, not embarrassed, but morose. “It might not be real, though. Don’t forget about the tether. It could be changing the way we feel.”

It could, he realised. He would know soon enough, when he left the city, and Emila stayed behind. Once they were separated, and the tether was broken, he would know for sure if his feelings were the truth or just an illusion.

They passed Gareth the guard captain outside, who gave them a quick nod. Farther down the hall, they saw Balzac pacing back and forth impatiently, nearly tripping over himself yet again. He noticed them, and approached them.

“Ah! P-princess Selphie’s companions! I trust your meeting with the king w-went w-w-w-well?”

“We worry for His Majesty’s health,” Emila told him.

“As do w-we all,” Balzac muttered sadly. “The summon of the other kings has us w-worried. How can the king make the journey to Saeticia in his condition?”

“It seems he’s going regardless,” Luca said. “And we’re going to go with him. He still has hope that the war with Acaria can be avoided.”

“And in that hope we will p-place our own,” Balzac said as solemnly as one could with a stutter. “If there is anything I can do for you, p-please let me know.”

“Thank you, but the two of us will be in the city,” Emila told him.

“I see,” Balzac said. “Well, p-please enjoy yourselves.”

Emila smiled, and they continued on their way, back out to the main hall, and back outside to the city. The sun was beginning to disappear under the horizon, and the activity in the city was likewise dying down. As Emila looked out at the streets, her eyes were filled with nostalgia.

“I’ve reconsidered,” she said to him. “Let’s go back to that inn, the one I used to work at.”

“Are you sure?” he asked her.

She nodded, and smiled. “Yeah, definitely. I want to see if the innkeeper I knew still works there.”

He wondered what had made her change her mind. She so rarely shared her thoughts with him – but then again, he shared his own with her even less often. He couldn’t let doubts plague what little time they would have together. So he returned her smile, though there was a trace of pain hidden behind it.

So they made their way down the marble steps and into the city streets, retracing their steps from earlier in the day. The streets were thin now, and they had little difficulty making their way back.

As they walked, Luca saw a small group of men – around six or seven – huddled in an alley. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but one of the men might have been the Jorus figure who had been publicly speaking against Zaow earlier. The small group seemed to notice his staring, for they retreated further into the alley, and out of Luca’s sight. He wasn’t able to be sure if it was Jorus or not.

“I lived here for almost two years,” Emila said to him, drawing his attention away from the suspicious men. “The inn we’re going to? I worked there as a barmaid.”

“I have a hard time picturing you in a place like that,” Luca found himself saying. He’d spoken without thinking. Thankfully, Emila didn’t seem to take it the wrong way.

She laughed, and said, “All I ever did was serve drinks and food. There were two other girls who worked there at the time, and they would play music for the guests sometimes for extra gold, but I never did. I was never comfortable with that…”

Luca frowned. No, he couldn’t imagine Emila being comfortable with something like that at all. He could only imagine the lecherous way those girls must have been treated by the guests.

“Here we are,” Emila said excitedly.

Having been lost in his thoughts, Luca looked up and found they were now standing at the front door of the three-storey inn. He saw a sign hanging above the door, which had a painted picture of a anthropomorphic mug wearing a crown. Below that was the caption, The Tipsy Troglodyte

Emila took a deep breath. She said quietly to herself, “I can do this.” And she opened the door and stepped inside.

The inn was crowded. Almost all the tables were occupied by boisterous patrons and travellers, who drank from heavy mugs of frothing ale, or told stories to one another that drew up loud gales of laughter. Some music was playing from somewhere, but Luca couldn’t see a bard.

“It’s busy…” Emila muttered. “Ah! I see him over at the bar. Let’s go!” Before Luca could say anything, Emila took his hand and led him through the inn over to the bar.

A large man with a thick moustache was there, polishing a mug with a rag. When he saw Emila approaching him, he raised an eyebrow.

“Well, look who it is,” he said. “Never thought I’d see you again.”

“Trent,” Emila said, smiling. “It’s good to see you again.”

“It’s good to see you too, uh…”

Her smile dropped. “You haven’t forgotten my name, have you?”

“Emma? Um – Emily? No…”

Emila looked devastated. The innkeeper started to laugh.

“I haven’t forgotten your name, Emila,” he reassured her. He stepped out from behind the bar, and gave Emila a big hug. “I’ve not seen you in what – six months? How have you been?”

