Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  General  ➡  Epic

Broken Blades Don't Sing

Broken Blades Don’t Sing

Kayl A Karadjian

Copyright 2015 Kayl A Karadjian

Shakespir Edition

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this eBook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

This book is purely a work of fiction. Any names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination and are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events, settings, or people is coincidental.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all of those who have inspired and supported me to pursue this dream. To my parents, who without them I would never be here and who are always behind me no matter what. To Catherine White, who is my shining beacon of hope that will always catch me when I fall. To Raouf Sattaur and Henry Chang, who read my initial drafts and helped me to make this novel what it is today.

A special thanks to Martin Perry, who has been there from the very beginning, and a special thanks to my brother, Shant Karadjian. Without his inspiration, Tales of Ashkar would not exist.

To Alessandro “Ganassa” Mazzetti, for his wonderful work on the cover, and to Khiry Wilson, for his exceptional touch on the title. Lastly, to James Hunter-Shortland for his breathtaking maps.

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

About the author

Prologue

176th Dusk of the 4907th Age of Rimas

It seemed as though the blizzard outside would never end.

Serraemas huddled around the fireplace, wrapped in a bundle of cloth that he thought would protect him. To his dismay neither the fire nor the wool blanket offered much reprieve, and he was subjected to the curse of shivers.

In an effort to take his mind off of the ailment, he peered into the depths of the crackling flames under the stone pot of boiling stew. He watched intently as the wooden timber smoldered under the heat and fueled the fire, but at the cost of its own essence.

“Serraemas?” cooed a soft voice gently, and he felt just-as-gentle hands caressing his back. So entranced was he that he hadn’t even sensed his mother approaching from behind.

He looked up to meet her warm eyes and smile, and he made his best attempt to smile back, though he knew his chattering teeth didn’t quite conform to his wish.

“Didn’t I tell you not to stay out there too long?” she said worriedly. “Eight-year-old boys shouldn’t be playing during the storm. The snow will stay for a while after the blizzard, you know? Something worse than a cold could have happened…”

“I’m s-sorry, m-mother”, mumbled Serraemas as he looked down at nothing in particular. “I p-promise I won’t d-do it again.”

She sighed. “It’s all right, Serraemas.”

Once again he felt the same, soft hands caressing his back. Even though the gesture wouldn’t make the sickness go away, at the very least it brought him some comfort and held the shivering at bay, even for a little while. His stuffy nose barely caught the aroma of a hearty stew. “Is s-supper ready soon?”

“Almost”, returned his mother. “We just need to wait for your father. He’s running a little la—“

Serraemas heard the sound of the front door open, the roughly wood creaking open on battered hinges. Soon after followed heavy footfalls as someone entered. The howling winds of the blizzard managed to sneak in through the open door until it was once again interrupted as the door returned to its previous position.

“We were just wondering where you were, dear”, said his mother, undoubtedly directing the words at the figure that entered their small home.

Serraemas turned to meet his father’s gaze, who shook his head and laughed to himself. “I see someone had a little too much fun.”

His father wore a thick coat, along with gloves, boots, and a hat that not only covered his head but also his ears. White snow was collected on the garment, particularly on top of the hat, on the shoulders, and under the boots. Serraemas noticed that his father was carrying a decently-sized brown pouch, though he could not ascertain its contents.

“Well, can you really blame him?” asked his mother.

Serraemas’s father shrugged as he removed articles of clothing one-by-one and placed them atop the coat rack near the door. “I suppose not. Kids will be kids. Is supper ready? I’ll bet even the wolves heard my rumbling stomach.”

“Of course, dear”, replied the feminine voice. “Come Serraemas. Let us eat.”

Serraemas obliged, rising up from where he sat eagerly. Perhaps a bit too eagerly, for he stumbled and nearly tripped on the edge of the blanket that had gotten caught at the bottom of his foot. After he regained his composure, he hurried over to the table and took his place next to his father, patiently awaiting his meal.

One-by-one, his mother served the hot stew with stone bowls. “There you go. Now eat, sweetie. The hot stew will be good for the cold.”

Serraemas peered down into the hot liquid, noting an assortment of vegetables, but unable to identify any sort of meat. Grabbing the spoon, he swished the contents of the stew. Still nothing. He looked up at his parents. “No meat tonight?”

He felt a soft pat on his head.

“Not tonight, my son”, answered his father somberly. “But someday, you will have all the meat you will ever want.”

“Don’t fill his head with lies”, snapped Serraemas’s mother.

His father didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he gulped down a large spoonful of the stew. “They’re not lies, dear. Our luck might have finally changed. I can finally tell that bastard Ogill to shove it up his ass.”

Serraemas’s mother returned a stern expression. “Not in front of Serraemas. We talked about it. And what would happen if Sir Ogill found out how you refer to him?”

His father waved a hand, dismissing her comments. “What’s he going to do? Pay me less for all the work I do tending to his fields? I ought to go all the way to Lorine and tell them what kind of madman he is.”

“Someone’s feeling brave”, whispered his mother as she leaned closer. “What’s gotten into you?”

“It’s not what’s gotten into me”, replied his father. “It’s what I’ve gotten!”

Seemingly out of nowhere, Serraemas saw his father retrieve the same pouch, holding it up into the air and jangling it. The sound of several pieces of metal clanged softly.

“What’s that?” asked his mother with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

“Our change of luck”, answered the man proudly. “I got it from Jassen. He says I need to hold on to it for a bit, but we’re going to split it soon.” He then smiled at Serraemas. “I’ll get you whatever you want for the Winter’s Frost festivities this year. Maybe one of Labrys’s toys?”

Serraemas’s mother also smiled at him, though hers was a nervous one, as if something was amiss and she was trying to hide that fact. She then turned to his father and furrowed her brows. “Then how did he get it?”

“Who knows”, said his father with a shrug. “Nobody knows I have it so it’s safe. All we need to do is make sure it stays that w—“

A swift knock came out the door.

The two adults looked at each other in puzzlement.

“Who the hell could that be?” asked his father to no one in particular.

The knock came again.

“Who is it?” shouted the older man.

No reply.

With a shrug, Serraemas’s father stood up from his seat and walked over to the door. He reached for the knob and pulled slowly—

The door swung open violently, crashing onto his father and knocking the man down. Without pause a slew of hardy-looking men rushed in, some swarming over his father and others approaching both Serraemas and his mother. Shouts and cries rang throughout the small cottage as blunt weapons were raised and subsequently swung.

“Serraemas, run!” shouted his mother hoarsely before being overtaken by the host of intruders.

Panic set in, and Serraemas froze. He watched in horror as both his parents were attacked mercilessly. He looked in the direction of the door, noticing that a few of the men stayed back and blocked the only entrance to the home—and the only way out. Without anywhere to go, Serraemas turned around and nearly jumped into the closet, fumbling with the door as he tried to close it as if it would somehow cause the nightmare to cease.

In between the slight crack, Serraemas saw his parents—bodies wracked with cuts, bruises, and brutal injuries—as they were dragged out violently into the raging blizzard. What seared his mind the most, however, was their terrified faces as they shouted in pain.

The rest of the men marched out the door save for one that approached the very closet that Serraemas had shut himself in. He was able to get a closer look at the assailant, noticing the man had a scarred and rough face, and to use the term ugly would have been a complement.

“Come ‘ere ya little shit”, beckoned the man menacingly as he reached out, intending to pry open the closet door—

“Leave the runt alone”, said another voice behind the ugly man. “He’s just a bastard now. He’s no use to us.”

The first man snarled at Serraemas, but turned around and stomped out the door, leaving the boy to be alone.

Serraemas broke down in tears, and couldn’t prevent himself from sobbing uncontrollably.

“Mother?” he called out. “Father?”

No one answered.

Slowly, Serraemas opened the closet door, and the creaking wood echoed throughout the small house. He surveyed the room, noticing the entire cottage was trashed. Chairs were broken. Pots littered the floor.

“A-anybody?” Serraemas stammered hoarsely. “Help?”

The only sound came from the furious blizzard invited by the open door.

Serraemas rushed out of his home and into the storm. Immediately he was pelted by hail and snow alike. He struggled to cover his face, looking around for any sign of his parents, but the blizzard made it difficult to see even past a few feet. By now, the snow had piled up heavily, and Serraemas left snowy footprints behind him that were quickly erased.

Coughing and teary eyed, he made his way to a neighboring home and knocked. “Somebody help!”

“Go away”, he heard from the other side of the door.

Looking around, Serraemas continued on to another hovel. Once again he knocked, but was turned down just the same. The pattern repeated for several houses, and at this point he didn’t even know how far away from his home he had gotten.

Cold, defeated, and afraid, Serraemas slouched, then fell down into the thick snow. With his face half buried in the snow, tears continued to make their way down his face as the biting frost wracked his body. He laid there for a few moments—alone and hopeless—until soft footfalls stopped just near his head. Struggling, Serraemas lifted his head to meet the gaze of a young girl near the same age as him and bundled in a similar wrapping.

It appeared, however, that unlike him she had followed her mother’s advice about not inviting the frost so openly.

“Mom, someone’s here!” she shouted as she looked over her shoulder. Behind her was a cottage not unlike Serraemas’s, with smoke bellowing from a chimney and warm light glowing from within. She kneeled down and smiled at Serraemas as she extended a hand. “My name is Elena. What’s yours?”

Chapter 1

292nd Dusk of the 4917th Age of Rimas

It’s always so dark.

The night was like all the rest, the skies pitch black save for the bright dots of stars and the moon. They shone down their bright light onto Ashkar from thrones in the sky. The winds chilled Serraemas, and silence suffocated the vast expanse of forest and rock surrounding the Peaks of Corsma. The quietness was dominating yet sharp, like the tongue of Lorine’s king.

Atop the aged hill rested a single, dying tree, its once vibrant leaves of turquoise withered down to a dried red. With a powerful gust of cold wind went a set of its shriveled fingers, swept north toward the tall towers of Lorine Keep.

Like all royalty scum they stuff their guts until they vomit and drink their pains to sleep while the rest of us starve.

“What are you thinking about?” asked a familiar voice, bringing Serraemas out of his thoughts.

He turned to look upon her, his eyes softening in a manner only a lover’s could. She was a beauty, without a dying man’s doubt, her long brown hair scented to his favorite flower—Tarue flowers—that dotted the very earth they laid upon. He closed his eyes, the smell overtaking every bit of his existence. In the darkness of his mind were born her round, brown eyes.

“Serraemas?” she asked again with concern.

“Will you be at my side forever?” he whispered near silently, his question swept away by the breeze.

“What?” asked Elena as she leaned in closer.

He blinked, pupils refocusing. He couldn’t hold back the smile that so satisfyingly crept onto his chilled lips. “Nothing, Elena. I’m just thinking of how stunning you are.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, running her feminine fingers through his shoulder-length dark hair. “But you’re just as handsome, my—“

An extraordinarily loud boom shook the hill, interrupting Elena and altering her balance. If it wasn’t for Serraemas’s quick hand, the poor thing would have fallen to meet her end.

He pulled her back, securing her close, not a single word escaping his lips. He sat there almost petrified, eyes soaking in the heavy smoke produced by the infernos raging throughout the city of Lorine. It was so abrupt. The devastation itself wasn’t what worried him, however, for Lorine and its surrounding villages often experienced the ruin wrought by unforgiving flame—the breath of a dragon.

Not too far to the northeast rose Mount Corsma, its peaks piercing the clouds that hung so commonly over the kingdom. Word passed by mouth told that the sky was kept dark from the mere presence of Corsma, the Black Dragon. The dragon was blight to the kingdom, promoting unprecedented hardship for the past hundred ages, or so they said.

The problem was that the devastation rampant before his eyes was not produced by the malevolence of the dark drake. No, it was much more ruin than the winged-reptile could ever wrought. Of course, Corsma’s attacks were brutal, and she often set fire to fields of crops or small villages. A few times she had even assaulted Lorine itself, incinerating a portion of the kingdom. But the city was not without its defenses, as ballistae were strategically placed in towers that fired back at the soaring dragon. The kingdom had also sent incursions to hunt down Corsma, but it seemed any attempts at a permanent solution were fruitless.

“It’s from within, Elena”, Serraemas whispered.

The girl appeared confused. “What do you mean from within?”

He hopped to his feet, his slender but muscular frame rising fully as he looked at the flames beyond. He needed to be certain.

She rose beside him, scalp reaching his shoulder blade. “Do you mean that there is conflict within the grand city’s walls?”

He loved Elena so much—beyond anything she could ever care to know. But… she was innocent. Too innocent, unfortunately, for the world they lived in. His eyes remained looking upon the fires, the dirtied scent of smoke finally reaching his nostrils. “Yes.” His answer was absolute, not a single hint of hesitation hidden behind the word. He continued to glare at the reality that was his life, the hardships and losses.

And then that dreadful memory returned.

They still seemed so real, their eyes so calming, and their smiles so warming. He felt safe when in their presence, shutting off the world around him with but a closing of his eyes.

Mother? Father? A-anybody? Help?

“Serraemas?” asked a soft voice. The voice he held most dear.

“Everything will be okay,” he replied, sure of himself.

Elena whimpered. “But—“

Serraemas turned to her, landing a kiss. His cheeks rushed with blood as he pulled her close. How delicious her lips were. So soft and sweet.

Elena moaned her satisfaction as she tiredly wrapped her arms around his thin waist.

He moaned in return, though he couldn’t keep his mind off the dots of smoldering flames that burned in the backdrop.

Something wasn’t right.

—-

Elena’s warmth was a welcomed contrast to the night’s cold. Serraemas glanced down, his chin touching his bare chest. She was breathtaking while awake, though even cuter while asleep with the way her pink lips parted slightly from each breath.

He ran his beaten hand through her soft hair as he looked back up at the sky, twisting strands of brown between his fingers as he neared the tips. A well-placed hand on Elena’s lower back caused the girl to push herself closer to Serraemas. He couldn’t help but enjoy the softness of her breasts against his side, and an involuntary smile was testament to that fact. He would marry Elena, of that he was certain.

You are my everyth—

Suddenly, the sound of distant footsteps caught his ear, and he turned to look down the steep decline of the hill. His eyes scanned the rustling tallgrass that rose so commonly on the Peaks of Corsma. It wasn’t rare to find Corsman Ingols—small, furry beasts with sharp fangs—taking refuge within the shelter of the thorny hedges, and Serraemas could entertain with personal experience.

The little things weren’t too dangerous, but—

A dagger flew straight for Serraemas’s head.

Instinct took hold, and he rolled over Elena, waking her as he pulled her over him.

“What?” Elena yelped in shock at the rapid movement.

Serraemas hurried to his feet, grabbing his staff as the sound of steel puncturing earth filled his ears. “Stay behind me.” His tone was cool, and his posture collected. The daggers fine hilt rose from the ground where Serraemas had been laying upon just moments before, the blade wedged deep in the earth.

“Would ya look at that?” barked a rough voice from the shadows.

Serraemas glanced to where he had heard the deep voice, and was rewarded by the sight of a shadowy silhouette emerging from the darkness.

“That’s one adorable looking gal,” the man continued, dead-gray eyes feasting from behind the veil of his hood as he pulled it down to reveal his ruffian face. “I’m sure she tastes real nice.”

Serraemas tensed, the disdain wrinkling his face. He searched the man’s features carefully, and ran the images of that fateful night ten years ago for a semblance of familiarity—but nothing came to him.

Fate, it would seem, would not allow Serraemas the sweet taste of vengeance his parched lips asked for.

“Oh?” the hooded figure snickered. “You don’t like it when I speak of her like so?” The man straightened from his slouch, risen index finger tapping against his invisible chin. “Well, to be frank, you’re not in any position to—“

“Shut your mouth, animal”, shot Serraemas balefully.

The mysterious man cocked his head, taken aback.

“Do not fret, Serraemas”, echoed a familiar voice inside his head. “Together we will handle them with ease.”

His greatest ally, the elemental Zaranet, had surfaced to assist him. While Serraemas had heard tales of ancient entities called elementals that existed where one’s eyes could not follow, he had been surprised to discover that such a being resided in him. Not only that, but Zaranet proved to be a great friend.

According to Zaranet, elementals existed in life in another realm, the Elemental Plane. In death, however, the mystical entity had been just as surprised as Serraemas to discover that the two were bound to each other through a weapon. In his case, the elemental manifested itself through the staff that Serraemas wielded, and now, Zaranet’s essence resided in the young, dark-haired human, granting Serraemas the power to control frost itself.

Serraemas closed his eyes, hands uniting in front of his chest.

The immediate temperature suddenly dropped, surrounding foliage withering away until all that remained was death. From the dried earth rose the chilling mist all too familiar to Serraemas, a blueish, white chill that signaled the arrival of his elemental’s power.

The overwhelming mist hardened, coating the hill in shimmering ice for as far as the mortal eye could see. That ice shattered, broken icicles and stardust rising to the air as if guided by an invisible force. With a sudden crack the floating carpet of ice shot straight toward Serraemas, transforming into a thin pillar as it neared the empty space of his conjoined palms.

“Is that all you can do?” mocked the brigand. “A cheap trick?”

“You have sought death, so I shall give it to you!” Serraemas exclaimed, chilled mist evacuating his breathe.

“Oh ho!” the hooded man bellowed.

No, it wasn’t him.

A second voice?

From behind the shadowed male rose the spiked hair of a second assailant. This one was at least a foot taller than his companion, and twice as thick in all matters physical. He was wrapped in a thick hooded cloak, gloves, and boots much like his shorter counterpart.

“Looks like the little pipsqueak’s a scary ol’ elementalist, Brag”, spoke the large man with glee. “I bet someone would pay a high price for an elementalist. Maybe the king himself? Imagine what kind of wealth he’s got in his coffers, eh Brag?”

Little? Did he just say I’m little?

Serraemas’s eye twitched slightly.

“Let me take this one solo, Tro”, replied Brag as he drew out another dagger from his ragged cloak, though this new blade was considerably larger. “After I’m done with you we’re gonna have a good time with your lady friend.” Without giving Serraemas any time to answer the dagger-wielding bandit lunged at the staff-wielder.

“Focus”, Zaranet whispered softly.

With precision Serraemas swung his arms, releasing the sliver of ice toward Brag. To his dismay, the bandit sidestepped out of harm’s way. The spike flew past the bandit, embedding itself into the ground.

The dark figure lunged again.

This time, Serraemas did not have the advantage of a gap to prepare another sliver of ice. With a firm grasp of his staff he thrust the tip, aiming at the man’s head—

Brag ducked, narrowly dodging the strike and then thrusting his blade in return toward Serraemas’s throat. In response, Serraemas quickly shuffled his feet and arched his torso, shifting his center of balance to the right.

The blade cut the air where his neck had been just before.

Brag retracted his arm intending to thrust again—

Serraemas was quicker. With a swift kick he struck the cloaked figure in the stomach, knocking him down. Serraemas then leapt backward and slammed his staff into the ground, freeing his hands. He tensed his body and generated more ice out of thin air. This time, he created three spikes that floated above him. A bead of sweat ran down his face, and he felt himself grow hotter.

Brag snarled, attempting to get back on his feet. “Come here you son of a—”

Serraemas swung his arms before the bandit could finish his sentence, and the barrage of slivers flew toward the bandit. The bastard slumped back to the ground, impaled three times in the chest. A look of surprise mixed with horror flashed across his lifeless face as blood seeped from his wounds and mouth.

Without pause, Serraemas wheeled around to where Brag’s accomplice had stood.

He had made a grave mistake.

The brigand named Tro now stood where Elena had been, grasping her tightly with a blade pressed against her throat. Fear rose within Serraemas, for he knew there would be no bargaining with such wretches, especially now that he had taken the life of one of them already.

“You gonna regret it, you bastard”, said Tro with a menacing face. He drew the dagger closer to her, about to slash. “You gonna regret it.”

“Wait!” shouted Serraemas, extending his hand toward where both the murderer and his love stood. He looked at the face of his hope. Her complexion—a mixture of terror and apprehension—made his heart sink, but she said nothing. Her eyes searched his for solace. He gave her a look of resolution, hiding his uncertainty. She brightened, but only slightly, still fearful for her life.

“Calm yourself, Serraemas, and look for the right moment”, said Zaranet.

Tro grinned.

Finding amusement in the dread that the couple were experiencing, the cloaked giant relaxed slightly, giving Serraemas the opportunity he was looking for. “Go on, say your last wor—”

Serraemas flicked his hand before the man could finish. In an instant the very first sliver of ice he had generated—its sharp point still embedded in the ground—launched toward Tro and straight through the side of the large man’s head.

Tro was dead before he hit the ground.

With a loud thud the second bandit’s body fell to the cold earth, and blood pooled out of his fatal wound.

Panting, Serraemas buckled under exhaustion and collapsed onto to his knees. He grasped his staff firmly for support, though he felt weak. His face was even paler than usual; he had only recently discovered the powers dormant inside of him, and it took a tremendous toll on his body to utilize it.

He furrowed his brows.

It’s still not enough. I need to master this power. I almost lost her…

Serraemas glanced at Elena as she sprinted toward him, tears streaming down her face.

I can’t lose her.

“Oh, Serraemas”, she said softly before nearly smashing into him. Elena embraced him tightly as if she hadn’t held him in ages.

“It’s okay, Elena”, assured Serraemas with conviction, albeit hoarsely. “You know I would never let anyone hurt you.”