“I’ve been alright,” Emila said. She beckoned to Luca. “This is Luca. I’ve been travelling with him since I left.”

“Well met,” Trent said to him.

“Uh – likewise,” Luca muttered awkwardly.

“So what are you doing back in T’Saw?” Trent asked Emila.

“Just passing through, actually,” she said. “I figured we would stay the night here, for old time’s sake.”

“Of course,” Trent said, heading back behind the bar and fishing around until he found  a key. “Here. It’s for room number six. Don’t worry about paying. It’s on me.”

“Are you sure?” Emila asked, as she took the key.

“Absolutely. I owe you, girl. All those nights you slept up in the attic? You deserved better than that. So you and your friend can stay here tonight, free of charge.”

“Wow,” Emila said. “Trent, thank you so much.”

Emila took a seat at the bar, and Trent got her a drink. The two started to talk, and Emila gave him a rough account of their adventure so far, leaving out any details that couldn’t be shared. Luca stood nearby, not sure what to do with himself.

After a few minutes of this, Luca was jostled by a large, bearded patron, who was making his way across the room. The man gave him a dirty look, and said, “Watch what you’re doing, boy,” but even as the words left his mouth, he discreetly put his hand into Luca’s and took it away just as quickly. The man was gone before Luca could say anything, and he found that he was holding a smooth, unsealed envelope.

Luca looked around, but nobody in the inn was looking at him. He waited a few moments, again making sure nobody was watching, before opening the envelope and reading the short letter it contained.

Son of Lodin,

I wish to speak with you. There is an abandoned house three blocks south from where you are. Meet me there as soon as you can. Bring no one, and tell no one you are coming.

~A friend.

Luca thought about it for a moment, and almost laughed. Someone was clearly trying to lure him out so they could kill him, but they weren’t trying very hard. Only a fool would actually follow instructions like that.

And he was no fool. The smart thing to do would be to tell Emila that someone was after him, and the two of them would go back to the palace and tell Selphie.

He very nearly did that, but as he looked to Emila, he saw her laughing with her bartender friend. She looked happier than she had been in some time. She had looked in better spirits since they had arrived in T’Saw, being away from the Acarians and all the things she was afraid of. The thought of taking her away from this momentary joy, and filling her with those fears and doubts again…

He couldn’t die. The tether was still there, between them. If it was indeed a trap, as it most likely was, the worst that would happen was that he would get stabbed or captured – nothing he wasn’t used to. And if there was a conspiracy to kill him, he would need to know who was behind it.

Going on his own was foolish, and he knew it was, but if he could potentially resolve this business without Emila knowing, he would prefer that. The time they spent in T’Saw was going to be their last, and he didn’t want anything ruining that. Ignoring this message could lead to more direct efforts later, and he didn’t want Emila to be dragged into that.

He took one last glance at Emila. She was laughing, talking with Trent, and drinking from her mug of ale. She had more or less forgotten him, which hurt a little, but was better for them both in the end. Hopefully she could forget him just as easily when he was on his way to Acaria.

He left the bar, slipping away from Emila and leaving as quietly as he could. On his way out, he checked for the bearded patron who had given him the note, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps that was the man he was going to see, or perhaps he was simply the messenger. Luca would know soon enough. In any case, he put the letter back in the envelope and placed it in his pocket.

Luca was back on the streets of T’Saw, where the sun had set completely. Only a few people were out now. He checked the direction that the sun had set, and used that to figure out which way was south. He made his way in that direction, keeping his hand on the hilt of his sword, and his eyes sharp.

It didn’t take him long to find the abandoned building. Thankfully, nobody was around to watch him break in. The door was jammed from disuse, so he had to push it with his shoulder to get it open.

There seemed to be no one waiting for him inside, but it was too dark to be sure. He didn’t dare use his illumination magick, so he instead proceeded carefully into the empty derelict, his hand ready to draw his sword at a single moving shadow.

It took a few minutes before his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Only when he could see confidently enough did he start to search the empty building. It was devoid of all furnishings, which left few places for someone to hide.

Nobody had yet come out to greet him, so they must have been waiting for him. Certainly that was what they would do if it was a trap. They must have been aware of his presence after he had knocked open the door. Still, his searching revealed there was nobody on the first floor.

So Luca went upstairs.

Searching upstairs revealed nothing but dust and cobwebs. He was starting to wonder if he’d somehow gone to the wrong abandoned house, when he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.

The footsteps were too loud. They were not the steps of someone sneaking. Either this person was announcing their presence to him, or they did not know he was there.

Surprisingly, it turned out to be the latter. The man who appeared at the top of the stairs saw him with a start, reaching for his blade in surprise. Luca did the same, and there was a tense second where Luca nearly drew his blade and attacked. But the man let go of his own sword without drawing it, and sighed in relief.

“Ah, it is only you, son of Lodin,” he said. “I’m glad you got my note, but I’m a bit surprised you got here before me.”

The man was dressed in a tattered travel cloak, and leather armour beneath that. He had a long, slightly curved sword at his hip. His hair was long, reaching almost to his shoulders, and his chin was rough and unshaven, but not yet a full beard. Both were beginning to grey.

“Who are you and what do you want with me?” Luca asked him. This was looking less and less like an assassination attempt. Now he was curious.

“Before I continue, I want you to understand a few things,” the man said to him. “The first is why I asked you to come alone, and to tell no one you were coming. Did you do this?”

Luca hesitated. “I did.”

“Good, because even the knowledge of us meeting is enough to tear apart everything I am trying to accomplish,” the man said. “If anyone were to know, even your own companions, it could destroy everything. The second thing you must do is you must agree to hear me out, to set aside any judgements or prejudices until I have finished telling you what I have come here to. When I am done, you can decide whatever you want. If you wish to kill me, that is fine. But not until you’ve heard what I have to say. Can you make that promise before I tell you who I am?”

Luca was immensely curious now. “Very well. I’ll hear you out.”

“Thank you,” the man said. He brushed his long hair back, revealing a single braided lock over his left ear. “My name is Gordon. I am one of the five acolytes of Zinoro, and I have come to beg for your help.”

Chapter XVIII

The Man in the Shadows

Captain Gareth made his way through the halls of the Ivory Palace, on his usual night patrol. He was restless, but tired at the same time. After the events of the long day – the protester in the streets, Princess Selphie’s return, and the king’s announcement that he would be leaving for the Elder Hall in only a few days – it was little wonder that he was so uneasy.

The kingdom was on the precipice of war, something that King Zaow had been fighting for years to prevent. The king was confident that he might be able to talk the other kings out of it, but in reality there was little chance their minds might be swayed. Even Zaow’s own people no longer seemed to believe in his vision of peace. That man in the streets was proof enough of that. Gareth had heard whispers and quiet murmurs from people who didn’t know he was listening, but it hadn’t been until today that someone had actually gone out in public and spoken against their king. More would undoubtedly follow.

Zaow had always been a difficult king. For one, he had waited too long to have children, leaving the line of succession empty and vulnerable for over two decades. When he finally had married, at the age of fifty-five, it had not been for political gain, but rather for his own heart. Trist was born two years before the Acarian War, and Selphie a year after it. The queen, Sarah, had not survived the childbirth, and King Zaow had refused to marry again.

Gareth had been a guard since he was a young man, and he had been captain since the aftermath of the war. He had watched both of Zaow’s children grow up, the princess in particular. The girl looked so much like her mother, who had always been dear to Gareth’s heart.

Gareth reached the room where he knew Selphie and Jared were now. The door was open, and they could be seen inside, seated at a couch before a fire. He had passed them thrice already, and each time he glanced briefly inside to make sure they were alright. He wasn’t sure if they were aware of his presence or not, but if they were they gave no indication. And as he glanced in the room once more, they did not look up at him.

Selphie was upset, and reasonably so. She had never seen her father in the state she had today – so tired and vulnerable and old. So close to death. She had done her best to hide her shock and pain while her companions were there, but once they had gone, she had let her so often-restrained emotions out. As always, Jared was there to comfort her. As always, Gareth had seen and said nothing.

When Selphie was just a young girl, she would come to Gareth at midday while her father was busy and he would give her lessons in swordplay. It was not unusual in Bacoria for women to be trained as hunters or soldiers, but Selphie was the princess of Sono. Such a thing was simply not proper, and Zaow would undoubtedly not approve if he knew. So the lessons were secret.

Gareth was a busy man, and what little free time he’d had available then went to secretly teaching the princess how to fight. However, she was not his only student. A few days before, a young boy had tried to pick his pocket in the market and had ended up spending the night in gaol. He’d found out the boy was an orphan, his father one of the few casualties Sono had suffered in the war, and his mother having died as well not long ago. He had pitied the boy, so he now allowed the boy to stay at his home, and was training him to be a guard as well.