The two remained in each other’s arms for several moments without saying a word, with the only sound coming from a cool breeze that rustled the Tarue flowers. Despite the fact that their sweet aroma was amplified by the wind, Serraemas hardly noticed the scent. Instead, he focused his gaze and attention to the inferno that still raged in Lorine. By now, the once seemingly impenetrable kingdom was razed to the ground, and plumes of smoke rose upward into the darkness.

High above, a collection of incandescent lights in the sky caught Serraemas’s eye. Eight bright lights moved downward, as if sent down from the heavens. At first he thought they were just shooting stars, but the lights came together in a circle before flying off in opposite directions and disappearing over the horizon.

“Wow, such beautiful shooting stars!” gasped Elena, also noticing the strange phenomenon but thinking nothing of it. It seemed that she had already dismissed the fact that she had faced death just minutes prior.

Both of them continued to gaze into the starry sky. Serraemas brought her closer and squeezed just a bit tighter as once more his mind shifted to the pain of losing his family. This world was full of struggles. Yet he had endured, and now he wasn’t helpless. He wielded the power of the elements; the ability to protect his hope.

Serraemas glanced at Elena and smiled warmly.

As long as I have you, everything will be okay.

Chapter 2

335th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Another tedious day…

Wu sat with arms and head sprawled over a table filled with heaps of books, scrolls, and parchments. Being a Grand Master Magus in the most prominent academy of elementalism in the world entitled one to arbitrary and menial tasks—something he had not been privy to when he first accepted the job.

The School of Eight was founded during the 4982nd Age of Rimas by several renown elementalists, most notably Wu and Graeme Warren, the latter holding the title of Grand Arcanist. Together, they had formed the foundation of learning the elemental arts in the vast kingdom of Arcadia, which was named after the continent it rested upon.

Wu had dozed off, his loud snores echoing throughout the halls of the third floor of the Bureau of Elemental Affairs, the northernmost building in the school grounds. Novices walking by his office occasionally peeped in, but quickly scurried off lest they tempt the wrath of such a revered elementalist.

The sound of shouting abruptly ended his nap.

“Hmm?” said Wu aloud drowsily as he lifted his head up and glanced toward the window. His wrinkled face had several red marks from burying his head in the endless pile of books—books that covered nearly every possible topic and conjecture relating to elementalism. Slowly, Wu stood up, cupped his hands behind his back, and strode to the window facing south.

Peering out to where the ruckus was coming from, he noticed a small boy being assaulted by a group of children that nearly piled onto him in the Courtyard of Brilliance. A young veri—tall and purple-skinned people that hail from western Ashkar, far away from human lands—who he identified as Master Doriel Felen was shouting unacknowledged commands and unsuccessfully attempting to pull the bullies away with nothing but her own arms.

Wu frowned and shook his head. “Children…” He casually glanced at the small boy being assaulted, and his eyes widened. Wu quickly wheeled around and rushed past his door as his long, flowing robes fluttered behind him. His garment was mostly dark purple with blue streaks that ran down its length. On the back was the insignia of the academy, a glowing eye with eight spheres circling around it.

Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Ice, Lightning, Time, and Space. These were the schools of elementalism that were taught by the School of Eight. Naturally, Wu had an affinity for, and mastered, all of them—a feat only accomplished by one other person.

Everyone in the hallway froze and turned their attention to the barging senior. One of his students, a young fellow named Marcus, smiled and bowed in respect at Wu as he neared. “Master, I have learned a new spe—!”

“How impressive”, responded Wu sarcastically, interrupting the young student as he rushed by. Out of the corner of his eye Wu saw Marcus whip around with a puzzled look on his face. Wu didn’t have much difficulty in discerning why the student was so startled, for the Grand Master Magus was hardly ever in a hurry.

—-

“Stop right this instant!” yelled Doriel as she attempted to halt the onslaught, though her efforts proved futile. Her gray robe had begun to soak in her sweat, appearing darker with splotches of the perspiration. Despite her interference, nobody seemed to acknowledge her presence. Prior to the debacle, she had spent all morning lecturing students about the history of fire element and decided to spend her afternoon relaxing in the courtyard.

Or so she had wished.

The School of Eight, being located in the melting pot that was the kingdom of Arcadia, housed and taught just about any civilized race, including humans, veri, kivu, and seamenders.

Doriel questioned whether that was the proper choice.

The more savage races like the tusked Dommogin or the scaly Towrth were not so welcome, for Arcadia was eternally at war with every dommogin and Doriel had yet to hear of a towrth that proved itself to be more than just an intelligent animal.

Even so, fights between students were rather common, and sometimes even fatal when the powers of the elements were involved. Strict rules were enforced that disallowed the use of magic on one another in an aggressive manner, though it seemed that it wasn’t enough. Even the Masters like herself were prohibited from using spells on students—or heavens forbid—each other. A circumstance like that would surely be a calamity, considering the abilities that they wielded and the level of expertise that they wielded them with.

At the very least there didn’t seem to be any elementalism involved this time, but Doriel still had to do something for the poor child. She grabbed two more yelling boys from the horde and pulled them back, yet she still couldn’t stop the bullies from pummeling the poor boy. There were simply too many of them; as soon as she let go they would scramble back into the pile.

All of them seemed no more than twelve ages, except for one who seemed to be the leader of these bullies. He stood taller and larger than the rest, and looked to be about fourteen ages.

Doriel clenched her teeth.

Of course, Damian is behind all this…

A natural aggressor, Damian was notorious for picking fights with other students, especially those that were younger, weaker, or of another culture. If it were up to her, Doriel would have him kicked out of the academy.

You’re lucky your parents have influence, brat. But… I can still teach you a lesson.

She moved toward him, and he finally took notice of her intentions. A wicked grin flashed across his face. She wouldn’t raise a fist to a student but she would be damned if she didn’t give him some good old-fashioned discipline—

All of a sudden the horde of bullies was lifted several feet off the ground. With faces of shock and confusion they flailed their arms aimlessly. After a brief pause in the air they were thrown by an invisible force away from where the victim lay. What had just been a frenzied mob was now reduced to a heap of disoriented children.

Doriel focused her attention on the small boy still lying next to her. He had suffered multiple wounds, including a bloody nose, several bruises, and perhaps a broken rib or two. His robe was also worn and dirtied, but aside from that she found nothing that indicated major trauma. Whatever injuries he had sustained would be easily taken care of.

“Here, let me help”, Doriel said to the boy. She waved her arms and channeled her energy, and a white mist formed around her hand. Gently, she glided her hand over the boy’s wounds, and while he would still need medical attention to ensure that he was okay, the majority of his bruises and exterior injuries healed before her very eyes. Unlike many other elementals, hers was a defensive one, and her abilities reflected that; Doriel had mastery over healing waters, unshakable earth, and protective gusts of wind.

The boy moved his arms away from his face, allowing Doriel to finally take a look at him. She assumed that he would be crying or otherwise broken in spirit, yet what she saw shocked her. Fiery, determined brown eyes stared back. Before she could even help him up he jumped to his feet, then turned his attention toward the pile of bullies and stuck his tongue out.

“Are you all right?!” Doriel asked, bewildered at the boy’s ability to shake off the beating with such ease.

The boy turned and looked up at her, smiling. “Is it my turn to beat them up?”

She couldn’t help but let loose a chuckle, returning a warm smile herself. Doriel then looked around for the elementalist bold enough to break the school’s rules. While she had technically just utilized her elemental abilities on school grounds without approval, hers was used to heal. The space magic that was used on the bullies, while effectively ceasing the engagement, was used to forcibly act upon another’s will and could have led to more harm. Doriel gaped as her eyes settled on the exalted man that stood before her.

“M-m-master Wu!” she stuttered, bowing with respect. Even though her robe was inscribed with the three spheres of air, water, and earth, signifying mastery of those schools of elementalism and an impressive feat by most standards, it was insignificant compared to the Grand Master Magus. Not only that, but for him to even involve himself in such trifling matters, especially regarding novices, caused her a fair share of apprehension.

Master Wu was an elderly man brimming with knowledge and wisdom. His long, white mustache and thin beard nearly flowed past his chest, and his just-as-white hair was fashioned in a long ponytail. While he had always seemed rather jovial to her, Doriel couldn’t help but feel deceived, as if it was just a show. He slowly strode toward both her and the boy with a slight hunch, hands cupped behind his back, and a stern look on his visage.

“Sometimes”, Master Wu began as if reading her mind, “One must use necessary force even if that goes against our establishment, Master Doriel.”

“Yes, Master Wu”, Doriel responded as she bowed once more. “My apologies.”

Master Wu suddenly lightened his complexion and laughed heartily. “Then again, a true Master of the School of Eight understands the importance of rules. Without them, we are nothing but mindless fools!”

Doriel gaped again, hardly making an effort to contain her bewilderment.

One moment he’s saying something with a frown and the next it’s the opposite with a laugh…

Master Wu faced the boy and smiled. “Come now, Quinn, let us walk to the infirmary and tend to those wounds”. He approached the child, then gently placed a hand behind the boys head and directed him away. As the two strolled in the opposite direction, Master Wu turned to her again. “I see you took it upon yourself to heal him a bit, Master Doriel. I can see that you truly care for the students here, and I am grateful to have you here at this school.”

“Thank you, Master Wu”, she returned. “The School of Eight is a wonderful place for young minds, and I do not regret leaving my home and traveling to Arcadia.”

Doriel’s homeland, on the continent of Garen in western Ashkar, was where Veri originally hailed from. While most stayed on Garen and hardly interacted with the other races, she was one of the few that ventured out. There were only two other major groups of Veri in the human lands, with one being the kingdom of Illistainn in Makka, and the other led by Ohrl’han the Supreme. The latter was the leader of the Sol sector here in Arcadia, which was split into four sectors. Each sector had their own leader, and together they formed the Arcadian Council.

“One last thing, Master Doriel”, Wu said, now with a hint of aversion in his tone. “See to it that these delinquents receive their due punishment.”

“Right away”, she responded respectfully, though her gaze remained on Master Wu and the boy for an extended period of time as they disappeared from view.

How does he know that the boy’s name is Quinn?

—-

Wu, with Quinn at his side, left the courtyard and continued to walk toward the eastern side of the school grounds. Students and teachers alike offered respect as they passed them, and while the elderly man smiled in return, the only thing he felt was disdain. To Wu, respect from ants was uninspiring and empty.

“Do you know who I am, Mister Hergs?” Wu asked, the question directed to the brown-haired boy walking next to him.

“No”, Quinn responded, shaking his head.

“I am Grand Master Magus Wu, I was one of the founders of this academy many years ago”, explained Wu.

The boy nodded, but otherwise seemed disinterested in what Wu had to say.

“Where were your friends during the fight?” Wu pressed.

The boy looked up at Wu for a moment then looked down. “I don’t have any friends…”

They walked for a while without a word. The only sound came from the beaks of chirping birds and whipping garments from the occasional breeze. Wu continued to smile and nod absentmindedly at passersby though his thoughts were elsewhere.

The boy’s parents had been prominent elementalists that had studied here at the School of Eight, and had sent their only son nearly an age ago to follow in their footsteps. They had great expectations for him to become a revered elementalist himself, and were generous in their ‘accommodations’ for the academy.

Unfortunately, the boy had no magical affinity whatsoever, nor was he an elementalist; no elemental spirit resided in him, and none would ever.

During birth, the souls of people across all of Ashkar were left vulnerable to the intrusions of elemental spirits. As people grew and matured, they formed connections with these powerful elementals, gaining access to abilities that were otherwise impossible to attain for those that were not elementalists. Here at the School of Eight, young children were taught in the ways of elementalism, mastering their abilities and learning about the nature of the elements.

Quinn, being at the academy for nearly an age, had yet to be able to even learn a single spell—at least not in a conventional manner, something that Wu was aiming to circumvent.

The school had tried to send Quinn back to his parents, though upon learning that their child had no elemental affinity, refused to take him back. Naturally, the school would have sent the boy off to somewhere else in Arcadia—most likely an orphanage, or perhaps the slums. At Wu’s behest, however, the boy remained at the school, and the Grand Master Magus elected not to expose the poor child to such dismaying news.

Wu smiled again, his normally wrinkled face becoming even more wrinkled. “You have great spirit, boy. Power without conviction is useless, but with a will like yours—ah, here we are!”

The two reached a large building that pierced the blue sky. It was higher than most of the other buildings surrounding it, with rows and rows of windows from top-to-bottom.

Quinn raised a brow and scratched his head. “But this is the Grand Library.”

Wu turned his head from side-to-side, and then up as he squinted. “Oh dear… I must be getting too old!”

—-

“Damn it, this forest doesn’t end!” Aramal muttered out loud to no one but himself. He paused and looked around, sighing in frustration. He then drew out the yellowing map from his large knapsack for the thousandth time as if it was going to suddenly show him the right path. He looked at it blankly for a moment, then sighed again.

He had been marching through the Farrin Forest tirelessly for several hours, and he didn’t even know if it was dawn or dusk anymore; the canopy created by tall, thick trees blocked out most of the sky. The tall trees and dense foliage further surrounded him in every direction, as if beckoning with malice, and it felt as if he hadn’t made any progress at all. He had heard the occasional growl as well, though whatever beasts it emanated from he could not identify.

Trees. Trees everywhere. Makka is full of these ridiculous labyrinths.

Aramal rolled the map back up and reached for his canteen. He frowned, discovering that it was empty.

Out of whiskey too…

Sighing for the third time, he trudged forward aimlessly for quite some time until he caught sight of a ray of light not too far ahead.

“Finally!” he exclaimed aloud, as if someone was listening. “The exit out of this damn place.”

Aramal marched toward the light with newfound vigor, almost sprinting toward his freedom. As he reached the welcoming rays, however, his hopes were crushed. Aramal had mistaken the clearing for the end of the forest. He looked up, finally able to have the privilege of the wide expanse that was the sky, and noticed that the sun was setting. Gritting his teeth, Aramal strode toward the center of the clearing and plopped onto the ground. Conceding to the night, he decided to rest. Lying down, he gazed up at the nearby canopies and took a deep breath.

It wasn’t long before Aramal’s mind turned to daydreams, reminiscing about a life he once lived. Life during youth had been a thrill. A mercenary with a notorious reputation for achieving results, he had enjoyed the many spoils of success: wealth, women, and power. Skirmishes, rebellions, even wars—it didn’t matter as long as the pay was good. For him that was fulfillment, or so he had thought.

We’re just shitty people in a shitty world. Ain’t anything good here.

Aramal continued to stare at the long, winding branches of the trees. Slowly closing his eyelids, he felt himself starting to doze off—

The sound of footsteps on grass boomed like thunder. Aramal pulled himself to his feet in a flash, then jerked his head to his right. A lone figure stood several dozen feet away from him, wearing a black, hooded cloak, and held a rather large battle axe in its left hand. The figure lifted the hood with its right hand, exposing a bronzed, rugged-faced man. From this distance, Aramal noted short black hair and a determined visage.

What the hell?

The man raised his axe and pointed its tip at Aramal.

“Give me the book”, the intruder demanded.

Chapter 3

335th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

“When are we going to get something interesting to do?!” Raxxil exclaimed, trying to elicit a response from Serraemas, but the latter remained quiet. “That last mission was a bore…”

The two bounded down a long tunnel as torches lined along the walls illuminated their path, flickering shadows upon carved stone. Out of the corner of his eye Serraemas watched as Raxxil stared at him for a few moments before rolling his eyes, acknowledging that his outburst would go unanswered.

After several minutes of silence they reached the end of the tunnel, and they stepped into a cavernous room. Lining the walls of the large room were several carved holes that led into other long tunnels. In the middle of the room was a short man waiting patiently with a frown. He wore a gaunt face, with thick brows and a flat nose.

Serraemas nodded at the figure. “The mission was a—“

“Hey Gorr, look what we got for you!” yelled Raxxil with a grin, interrupting Serraemas as he threw a large, blood-stained sack toward the Caretaker. It flew past the frowning man’s right side and landed with a loud thud behind him. Gorr remained where he stood, unspoken and unflinching.

The sound of slow clapping echoed throughout the room.

A silhouette emerged from one of the other tunnels. He had a lock of black hair in an otherwise sea of snow white that flowed past his shoulders, and he wore heavy armor under a black overcoat much like Raxxil did. Slung on his back was a large, two-handed sword. The shadow smirked as he neared the two.

Serraemas could feel Raxxil’s aura grow hotter.

“Oh, wow!” Sevag blurted sarcastically. “What a great feat, Raxxil the Volcano. I’m sure Sora will have you rescuing kittens next.”

Raxxil tensed, glaring at Sevag with a scowl. The former took a step forward, gripping his massive hammer over his shoulder.

A sigh of contempt emanated from Serraemas.

Serraemas stared blankly at the armored figure in front of him that was approaching Sevag with less-than-friendly intent. Raxxil had an imposing stature, his muscular and well-defined body intimidating to most. He had a strong, angular jaw that accentuated his fierce complexion, with deep green eyes and short brown hair. He was taller than Serraemas by nearly half a head, and even slightly taller than the jester that riled him. Still, Sevag smugly watched Raxxil with condescending eyes.

“Raxxil”, stated Serraemas with neutral inflection.

Raxxil halted, looking over his shoulder at Serraemas. After a brief pause, the former sighed in frustration and released his grip. He then stepped back, crossed his arms, and faced the other way.

Sevag’s smirk only grew wider.

“Sevag, what news of Makka?” asked Serraemas.

“Well, it seems like plans are being set in motion in Illistainn”, replied Sevag. “Those Veri are always up to something. There has also been an increase in word about Executioners. It seems the rumors about their presence has been growing as of late. Other than that, things are pretty quiet over there.”

“I see”, Serraemas said. “Any news of the Asmani?”

Sevag licked his lips and raised a brow. “Something like that. Kingdoms like the Asmani are gearing up and reinforcing troops. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but it could be that Emperor Ambrose is on his last breaths and his daughter is much too young to be in control of such a vast empire. Everyone else is following suit, it would seem.” Without giving either Serraemas or Raxxil a chance to say anything, Sevag shrugged, gave Raxxil a taunting smirk, and then turned and faded back into the shadows. “I’ll catch you two lovebirds later.” As Sevag vanished from sight, the sound of boots scraping stone reverberated throughout the room.

“One day I’m gonna smash his face in”, muttered Raxxil under his breath.

“Your next mission,” announced Gorr, speaking for the first time. He reached under his coat and withdrew a round object with his left hand. A single sigil in its center flashed red every few moments.

A teamdisc.

Serraemas instantly recognized who that belonged to.

Each rune represented a member of a team, and most teams in the past had consisted of at least two members, such as Raxxil and himself. Jorne and Sevag, on the other hand, were the only ones that worked alone. Jorne preferred solitude, while the snow-haired jester was charged with a task that was unsuitable with other members. Regardless, Serraemas was unsure that anyone would actually be able to handle such a mouthy partner. Then again, Raxxil’s mouth seemed to be open at all times, and at this point, Serraemas was as accustomed to it as he would ever be.

The fact that the rune had ceased to flash was troubling.

“Did Jorne fall in battle?” asked Serraemas. Jorne was a powerful elementalist and fighter—to think that he had been defeated was ill news. “What was his mission?”

“Whatever happened to Jorne falls into your hands”, explained Gorr. “His mission is now yours. Find a man named Aramal, neutralize him, and retrieve his grimoire. He has somehow found a way to utilize demonic magic.”

Serraemas furrowed his brows.

The ability to manipulate demonic magic was unheard of in Ashkar save for a few special cases. Dark elementalists—those wielding the dark element that had ties to demonic magic—were very rare. Other than that, one would have to be either a witch or warlock, or have the direct influence of demons.

Demons—malevolent creatures spawned in the depths of Hell—were an even rarer find in Ashkar. Demons had no way to step into this world by themselves, and thus required outside help to traverse out of their realm.

Jorne had battled a very powerful foe, of that Serraemas was certain.

“One more thing”, added the Caretaker. He procured another teamdisc from his seemingly limitless coat. This one had two sigils—one blazed red, the other flashed a deep blue. Their own disc. Both sigils were flashing, which meant, obviously, that they still drew breath. Gorr waved his hand over the circular object and a third sigil appeared. This one was as black as night.

“The Master wishes that Erendil accompany you”, said Gorr, though his expression was still stuck in a frown. “He is ready to experience Ashkar, and will also be of aid in your quest.”

As if on cue, footsteps rang from behind the Caretaker. A large, reptilian beast emerged from a hallway on the other side of the room. It had dark green, scaly skin and stood even taller than Raxxil, though not by much. It had lizard-like features, but wore a short, black sash wrapped around its head that covered its eyes. It wore brown leather armor under its black coat that covered most of its body except for the arms and legs below the knee, with a bow and quiver strung on its back.

“Hello”, said the newcomer softly as he strode toward the two. Despite the sash covering his eyes, Erendil walked with finesse and accuracy. Clearly not using conventional vision, the towrth used a sense other than sight to navigate.

The Towrth, a species of bipedal creatures with lizard-like features, typically exhibited savage and primitive behavior. Some humans that had the misfortune of meeting a towrth and living to tell the tale claimed that they were intelligent and displayed sentient functions such as language. For Serraemas, this was the first time that he had come across one that spoke the maurtotz, the common tongue used by most humans. It was clear from the very first word that it was Erendil’s first, and perhaps only, language.

Out of the corner of his eye, Serraemas saw Raxxil shoot the towrth an incredulous look.

“So Master Sora’s pet is ready to play, huh?” mocked Raxxil as he walked up to the scaly figure. He looked at Erendil from head-to-toe and back up again, as if to inspect or otherwise ascertain the towrth’s worth. He then turned to Serraemas and shrugged. “Whatever.” Raxxil whipped around and marched to the tunnel from whence they came. Erendil did not move, confused at what had just occurred.

“Let’s take a step outside”, Serraemas said reassuringly over his shoulder to the towrth as he turned and followed behind Raxxil.

—-

He did not know light. He did not know dark. He did not even know what a color was. For as long as he could remember he could only sense the outlines and shapes of things, aside from hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, of course. He could see, but at the same time, couldn’t see. At least not in the way that others did; Erendil could sense the energy in his surroundings, providing him a vision that he was told was a blessing.

He wasn’t so sure of that.

The three of them navigated through the underground lair, steadily ascending upward. Raxxil led the charge, occasionally looking back at Erendil and shaking his head before carrying on, as if disapproved by Erendil’s mere existence.

Have I done something wrong? Or is this just one of her tests?

The other one—Serraemas—hadn’t said a word since they began walking together. If Raxxil expressed himself at nearly every opportunity, Serraemas seemed just the opposite.

After what felt like half an hour the trio reached their exit. A trap door was all that was left between them and the world.

Dismissing his thoughts of the other two, Erendil nearly quivered in anticipation. All he had ever known was cold, damp rock. Sora had told him many wonderful tales of Ashkar, and he would soon be able to experience it himself.

Raxxil muttered an incantation and the door flew open. One-by-one they stepped out onto a grassy hill. First Raxxil, then Serraemas, and finally Erendil. They now stood in a vast plain, with what Erendil assumed were trees not too far away in every direction.

His senses were immediately overwhelmed—soft ground, a chill breeze, and the scorching hot sun on his skin. There were also so many other unfamiliar sounds and smells that he hadn’t even bothered to notice Raxxil scowling at him.

Erendil withdrew his bow, placed it on the ground, and sat cross-legged. He plucked a flower from the ground and studied it intently, twirling it between his thumb and index finger. It was beautiful with three long petals, but Erendil could not really describe it further, other than the fact that it felt soft in his fingers and smelled rather nice.

“That’s a Pota. It is a flower native to Terra Sur, the continent we are on”, said Serraemas. “The petals are light blue, and the stem is green.”

Light blue? Green? I wish I could see it.

“What the hell is this?” barked Raxxil, stomping toward Erendil. The human stopped just short of crashing into the towrth, and stared down at Erendil with disbelief in his eyes while casting a shadow over him. “We don’t have time to play with flowers! Are you a girl? Serraemas, look at this shit.”

Erendil sat still, unflinching at the larger human’s odd gestures. If Raxxil had intended to intimidate him, it hadn’t worked. Erendil looked up at the aggressor, but otherwise made no other motion. “Do you have a problem with me?”

Raxxil continued to stare at Erendil, but after a brief moment, rolled his eyes and turned to Serraemas. “So we have to find a guy, kill him, and take his book. Where do we start?” The hothead looked up and placed his thumb and pointer finger on his chin, thinking pensively.

Serraemas glanced to the west, seemingly contemplating their next move. He opened his mouth to speak—

“Wait!” blurted Raxxil. “We have to take the book first then kill him since I’ll make a mess. Okay. Find him, take the book, and then burn everything. Much, much better.” He wore a triumphant face proudly, as if he had just come up with a brilliant plan.

Silence fell over the group, and the only gestures Raxxil received were two blank faces—one out of puzzlement, and the other what appeared to be apathetic disdain. Erendil was genuinely confused at Raxxil’s personality, but he felt that Serraemas’s reaction—or lack thereof—was far more curious. In fact, it seemed Raxxil understood what the empty glare meant, quieting down and looking at Serraemas expectantly.

Serraemas turned to Erendil as the latter stood up. “We head to Port Vana. There, our ship awaits us.” The quieter human then faced Raxxil. “Makka is where we start.” With that, Serraemas walked to the west and down the hill.

Traveling by boat? This is truly magnificent! I hope it is just like the stories.

Lost in thought, Erendil hadn’t noticed the fiery, hammer-wielding man creeping up on him. Raxxil gave him a strong pat on the back, and Erendil nearly toppled over himself.

“You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?” Raxxil said in a mocking tone.

—-

Raxxil hurled over the side of the ship.

If there was one thing he feared, it was a lot of water. Unfortunately, both the Vical and Gavarian Oceans, in fact, were nearly infinite sources of water. Raxxil had been slopped over the starboard side, hurling the contents of his stomach for nearly an hour. It didn’t seem like it was going to stop anytime soon.

“SCORCH IT ALL!” rang a familiar voice inside his head.

His elemental, Vrand, didn’t fancy water either. Vrand was a fire elemental, after all. Everyone had a bond with an elemental, and elementalists were able to call out and fight alongside them. Their weapons were physical manifestations of that link.

“Shut up, you idiot”, Raxxil shot back inside his mind.

They had reached Port Vana fairly quickly. Their ship, the Taja, as well as its crew, were waiting as always. Their missions took them all over Ashkar, so a dependable means to travel the seas was imperative. In this case, they needed to start by traveling through the Vical Ocean around the bottom tip of Terra Sur, reaching the Gavarian Ocean, and then traveling north to Makka. Terra Sur was connected to Terra Nort to the north, which was in turn connected to Makka even further north. Serraemas had insisted that they hasten their pace, and Raxxil happily obliged. If Jorne had been struck down by this Aramal, then Raxxil wanted a piece of that.

He glanced for a moment at Serraemas and the lizard-man, both of who were in the center of the deck conversing about something inaudible; the crashing waves and howling wind shut out just about everything.

So what is with that sash? What’s this guy’s purpose?

Sora had first encountered the towrth when Erendil was an infant, and had raised him ever since. The lizard-man was an elementalist, that was for certain, but he still had a long way to go until he caught up to either Raxxil or Serraemas. Almost a century, in fact, if ever.

Raxxil felt another bolus about to be expelled, and turned to face the vast body of water.

Still, there was something odd about Erendil that he couldn’t quite figure out. Something hidden.

—-

Samantha sighed.

Something doesn’t feel right.

The roads from Farrin Forest to Merchant’s Keep were usually quiet, except for the occasional group of brigands hailing from the notorious city to the north. Merchant’s Keep was the center of trade and commerce in Makka, and there was no shortage of bandits, thieves, and murderers wandering the roads looking for trouble.

Several small villages and towns lay in between, and she commanded a regiment that was tasked in ensuring their safety. She had grown up in one of them, the village of Enorra. Her father, a blacksmith, had shown her the ways of swordsmanship and combat. After joining the Order of the Faith at the age of fourteen, she had trained tirelessly, and eventually, achieved the power of an elementalist.

Samantha had become a lieutenant, a feat she was told was impressive given her age, and chose to command a squad of eleven men near her home village—a decision that turned out to be quite the bore. Still, she did not regret it. Though not common, even quiet places and small villages could be the target of attack, whether war or otherwise. As if that wasn’t enough, the tales of dark and nightmarish things grew ever increasing by the day—something that the Faith taught her not to take lightly.

An elderly man slowly approached her on horseback. He was clad in silver armor, much like her own, and his graying, cropped hair and beard accentuated the plate. He stopped several feet away and saluted. She returned the gesture. The man had unease written all over his face. “Scout’s report that Nokle Road is clear, ma’am.”

“Anything else, Sergeant Graf?” she commanded, easily reading the face of her second-in-command.

“Well, ma’am, rumors among the troops are spreading of these so called ‘Executioners’ coming from the southwest”, said Graf after a deep breath. “Black armor, ghoulish blades, and glowing eyes. They say they are demons from Hell itself set out to reap souls. Lord knows what else they could be imagining. In my thirty years of service not once have I seen anything like that, but my words offer no solace. Maybe you might be able to ease them, ma’am.”

Samantha paused for a moment, pondering the next course of action. While the majority of her time stationed here had been relatively quiet, the sergeant was a veteran and had witnessed plenty. Whether he felt the same regarding the fabrications she did not know, but the Order of the Faith had taught her well, and she wasn’t about to look the other way. Ignorance and naivety could prove a fatal mistake, especially in warfare. She had heard nations around Ashkar were bolstering troops and guarding their lands more closely. In fact, the Order of the Faith—predominantly residing on the continent of Onturi within its home kingdom of Lenas to the east—had done the same.

God, what is to come?

“Very well, rally the men to Bellis”, commanded Samantha. “If these so-called Executioners are real, then we will run them through!”

Chapter 4

345th Dawn of the 5000th Age of Lion

Erendil had hardly slept since he left the cold, damp darkness that was his home. There was simply too much to experience. The ship was as beautiful as he had envisioned it. It was rather large, with powerful masts and white sails that caught the wind and used it as a way to propel the ship. Dozens of crewmembers, including the captain, went about their duties, consisting of cleaning, polishing, cooking, and, of course, steering the large vessel. Waves crashed against the hull as the ship sped along the vast ocean in a warpath. Traveling the seas was serenity, the only sound coming from the reverberations of rolling waves and blowing wind.

They had arrived on Makka in about ten days, but to Erendil it was a flash. He thoroughly enjoyed every moment in the outside world, and he wished he could just stop and savor it all.

The three stepped off their ship onto a long, wooden dock. Dockworkers bustled about, and what Erendil was told was called Port Yjur loomed ahead. Serraemas glanced at the captain and nodded before turning and heading down the dock. The captain returned the gesture, then hurried off to attend to other matters.

Erendil was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of activity of this port; Vana was much quieter in comparison, and he drew in as much as he could. He estimated that there were nearly a thousand ships docked. From inside the coastal city, he could hear the racket coming from the multitude of structures of the inner city.

The three stopped just at the end of the dock. Erendil looked around and absorbed as much as he could. Fisherman, farmers, and merchants all trying to sell their respective goods shouted at the top of their lungs. Small shops and stands littered the edge of the port, while larger structures loomed beyond. He wanted to stop at each and every one, and to interact with as many people as possible, but Raxxil’s wary eye served to tether Erendil close.

“Remember, keep your cloaks on and hide your faces”, Serraemas said coolly. He turned to Erendil. “Especially you. Towrth aren’t particularly welcome here, even as a slave.” He stopped for a moment. “Well… you aren’t really welcome anywhere.” He withdrew a set of chains from under his dark cloak, and wrapped them around Erendil’s wrists loosely.

Erendil looked at the chains in confusion.

A slave?

“You’ll only be able to travel as a slave,” Raxxil added, as if reading Erendil’s mind. “Nobody likes a lizard-man. You’re all savage and bloodthirsty.”

“But I’m not savage nor bloodthirsty”, defended Erendil.

Raxxil gave him a smirk. “We’re all orphans of the world here, so I’m sure you’ll fit right in if you stick with us.”

“We don’t have time to waste”, Serraemas ordered calmly. He made his way into the crowd with elegance, sliding his way through in a quiet dance. Raxxil followed Serraemas, though the hammer-wielder had a different approach: barge in a straight path and knock over any unfortunate soul that did not see him coming.

Erendil followed suit, trying not to pay any heed to the sea of condescending eyes and grim faces that bore into his soul.

—-

“Fresh fish!” yelled a fisherman who sought to sell his catch. “Come get your fresh fish!”

Serraemas heard many other terribly unpersuasive bids like it as they waded through the crowds and moved deeper into Yjur. He looked around to regard the many faces. This was their daily itinerary: wake up, gather their goods, try to make a living, and repeat. To these people this was life and nothing more.

Serraemas let loose a sigh as he drowned out his surroundings. Like mindless sheep, their cries only proved to be annoying. No thought outside of the mundane. Just a monotonous, trivial life chasing desires foolishly. No purpose. Live and die.

In the back of his mind, her voice called out to him. Long ago he had stopped answering, for he realized that she would never hear him again.

“Serraemas!” Raxxil bellowed, interrupting the staff-wielder from his thoughts.

Serraemas wheeled around, focusing his attention on his larger counterpart.

Raxxil stood hunched over, clutching his stomach with his left hand as if struck by a piercing blade. An uneasy look was strewn across his face.

Alerted, Serraemas jumped into a defensive stance in front of Raxxil, and quickly surveyed the area. Despite his keen eyes, he could not catch anything suspicious. Instead, he felt a strong tug on his cloak and turned back to Raxxil, who still held the same expression.

A loud rumble came from Raxxil’s stomach that lasted for quite a while. The two stared at each other for several moments in silence, while Erendil stood behind Raxxil with a confused expression.

“I’m hungry”, Raxxil mumbled weakly, as if his stomach had just relayed that information to him.

Serraemas looked around, and spotted a sign that read ‘Hoji’s Barbecue’. He turned back to Raxxil, and crouching next to him, struck the fiery elementalist in the abdomen with lightning speed. Serraemas then stood up and walked toward the shop.

“You can’t… you can’t just punch away hunger…” muttered Raxxil softly.

“Over here”, Serraemas said, ignoring the comment and beckoning the hammer-wielder with a wag of his fingers.

At this point, Raxxil was on one knee, clutching his stomach in pain. Erendil inched closer to Raxxil, attempting to help the human up—

“Back off!” Raxxil barked as he pushed Erendil away with his free hand. “This is nothing.” The hothead forcefully stood up and stumbled after Serraemas, who was already waiting expectantly by the establishment.

Serraemas shook his head at Raxxil, and the latter shot back a rude gesture.

“It always amazes me how well you two get along”, resonated Zaranet from within.

Serraemas made no effort to respond.

“You should cut him some slack”, continued his elemental. “After all, if there’s anyone who’s at your side no matter what, it’s him.” Zaranet then laughed to himself. “Other than myself, of course.”

“Hurry up”, Serraemas commanded as he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, the blood draining from his white knuckles. “You’re wasting time.”

—-

“Another round!” shouted Raxxil.

Dozens of empty plates were stacked upon each other, and his appetite showed no signs of slowing down. The fiery warrior had barely eaten since they arrived, and he needed a proper refueling. Both Serraemas and Erendil combined barely ate more than a few plates.

“Of course!” squealed Hoji, the owner, as he danced about from table to table and back into the kitchen. “Coming right up!” He was an elderly man, but he had young spirit. The aroma of spices and cooked meat emanated from the kitchen and, strangely enough, it seemed as though Hoji was the only person working. And yet, he was able to procure an infinite amount of food in a short time while also doing every other duty simultaneously.

Raxxil let loose a loud belch and then licked his fingers, much to the chagrin of his two companions. He glanced at them and gave a food-filled grin, but quickly went back to chowing down another plate.

“Last plate, then we’re leaving”, ordered Serraemas coldly, and Raxxil could feel Serraemas’s chilling death stare boring into his skin. “We have a mission to complete.”

Raxxil glanced up at Serraemas with a mouthful of food, and gave him a why-are-you-doing-this-to-me look. It didn’t work, other than to augment the intensity of the staff-wielder’s icy glare.

“Raxxil”, Serraemas said calmly.

“Arghmnfoanrigo”, Raxxil complained without swallowing his food, discontent filling his jumbled words. Erendil grimaced, but Serraemas remained unmoved. The staff-wielder’s blank stare spoke volumes.

“Alright, alright”, Raxxil conceded. He got up from his chair and moved toward the kitchen. Just as he neared the entrance, Hoji burst forth carrying several more plates of steaming meat, and a delicious aroma filled Raxxil’s nostrils.

Hoji seemed to read Raxxil’s solemn face perfectly. “Leaving so soon?”

Suddenly, Raxxil had the notion that he had just shattered an old man’s dreams. He pointed at the appetizing food. “I’m going to need that for the road.”

—-

Erendil watched in wonder at the large, powerful beasts standing before him.

After leaving the barbecue shop, Serraemas had insisted that they purchase mounts to assist their travels. According to him, they were in a rush since they had lost some time—a concept Erendil was not familiar with. The towrth heard Serraemas mentioning a place called Cursewood as their destination, but did not inquire further as to why it was named that.

They stopped just outside of the port next to a large stable that housed dozens of beasts called horses. Serraemas was speaking to the stable owner, leaving Erendil and Raxxil to their own musings.

Erendil walked up to one of the beasts and studied it intently. As he neared it he caressed its long mane. It stared at him, but offered no judgment—something that the inhabitants of Port Yjur seemed to have an abundance of.

Such majestic creatures, yet subjected to a life of servitude.

“Hey, lizard-man!” shouted a voice from behind.

“What is it now?” Erendil asked as he turned to meet the hammer-wielder. For the first time, his words were tinged not with puzzlement but discontent.

Raxxil threw a rolled parchment at Erendil. It struck the archer’s chest, but fell to the ground when Erendil made no effort to catch it. Instead, he remained still with mouth agape at the rude man standing before him.

“Learn that map,” Raxxil blurted vexingly. “If you’re going to be one of us, you’re going to have to learn how to navigate. You’re our new tour guide!”

Erendil scoffed at Raxxil’s impetuousness. “I can’t read maps.”

Raxxil placed his palm on his forehead, shook his head, and sighed. He turned and walked away. “Useless.”

“I heard that!” Erendil blared.

“Don’t encourage him”, said Serraemas, returning with three horses. “Let me show you how to ride.”

—-

It had taken some time to get accustomed to riding such magnificent creatures, though Erendil managed to hold on as the beast galloped with blazing speed.

They had traveled for several days on a long, paved road that unraveled into the vast lands beyond. Just outside of Yjur was the Kaghro Grasslands, which mostly consisted of flat plains with the occasional hill. They passed several farms on their way, and Erendil spotted a variety of unfamiliar plants and interesting animals meandering inside expansive fences that he longed to examine, but understood that there was a task that required haste.

Gradually, the farms gave way to open fields that were relatively untouched by civilization. While he was very curious about people and cultures, there was a serenity about nature that absorbed him in a way that urban areas like the port did not.

Up ahead, Serraemas slowed his steed to a halt. They stopped just before a set of unusual trees that, on closer inspection, radiated foreboding energy. Twisted branches and gnarled bark beckoned maliciously as an eerie feeling washed over Erendil. It was as if they served as a warning not to enter.

“The sun is beginning to set”, announced Serraemas as he pointed ahead. “We rest here for the night and enter Cursewood at daylight on the morrow.” He then dismounted and proceeded to unload essentials from his pack. Raxxil followed suit, moving supplies and setting up camp. Up above, the sun was beginning to set and the sky was slowly darkening. To Erendil, the cooler air and the sound of creatures not normally heard during the day was a stark contrast to what he was used to. In the caves below where he had grown, there were no day and night cycles—just darkness.

“So, are you going to explain what the hell we’re going in there for?” Raxxil asked loudly, still focusing on his task. Instead of answering, however, Serraemas chose to continue his work, and silence fell upon them. Erendil elected to stay quiet and watch curiously as another interesting debacle unfolded, for their interactions were starting to become rather entertaining.

Raxxil shook his head, muttering something unintelligible and seemingly giving up his efforts to elicit a response from Serraemas. The hammer-wielder collected an assortment of dry twigs, branches, and leaves onto a large pile. Once he was satisfied, Raxxil held out his hand at the collection, and a flame suddenly burst from his open palm. It bathed the pile in flames and created a small campfire. After he was done, he sat in front of the blazing fire and waited patiently.

Finally, almost as if pleased, Serraemas finished his work and sat opposite to Raxxil. Erendil took the cue and decided to join them.

“Inside those woods,” Serraemas began, “Are many things that are unnatural and unholy. Whatever obstacles that lay waiting will attempt to hurt or kill us, and what we seek lies beyond that.”

Raxxil rolled his eyes and growled in impatient frustration. “And what do we seek!?”

“The Dark Witch of Cursewood”, replied Serraemas.

Raxxil guffawed. “You’re joking, right?”

The term ‘witch’ piqued Erendil’s interest greatly. Growing up, he was told that witches and warlocks—having dark appropriation of demonic influence—were able to manipulate the dark element without being attuned to a dark elemental as an elementalist or being a demon.

“So then we will ask for her aid in tracking our target?” Erendil inquired.

“Quite insightful”, Serraemas commended. “Having an affinity to demonic magic allows an individual to sense and track others that are the same. She should be able to point us in the right direction.”

“And she’s going to help us why?” bellowed Raxxil. He seemed annoyed, as if he took offense for not knowing every little detail.

Serraemas paused and took a deep breath, apparently contemplating his words, but then chose to say nothing.

“Come on!” whined Raxxil. “Stop being Serraemas, Serraemas!”

“She will help because her kind hates others that meddle with demons callously”, Serraemas finally replied.

Raxxil shook his head. “For a second I thought I was not going to get a vague answer. Then I remembered who I was talking to.”

“Whose fault is that?” asked Serraemas.

The hammer-wielder shrugged. “Let’s not rest too long. I don’t want to stay there more than I have to. Neither do you, Serraemas.”

Serraemas nodded thoughtfully.

“There?” asked Erendil. “Where is there?”

“The place where your mind goes to rot”, explained Raxxil in the most ambiguous manner possible. “Hopefully you never have to go there.”

Erendil looked to Serraemas for an answer, but found none other than the latter’s dismissing hand waving in the air.

“Don’t riddle yourself with it”, said Serraemas, though Erendil could not tell if it was a warning or simply advice.

“What do you mean when you spoke of demons?” asked Erendil, understanding that his previous curiosity would not be satisfied. He wasn’t about to pursue it, either.

“The target we’re after has found a way to use demonic magic, and as far as we know it is in an unnatural way”, Serraemas said. “My initial impression was that demons were involved. Witches and warlocks, among other unholy factions, are not fond of others who try to mimic them.”

Raxxil nodded in agreement, bringing his hand to his chin and scratching it in pensive thought.