The solution was obvious. The princess and Gareth’s apprentice would train together. He didn’t have the time to devote to them both, and they were around the same age and got along well. What could go wrong?

Of course, he should have seen it coming.

The first time he caught them, he told them off. He yelled and swore and even threatened to stop the lessons. They bowed their heads and apologised and promised it would never happen again. The lessons continued, and the princess and the orphan continued to train together and spent far too much time together than a princess and an orphan should.

Gareth knew that it didn’t stop. They never let him catch them again, but he saw the looks they exchanged, the whispers they shared, and their fond smiles, and he knew. And every time he saw the two of them together, all he could see was himself and Sarah, all those years ago. And he saw the end of that story – Sarah married to the king, and himself left a heartbroken shell of a man.

And now, years later, the princess and the orphan were older now. They were grown and mature, and they also knew how their story would end. But still, as he peeked into that room to check and see if they were alright, what he saw was a princess and a guard, sitting beside one another, closer than a princess and a guard should have been.

And as always, he said nothing.

<> <> <>

“I am the one who is responsible for all the hardship you’ve endured,” Gordon said to Luca. “So many years ago, I was a soldier in the Acarian army. I was young then, and I looked up to King Manorith with reverence. When the war ended in absolute failure, and King Manorith ordered us to retreat, I was with him, in a small squad of men. We were trying our hardest to get back to Acaria, crossing over the mountains that separated our home from Sono.

“It was storming that night. I remember that detail well, because the storm obscured our vision so badly we couldn’t go on into the night. Those rocks were treacherous enough in the dark, but the rain made them slippery as well. We couldn’t risk going on, so we stopped in a small cave and made camp. One of the other men – I can’t remember his name, but I hated him – he advised King Manorith against it. He reminded him of the Allman mercenaries who were still on our trail, and said that they would not stop for the storm. I think the king believed him, but everyone in the group was so exhausted he chose to risk it so that we could sleep for the night.

“The man I hated turned out to be right, because the Allmans ambushed us. It was brutal – everyone was slaughtered. King Manorith and I were the only ones who were able to get away, but they chased us. We fled into the night, and we managed to get away from the Allmans who chased us. All but one.”

“My father,” Luca said.

“Indeed,” said Gordon. “At the time, I didn’t know who it was – just that he was out to kill us. I was terrified – I thought I was going to die. But King Manorith took me by my shoulder, told me to get back home and tell his wife and son what happened to him. And he went and fought your father. I ran away, but I looked back and saw what happened. I don’t think your father knew who he was chasing until the fight was over. It was too dark. But I could still see your father carrying King Manorith’s helm back.

“I followed his last order. I went back to Acaria. The plague had ravaged our kingdom – that strange disease that killed both man and plant. Acaria had not been a beautiful land, not for a long while, but it was a frozen wasteland when I returned. The small number of people still alive now lived in Acarienthia, the capital. The queen and prince still lived, much to my relief. At this time, the plague more or less passed. But our country was damaged beyond repair.

“I told them what had happened, and they both grieved in their own way. The queen was distraught. She cried and shut herself up in her room. She cared dearly for Manorith. The prince on the other hand – he grew angry. Young Zinoro was filled with rage and hatred. He swore vengeance against Sono for what they had done, both to his father, and to his kingdom.

“A few months later, we received a letter from a man sympathetic to us in Sono. He told us the truth of the matter, that the public believed it was Zaow who had struck down Manorith in the last battle of the war, it was actually a man from Saeticia named Lodin who had killed him. The description of Lodin matched the man I’d seen perfectly.”

“Now Zinoro hated both your father and Zaow. He vowed to destroy them both, but to do this, he needed power. Power he lacked. And that is where the tragedy truly begins. Because Zinoro threw away everything his father believed in in the name of his justice.

“Your father is dead because of my actions. I could not have known they would lead to this, but they are still my responsibility nonetheless. I am sorry.”

“You say it is your fault, but it is not,” Luca told him. “The fault lies with Zinoro. He’s the one who killed my father, who led his men to destroy that town and all those innocent people. It was Zinoro’s orders that led to Allma Temple’s destruction.”