Erendil sat back and pondered what Serraemas had said. Demons were unfamiliar to him, but he did know that that they existed somewhere that wasn’t Ashkar. He raised a hand slowly to his face and scratched his chin, mimicking Raxxil’s gesture. He looked over at Raxxil, expecting the hammer-wielder to yell an obscenity at him or strike him for copying the movement. To Erendil’s surprise, he found a man quieter than Serraemas.

Raxxil gazed up at the night sky, seemingly absorbed in himself. He held a solemn expression, as if recollecting a particularly sorrowful memory. The hothead loosed a melancholic sigh, but otherwise continued stargazing in solitude.

“Be sure to get some rest”, Serraemas whispered softly to Erendil. “I know this is all new to you, but Ashkar and all its… wonders… can wait. What’s important is the quest.” The latter turned his head, attempting to read the former’s expression and ascertain the meaning of the words, but Erendil was not able to. Just like that place he knew not of which they spoke, he wasn’t going to push this curiosity either.

Serraemas picked up his staff and stood up silently before turning away. His cloak fluttered as he walked away from the campfire toward his makeshift bed. Before lying down, he turned back to Erendil and the now quiet hammer-wielder. “Be prepared for whatever may come tomorrow.”

Erendil glanced once more at Raxxil, who was still entranced in thought. Erendil’s lips curled up in a smile. He sat there for a moment, then stood up and grabbed his bow. He looked around, attempting to find a suitable area to rest. He noticed a slight depression in the ground that spanned several feet, and made his way toward it. Erendil inspected it more closely, and after being satisfied with the area, placed his bow on the ground next to it and slumped into the hole.

Erendil’s eyelids drooped as he drifted in-and-out of consciousness. Slowly, his world faded to black, and the last thing he saw was the dancing fire flickering in Raxxil’s melancholic eyes.

He could have sworn he saw a tear run down the man’s face.

Chapter 5

346th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Chilling rain pours down from the crying sky

Two figures standing apart

A gaping chasm in my cold, dark heart

Don’t give up, don’t let it die

Arms outstretched, but now you’re gone forever

Powerless, hopeless

There is nothing left; all of this is meaningless

Take my hand and we will transcend together

Serraemas awoke abruptly, lurching forward as he placed his palms on the ground. He panted heavily, and realized that he was sweating quite profusely despite the temperate weather around him. It never became any easier, and the nightmares were always recurring.

Time is supposed to heal all wounds. Right?

Lost in thought, Serraemas hadn’t noticed the looming shadow over him. He looked up and was greeted by an outstretched hand. Looking further up, his gaze fell upon Raxxil’s warm, reassuring eyes.

Serraemas took his partner’s hand and stood up. Looking around, he discovered that both Raxxil and Erendil had already packed their things.

“Yup, this time I beat you to it!” Raxxil proudly exclaimed from behind.

Serraemas did not have to turn around to know that his larger counterpart stood triumphantly with a smug look. He scoffed, shook his head, and then moved to gather his things. Once he finished, he looked at his companions again. They waited with patience and expectant visages. With an affirming nod, he took point and headed toward the dark, twisted trees. Erendil followed, with Raxxil behind him wresting with their mounts and struggling to get them to enter the vile woods. Despite their protest, however, Raxxil proved far superior in strength, and the questing group plunged into darkness.

At once, Serraemas felt the atmosphere change drastically as he stepped onto the desecrated ground. There was hardly any sunlight; the treetops were dozens of feet high, creating a canopy and blocking out the majority of the sky. The only light came from the strange flora and fauna of several colors that permeated the forest with glowing, dark auras. The vegetation surrounded them forebodingly, though he did not detect anything that posed a threat.

At least, not yet.

“This place hasn’t changed at all”, sang Zaranet from within.

Serraemas looked down as they continued walking and noticed several small creatures that resembled lizards. Splotches on their backs glowed purple, but a yellow glow emanated from their underbellies. The odd animals were curious at the new arrivals, though quickly scurried off when Serraemas neared them.

“Hey look, your cousins!” Raxxil mocked, laughing heartily at the towrth that accompanied them.

Serraemas heard Erendil sigh and place his palm on his forehead with a loud thud, but, surprisingly, heard a soft chuckle make its way into the still air shortly after.

“Keep your guard up”, reminded Serraemas, shooting his allies a cursory glance over his shoulder.

They continued to wade through the dark woods in silence for several hours, constantly wary at anything that moved or emitted a strange sound. There seemed to be no end to the odd creatures and plants, but to their fortune they had yet to encounter anything that sought human flesh. He noticed flying insects buzzing about that emanated a bright blue light from their tails, among other things. He knew most of them were harmless, but nevertheless she would have something lying in wait.

Something dangerous and unfriendly.

Serraemas stopped and looked around, attempting to ascertain where exactly they were and which direction they needed to go. He glanced over his shoulder at his companions. Erendil studied the twisted environment keenly every chance he had. Raxxil, on the other hand, seemed to be bored. The fiery elementalist stared back with an incredulous look, but had decided to hold his tongue while they were moving. An incredible feat, really.

“Don’t tell me we’re lost”, Raxxil remarked cynically as he rolled his eyes, breaking his long silence.

Serraemas looked around again. “We’re not lost. Let’s stop here for a while.”

Erendil gladly obeyed with an expression of glee, and immediately jumped to explore every nook and cranny in a wide radius.

“Don’t get lost now, lizard-man!” yelled Raxxil provocatively. He strode to where Serraemas stood and crossed his arms on his chest. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a map for this?”

Serraemas shifted his weight onto his left leg and wrapped his thumb and pointer on his chin, still thinking pensively about their location. To his dismay, however, there seemed to be no indicators around them that would offer some reprieve.

You’re always quite the trickster when it comes to playing games.

“So what are we going to do?” asked Raxxil. In inconspicuous impatience, he tapped his plated foot repeatedly.

“Calm down”, replied Serraemas. “We just need to look for hints. She wouldn’t pass up a chance to toy with… us.”

Raxxil ran his fingers through his brown hair and scratched his head. He furrowed his brow, as if solving a complex conundrum. Finally, he looked back at Serraemas with a smirk. “Hold on there, big guy. You two’ve got a history together?”

“We are… acquaintances,” replied Serraemas simply, careful in his choice of wording.

“Right”, jeered Raxxil. Instead of pressing further, he meandered about in search for clues, and Serraemas did the same.

Several minutes passed, but his attempts to garner any information that might be of use were in vain. He sighed and turned around, finding Raxxil perched atop a high branch. The fiery elementalist sat gripping his large hammer with a grin from ear-to-ear that Serraemas recognized all too well.

Serraemas quickly darted over the unsteady ground to where Raxxil gazed.

“Looks like the lizard-man is in trouble!” he heard Raxxil yell from above.

As Serraemas rounded the large tree he witnessed a pack of rabid hounds closing in on Erendil. Well, to say that they were just rabid hounds was an understatement. These creatures were much larger, with powerful paws and hulking torsos. While their fur was black, they radiated an unnatural fire from their bodies. Their maws were lined with sharp fangs that could easily sink into flesh and tear off chunks, maybe even an arm or a leg. Most striking, however, were the pairs of crimson red eyes that glowed with malicious intent. He counted five beast in total.

“Finally!” Raxxil yelled again with glee.

Serraemas knew his companion barely held himself back from erupting. He waved a hand at Raxxil commandingly. “No. Let’s see what Erendil is capable of.”

“I’m sure Vrand is going out of his mind right now”, rang Zaranet.

Snarling, the beasts circled Erendil, who was crouching in a defensive stance. He reached for his quiver, and in quick succession, loosed a barrage of arrows. To Erendil’s dismay, they bounced off the beasts’ unnatural hides harmlessly. One-by-one the beasts lunged, attempting to bite or latch onto the green-skinned archer. Erendil proved to be quite agile and was able to dodge each attack, albeit with slight difficulty.

One of the beasts charged again, yet Erendil somersaulted over it acrobatically, letting loose three arrows before landing on his feet. He wheeled around just in time to catch another hound lunging for his throat. He dashed to the side, narrowly evading the attack. Two more creatures aimed for his leg and arm, attempting to pin him down. Again Erendil leapt out of the way, and the beasts crashed into each other. Before the towrth could stop his momentum and react, however, the fifth hound took advantage and lunged on top of the towrth. It pinned him down and attempted to bite his throat—

He threw up his right arm reflexively, blocking the attack. The beast’s powerful maw clamped down, tearing flesh and spilling blood. It thrashed, yet Erendil kept firm. Sora had taught him well, but he still had much to go.

The pack proved relentless, and it was clear that they would eventually overpower the stoic towrth; still pinned, the towrth could do nothing as other hounds inched closer to him.

Erendil had great potential, but there seemed to be something missing. During their time on the ship across the Gavarian Ocean, Erendil had mentioned that Sora did not spend much time teaching elementalism, which was strange to Serraemas. Did Erendil not even know how to use his elemental? He wasn’t going to wait and find out, lest he return to Sora with a dead towrth.

Serraemas looked up at Raxxil, who was nearly shaking in excitement. The hammer-wielding warrior looked back down at him, awaiting approval. Serraemas nodded at his eager partner.

With an ear-piercing war cry, Raxxil leapt from atop his vantage point straight down into the fray. He brought his hulking hammer downward as he landed on top of one of the beasts. A loud crack followed by a yelp reverberated throughout the woods as the hound’s torso was crushed under the blow, and the hammer struck the ground with such force that the area shook with tremors.

Notified of this new, more powerful aggressor, the remaining four beasts shifted their attention. They stalked their way toward him, growling menacingly and ready to strike.

“Aww, did I hurt your buddy?” he mocked, feigning a sorrowful expression as he pointed at the obliterated corpse lying in front of him. He quickly changed back to his signature grin, accompanied by a manic look in his eyes. Raxxil shifted his feet and lowered his body. He then gripped the hammer with both hands and twisted his torso to the right, preparing to press the attack.

“You know, I don’t seem to recall hulking, demonic dogs on fire last time”, Zaranet responded playfully.

One of the beasts charged straight into an eagerly awaiting Raxxil.

Dashing to meet his foe, the fiery elementalist swung hard to his left in a wide arc. The hammer connected with the beast’s jaw, and with another loud crack it flew into the air. Its lifeless corpse collided with the base of a tree, and now there were three.

Blood now spattered Raxxil’s weapon and face, and Serraemas knew the bloodlust had no limit; the longer the fight, the more excited—and uncontrollable—Raxxil became.

“He might get explosive again”, Zaranet warned.

“No”, responded Serraemas. “He knows the rule.”

The beasts appeared to have some form of intelligence, as the remaining three formulated a pattern of attack instead of falling prey to Raxxil’s blows one-by-one. Once more they circled their hammer-wielding foe. This time, however, it appeared that the hellish hounds planned to attack simultaneously in an all-out assault.

Raxxil, still wearing a maniacal visage, did not give them the chance. He wheeled around and released his hammer. It shot at lightning speed straight toward the beast that was behind him, colliding with its skull before it even had time to react. A second yelp echoed through the trees as it was pulverized completely, blood and guts splattering all across the ground. The hammer continued on its path, destroying several trees before finally crashing into the ground dozens of feet away.

In a flash, Raxxil leapt backward with such speed that he landed next to the remaining beasts in an instant. Without leaving any time for them to follow his movements or react, he reached out and grabbed one of the hound’s muzzle and jaw with each hand. It flailed wildly, attempting to wrest free from Raxxil’s death grip. To its misfortune, however, the grinning man proved to be much stronger. In one swift motion he pulled his arms wide. The beast ripped in half, spilling its inner contents near Raxxil’s feet.

The final beast, seeing an opportunity to attack—or simply attacking in blind rage—snarled and lunged from behind the brown-haired warrior. Raxxil turned around in anticipation of the attack, shifting his stance slightly and using the beast’s momentum to slam it into the ground next to him.

Raxxil paused, glaring at the beast for a brief moment before he stomped onto the creature’s thick skull four times. He continued to stare at the ground where the beast lay—admiring his work as if it were art—then proceeded to stride happily toward where his hammer had stopped.

“Well, it wasn’t that bad this time”, commented Zaranet.

Serraemas bounded quickly to Erendil, who was back on his feet. The scaly-skinned archer shifted his face to meet Serraemas and greeted him with a faint smile. His right arm was severely injured, and blood was flowing out while white bone was exposed. He also wore several cuts and bruises, but Erendil did not seem too fazed.

Serraemas kneeled, removing the pack at his side. He opened it and rummaged through its contents. After several moments, he procured a set of bandages. He then gestured for Erendil to come closer. “How come you did not release your elemental even though you were at a disadvantage?”

Erendil shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t think Master Sora ever taught me how. She said I had great potential, but that I wasn’t ready yet.”

“You still fought well”, Serraemas assured. “We will figure out your elemental, but first we need to find the witch. She will be able to heal you, and—”

“Hey, check this out!” clamored Raxxil from behind them.

Serraemas turned around to the sight of a strange phenomenon. Five fiery orbs rose slowly out of the carcasses of the fallen hounds. They hovered several feet in the air for a brief moment before flying with haste past where Raxxil now stood. Their blazing auras grew fainter as they traveled deeper in the woods until disappearing completely.

Both Raxxil and Erendil looked to Serraemas for an answer.

“That’s our clue,” Serraemas stated simply.

—-

“My, my… now why would a Grand Arcanist need so many guards?” Wu asked aloud to no one.

He strolled carefree through the majestic garden—its grand design serving as a labyrinth for those seeking to enter the tower that housed the most revered elementalist in all of Ashkar. Gracefully carved foliage surrounded him as he walked through the pathways, and one could spend an eternity admiring such sophisticated ‘art’.

Fools know nothing of art.

It was another dull day in Magia, Arcadia’s sector responsible for all things elementalism. The School of Eight was housed in Magia, and most, if not all, knowledge of elementalism was cultivated here. Whether in the form of technological advancements, history, or even something as paltry as educating every ant that managed even an inkling of elemental affinity, Magia was the sector responsible. The other sectors: Avanos, Sol, and Eversong, while led by almost capable elementalists in their own right, had a focus in other areas—most notably combat, strategy, and warfare.

The sun shone brightly, with a few clouds scattered across the otherwise clear sky. The temperature was slightly cool, with the occasional breeze making its way through. Countless times he had lost his way in this maze in times past, and he was beginning to wonder if it was all a deliberate ruse.

The Observatory of Arcana, where Grand Arcanist Graeme Warren resided, was the central location for all matters elementalism and bureaucracy. The kingdom of Arcadia, despite only existing for a few decades so far, had enjoyed a wealth of war. Between the War of Arcadia against the invading Dommogin, and the Human-Seamender War only a few years back, tensions were always high between factions. There was no shortage of skirmishes, schemes, and, apparently, guards—especially when it came to the four leaders of Arcadia.

Unlike the guards of the other sectors, where any elementalist was eligible so long as they were trained for battle, the men and women guarding Graeme were elementalists that had graduated from the School of Eight, thus considered masters in their own right.

Not to Wu, of course.

The militaries of the other sectors, while also consisting of trained elementalists, trained its members in the other arts of combat with regards to weapons and hand-to-hand combat. As such, they may have never even set foot in the School of Eight.

Each guard bowed in respect as he strode past them. They were clad in signature white robes that flowed to their feet, with the academy’s eye and one or more spheres inscribed on the back. Unique to each guard was the weapon they held.

He smiled and nodded to each and every one with feint warmth, and rounded a corner of tall hedges. He continued walking, quite certain that he was on the right track.

A left here, a right there—

Wu stumbled upon the same guard that he had just seen just a little while ago.

“Why hello there”, greeted Wu.

The guard bowed again. “Are you unable to find your way, Grand Master Magus?

“Unfortunately, that is the case”, Wu replied as he stroked his long, white beard and nodded.

The guard raised an arm and pointed to his left at one of the paths. A finely-crafted arch beckoned the Grand Master Magus, and he stepped through. To his right and left were tall hedges, but as he made his way to the end, Wu was greeted by a welcoming sight. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Ahead was the familiar statue of his old friend, and beyond that, his reprieve. He walked up to the statue and inspected it briefly, gazing at its stony visage. He shifted his eyes to the statue’s feet, where words of praise were engraved on a slab of stone:

‘He, Who Is Master Of Eight And Renown Across Ashkar

Spreads Not Only Knowledge, But Compassion

Is Not Only Wise, But Humble

Stands As A Beacon Of Wisdom

And An Example To All

Grand Arcanist Graeme Warren’

He stood there briefly, pondering for a moment what it would be like to have his own statue. He chuckled heartily, remembering the countless times that he had been approached for approval to do just that, and why he had refused each time: he would waste every day admiring himself.

“You would admire yourself?” he heard from inside his mind. “A puny man of flesh and bone? Hah!”

“You again?” scoffed Wu. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks. I was beginning to think you were gone for good, and now you’ve ruined my day!” He waited patiently for another remark, but none came. The elderly man started to laugh in triumph—

Wu’s laughter ended abruptly as he wheezed.

“Hah, serves you right you brittle bag of bones!” scoffed Kaji, his elemental, again.

Wu shook his head in discontent. He regained his composure and inched his way to the tower’s entrance past the golden statue. The majestic tower spiraled high into the sky, culminating in a large dome. At its top, a large telescope jutted out into the open air. The structure was constructed from gray stone, with a window and balcony at each floor.

The quietness of the outside was subverted by the bustling and chatter of political affairs reverberating from within the structure. Wu neared the steps of the tower, and one of the front guards opened the set of large wooden doors, welcoming the Grand Master Magus. As he stepped inside, he felt the chilly air subside and was encapsulated by heat, shifty eyes, and worst of all, pointless babble.

The first room was circular, and branched off into three other rooms: one to the right, one on the left, and the last in the back. An empty wooden desk occupied the center, where the Grand Arcanist’s assistant normally waited patiently, looking over newcomers with the eyes of a hawk. Rows of shelves occupied the walls, filled with all sorts of texts. The stone steps that rose to each floor jutted out of the walls in a spiral. Desks and chairs took the rest of the space, and seemingly important individuals—diplomats, strategists, and other fools—bustled about feverishly, exchanging words and pamphlets with one another.

Wu looked around briefly, carefully scanning the first floor.

Looks like I’m in the clear! Hee hee!

He headed straight toward the stone steps that spiraled upward and ascended quickly—

The Grand Master Magus was cut off by the young assistant, who nearly crashed into Wu.

“Hold on there, mister!” she blurted, pointing her finger at him. “You! You need to wait in line like everybody else. Grand Arcanist Warren is very busy!” She brought her fists to her hips and pouted in defiance. She had relatively short brown hair that fell to her shoulders, with a pointed nose and thin lips. She stared at Wu behind focus glasses, and her hazel eyes revealed unwavering purpose.

Wu attempted to dash around her, first to the right, and then to the left. Unfortunately, she blocked his way each time and shook her head disapprovingly. He sighed and drooped his head in defeat for a moment before abruptly pointing to the left.

“Look, it’s Avanos Hildir!” Wu yelled.

Everyone in the room stopped and turned their attention in the direction he pointed, including the assistant. Her eyes widened and she wheeled around, giving Wu the opportunity he was looking for. He jumped three steps and staggered, but kept bounding up the stairs. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed that she had recovered from his ruse and gave chase. With a swift flick of his wrist, she was frozen mid-step. Another flick, and she floated down the steps and back into her chair in the room’s center.

“Hey, come back here you old cheater!” Wu heard from below as he ascended the stone steps. He chuckled heartily and continued upward, his long garment fluttering wildly. He made his way to the second floor, then the third, the fourth, and ultimately, the fifth and final floor. Here there was only one room, with a heavy wooden door and six guards standing patiently. While the guards outside the tower were welcoming, these were not so; they watched Wu and stood defiantly regardless of his position as Grand Master Magus.

“Halt”, ordered one of the guards. “The Grand Arcanist is busy and wishes not to be disturbed. If you seek counsel, speak to Laffa to schedule an appropriate time.” He was older than the others, and appeared to be the senior guard. He was still but a child.

Wu walked up to the guards with a stern expression, pondering what he was going to say. He opened his mouth to speak, but paused. He then scratched his flowing beard and looked up at the ceiling pensively. Looking back at the guards, the elderly man raised his brows and smiled toothily, wrinkling his face even more than normal.

“We both know how this is going to end so just do it already you brainless fool!” Wu heard his elemental jeer from within his mind.

“Pipe down!” he shot back. “I can’t concentrate when you make so much noise.” He raised his hand in a flash and flicked his wrist again. This time, all six guards froze, and the large door swung wide with a loud creak.

An elderly man with neatly cropped salt-and-pepper hair sat in front of a wooden desk that was piled with papers and various texts—much like Wu’s—but in a more organized manner. The busy man looked up at Wu with a confused expression for a brief moment, then sighed deeply and shook his head. He shifted his attention back to the pamphlet he was holding and continued to scribble on it furiously. The guards grunted and strained against the magical force that held their bodies as Wu walked past them and through the door. Flicking his wrist, the door slammed shut behind him.

Behind Graeme, sunlight poured in from the open window. To his left was an opening that revealed the sky, allowing one to view the stars with the large telescope. At the moment the opening was closed, for the Grand Arcanist was clearly busy with other matters, and Wu presumed that the moonlit sky offered a better opportunity for such trivial stargazing anyway. Up here, one could view just about all of Magia as well.

Wu plopped down onto the empty chair in front of the overfilled desk, and couldn’t help but chuckle at all the paperwork that was laid before him. “Why did we decide to this again? I seem to keep forgetting.”

Graeme looked up once more, and smiled warmly. They were nearly the same age, but Graeme still held on to some of his youth. He had thin brows, a sharp nose, and purple eyes that retained his fiery passion still to this day. Unlike Wu, the Grand Arcanist elected to keep his face cleanly shaven. Graeme set down his quill and paper, sat back in his chair, and crossed his arms.

The two masters stared at each other in silence.

“We’re aging, Wu, and no matter how high we ascend we will eventually leave this world, naturally or not,” Graeme responded after a few moments. “It is up to us to teach and guide those that follow. When we make our exit, it is up to them continue in our stead.”

Wu’s eyes darted to the ankh that rested on Graeme’s desk. It was propped upright and faced him, as if proclaiming its message not to Graeme but to whoever sought his counsel. Wu pointed at it and smiled. “So what’s that for, then?”

“I put my faith in it that one day it will be there in my time of need”, responded Graeme. “All this time and you still don’t have faith, do you? Not in the people of Arcadia, Magia, or even the School of Eight. What do you have faith in? The elemental gods? No, it’s just yourself, isn’t it?”

Wu scoffed. “Now, Graeme, I didn’t come to see you for semantics. You’re just getting roused much too hard by a simple remark.”

The Grand Arcanist leaned forward, his expression darkening. “You and I both know something is happening that will involve all of Ashkar. We need to be ready for it. It seems that Liberty is reinforcing his Order of the Faith, and so are other empires such as the Asmani. Even the High King Tethaine and his Veri are following suit in the west, and I hear tensions are rising with Human-Seamender relations again. Rumors are that the two races inch closer to war despite the peace treaty. There appears to be increased aggression between those of the land and those of the sea, especially along travel routes, ports, and island chains across the vast oceans.”

“My old friend… we have braved war after war,” said Wu with a toothy smile. “The Human-Seamender War, the War of Arcadia against the Dommogin, and whatever else may come—each time fighting for peace and emerging victorious only to languish in these stone walls. What makes this time any different?”

Graeme loosened his expression and rose from his chair, walking toward the open window behind him. His garment fluttered as a cool breeze passed, scattering parchment and text. He wore a robe much like Wu’s, but colored light blue in contrast to his own dark purple, and streaked with white. Graeme stopped and cupped his hands in front of him, staring out the window. “You’re right. Wars will happen, empires will fall, and new ones will take their place. Such is our nature, yet we hold on to the hope that there is another way.”

Wu remained seated in silence, his eyes fixed on Graeme’s back.

Graeme took in a deep breath and sighed heavily, then turned to face Wu. “But I’m afraid this time will be different. There is something else behind this other than wealth or power. I fear that the quarrels between the races of Ashkar are petty in comparison, that Ashkar faces something far beyond us. Do you remember the prophecy I told you about? The time is drawing near.”

“Still harping on about a legend?” remarked Wu. “I’ve heard more conceivable bedtime stories.”

“I know you can feel it as well”, asserted Graeme despite the other’s frivolous remark. “I am glad that we can face whatever comes together. Just like the old days.”

“Of course”, Wu said, returning a smile. “Just like the old days.”

Chapter 6

346th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

“We’re lost again, aren’t we?!” Erendil heard Raxxil shout from behind as the latter continued to drag the unruly mounts. “The hell is up with this damn mist?”

They had traveled in the direction that the fiery orbs had floated toward for some time, yet the only difference now was a thick mist that clouded their vision, which in turn impeded their navigation. Wicked trees and strange vegetation still surrounded them, though they had not encountered any animals since the hellish beasts from before. The only sound came from their own breaths and steady footsteps. Regardless, they carried on without rest or pause.

Erendil had managed to wrap his bleeding arm with Serraemas’s help, but he knew his flesh was torn beyond the aid of simple supplies; the hound’s bite had left several gashes that still bled despite the pressure the archer placed with his left hand. While the pain was excruciating, it served as a reminder that he was alive.

Up ahead, Serraemas slowed down before stopping to a halt. Erendil followed suit, while Raxxil attempted to calm the horses down.

They seem to be getting even more agitated. Do they sense something we cannot?

The collected leader looked around. First left, then right, and finally down. Serraemas crouched, raising his heels off the ground as his long overcoat folded upon itself, and stopped to examine something. With curiosity, Erendil made his way closer and loomed over the staff-wielder. Shifting his gaze down, he noticed that the kneeling figure clutched a strange looking vine. It was thicker than any he had seen before, had sharp thorns, and seemed to pulsate. Erendil scoured the ground and discovered several other vines branching out, enveloping the foliage and other plants around it.

How odd. The vines are engulfing anything they touch… almost as if to consume them.

“This is what we’re looking for”, Serraemas said coolly. “We are close to our destination, but keep your guard up for what lies ahead. Don’t get entangled.”

Somehow, Erendil held the notion that those words served more of a dire warning than mere advice. Serraemas stood up and snaked his way through the uneven terrain cautiously, and Erendil followed right behind him. They now waded through the strange woods staring at the ground, wary of the thick, thorny vines that appeared to sense their presence.

As they made their way deeper, Erendil noticed that the strange vines multiplied in number and size. Not only that, but their influence seemed to grow as well; they now wrapped around the accursed trees, and he noticed most of the vegetation around them had either been uprooted or otherwise destroyed.

He sped up slightly next to Serraemas, wary not to step on anything he shouldn’t. “What has happened to these plants? We haven’t even seen an animal for—“

The sound of a loud thud and the whinnying of horses suddenly echoed from behind them. Erendil turned around, discovering that one of the mounts had gotten caught on one such vine and toppled over. The vine wrapped around the horse’s leg and slithered its way up attempting to envelop the beast entirely. The poor beast thrashed wildly in a vain struggle to free itself. Erendil looked over at Raxxil, who was struggling to calm the other two horses that were even more restless now.

To Erendil’s surprise, Serraemas dashed forward in a blur and waved his arms in the air. The archer watched in awe as a sliver of ice formed just above the quick-moving figure. It hovered in the air momentarily before shooting toward the grasping vines as Serraemas extended his arm. The sliver sliced through the thick vines cleanly, embedding itself into the ground. Free from the powerful snare, the fortunate horse was able to regain its footing. Curiously, the severed vines flailed as they oozed a viscous liquid.

So that’s Serraemas’s power. So graceful, yet so deadly.

Raxxil opened his mouth to speak—

The fiery elementalist was cut off by a reverberating roar that came from the direction that they were heading in, and Erendil swore he heard a hint of pain in the crashing sound. Once again, both he and Raxxil turned to Serraemas for an answer.

“Don’t get caught”, he reminded again, offering no other explanation as the icy elementalist dashed to the front. He motioned for them to continue, and they waded cautiously toward where the deafening sound came from. This time, however, Erendil noticed that Serraemas held a more tensed posture, as if expecting an attack at any moment. The archer mimicked the stance, and while he would be unable to use his weapon, he could still defend himself. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed that Raxxil was focusing his attention on the ground, ensuring that neither he nor their mounts become entangled. In fact, it appeared that the vines were now aware of their presence, and slowly slithered toward Erendil. He resorted to shuffling his feet in order to evade the coiling plants. Another roar bellowed slightly from the right, and they shifted course.

Gradually, the thick mist slowly dissipated, yet Erendil had the feeling that meant that they were closer to whatever was making such a bestial noise. He looked around once more, noticing that the vines now nearly reached the tops of the trees; the closer the group traveled to whatever was the source, the more influence this strange phenomena had over the other vegetation.

Raxxil grunted. “I thought that shit would never en—”

Serraemas whipped his head and gave Raxxil a stern look, silencing the hammer-wielder completely.

Erendil looked over his shoulder at his fiery companion, who reacted by throwing up his hands and contorting his face in an I-didn’t-even-do-anything look. Still, the death stare proved effective, and Raxxil sealed his mouth—for the time being only, of that Erendil had no doubts. Strangely enough, the horses had also become silent, as if wary to garner unwanted attention.

Abruptly, Serraemas dashed to the left and behind the base of one of the trees. He motioned for Erendil to do the same, and for Raxxil to take guard behind another tree about two dozen feet to their right. Erendil was curious to see what caused the sudden motion, but decided that remaining crouched was the best course of action. Still wary of the ground, he continued to shuffle his feet and evade the advances of the lively vines.

Serraemas made a gesture with his hands at Raxxil, and the latter seemed to understand the message. With his back near the base of the tree, Raxxil leaned to his right and took a gander at what lay ahead. He peeked for only a moment before leaning back quickly. Looking back at Serraemas, he raised his brows and grinned from ear-to-ear expectantly. To the hothead’s chagrin, however, Serraemas shook his head in disapproval, and made a second set of hand gestures. The grin suddenly vanished and was replaced with rolling eyes. The brutish warrior muttered something under his breath, though Erendil was too far away to discern its contents.

Serraemas quietly motioned for Erendil to lean closer. Erendil complied, still watching his footing.

“What lies before us is the witch’s final barrier”, whispered his cloaked ally. “Beyond that, our destination. Sneak around it quietly. This isn’t a fight we want to have… for more reasons than one.”

With that, Serraemas gave a final nod to Raxxil, and then moved to the left. Erendil watched his hammer-wielding companion inch his way in the opposite direction before vanishing out of sight. Not wanting to be left behind, Erendil quickly turned and followed in Serraemas’s footsteps.

As they crept past the tree that had just blocked his view, Erendil gaped in both horror and awe.

What lay before them was a monstrous creature that resembled a giant flower. It rose to nearly the height of the surrounding trees, with a thick body and two tentacle-like arms that spanned nearly twice its body length. The smaller vines that they had previously encountered were snaked across the ground like roots, branching out in every direction. What seemed to be the head jutted from the top of the stem-like body as four flaps came together like a long snout, though Erendil could not detect any eyes, nose, or ears.

Apparently sensing their presence, the head turned left and right frenetically searching for the newcomers. The flaps opened wide like a bloom, exposing rows and rows of sharp thorns that resembled teeth—a gaping maw of death.

It let loose another piercing bellow, as if beckoning its prey.

They continued to cautiously and quietly move around the creature, which appeared to be unable to see. Evading the snares proved to be no small feat, as the vines now littered the ground. At this point, it was nigh impossible to ascertain what was ground and what wasn’t. Erendil was forced to move with finesse on the balls of his feet, lest he become plant food.

One step here… A slight hop there… If not for the dire situation, this would be a fun game!

It wasn’t long until they were nearly past the horrible creature—

The whinnying of a terrified horse drowned out all other sound, followed by a familiar shouting of profanity that originated from the other side of the rooted monstrosity. It twisted its body and turned its head following the noise, then let loose another screeching roar.

Again, Erendil watched in both awe and terror as the unnatural creature lifted one of the horses into the air with its long, serpentine arms. The unfortunate beast was coiled tightly by several vines, and in an instant was swallowed whole by the endless chasm that was the monster’s mouth.

Next to him, he felt Serraemas spring into action. The staff-wielder dashed forward and around the monstrosity with grace, evading its flailing arms and grasping vines while his hair and cloak fluttered in the wind. He then turned to face Erendil mid-leap and offered a gesture with his hand, commanding Erendil to follow him. Cautiously, Erendil moved to make his way through the fatal traps.

One misstep, and he might end up in a bottomless pit.

Serraemas vanished behind the monstrous plant to where Erendil assumed Raxxil and the remaining two mounts were. At this rate, Erendil could hardly keep up with the swift figure’s agility and speed, and he scrambled to follow.

Erendil managed to evade the coiling tendrils that sought his flesh, making his way around very slowly without alerting the foul creature. It continued to thrash its arms wildly in search of more prey, and he wasn’t planning on meeting the same fate as the first horse. As he made his way to the other side, Erendil discovered that both man and beast were entangled heavily by the thick vines.

The vines slithered up Raxxil’s leg in an attempt to ensnare him, though he proved more than capable of handling himself. He kicked his legs and pulled at the vines with ease, tearing them apart as they oozed thick liquid. However, the two horses held no such strength, and relied on Raxxil to free them from their bondage. Serraemas also joined the fray, utilizing his elemental powers to cut swiftly through the encroaching coils.

Despite the efforts of the elementalists, the vines proved relentless in their advances and countless in their numbers. With every vine they severed, it seemed two more took its place. The group’s misfortune didn’t end there either, for they also seemed to have garnered the attention of the horror itself. It reared its terrifying head in their direction and let loose a shriek as it whipped its arms in the direction of where they struggled.

Serraemas quickly stepped in the way, grabbing his staff with both hands. He expertly lifted his weapon above his head and brought it down in a diagonal arc, knocking away the plant-like terror’s left tendril. Without pause, he swung to the left and struck the right tendril, pushing back its second arm. Serraemas’s defense only managed to enrage the monster further, and it continued its assault with renewed vigor. Serraemas was forced to dash about, but to Erendil’s awe still repelled the onslaught with relative ease.

“Get the horses free, and go!” Serraemas ordered, still focused on the assaulting monster. Erendil moved to offer assistance, but attempting to liberate the animals proved difficult with one arm—not to mention ensuring he didn’t get caught himself. By now, the poor beasts were brought into the ground and almost entirely covered with coiling vines. They continued to whinny and thrash frantically, but to no avail.

“Alright, forget this!” Raxxil vented in frustration.

The fiery elementalist tore free from the snares and moved with determination toward the source, clutching the hammer that had been nestled onto his back with an empty hand. With each step, new vines latched and sought to bring him down, but he wrested free each time. Clearly, he was not going to be so easily dissuaded.

Noticing the advancing figure, the monstrosity shifted its attention to Raxxil, and thrust a tendril at him. It whipped with stunning speed toward the hammer-wielder, who stopped and lowered his stance. He brought his arms up and tensed, seemingly bracing for impact. It struck him on the chest with such power that he took a step back to regain composure, but he quickly recovered and reached out to grasp at the tendril—

He narrowly missed, and the long arm was already retracted before he could make another attempt. Raxxil looked down, noticing that the vines now coiled both of his legs and crept up his torso.

Raxxil bellowed furiously as he once again wrested free from their grasp in one swift motion. He set his gaze back to the creature and charged. The monster attacked again, thrusting its left tendril much like it did before. This time, however, Raxxil did not stop, instead bending his knees and pushing off with his legs.

The force of the push propelled Raxxil, and he soared into the air toward the attacking arm. With a resounding smack the two collided, yet with a different outcome than before. Raxxil landed on the ground hard, holding the tendril to his chest as if to hug it. He struggled with it as the creature attempted to wrest free from the grasp, but it was clear who was stronger. It attacked with its other arm frantically, the tendril aiming to strike Raxxil’s head—

Serraemas leapt into its path, and with a swift motion, parried the blow with his staff. Seizing the opportunity, Raxxil tensed, then grunted with exertion as he pulled with both arms. The monster lurched forward from the force, but recovered and responded in kind by pulling as well. Raxxil slid forward slightly, still maintaining his vice grip. Again a grunt departed from his lips as he planted his feet and strengthened his stance. Twisting to the side, Raxxil pulled with one swift motion, tearing the monster’s arm off completely. Its stem and head snapped back from the force, and it unleashed a shriek of pain as the familiar thick liquid spewed from its now severed tendril.

Raxxil threw the lifeless arm to the side, a satisfying grin flashing across his face. According to the fiery elementalist’s facial expression, however, it was clear that he was not quite finished yet. The monster enraged even further, and it thrashed its remaining arm and all of its vines at Raxxil—completely ignoring both Erendil and Serraemas.

Despite the desperate attempt, the fiery elementalist proved to be an unstoppable force, and continued to shrug off the entangling roots with each step. The monster swiped with its remaining tendril, but Raxxil ducked and it swung over his head harmlessly. He sprang up, launching himself at the monstrous creature. It roared in defiance and attempted to swipe again—

Raxxil was too quick. So quick, in fact, that both Erendil and the monster were surprised.

The armored human evaded the attack and landed just under the towering plant in a flash. He grabbed his hammer and brought it forth, gripping it with both hands. With a swift kick off the ground, he leapt up over the monster and swung down with his weapon before it could react. The blow struck right on top of its head, generating a loud, echoing smack that made even Erendil wince. The creature reeled back from the force, but it looked as though Raxxil wasn’t going to give it a chance to recover.

He twisted his trunk, swung in an arc, and released his clutch on the hammer toward the monster’s head. It opened its gaping maw and bellowed at Raxxil mockingly. The flying weapon passed into its mouth and tore a hole as it blasted out the other end, soaring passed the tree line and then crashing somewhere beyond.

It roared again, but this time from pain as its viscous blood spewed even more. Despite suffering the fatal blows, it seemed as though defeating the overgrown plant would prove harder than a hellhound; it continued its aggression relentlessly, completely disregarding its grievous wounds. It swung once more at Raxxil, but he lunged to the side and dodged the tendril. Erendil could hear him laughing in glee, apparently enjoying the battle as if it were his favorite pastime.

Such wanton zeal… though at least I now know he isn’t just a mouth.

Raxxil readied to continue his onslaught, widening his stance.

To Erendil’s surprise, however, he witnessed a power very much different than the brutish tactics he had seen the man previously employ.

Raxxil leaned back and drew in a deep breath, his chest and cheeks puffing out from the increased air filling him as he held. After a brief moment, a torrent of hot lava spewed forth from his lips. It first engulfed the monster’s head entirely, then made its way down the horror’s thick stem. Cries of agony reverberated throughout the woods as the blazing substance burned and melted until what was once a giant, hellish plant was reduced to nothing. The archer gaped, watching as all that was left was now brittle rock and ash and cooling lava. Raxxil wiped his mouth and laughed again, reveling in his triumph.

Erendil watched as Serraemas made his way to where Raxxil stood. The larger man turned to his icy counterpart and opened his mouth to speak—

Raxxil was greeted by a staff to the head.

The fiery elementalist winced in pain and proceeded to rub the area where the blow struck. Serraemas shook his head disapprovingly, and said something inaudible from where Erendil stood. Raxxil responded by throwing up his arms in defense and contorting his face in confusion.

“Yeah, let’s not kill the giant flesh-eating plant monster that swallowed a horse whole”, Erendil heard Raxxil yell in defense as the archer neared his allies, bringing the remaining two horses along with him. The steeds appeared much calmer now that they were free from unnatural grasps and scary creatures.

Serraemas continued to hold his icy gaze. “If you weren’t careless then you wouldn’t have been caught.”

Raxxil guffawed, then pointed at their mounts. “Tell it to them. I’m going to go get my hammer.” He turned away and marched to where his weapon fell, dismissing Serraemas’s scolding entirely.

Erendil watched the reckless man stomp away for a brief moment, before facing Serraemas. “So this was the final obstac—?”

“Stop yelling damn it, don’t you see there’s nothing left to burn!” barked Raxxil, cutting off Erendil’s question.

Erendil turned in Raxxil’s direction only to discover that his ill-tempered ally addressed no one but himself as he continued his trek to reclaim the hammer while muttering inaudible words.

Oh, so he’s insane? That answers a lot of questions.

“Our bonds with elementals allow us to converse with them, and Raxxil’s in particular has quite the personality”, answered Serraemas, reading Erendil’s confused expression perfectly. “Have you spoken to yours since your battle with the hellhounds?”

Master Sora had taught him the basics in regards to elementals, though chose to withhold Erendil’s personal development. As far as he could remember, the archer had never interacted with another being inside him. In fact, he had yet to even sense another presence within.

Erendil shook his head. “Perhaps I do not have the potential as an elementalist.”

“No”, assured Serraemas. “Sora would not have raised you if you didn’t. Come now, let us see the witch.”

With that, his shorter, more collected ally made his way past the ruined ashes where their fearsome enemy had once existed. This time, however, there was no need to be wary of one’s steps, and Erendil followed in tow.

A radiating pain seared his arm, and he looked down at his mangled appendage. He had almost forgotten about it. During the battle, the adrenaline had distracted him from his wound, but now the pain throbbed once more. It wasn’t the pain that troubled him, however, as the feeling of discomfort was due to being unable to use his weapon. Falling behind, Erendil brushed off the distracting thoughts, ushering the horses with his left arm and following Serraemas.

I hope the witch can heal this troublesome wound.

They continued forward for some time through the dark woods and eventually caught up to Raxxil, who had retrieved his weapon. He stood several dozen feet in front of them and waited for them to catch up, and as Serraemas and Erendil neared, turned and pointed slightly to the right.

Erendil looked in that direction, noticing a unique opening dozens of feet away where light poured in. The trio hastily dashed toward it, and as they drew near Erendil discovered that it led to a clearing. It spanned a wide circle that welcomed the questing fighters—yet trepidation filled Erendil’s gut—as if it was too good to be true. In its center was a small wooden cottage. It had a slanted roof, a chimney, one window, and a simple wooden door. Behind it was a small area of tilled soil with what appeared to be several crops growing.

What was most striking, however, was the image of five angry, flaming hellhounds that appeared to be even larger than before. The beasts stared at them with murderous intent, and to his right Erendil heard Raxxil roar with delight.

—-

Samantha watched as her men downed their ale and slammed their steins onto the counter, cheering heartily in song.

“Another round!” yelled one of them to the barkeep, and several others joined in.

She supposed the bartender wasn’t about to argue from all the coin he was amassing. Just like all the rest of the towns, Bellis was a quiet village nestled in the middle of Farrin Forest. The forest began to the south and continued to stretch northeast around Nokle Road, and much like her home town, the villagers lived simple lives.

One general goods shop. One tavern. One leatherworker. One blacksmith.

One everything.