Gordon shook his head. “While I will not deny that it is indeed Zinoro who did those things, he could not have done those things without help. He received this help from the darkest place imaginable – from Ekkei.”

Luca drew in a sharp breath at that name, and stared at Gordon in disbelief. “That can’t be. You’re wrong. Ekkei is a myth – a story told to frighten children away from misbehaviour.”

“I used to believe that once, too,” Gordon said sadly. “The shrine was once nothing more than a relic of another time – a temple to a being that no one truly believed existed. The last shrine of Ekkei – the only one the Paladins had been unable to destroy. It was always been the duty of Acaria’s king to watch over it and ensure that no one enters it and disturbs the dark forces that resides within. While no one actually believed there was any need for the rule, it was still followed, for Acarians are slow to give up the old ways. King Manorith believed in that rule as he believed in any of the others – Zinoro did as well, but he cared more about revenge than that. So he forsake the king’s duty and entered the shrine of Ekkei.

“He spent a week there. We started to fear he was dead. And then he returned – a different person. I know he is touched by Ekkei’s evil, because his eyes were not red before. And when he came back, he had powers. Magick that had been forgotten since the ancient times. And his mana was different – dark and vile and corrupted.”

Luca knew what he meant. He had felt that mana himself. Even now, some trace of its evil lingered in the scar across his cheek, defying the healing magick that should have removed it.

“With this power he had, he found and attacked your father in Saeticia,” Gordon said. “He was confident then, and he went alone. The attack failed. Your father, and the rest of your family was able to escape, and Zinoro lost one of his eyes in the battle. He told me it was your mother who did this.”

Luca hadn’t known that. Ash probably had, but he spoke so little of their mother.

“Even Ekkei’s power was not enough, Zinoro learnt,” Gordon continued. “So he travelled all over Bacoria, taking me with him. I was his first acolyte. He found others on his travels – people with skills he knew he would have use of. Trunda was chosen for his ability to absorb mana. Verra for her skill in Reverse-Healing. Serpos for his orbs that can control dragons. Dreevius for his shapeshifting.”

“And yourself?” Luca asked.

“I’ve no special skills,” Gordon admitted. “Zinoro made me an acolyte as repayment for my service to him. I’ve been loyal to him to from the beginning.” Gordon’s voice was heavy as he said this, and his eyes were filled with regret.

“I should have seen what was happening from the beginning,” Gordon said. “Zinoro started to lose himself in his rage. He was no monster before – he actually wrote poetry when he was young. I don’t know if it was his grief, the influence of Ekkei on him, or both, but eventually all he could think of was his desire for revenge. His madness led him to do horrible things. The queen was devastated by what he did, and tried to run from him. She hid from him for a very long time. But like your father, eventually he tracked her down and killed her. His own mother.”

Gordon paused for a moment, visibly upset at the memory.

“When he found a man with a Rixeor Fragment, rather than challenge the man as he would have before, he sent Verra to kill the man in his sleep. She did, and brought him back the sword he uses now. And when he found the seer he was looking for, he had the man tortured until he told him what he needed to know.

“His acolytes, the Rixeor Fragment, the seer – it was no coincidence that he found them all. Ekkei was guiding his footsteps, leading him to the people and tools he would need. I don’t know what Zinoro promised him in return, because he never speaks of his time in the shrine.

“After the seer, however, things changed. The seer told Zinoro that he could possibly fail, and he told him of the potential futures where he did. In most of these futures, it is you, Lodin’s first son, who kills him. Zinoro, now knowing that he could possibly fail, started to be more careful. He would not go through with any more of his plans until he was sure you and your father were both dead. This was about two years ago. He shifted his focus entirely to finding you two, but this proved difficult as you were in hiding. He sent his men all over Bacoria to find you, and eventually they did. A team up north in Arimos reported you, so he took his revenants and attacked that village.”

“Revenants?”

“Aye,” Gordon said, his eyes wide. “More of Ekkei’s evil power. When someone dies, they vanish, retaken by the mana of the earth. But if Zinoro has blood, even just a few drops, he can – bring them back. It’s not truly the person it was before, just a pale imitation of them. These beings we call revenants. They do not speak, they do not act on their own – they only follow the orders we give them. In the past two years, Zinoro has built an army of them. He only had a hundred of so remaining Acarian soldiers prior to that. He needed an army if he wanted to destroy Sono, and he found a way.”