Each family excelled at a trade, and that’s how they sustained their lives as a small community. Crime was scarce and the villagers lived relatively safely, yet the rumors of monsters continued to intensify. The scariest threats most of these townsfolk had ever seen were bloodthirsty bandits. To entertain rumors of monsters lent to the notion that boredom was the new pandemic.

She looked around at her men’s joyous faces. In peaceful times like these, drinking ale and cheering drunkenly were the only ways to cope with such an uneventful duty. She looked down at her plate of food and cup of water. The aroma of freshly cooked meat flooded her senses. Samantha took in a deep breath, sighed, and forked up a bite. It was delicious—cooked perfectly to a tender explosion of flavor. Still, her mind wandered to battle. As much as she cherished life and devoted herself to protect the defenseless, she yearned for an opportunity to use what she had spent years of her life learning. Something. Anything.

The door to the tavern swung completely open, the sound of it slamming against the wall drowning out all other noise for a brief moment. The tavern suddenly silenced—the cheers of carefree soldiers vanishing abruptly as they all turned their attention toward the door. Samantha continued to stare down at her plate and eat her meal unperturbed.

The figure stepped forward, his armored feet clinking on the floor.

“Ma’am, may I have a moment with you?” the man asked, saluting.

Samantha placed her fork on the empty plate and pushed herself up. “Very well, Sergeant Graf”. She returned the salute as she walked past him and out the door. Once outside, she looked up to a clear blue sky, and the sun’s hot rays bore into her face. Being fully coated in armor didn’t quite help either. She looked around, watching the townspeople mull about their business. Children played games and laughed happily. She turned to meet Graf’s stern visage. “Let’s find somewhere quiet and with some shade.”

“Yes, ma’am”, he said, leading the way outside of the village toward a collection of trees and bushes behind the tavern. They stepped into cool, refreshing shade and stood there momentarily in silence. Samantha glanced around, then crossed her arms and looked expectantly at Graf. He shifted his gaze left-to-right, making sure that no one was eavesdropping.

“Ma’am, Scout Haro has not returned for his regular report on Farrin Forest”, said the Sergeant. “He was due nearly six hours ago, and the sun will be setting soon.”

Samantha shifted her head south to where Nokle road twisted and turned and eventually gave way to the quiet forest.

It could have been a wild animal, or a bandit, or…

She sighed.

Losing soldiers was never easy to deal with, but if these so-called ‘Executioners’ were indeed true, then perhaps her men were in over their heads. Mostly young, inexperienced soldiers, Samantha knew that they were assigned to this duty for a reason. They could handle common thieves and thugs, sure, but if something far more sinister was truly out there then that boded ill for them. Even so, they were soldiers of the Order of the Faith, and they were trained to defend the innocent. She would not hesitate if she had to remind them of that.

Like her, Samantha knew that they yearned for battle, but she hoped that they would not become careless.

“Shall I send others for Haro, ma’am?” asked Graf, bringing Samantha out of her thoughts. His face was gaunt, and she knew that the loss of life also took its toll on him despite their line of duty. Haro was young, full of energy and optimism. She looked down in contemplation. She didn’t want her men to die, much less die under her command.

“Do not fret, Sammy”, said a voice from inside her head. “Trust in your abilities, and you will not lead your men nor yourself astray. Besides, the dead are not the ones that suffer.”

Kavem was always there to lend his aid. She had grown fond of him, and the two shared a powerful bond together. Even though she had risen up the ranks quickly, she understood that she was young and still had much to learn. Kavem always guided her on the right path and abolished her doubts.

“No”, Samantha said boldly. “Haro was a good man, but we cannot risk more lives until we know the exact situation. For now, we stay in Bellis until we figure this out.” She glanced south again. Everything was quiet, save for the bustling of the village. Farrin was a very peaceful forest. Naturally, there were wild animals, but hardly anything that would cause such rampant rumors and apprehension.

Though, there was the mystical tale of Dyraunt, the so-called ‘Great Bear Spirit’ that lived in the forest. She had heard it from a young age as she was growing up in Enorra. According to the old tale, Dyraunt was a malicious spirit in the form of a bear that haunted Farrin and ate unsuspecting people that wandered into the forest.

It was as if a regular bear wasn’t enough to dissuade the curious children of Bellis and the other villages. Still, that was quite different than the whispers of ‘Executioners’ and ‘demons’ that now ran rampant amongst the village people.

Samantha turned back to Graf, who was still looking at her expectantly. He had more than likely surmised that she had more orders to give. He was used to it by now. She looked at the tavern and back to the sergeant. “No more ale until further notice.”

That seemed to be what Graf was waiting for. He saluted and hastily walked away, disappearing out of sight as he made his way around the building. Samantha heard the door open wide again and the shouts of a disgruntled old man all the way from where she stood.

What’s worse than young and inexperienced soldiers? Young and inexperienced soldiers that are too drunk to hold a sword properly.

She drew in a deep breath and exhaled, looking up at nothing in particular and losing herself in her thoughts. Her regiment was the only trained group of soldiers that patrolled Nokle road; if not for her men, then it was up to each town’s militia to defend themselves in times of necessity. The townsfolk looked up to Samantha and her men for protection, and she wasn’t going to let ghost bears, demons, or warriors from hell have their way—

The rustling of leaves pulled her out of her thoughts. Alerted, she moved her hand to her side where her blade rested and quickly glanced to the right where the sound was coming from. Samantha let loose a sigh of relief and relaxed. The cause of the sound—a little boy playing alone—had almost compelled her to unsheathe her blade. Such was the harsh training that the Order of the Faith employed.

“Hello”, Samantha said softly as she neared the child.

“Hi”, he responded simply as he looked up at her and smiled toothily before resuming his activity.

She looked at what the boy was doing and noticed that he was squashing Farrin Inibs—small insects that had eight long limbs. They lived together in colonies by the thousands, and when one such colony was disturbed they charged out many at a time to meet the aggressor.

Upon closer inspection, it appeared that the boy was playing a game with the insects. He allowed a few inibs to rush out before squashing them all. He would then wait for twice as much to come out before squashing them again. He kept repeating the pattern until the insects started to rise faster than he could quell them. Overwhelmed, he quickly stood up and ran back toward the village grounds.

Samantha smiled and watched the boy as he trailed off in the distance before vanishing from sight. She looked back at the swarming inibs. While just small insects, they coordinated with each other when defending and attacking. If given ample room, their numbers could pose a threat to much larger animals.

Children… their curiosity is limitless.

Samantha headed back toward the tavern, but as she made her way to the village she noticed a peculiar-looking caravan that was stopped in the heart of Bellis. A small crowd was gathered around it, and Samantha walked over to it to investigate. Upon nearing the crowd, she discovered a large sign that was posted next to the caravan:

Come and see the incredible wrestler, The Ujok! The infamous fighter will accept any challenger for only fifty coins! Right here, any time! You want it, you got it!

Following the message was a rather well-drawn picture of a masked man. The mask was colored in blue save for a yellow ‘X’ that marked the front.

“What’s all this about?” Samantha asked to a villager next to her.

“Seems like a famous performer traveling from Merchant’s Keep”, replied the man.

That was no surprise. The infamous city had its fair share of creative people trying to make a living, and there were no limits to what they would try to sell. From odd, new gizmos that were touted as the next best thing, to seers claiming to be fortune-tellers, Merchant’s Keep was a strange city inhabited by even stranger people.

How odd to come all the way here, though.

Samantha figured there probably weren’t any townsfolk that would take the challenge, save for her men; by now, they would most likely do anything to pass the time, even if it was something as absurd as challenging a costumed man to a fight.

In any case, Samantha turned around and headed back to the tavern. By this time, her men were piling out, their movements still revealing their drunken stupor. Graf continued to bark at them remorselessly, attempting to get them into a proper formation.

As she neared, they noticed her presence and scuttled frantically—as if a rigid sergeant wasn’t enough to compel them. Perhaps it was her stern visage that triggered some form of discipline, but she would be damned if she wasn’t ready for anything.

“The time for negligence is over”, ordered Samantha. “We have a town to protect.”

Chapter 7

346th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

“Maybe this time they’ll actually present a challenge”, Raxxil jeered. He shifted his stance and raised his fists.

BURN THEM ALL TO ASHES!” yelled Vrand from within.

The hellish beasts snarled, and this time they seemed even angrier than normal. Somehow they had returned to be much larger and more ferocious than they had been before, and their flames raged even more fiercely. All the better. He would kill them a thousand times if that meant they would actually offer more than just petty punching bags.

Raxxil stepped forward, fists clenched and body tensed ready to meet his foes.

The beasts charged at the trio, preparing to lunge—

They stopped abruptly as the sound of a door slamming shut echoed from behind them. Raxxil looked past the burning dogs and glimpsed a figure standing just outside of the house. The women waved in their direction and then walked briskly toward them. Strangely enough, the beasts looked her way, softened, and then sat on their hind legs waiting patiently like trained dogs.

As she neared, Raxxil noticed her features more clearly. She wore a black garb that exposed her shoulders, accentuated her feminine curves, and even displayed her well-endowed bosom partially. The dress cascaded past her slim waist and down her legs, but stopped just above her ankles. She also wore a pointed black hat with a circular brim. Much like her vestment, her straight, voluminous black hair flowed well past her shoulders. Her attractive complexion was pale aside from her slightly rosy cheeks. She had a sharp nose, thick brows, full lips, and bright blue eyes.

“Bad dogs!” she yelled at the beasts with furrowed brows.

They looked down in shame, and their raging fires subsided to reveal furry, black hides.

She pointed toward the back of the house, and when they did not budge placed her hands on her hips. She waited expectantly, but the beasts only whined. The woman stomped the ground with one foot, her expression contorting into a menacing scowl.

Even Raxxil was almost taken aback.

Apparently frightened at what would follow if they continued to be disobedient, the five pets scuttled away frantically toward the back of the house and eventually vanished from sight. Satisfied, the woman then focused her attention on the newcomers.

“Serraemas!” she cheered, her complexion suddenly lightening. She ran over to Serraemas and jumped on him, completely ignoring both Raxxil and the lizard-man. Serraemas made no effort to catch her, yet she remained clinging onto him.

“Tarla”, Serraemas replied without emotion. He still stood normally, as if there wasn’t a busty woman attempting to smother him.

Raxxil scratched his head in puzzlement. “Last I recall, we waded for the better part of a day through a weird forest, we were attacked by not only vicious fireballs, but a hungry, horse-swallowing vegetable just to get here… and you give Serraemas a hug?”

“Oh, you mean Fanny?” said the witch as she hopped off of the expressionless statue and turned to Raxxil. She brought her right hand to her chin and looked up pensively. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t fed her in a few days!” The woman then looked over at Erendil and the remaining two horses, her eyes widening as she cupped her mouth. “Oops, she ate one of your little horsies, didn’t she? We’ll have to do something about that.”

Raxxil laughed hysterically. “Too bad. Your plant’s been barbecued.”

Tarla dismissed his comment with the wave of her hand. “Please. How do you think Babu, Wabu, Gabu, Zabu, and Pabu spawned anew? This goes beyond your petty embers.”

“Let me introduce my companions”, said Serraemas, changing the subject. He gestured toward the scaly-skinned beast. “This is Erendil. As you can see, he is in need of some help regarding his arm…”

Tarla hurried over to the lizard man and inspected the wound. “Oh, you poor thing! Let’s get you fixed right away.” She turned and hustled in the direction of the house.

“…and this is Raxxil”, continued Serraemas.

“Yeah, yeah… whatever”, replied the witch nonchalantly without even looking back to acknowledge the explosive elementalist.

Raxxil glanced at Serraemas and raised his brows for an answer, but only received a shrug.

BURN THE HOUSE DOWN!” shouted Vrand again.

“If she keeps this shit up I’m gonna raze the whole forest”, Raxxil replied.

Serraemas moved to follow the woman, and Raxxil did the same. Nearing the house, its door magically swung open as the witch entered first, then the towrth, who had to duck slightly to fit through the door, and then Serraemas.

Raxxil lingered for a moment, hearing the growls of the five hounds. He was tempted to just go around the back and obliterate them.

“Raxxil”, Serraemas commanded from inside.

Raxxil sighed, but before obliging he first ensured that the two horses were settled in their reigns, then lowered his head as he entered the house.

While deceptively simplistic on the outside, its interior beheld several odd spectacles. The chimney rose from the far wall, with a fire sparking and crackling. There were two rooms: the main one where they stood, and a door toward the back that led to what he presumed was a bedroom. A wooden table with several chairs occupied the space to his right, with a large cauldron placed inside the chimney atop burning wood. The walls were lined with shelves, some filled with books, others displaying strange items. A single broom floated several feet above the ground as if suspended by an unseen force.

Raxxil examined one odd item in particular. It was a glass jar filled with eyeballs suspended in a solution. He could not tell if they were human eyes, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to know. He grunted, then plopped down onto one of the chairs and crossed his arms. The table was littered with vials and flasks of varying colors. He looked over at Erendil, noting that the lizard-man seemed much more interested in the bizarre collection. Erendil carefully inspected each item, ignoring his own wounds entirely.

“You’ll have plenty of time to look, but first come and sit”, said Tarla as she grabbed the lizard-man’s uninjured arm and forcefully dragged him over to the table, pushing him without much grace into one of the open chairs.

He slammed hard and let out a grunt, but otherwise remained silent as he watched her intently. She sat down into the seat next to the lizard-man, and immediately unwrapped the rudimentary first aid that they had initially applied. By now it was more red than white.

She muttered an incantation and hovered her open palms just above his injured arm. The witch’s words were followed by a strange, unnatural glow that emanated from her hands and was accompanied by a resonating hum. Gradually, the bleeding stopped. Following that, the gashes vanished magically as the wounds healed. After several minutes, all that remained was the towrth’s green, scaly skin, as if nothing had happened in the first place. Both the glow and hum ceased as Tarla withdrew, a satisfied grin playing across her face.

Erendil stood up and made several motions with his right arm, testing the results. After a few moments, he turned to the witch and bowed in gratitude. “Thank you very much”. He then turned and tried to continue admiring her strange collection, but she grabbed his arm again and slammed him back into his seat.

“I’m not finished with you yet!” she giggled with a mischievous complexion. Tarla turned to Serraemas and placed her hands on her hips, giving him an incredulous look. “Why didn’t you tell me Erendil had dark element?”

Raxxil raised a brow, and looked over at Serraemas. The staff-wielder retained his emotionless face, but walked over and sat down next to them. He looked at Erendil pensively, who seemed just as puzzled as everyone else.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” asked Tarla playfully. “It is strange, though. Someone actually sealed away his powers for some reason, but I think I can crack it!” The witch stood from her chair and walked over to one of the shelves that contained her library of books.

Meanwhile, Raxxil looked over at the archer. Erendil seemed absolutely taken aback by this new revelation. He then turned to the witch and narrowed his eyes. “So how come you’re not trying to cast a hex on him? I thought you hated people like him?”

“If I was going to hex someone, it would be you”, retorted the witch, still focused on her texts. “But you are correct, albeit only partially. Erendil is naturally attuned to the element through his elemental. Those like myself only have a problem when there is dark magic involving demons or Hell. Demonic magic is very dangerous in a fool’s hands.” Tarla placed the book back and went for another one. “Besides, a friend of Serraemas is a friend of mine!” She paused for a moment, turned to Raxxil, and scowled. “Well, not all the time.”

Raxxil rolled his eyes, but decided to remain quiet.

CONFLAGRATE HER!” yelled his elemental.

Serraemas looked over at Raxxil and gave him a stern expression.

“What do you want me to do?” defended Raxxil. “He’s not going to shut up even if I tell him to.”

“Hey, Vrand”, said Zaranet out loud.

“WHAT?” responded the explosive elemental.

“Shut up”, scolded Zaranet.

“NO!” shot back Vrand.

“Ah, here it is!” interjected Tarla as if she wasn’t aware of the invasive exchange.

Each elementalist was able to speak with their own elemental in a manner that others could not hear, like a wavelength or a frequency. Some elementalists—namely Serraemas and Raxxil—had bonded to the point where they could exchange words with each other’s elemental.

The witch now held in her hands a dusty, old book that seemed as if it had been discarded for many years. She walked over to the table, setting aside several flasks and vials to make room for the large book. She set it down and flipped through the pages. After several moments, she stopped at a page.

“Aha!” Tarla exclaimed triumphantly. She then rummaged through her collection of items that littered the table, occasionally glancing back at the page. “Okay, so I need one part gak juice, two parts bidle blood, a dash of sanara herb, and last but not least… a little something special.”

The witch tossed all of the ingredients into her cauldron. It bubbled for a brief moment before releasing a plume of smoke with a poof, and the solution turned black in color. Tarla took an empty glass from the table and dipped it into the cauldron quickly, then handed it to Erendil, who still sat with a curious expression. He looked up at her, apparently unsure of what to do with the concoction.

“Drink up, now”, she said reassuringly, like a mother would to her sick child.

Erendil shifted his gaze back to the glass and swirled it slightly, then lifted it to his mouth and downed the contents in one gulp. He set the glass down, and looked up again at the witch. Everyone waited for something to happen, and silence befell the small house. After several uneventful moments, Tarla brought her hand to her chin and furrowed her brows.

“Well, this is odd”, said the witch. She walked over to the book and skimmed through the page again. A moment later she chuckled to herself.

Raxxil smirked. “So you’re a phony, after—“

“Of course!” she blurted, interrupting Raxxil before he could finish. She hurried to the lizard-man and poked him on the chest with her index finger. An insignia that depicted a glowing hand print suddenly appeared around the area of Erendil’s chest where the witch had touched. It glowed white, shining brighter and brighter until the sound of glass shattering pierced the air. As abruptly as it had appeared, the symbol was now gone.

“I haven’t seen something like that in a while”, said Tarla. “Space magic can be pretty odd. How does it feel?”

Was this Sora’s doing all along?

Erendil shrugged. “I don’t feel any different at all.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll come eventually!” said the witch with a warm smile. “Now, my reward!” She scurried over to where Serraemas sat and jumped on him again, wrapping her left arm around his neck and burying her face into his chest. Erendil and Raxxil looked at each other with confused expressions, but remained quiet. With a shrug Erendil rose from his chair to satiate his curiosity of bizarre collections.

Raxxil watched as the broom sprung to life, hovering behind the lizard-man with a watchful gaze as if it had eyes. Erendil attempted to touch the various items, but was interrupted every time with a swift strike to the hand from the magical broom. After several failed attempts, the towrth employed a different tactic. He tried to hold the stick with one hand and reach at a jar with his left, but was foiled again; the broom appeared to be augmented in a way that was unnatural, and wrested free from his grasp with ease, striking him again as it did so. His curiosity seemingly bruised—along with his hand—the lizard-man drew back and resorted to merely looking at the strange collection. Raxxil couldn’t help but chuckle at Erendil’s unfortunate dilemma.

“It’s so good to see you, Serraemas”, said Tarla, breaking the silence. She latched onto him like a snake to its prey, yet he still sat unmoved. Attempting to garner some sort of response from the apathetic elementalist, the witch feigned a swoon, letting go and falling toward the floor. However, Serraemas made no motion to catch her, instead looking over at Raxxil.

His dark blue eyes gave a this-isn’t-what-you-think look.

The witch stopped herself just before hitting the floor, and instead hovered a few inches off the ground. She crossed her arms and feigned a melancholic expression as she hovered for a brief moment, then raised herself up and planted her feet on the floor. She grinned at Serraemas devilishly.

What… the hell…?

“I just love it when you play hard to get!” she exclaimed with glee. “What else do you require, my dear?”

Serraemas shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. “We need help in tracking someone that is carrying some sort of magical book. He seems to be able to wield dark element somehow, and that very same book is the source. Our task is to retrieve it.”

“Why not just let the Executioners handle it?” asked Tarla, narrowing her eyes.

“Because that’s our mission dumbass”, intervened Raxxil. “Now that you mention it, why don’t you go for it? You just said your kind didn’t like that kind of stuff.”

Tarla brushed off his remark with the wave of her hand and a click of her tongue. “Now, now little boy. Adults are talking, so be quiet and go play with yourself.”

Raxxil chuckled heartily. “Cold as ice! Now I see why you two get along so well.”

“It is the task entrusted to us… that is all”, Serraemas stated while giving Raxxil a deadly glance. “Can you point us in the right direction?”

“Absolutely, dear”, replied the witch. “There was a large spike in dark energy coming from Farrin Forest a couple of weeks ago. Not sure what happened, but this person must know he has enemies and would most likely be trying his best to mask his presence. Whatever it is that caused him to show himself, it was out of necessity.”

Serraemas crossed his arms and furrowed his brows as he looked down. “It must have been Jorne. They encountered each other and a battle ensued, forcing our target to use his powers and reveal himself.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” asked Raxxil.

Serraemas turned to Raxxil. “Our next destination lies west, then. It should be about a day’s travel on horseback. We leave immediately.”

Tarla walked over to Serraemas and wrapped her arms around him once more. “What’s the hurry? The sun is beginning to set, and you need to rest!”

“Thank you for your aid Tarla, but we cannot lose any more time”, replied Serraemas. He moved across the room to the door despite the fact that the woman still clutched onto him and dragged along the floor. She sighed, but offered no more resistance. Raxxil and Erendil exchanged glances, then followed suit.

“Come by anytime, dear”, said Tarla warmly as Serraemas walked out the door. He stopped just outside the house and looked to his left for a brief moment before looking back at Tarla and planting a palm on his forehead.

“What?” she asked inquisitively, stepping out and also glancing to the left. “Oh no! Bad dogs!”

Raxxil did the same, and laughed hysterically.

Where two horses once stood was now a pile of flesh and bone. Blood trailed out to the open field, where the hellhounds now battled for the last bits of horse meat.

Tarla ran out to the beasts, shouting incomprehensible insults at them. The unruly pets stopped and drooped their heads again in shame as she scolded them.

“What’s the plan now?” asked Raxxil to Serraemas.

Serraemas turned and headed west. “We have no choice but to make our way on foot. Let’s go.”

Raxxil moved to follow him—

“Wait!” yelled the witch from behind. Raxxil turned around as she bolted toward them with unnatural speed, far faster than he thought her capable. Three of the beasts followed her, and as she neared, Raxxil noticed that the beasts were now fitted with reigns.

“You can ride these three”, said Tarla reassuringly. “They are much, much faster than horses and they know the woods, so they can navigate through it more quickly as well.”

The beasts behind her seemed more calm and disciplined, though Raxxil was unsure how long that would last. Their hides no longer burned with flames, and they almost looked like innocent dogs. Raxxil watched as Serraemas walked up to one of the animals. It growled instinctively, but this time there did not seem to be any malice behind it. The staff-wielder mounted the beast, situated himself, and then nodded to Raxxil.

Raxxil followed suit, approaching another hound. He reached for the harness—

It snarled and bared its fangs at him, apparently remembering its own death at his hands. Attempting to mount the beast proved futile, as it continued to flail and bite at Raxxil. He looked over at Tarla and shrugged, giving her a why-don’t-you-do-something-about-this look.

“Bad dog!” she yelled for the third time at the beast as she walked over to it. It whimpered and drooped its head. She waved her arms and spoke a few words of unintelligible language, cast a spell, and then turned to Raxxil. “There you go, little boy.”

Raxxil rolled his eyes, but restrained his mouth. He tried one more time to mount the beast, and this time was successful. The hound offered no more trouble, instead serving obediently. He then focused his attention on Erendil.

The lizard-man was the most cautious to approach, and strode up to the last beast warily. He must have expected it to attack him again, but it gave him no resistance, and he sat atop it with ease. Erendil looked over at Serraemas and nodded.

“Thank you again, Tarla”, said Serraemas. He tugged on the reigns and the beast jerked forward with haste, running westward.

Raxxil, did the same, and was surprised at how quick their new mounts moved. He turned to see Erendil struggling to hold onto his own mount. The archer’s entire body was in the air, and only managed to stay on with a vice grip on the reigns. It was an amusing image, and Raxxil laughed at his companion’s struggle. Behind the lizard-man, dozens of feet away, Tarla waved, though if that was just for Serraemas, he could not tell.

These mounts were much better than horses. They traversed the woods with both agile reflexes and incredible speed, and by this rate he figured it would only take several hours to reach their destination and their target.

—-

About time I find my way out this damn forest…

Aramal trudged out onto a dirt road, weakened and drained of energy. Behind him were the endless trees that had obstructed him for so long. In front of him, his guided path awaited the soles of his boots. He looked down and examined his ruined clothing. It was tattered, shredded and ripped in several places. Still, he hadn’t received any grave injuries, and his possessions were intact. A few cuts and bruises on his skin, along with a few rips on his attire here and there, was hardly anything to complain about.

He knew his efforts would make many enemies, but he was surprised that he had been discovered so quickly, and thus how quickly he had become a target. Up until now, his newfound partner had hardly even used any of the demonic magic, instead focusing on transcribing the grimoire.

Aramal looked up and noticed the setting sun. He needed to find some shelter and recover for the night lest he stay vulnerable. The traveling human drew out the map from his pack, examining it thoroughly for what seemed like the thousandth time. Nokle road—the path he was now on—snaked its way through several villages and towns. The first, a town called Bellis, was only a couple miles northeast.

Aramal walked down the path to his new destination. It wasn’t too long before the road twisted to the right, revealing several structures that had just been obscured by trees. By now, the sun had disappeared, revealing a white, pale-faced moon. Several braziers were placed around a fence that lined the perimeter of the town, and there were two guards that stood watch by the southern entrance.

Aramal gripped his sword hilt with his left hand and moved his sack to obscure it, then approached the guards. They noticed him as he drew closer, about a couple dozen feet away from where they stood.

“Halt”, one of them commanded. The guard drew his blade, but held it defensively. He looked young, about twenty ages. He had short hair and bony features. His partner, who had much rounder features, watched from a few feet behind carefully. The gaunt-faced soldier eyed Aramal from head-to-toe. “Your garb is tattered. From where do you hail, and why?”

Aramal paused for a brief moment, contemplating his words. He wrapped his fingers more tightly around the hilt of his blade.

“Speak!” ordered the guard.

“I—I am a traveler from the south headed to Merchant’s Keep, and I was attacked on my way through Farrin Forest”, Aramal answered weakly.

The first guard looked at his partner with a shocked expression. They moved closer to each other, whispering back and forth. After a little while, the gaunt faced guard turned to Aramal with a sympathetic visage. “Was it the… Executioners?”

Aramal contorted his face in confusion. “Execu—? Yes, yes! I was ambushed by them, and I was only lucky to escape with my life!”

Both of the guards gaped, and Aramal thought he saw them trembling in their boots.

“What do they look like?” asked the second guard in a shaky voice, joining the conversation.

Aramal let go of his blade, crossing his arms and furrowing his brows. “Uhh… they were like phantasms in the night. Dark silhouettes of men that… uh… execute any misfortunate soul they come across. That’s right.” Aramal made a swift cutting motion with his hand. “Slice your head clean off.”

Their expressions turned grim.

“Did you encounter one of our men in the forest?” pressed the bony-faced soldier. “He was a scout, but we haven’t heard from him in nearly a day.”

Aramal shook his head. “Unfortunately, I did not see anyone else on my journey through.”

Both of the men sighed. They collaborated once more in whispers, and after some time the first guard sheathed his weapon. He turned to Aramal, then gestured toward a structure in the village behind him about fifty feet away. “That is the village’s tavern and inn. You can rest there for the night, but our lieutenant would like to speak with you at first light on the morrow.” Promptly, the guard stood aside, letting Aramal pass through.

The weary traveler kindly obliged, and without hesitation moved forward and past the two guards.

“Mankind is so fickle and easily manipulated”, said a demonic voice only Aramal could hear. “You’re all just too easy.”

“And you’re talking to one of them, so shut your mouth”, he grumbled back softly, careful not to alert the men behind him. He continued on his way to the building that the guard pointed him toward. As he was halfway there, he heard soft footsteps to his left. Aramal quickly placed his left hand on his weapon and turned in the direction of the sound. He gazed at the face of a young boy, probably eight ages or so. The boy stood several feet away, his back to a house. He had curiosity in his eyes, but held his distance.

“I haven’t seen clothes like that”, said the child. “Where are you from?”

Aramal smiled at the boy. “Wanna make a few coins?”

“Momma told me not to accept things from strangers”, replied the boy. “Who are you?”

“You like coins, right?” continued Aramal, ignoring the child’s questions. He reached into his pack and withdrew a small coin. He flipped it to the boy, who promptly caught it. The boy inspected it carefully, and seemed pleased.

“Come here and let me show you something cool”, said Aramal as he withdrew the grimoire from his sack.

Chapter 8

346th Dusk of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Just a little more.

They were nearly reaching the edge of Farrin Forest, of that Serraemas was certain. They had been traveling west through the Kaghro Grasslands for only a couple of hours, and by now the moon shone brightly with glowing stars dotting the dark sky. Nearby, a herd of large tusked beasts called ujoks—pronounced oo-yawk—were startled by the presence of charging hellhounds, and they scuttled away as they growled.

The traveling elementalists had rode up the Haln River on their way westward. It flowed down the middle of the grasslands from the kingdom of Enept-Ihs—which was nestled to the northwest in the center of Makka—to the Gavarian Ocean. Enept-Ihs was notorious for its Blue Swords, a group that was known across the continent for its formidable strength in battle. They served as a policing force around Makka, as did the entire kingdom, but only during dire situations that called for their aid; the Blue Swords were a shining beacon to others in both aspirations and example.

Serraemas tugged on the reigns, causing the hellhound to accelerate and move even faster. They bounded across the plains, continuing on their path with stunning speed toward what he perceived was the line of trees that marked the start of the forest. Out here, the grasslands were quiet save for the occasional wild animal. The closest settlement lied just north of the forest, and Serraemas had the notion that their target was heading in that direction. Still, they first needed to start where the spike in dark energy happened just as Tarla had directed. He wanted to find out what happened to Jorne, and if there were any clues of use there. Looking over his shoulder, Serraemas took a gander at the others. Raxxil seemed to be enjoying their new mounts, and Erendil looked as though he was finally in control of his.

To think that Erendil had an affinity for the dark element, and that it was sealed away this entire time…

Elementalists with light or dark affinities were nearly unheard of compared to the other eight elements, and they often came with unique circumstances as well. Considering the nature of their mission, he wondered if Sora had intended for Erendil to accompany them with specific purpose. In fact, he guessed that she was the one to place the seal on the towrth in the first place, though the purpose of that remained a mystery. Her actions were always meticulous and planned, however, so that meant that there was something to Erendil’s elemental that caused her to delay his bonding.

In general, the longer one shared a link with their elemental, the more skilled they became and the faster they mastered their powers. To delay that process deliberately was troubling, to say the least. He would have to keep an eye on the towrth, but their priority remained the same. His efforts would be focused on the mission, so whatever the reason was for sealing away the towrth’s powers would have to be dealt with later.

Serraemas returned his attention to what lay ahead. By now, the edge of the forest was close enough to see even under the darkness of the night. It wasn’t long until they reached it, and he motioned for the group to stop. Despite how fast they were moving, the beasts were still able to slow their momentum quickly, and they halted just outside the forest. Serraemas turned around, waiting for the other two to do the same.

“Why are we stopping?” asked Raxxil.

“While Tarla was able to direct us to a general location, Farrin Forest is quite large and we will have to search thoroughly”, said Serraemas, noting Raxxil’s apparent disapproval. The icy elementalist also heard an outburst from Vrand, though at this point he had learn to drown out the verbal eruptions of his ally’s elemental. “No, Vrand, we will not be burning it down.”

“Maybe I can finally be of use”, interjected Erendil.

Raxxil chuckled heartily, patting the towrth hard on the back. “Well, shit. It’s about time!” The force of Raxxil’s hand caused Erendil to stumble forward, though the archer was able to regain his composure and catch himself before falling face-first into the ground.

The agile towrth returned a disapproving hiss before walking closer to Serraemas. “On our ride here, I started to feel a strange sensation. Initially, it drew me in the same direction that we traveled, but I could not understand it.” Erendil then pointed into the forest. “However, I began to realize what it was. I can sense sources of dark element. Perhaps it is in the same manner as Tarla does.”

And there it is.

“What of your elemental?” Serraemas asked inquisitively. “Have you spoken to it?”

Erendil shook his head. “Nothing at all, but I do now feel another presence, albeit weakly.”

“That’s fine at the moment”, assured Serraemas. He nodded and gestured for Erendil to take point. “For now, lead the way.”

Erendil paused before shifting his stance and moving forward toward the line of trees. Serraemas felt something different about the towrth as he passed. Unsealing his elemental would obviously make him stronger, but there seemed to be something else to it. At first, Erendil had been a blank slate, like a child that had yet to experience the world. Now, Serraemas wasn’t so sure what lay inside.

Serraemas looked over at Raxxil.

The fiery elementalist smiled and gave him a thumbs up encouragingly, and Serraemas guessed the gesture was in regards to Erendil. Raxxil then pointed at the collection of mounts that were awaiting command. “What are we going to do about the dogs?”

Serraemas looked at the beasts. They seemed to have grown on the trio, and were much more docile compared to their first encounter. Unfortunately, if they were to travel to other places of population, then hellish, burning hounds would raise unnecessary questions and complications. He was sure that Tarla already missed them, anyway.

“We travel on foot from now on”, Serraemas said, and Raxxil nodded in agreement. Serraemas walked to the beasts as they sat waiting on their hind legs patiently. He petted each, then whistled and sent them off.

Raxxil moved after Erendil, leaving Serraemas to be last.

It was quiet except for the sound of leaves rustling under their footfalls. It seemed as though the nightly animals were too scared to reveal themselves, and had quieted and vanished from sight completely.

The traveling elementalists continued on their way through the dense forest while Erendil used his newfound sense to guide them. Though missing the strange fauna and flora that inhabited Cursewood, Farrin Forest still had its peculiarities and its vastness; without proper navigation, one could get lost quite easily.

Erendil charged forward with purpose as they traversed across the unsteady terrain, and both Raxxil and Serraemas followed swiftly. The forest contained a variety of hills and obstacles, though they still managed to traverse the terrain without much difficulty. It had been quite a while since they first entered the forest, and there still were no signs of any wild animals. Perhaps their target was the cause, or maybe something else entirely that was scaring them away. Serraemas and the others would have to be ready for any traps that lay waiting; he was certain that the enemy was wary of his own wanted presence, especially considering that Jorne had already fought with him.

Erendil stopped abruptly, gesturing for them to halt. They stopped just before a large clearing. The towrth then turned to Serraemas and lifted his arm, pointing ahead. “That is where the energy originates from.”

Serraemas walked past the archer into the clearing and inspected the devastation that lay before him. A spectacular battle had occurred here. There were several spots where grass was all but gone, exposing the brown, disturbed soil underneath. There were also several deep depressions scattered throughout the area that appeared as though a bladed weapon had struck the ground many times. It hadn’t been a quick and decisive battle.

Serraemas continued to walk toward the center of the clearing. He noticed something that was lying on the ground, and carefully treaded to it. Upon inspecting it, he discovered that it was a broken axe completely split in two. It was Jorne’s weapon. The remnants of it, at least.

The other two had followed behind Serraemas, and he met them with a stern expression. Raxxil cursed under his breath, understanding the situation. The scaly-skinned archer, however, was unaware of what it meant, and looked at Serraemas expectantly.

“As you know, an elementalist bonds with an elemental through his or her weapon, both as the source of power and connection”, Serraemas explained as he pointed at the archer’s bow. “Your weapon is the physical manifestation of that link. In other words, if that link is severed then you will forever lose that bond.” Serraemas glanced back at the ground where the weapon lay. “Unfortunately, there is no sign of Jorne, which means that either this battle changed locations, his entire form perished, or that he managed to escape.”

“He always liked being alone”, added Raxxil, crossing his arms across his chest. “An avid naturalist too.” The hammer-wielder jabbed at Erendil playfully. “You two would be best buddies!”

Serraemas nodded in agreement. “He did enjoy his solitude. In fact, he was much like you, Erendil. And like Sevag, he chose to complete his missions alone. Despite that, he had always been successful. Until now, of course.”

“Are we going to go looking for him?” asked Raxxil.

“No, we must continue on our mission despite the situation”, answered Serraemas before turning to Erendil. “We’ve no way to track him if he is still alive, but when we find our target we may find insight as to Jorne’s fate. Can you use your senses to direct us again?”

The towrth paused and looked down pensively, focusing on his newfound powers. After a few moments, he suddenly jerked his head to the northwest. “I feel it again in that direction, almost like a trail laid out before me.”

Serraemas looked at Raxxil, the latter of which displayed his signature grin. The green-eyed warrior flashed his teeth, anticipating the impending clash. Serraemas then shifted his attention to Erendil and nodded. “Very well. Lead the way again.”

—-

Though he hid it from the others, Erendil was ecstatic about discovering his powers. After seeing both Serraemas’s and Raxxil’s abilities, he was eager to find out what he was capable of. He was also curious as to who his elemental would be, and what it would be like. To his dismay, he still hadn’t heard from it, but Erendil could now feel a presence when he previously had not. He just needed to be patient.

Erendil smiled to himself. Before Tarla had unsealed his power, he felt useless and weak. He was like a child following a guardian, and was even unable to fend for himself when he was attacked in Cursewood. Now, however, he was able to assist his allies and contribute to their quest, and he reveled in it.

They had left the clearing and had been traversing the forest for nearly an hour. The more he used his ability to sense dark energy, the easier and more efficient it became. Now, he could clearly feel the source of it, and at the moment it was immobile and very close. In fact, he estimated it to be only a couple of miles ahead. Erendil quickened his pace into a sprint, noticing the edge of the forest up ahead. After about a minute, he bounded out of the trees and onto a dirt path that snaked its way ahead. He turned around, meeting Raxxil’s familiar grin and Serraemas’s blank expression.

“Good job buddy, you didn’t get us lost!” praised Raxxil with a strong pat on the back, though Erendil was unsure if that was his usual sarcasm or not. Sometimes the impetuous warrior’s words truly felt genuine.

Serraemas walked past Erendil, inspecting the road that lay before them. “This is Nokle Road, a long path that leads through several villages and eventually ends at Merchant’s Keep.” He turned and looked at Erendil. “Can you direct us again?”

Erendil nodded, and pointed down the road. “The source is only a couple of miles down the path.”

Serraemas then glanced at Raxxil and motioned for the both of them to follow. They moved in unison toward their goal, covering the distance quickly. It wasn’t long before they happened upon a sharp right bend in the road, and further beyond that, several structures that loomed in the distance. Several blazing fires were placed around the perimeter of the village, illuminating it through the night. A wooden fence was built around the village save for a few entrances that were guarded by armored soldiers.

Serraemas halted and motioned for them to stop as well. He then looked at Erendil expectantly. Understanding the icy elementalist’s question without words, Erendil pointed at the village and nodded.

“Keep your guard up”, whispered Serraemas as he treaded carefully down the path. The other two followed closely behind. It wasn’t long until they were only a few dozen feet from the entrance. There were two guards that stood watch, and they became alerted to their presence. One of them had thin features, while the other was rather plump. Both of them unsheathed their weapons and tensed as the trio approached.

“Halt!” exclaimed one of the guards with a stern expression, stepping forward with his blade raised. “Remove your hoods at once!”

Erendil looked at Serraemas expectantly, and the latter nodded. The three of them did as the gaunt-faced soldier requested, and though he continued to hold up his blade to them, seemed to soften at their exposed faces.

Except for Erendil, of course. The guard eyed the towrth with suspicion. “From where do you hail and what is your business here?” It was more than obvious that the man was nervous at his presence.

“We travel from Port Yjur and are headed to Merchant’s Keep”, responded Serraemas calmly.

The guard looked at his partner for a brief moment before returning his attention to the group of travelers. “And what of the towrth?”

“He is merely a slave and a mule”, responded Serraemas.

“Why does a slave carry a bow?” retorted the guard.

“I’m sure you understand how volatile a city such as Merchant’s Keep can be”, said Serraemas without hesitating. “If I take my gaze off him for even a moment who knows what will happen.”

The guard mulled over the answer for a moment and seemed satisfied at Serraemas’s explanation. He stepped closer to his partner, and the two whispered back and forth. Apparently coming to an agreement, the first guard stepped forward again and looked at Serraemas.

“Is something the matter?” questioned Serraemas.

“Did you encounter any Executioners in Farrin Forest?” asked the guard nervously.

—-

Serraemas lost himself in thought as they walked through Bellis to where the guard had directed them. The soldiers were young and easily deceived, but he assumed that their commanding officer would not so easily be swayed. The traveling elementalists needed to be gone before the lieutenant awoke.

Not only that, but the man’s questions regarding Executioners were troubling; rumors about their presence—their existence even—did not simply circulate without reason. Their purpose here would align with Serraemas’s, and their intrusion would be bothersome. Serraemas looked at Raxxil, who seemed to share that sentiment. However, where the former was concerned, the latter was eager, as was evident by the toothy grin Raxxil displayed.

“Focus on our mission”, Serraemas reminded him. “We will not engage them unless absolutely necessary.”

“Uh huh”, replied the hammer-wielding elementalist while sustaining his wicked grin.

If the Executioners did interfere, then the situation would become quite troubling. Executioners were combatants not to be trifled with, especially considering that they traveled in groups. If this particular group had several blue- and red-eyed Executioners, then the situation would become considerably more complicated. Each of their warriors emanated a bright glow from their eyes, and the color denoted their strength. The lowest, green, signified the weakest amongst their ranks. After that was blue, then came red. Finally, at the top, was purple.

A purple-eyed Executioner, of which Serraemas had yet to encounter was, according to legend, said to be an unstoppable force. At this point in time, he was not curious enough to separate truth from fiction firsthand.

Serraemas stopped walking and motioned for the other two to stop as well. They now stood at what he surmised was the center of the village, with an unusual looking caravan stationed just a few feet away.

“Can you find our target precisely?” Serraemas asked as he shifted his attention to the towrth.

Erendil looked down pensively again. After a moment, the archer looked at Serraemas and shook his head. “Before, I could feel it focused. Now I can feel it all around the village.”

Serraemas looked around. It was quiet; by now most of the townsfolk would be asleep. Yet, he could have sworn he saw the shadows moving, and not just because of the flickering flames from the torches.

“You there!” exclaimed an unknown voice with a thick accent.

Serraemas wheeled around to the direction that the statement came from. To his surprise, he beheld a unique and unexpected figure marching toward them. The man was quite built in stature, and wore a form-fitting costume that was blue and yellow in color. The muscular figure also wore a mask that wrapped his entire head, containing sockets for his eyes, nose, and mouth. The mask was completely blue except for a yellow ‘X’ that marked the front of the mask. He walked past Serraemas—ignoring the staff-wielder completely—and strutted up to Raxxil. The strange man was just about the same height and stared at his brown-haired ally, their faces mere inches apart.