Luca thought back to all the Acarian soldiers he had fought before. The one with the axe he’d faced in Forga, the ones who had come from underground in Allma Temple, the pair who had stood watch over them like statues when Dreevius had captured them – they had all been such revenants – soulless copies of people Zinoro had killed.

“The attacks on the fringe villages,” Luca said in realisation. “The Acarians attacked not for captives or spoils, but simply to kill.”

“In the aftermath, the revenants will gather up any clothes or bloodied objects and take them back to Acarienthia,” Gordon told him. “Zinoro will use this blood to make more revenants. Any fallen revenants can be brought back as well. His army never loses men, but with each battle it grows. I’m sure all the slain students of Allma Temple now wear the armour of Acaria. As well as all the people who were killed at that village you lived in.”

Arlea – was she there somewhere, hidden under the black and red helm of Acaria? Was she one of the silent attackers Luca had struck down at the temple?

Luca found that he had clenched his fist. His hatred of Zinoro only grew with each thing he learnt of him.

“So why are you telling me all this?” Luca asked him.

“As I said, I’ve been with Zinoro since the beginning,” Gordon said sadly. “I watched him transform from a kind young prince into the monster he is now. And I can’t follow someone like that. At first, I believed in what he was doing. I believed that Acaria could rise again from the ashes, and we could have vengeance for the war. But I’ve long since lost those feelings – ever since he started using slaughtering innocents to build his army of dead men. I cannot follow someone like that anymore.

“I’ve come to you because you’re the only person left who can stop him. The seer said that in most potential futures, it is you who kills him. Zinoro has already cut the other branches – so you’re the only one left who has any chance. But in order to do that, you’ll need a Rixeor Fragment.”

“I’ve been looking,” Luca said.

“Set aside all other goals,” Gordon told him. “Because without one of those sacred blades, you have no chance of matching him. Do you know anyone who has one?”

Luca thought about it. “King Marcus of Saeticia. His sword, Altair. It’s a Fragment.” 

“You must convince Marcus of the importance of this,” Gordon told him. “Rixeor Fragments can be temporarily used by someone else if the master allows it. Convince him to let you borrow it, and go to Acarienthia. If you do this, you can not only prevent this war everyone is talking about, but you might also spare the world of whatever evil Ekkei is aiming to unleash.”

Luca frowned. He thought back to his previous encounter with Marcus. “I don’t think Marcus would be very willing to give his sword to anyone, much less me. We’ll be going to the Elder Hall soon, and I’ll have the opportunity to speak with him there, but I wouldn’t count on him agreeing to this.”

“In that case, we must find another,” Gordon said. “I have heard rumours of a town called Eccador, in Saeticia. They say there is someone with a Fragment there. But these are only rumours, and I have heard little else. The town is not far from the Elder Hall.”

Luca mused. “Perhaps I could go there, and meet the others at the Elder Hall later.”

“I see,” Gordon muttered. “I’ll do what I can in the meantime. We’ll need to meet again. I’ll see you at the Elder Hall.”

“You’re one of Zinoro’s acolytes. You can’t just wander about the Elder Hall…”

“In disguise, or course,” Gordon assured him. “The kings are taking their armies with them. It will be no great task to wear the armour of a soldier and blend in among them. But do not look for me. I will find you. That we met here must remain a secret between us. Neither Zaow’s men, nor Zinoro’s spies, can know. I don’t know how much Zinoro still trusts me, if he does at all. I know there are things he hides from me. And he does not suffer traitors to live. If my treachery is found out, it could ruin everything. You’ll need me to get into Acarienthia.”

“Of course,” Luca said.

Gordon bowed his head. “I’ll meet you at the Elder Hall. With luck, we’ll both still be alive by then.” And with those words, he made his leave.

Luca waited upstairs, until he heard the sound of the front door closing. He considered Gordon’s words, and whether or not he could trust them. The man was an Acarian – of that there was no doubt. A truer Acarian than even the king of Acaria. Gordon had spoken of Manorith, the honourable king, with reverence and pride. He had spoken of Zinoro with thinly-veiled disgust and shame. Sure, there had been a time when Gordon might have believed in Zinoro – but those days were gone. Gordon’s loyalties remained with Acaria, but not with Zinoro.

Luca would trust him for now, but he would be wary. The man was still one of Zinoro’s closest followers. It might still be a plot that he came to meet with him – e