Raxxil stared back incredulously, but refused to back away. The two glared at each other wordlessly, and silence befell the four of them. After a few moments in the stalemate, however, Raxxil smiled sheepishly, attempting to hold back the hysterical laughter that escaped his throat, but failed.

“Oh you think this a funny, eh?” spoke the man again with his odd accent. He crossed his large arms over his barrel chest. “Challenge The Ujok and I show you funny!”

The three of them looked at each other and shrugged.

“I am the famous traveling wrestler The Ujok, and I seek any challenger who thinks they are tough enough to face me”, continued the costumed man, taking the liberty to introduce himself without being asked.

“We don’t have time for this”, said Serraemas. He turned his back and walked away from the masked man, heading toward the inn. As he did so, he motioned for the other two to follow.

“I didn’t know a big man like you can be such a coward, eh?” remarked the man again, apparently taunting Raxxil.

It worked.

Raxxil stopped, cracking his knuckles as he grinned. He turned around and marched back toward where the masked man stood. The fiery elementalist halted just several feet away and crossed his arms, mimicking the other man’s stance.

“Aha, finally!” said the masked man gleefully. “A worthy challenger!” He uncrossed his arms, raised his hands in front of him, and stepped forward with one foot. “Usually I take fifty coin, but for you is free. I give you one free hit, too.”

“All I’m going to need is one hit”, scoffed Raxxil. He casually strode up to the masked man, who braced for the strike. As he neared, Raxxil lunged forward and under the costumed man, then jabbed lightly with his right hand, his cloak fluttering behind him as he performed the quick maneuver. The flying fist struck the masked man in the abdomen, and the impact sent the unfortunate soul flying in the air.

The Ujok crashed into the ground dozens of feet away, and Serraemas was unsure whether the man was dead or unconscious.

“That was unnecessary and will raise questions”, scolded Serraemas as his hotheaded ally returned. “We have no need to kill indiscriminately.”

“Relax, you saw that punch”, Raxxil replied in defense. “I only shut him up for a little while. Besides, he could have followed us and meddled right?”

Serraemas elected not to answer, heading again to the structure that the guard had directed them toward. It had two floors, with a single door and a set of windows on the second floor. It seemed to be the only building that still had liveliness to it, and he heard the sound of metal clanking and the creaking of wood. He opened the door and stepped through into the first floor of the structure, noting that the inn also served as a tavern.

As he stepped inside, Serraemas noticed two figures: the barkeep, and a man in tattered garb.

Chapter 9

346th Dusk of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Serraemas paused for a moment, inspecting the tavern.

To his right was the bar with a selection of alcoholic beverages stacked on shelves along with barrels of ale, and a long countertop that stretched all the way to the far wall. In the middle of the room was an assortment of tables and chairs, and to his left was the staircase that he presumed led to the bedrooms of the inn.

He then examined the lone figure, who sat atop a stool at the bar with a metal stein in hand. The man had a long, thick beard that was brown with a few greys. His hair was the same, flowing past his shoulders messily. He had a bold nose, thick brows, and a scarred face. The man seemed to be in his fifties, but Serraemas knew appearance didn’t always coincide with age. The man’s garment was ruined with several tears and marks, and he carried a large tan sack.

Serraemas motioned for the other two to take a seat at one of the tables, then walked over to where the man was seated. He sat upon the stool next to the lone man, although the latter seemed oblivious to their presence. Instead, the bearded man took a swig of his drink, slammed the stein on the counter, and stared at it blankly.

“Please don’t slam your drink, sir,” said the barkeep. “There are people asleep upstairs.” He then turned to Serraemas. “What will you folks be having tonight?”

“Just water, and some food for the three of us”, said Serraemas as he pointed at Raxxil in particular.

The barkeep did as he requested and quickly served up what Serraemas asked for, then did the same for the others. A soft cheer from Raxxil signaled his approval of the warm, nutritious meal. In fact, Serraemas could even hear his hotheaded ally’s stomach rumble from where he sat.

Serraemas shifted his gaze to the left and stared at the bearded man intently for several moments, but the man continued to look down. It seemed as though he was lost in thought—or he was just avoiding interaction purposefully. Serraemas watched intently as the man brought the stein to his lips, finished the rest of his drink in one gulp, and then set the stein down softly.

“Another round”, Aramal said in a deep, guttural voice.

“Yes, sir”, replied the barkeep, serving the man another full stein of ale. After that, silence befell the room—except for Raxxil’s munching, of course—leaving everyone to their thoughts.

“Ale is a great way to drown out one’s past”, Serraemas said, breaking the silence and glancing at the stranger. The man didn’t answer, and after several moments, Serraemas turned his gaze down at his own plate. He grabbed the piece of cooling bread and took a bite. Surprised, he found it to be quite fresh and delicious—a rarity amongst small villages serving strangers.

“Then why are you drinking water?” asked the stranger, finally acknowledging their presence. He took another swig of his ale.

Serraemas paused for a few moments pensively, placing his hand around his drink and swishing its contents lightly. “Our experiences shape and cultivate us, culminating into who we are today, and who we will be in the future. To try and forget them is to try and forget ourselves.”

Aramal let loose a soft chuckle. “What does it matter? We are meaningless and insignificant. Our choices are pointless, and we all meet our end regardless of what we wish.”

Serraemas shook his head. “That is where you are wrong. Those with that mindset are ignorant. They are sheep, living their lives blissfully unaware of what exists around them, and unable to change their course. If you believe your existence is meaningless, then—”

The bearded man turned his head toward Serraemas and grimaced. The man’s brown eyes held anger. “You think you know shit, little boy? You don’t have a clue. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You haven’t been through the struggles, but you will. Then you’ll understand.”

Little boy?

Serraemas’s eye twitched slightly and he curled his hands into fists, though returned the man’s gesture with a blank expression and said nothing.

Aramal quieted, then turned back to his ale and took another gulp.

“You just proved me right”, replied Serraemas calmly.

“What?” demanded Aramal harshly.

Serraemas kept his stare. “You just claimed that I haven’t experienced what you have, therefore I do not understand what you do. In other words, your experiences have changed the way you perceive the world around you, and ultimately, yourself.”

The man grumbled something unintelligible, then chuckled to himself. Instead of replying to Serraemas directly, however, he chose to remain silent, and fixated on his drink once more as if Serraemas did not exist.

“A man such as yourself is no sheep, that much is certain”, said Serraemas, continuing to eye his target carefully. “But… you’re bitter and hopeless still.”

“You still don’t get it”, said Aramal without turning his attention away from his drink. “Our actions, our lives, this world… none of it matters. We will all be forgotten when we wither away into nothingness, so you best just do whatever the hell you want because we’re just insects under the boot of death.”

Serraemas remained quiet.

Aramal turned to Serraemas and gazed deep into his eyes. “People die all the time for bullshit reasons. Innocent women get forced into slavery and fornication. Children are murdered. Wars are fought under the pretense of righteousness. No matter what we do, we are still a part of the nature of our humanity, part of the machine, so just ride it out doing whatever you want while you can.”

“You’re right”, agreed Serraemas. “We are insects, but it isn’t the boot of death that crushes us. This hopelessness that bars us from changing the world around us is exactly what has been placed upon us in order to continue this cycle. That is why we stay insects.”

“Yeah”, said Aramal. “I used to be like that. Go out into the world and do something. Fight. Change. Make a difference. That was when I was naive and held hope. But after battle after battle, I realized that it was all for naught.”

Serraemas took another bite out of his food and sipped his drink. “Then why do I see purpose in your eyes? Surely with your outlook you would be drinking the rest of your life away in a tavern, gambling and surrounded by wenches like a man with no hope would.”

Aramal contorted his face in a scowl, but refused to comment further. Instead, the bearded man looked over his shoulder at Raxxil and Erendil. They still sat patiently, and it seemed that Raxxil was finished with his meal given that his loud and obnoxious munching had ceased. Both of them stared back at the stranger intently. Aramal turned back to Serraemas and eyed him for a moment before looking down at his drink.

Serraemas noticed that the man now seemed nervous, wary at the presence of the three newcomers—a wariness one garners moments before partaking in bold, often reckless action. It was the slow moments of calculating and pondering, running a series of scenarios in a desperate attempt at finding a modicum of insight that would reveal the best way to proceed. It was often followed by either death or deep regret.

“Do you intend to strike him down now?” asked Zaranet inquisitively.

“No, not in front of the barkeep”, Serraemas replied to his elemental within his own mind, “And not before he has done nothing to paint him as anything but a weary, innocent traveler.” He continued to study the man intently, but it seemed as though the latter had receded back to his former secluded demeanor. Whether that was simply a ruse, however, Serraemas was unsure.

Aramal sat up and reached for his sack. Serraemas tensed reflexively, but the man only pulled out a handful of coins. He set them down onto the counter, and quickly headed for the door without a word.

“Shall I set up a room for you, sir?” asked the barkeep.

“No”, replied the stranger as he opened the door, rushing outside and out of sight.

Serraemas stood from his seat as well, looking over to where his companions sat. He nodded at Raxxil, who was quite ready and eager. His hotheaded partner got up and also moved toward the door. Serraemas then looked at Erendil, but was surprised to see that the towrth seemed absorbed in his own thoughts and completely disconnected from the outside world.

“Erendil”, Serraemas called, but received no response. Not even a silent acknowledgement.

“Leave him be”, resonated Zaranet. “He must be in this state for good reason.”

Serraemas paused briefly, then reached into his pockets and placed what he owed on the counter before following Raxxil out the door. Once outside, he looked around and noticed that their target was headed north in a brisk pace. If Aramal had caught on, he would surely attempt to escape.

Serraemas turned to Raxxil, who was looking at him expectantly. “Let’s take him ou—” He paused before he finished. Something wasn’t quite right. Serraemas looked around again, noting a change in the air around the village. He focused his gaze, and discovered that the moving shadows from earlier were, in fact, not a trick or a figment of his imagination; the cackling fires of the torches illuminated ominous and malevolent shadows around them. They coalesced into humanoid shapes of pure darkness with glowing red eyes. Just as quickly as they appeared, they converged on where Serraemas stood.

“Forget these, I’m going after him”, announced Serraemas as he gripped his staff with his right hand and brought it to his side. He exploded into a sprint, chasing after the stranger that continued to flee from the elementalists. The man looked back, noticing the advances of Serraemas and Raxxil and turned to face them.

“I’m waiting”, taunted Aramal, crossing his arms as a horde of his minions arose from between them. They snickered and laughed malevolently, their eyes flaring at Serraemas.

Serraemas slowed his momentum and halted as one of the shadowy figures stepped in front of him, attempting to bar his path. Their bodies shifted like a flickering flame, their essence was as dark as night, and instead of hands they touted sharp claws.

The shadowy figure lunged at Serraemas with its arm raised, but he sidestepped the attack and brought down his staff in a quick motion. The strike cleaved the figure in two, and its essence dissipated into the air with a shriek. Their bodies seemed solid—much like flesh and bone—but vanished into the air like smoke when slain. Serraemas looked in the direction that his target stood, but was blocked again as more of the strange entities joined the fray. He crouched to spring into action—

A barrage of arrows flew past his head and buried themselves into the chests of his adversaries. As his foes vanished much like the first, Serraemas turned his head in the direction where the bolts came from.

Atop the roof of one of the structures was Erendil, expertly loosing arrow after arrow at their enemies with deadly accuracy. However, these weren’t normal arrows—they were made out of pure energy and emanated an aura of darkness, much like the foes they faced.

—-

Erendil nodded at Serraemas before continuing his assault from above.

Finally he could fight alongside my brethren. He had heard his elemental when they sat in the tavern. Akaba, as it called itself, whispered words of power to Erendil, enlightening him with the ability he now possessed.

Upon chanting the words, he was awestruck to discover that his standard bow was replaced with one much more intricate in form. It became longer, thicker, and had formed a circular guard that covered his hand and acted as a small shield. What was most interesting, however, was that a swirling vortex hovered just above the guard, almost absorbing Erendil as he gazed into its depths.

To his satisfaction the incantation was not just for show, as his previously ordinary arrows were imbued with the power of his element. He could generate as many as he pleased, and they were considerably more powerful than his normal wooden arrows. According to Akaba they also drained the essence of those they pierced, boosting Erendil’s speed and agility while decreasing that of his foes.

Just as quickly as it had introduced itself, however, his elemental parted without another word. Now he could only feel its presence again as it withdrew from his mind. He yearned to learn and interact more with it. He had so much to say and ask, but he would have to wait.

Regardless of the circumstances, Erendil was grateful for the gift and the opportunity to aid his allies. These minions appeared to be beings of pure evil intent on destroying the beauty of Ashkar, and he was more than happy to vanquish them. He could feel that their very souls—or lack thereof—were hollow and devoid of any virtue. Their auras radiated a deep malevolence that troubled him greatly.

Erendil paused for a moment to survey the ground below, shifting his attention to Raxxil. He was in awe at the prowess the hammer-wielder displayed; much like before, Raxxil fought with both blazing speed and an incredible strength. He was surrounded by swarms of the strange entities, yet Erendil could hear his hysterical laughter as he killed scores of them.

Raxxil seemed content with just using his own fists, and decided to keep his hammer slung on his back. At first glance his companion would seem like a crude brawler, but now he knew that Raxxil’s movements were focused and deadly.

Raxxil stepped forward, his garment fluttering as he moved, and punched one of the figures downward into the ground. Its form vanished as a loud thud resounded. He then whirled around, anticipating the advances of another attempting to flank him. He grabbed its arm as it flung at him, raising it above him before slamming it into one of its allies. Both of them shrieked as they left this world. A trio of minions attempted to lunge at him simultaneously from all sides—

Raxxil outmatched them greatly. He rushed forward to the one on his left, thrusting his torso forward and bringing his head slightly down. He then head-butted the figure on its head and sent it flying. A loud crack resounded above the clanging of metal and shouts of men, and the monster dissipated before it hit the ground.

Without pause, Raxxil sidestepped as one of the minions tried to attack from behind. He grabbed its arm with his left hand, pulled it toward him, and swung with his right arm. Another crack and another corpse soared through the air. The final monster attempted to use the opportunity to attack from the side, but once again Raxxil was too quick. The fiery elementalist swiftly kicked the demon in the stomach with his left leg, and the shadowy entity slumped onto its knees as it clutched its abdomen. With another kick from his right, Raxxil cheered triumphantly and the minion was no more.

Despite the onslaught, their numbers grew by the second and they continued to converge on Raxxil. He did not seem to mind the increasing horde, and he continued to pummel them into oblivion one-by-one. Judging by his toothy grin, he seemed to welcome their unending numbers.

Admittedly, Erendil wasn’t too surprised at Raxxil’s demeanor.

Erendil heard shouts coming from several directions and looked around. He noticed that the commotion had alerted several of the villagers, and some were even joining the fray with whatever weapons they had. Not only that, but he noticed a group of armored soldiers charging out of the tavern they were just in. They drew their blades and rushed to the battle as well.

At this point, the entire village was a battleground.

Erendil even observed the odd costumed man from before joining the battle. He seemed to have awakened from his unconsciousness and decided to participate, though he was having trouble with just one of the shadowy figures. In fact, he had already sustained several injuries and his costume was torn at several places, but he was stoic and refused to back down.

The hordes of dark minions continued to multiply, and Erendil wondered where they all came from. When they had first entered the village, he sensed the dark energy throughout the entire premise. Now, he realized that it must have been the many enemies they now fought. He looked over at their apparent source, and the bearded man named Aramal casually stood behind a wall of his minions. The man’s face was contorted in sinister pleasure, chuckling at something Erendil did not know. It seemed as though he reveled in destruction much like Raxxil.

Where is the fulfillment in dealing dea—?

A shadowy arm swiped at him, but Erendil reflexively dodged it and jumped back several paces; focused on the actions of others, Erendil had not noticed several of the minions converging on the roof that he stood on. They lurched after him with malevolent intent as their mischievous giggles filled the air. Erendil quickly loosed a barrage of arrows and struck them all with precision, and their forms dissipated completely.

He looked around and ensured that his immediate surroundings were clear, then shifted his attention back to the battlefield. While the three of them were able to handle the minions quite easily, the monsters appeared to be overwhelming the villagers. Several people had already fallen to the wicked attacks of their enemies. Even the armored soldiers were having difficulty as well, though they appeared to be elementalists like himself; Erendil noticed a few of them slinging elemental-based attacks.

Erendil also noticed several children that had stepped out of their homes and were now in danger. Steeling himself, he quickly pulled his bow and marked his targets. Time slowed as he concentrated his aim, then loosed another volley of arrows. They rained down on his opponents, particularly those that were near the vulnerable villagers. He continued to nock arrows as fast as he could trying to keep up with the hordes of enemies that continued to assault the villagers.

Unfortunately, his efforts seemed futile as their numbers kept rising.

Is there no end to these monsters?

He looked over at his companions for an answer, but was surprised to see that Raxxil had ceased his onslaught. The hammer-wielder seemed frozen completely while a swarm of the shadowy minions converged on him in all directions.

Erendil furrowed his brows, attempting to discern what was happening. He shifted his gaze briefly to Serraemas, but the icy elementalist was focused on his battle with the stranger and unaware of the situation. Erendil crouched before pushing off with his legs, leaping in the direction of Raxxil. He continued to fire arrow after arrow in mid-air, descending to the battlefield as he soared gracefully in a wide arc. He rolled as he hit the ground, and let loose another arrow at point blank range at a shadowy monster as he stood up.

He stood just a few paces away from Raxxil, who was still immobilized and now on his hands and knees. Erendil noticed that the hammer-wielding man was staring ahead at something—something past the hordes of demonic visages that in turn stared at him with murderous intent—but Raxxil paid them no heed.

Erendil attempted to make his way to his fiery ally. The archer released a barrage of arrows at his enemies, evading their attacks acrobatically as he neared the other elementalist. The twisted shadows fought with fanatic vigor, but Erendil was able to fend them off—for now, at least.

Getting nearer to where Raxxil lay, Erendil was able to view what his companion stared at. Bewildered, Erendil saw that the man’s gaze was fixated upon a child who was cowering alone by one of the homes.

“Tanaria?!” roared Raxxil in confusion as the swarm of shadow minions converged on him, completely blocking off Erendil’s view of his enthralled ally.

—-

Serraemas looked at his fiery partner, noting that the latter was reveling in the chaos.

Raxxil took on multiple enemies simultaneously, punching and kicking them down in scores. While these demons proved worthless, Serraemas was still certain that their target was withholding his power. Instead, Aramal stood behind his small army and continued to beckon at Serraemas.

Such arrogance, yet still a coward?

“This seems like unusual behavior for a man like him”, said Serraemas to his elemental.

“What do you mean?” asked Zaranet from within.

“He seems afraid to confront us even though he has summoned reinforcements”, continued Serraemas.

“Perhaps he is weary from his battle with Jorne”, said his elemental.

“Possibly, but I surmise a different reason”, Serraemas responded.

Dozens of the shadowy minions circled around him, preparing to strike—

Serraemas was quicker. He twisted his body and twirled his staff, sweeping the area around him with forceful strength. His enemies dispersed into nothingness with pained shrieks. With each maneuver, he closed the gap between him and his goal. To his dismay, however, there seemed to be no end to these minions. Several dozen more still barred his path with even more continuing to join the fray.

“Shall we release?” asked Zaranet.

“No, we need to gauge him first”, Serraemas responded. Intensifying his efforts, he dashed forward in long strides gracefully and swung his weapon in wide arcs. Scores of the demonic enemies fell under his blows, unable to react fast enough to evade. He would kill a thousand if need be, but he would reach the target and accomplish the mission—of that he was certain. The stranger seemed unconcerned at Serraemas’s advances, and the man’s arrogance would be his downfall.

Serraemas halted his steps with grace as a shady minion swiped in his path preemptively, its demonic visage jeering at him with an open maw. Seizing the opportunity a group of the monsters lunged at the staff-wielder—

Before they could react they were struck down by a volley of dark arrows. Pained cries echoed around him as they disappeared. Taking advantage of the opportunity once again provided by the scaly-skinned archer, Serraemas steeled himself and dashed after his target once more, who was now only a few dozen feet away.

Swarms of the shadowy minions still closed in and sought to spill his blood. Serraemas jumped forward and vaulted in the air, bringing down his staff in a vertical arc and cleaving another minion in two as he landed. He then lunged forward several feet, thrusting his weapon’s tip in front of him. Stopping once again, he swung in a wide circle, and the shrieks of slain enemies continued to fill the air.

Nearing his target, Serraemas generated a sliver of ice mid-stride and whipped his arm, sending it flying at the bearded man. It pierced through several shadowy minions on its way toward Aramal. Surprised, he uncrossed his arms and reached to his side, deflecting the sliver as he hastily drew his blade.

Serraemas examined the man’s weapon. It was a standard broadsword, though it was covered in pure darkness from end-to-end, as if it had been taken over by the shadowy aura. Oddly enough the man panted heavily, winded from something Serraemas did not know. Age seemed to be at his disadvantage, or perhaps it was something else?

“Now everyone wants the book”, blurted Aramal. “You want the book as well? What a surprise. I knew that cloak looked familiar. Well guess what? I killed your frie—”

Serraemas waved his arm and loosed another ice spike at the man, but Aramal was quick and deflected the attack again.

The stranger scowled at him. “You dare interrupt me, boy? I was speaking—”

Again Serraemas did not give him the chance to finish, lunging closer and generating three slivers in midair. He then twisted and whipped his arms as he landed, sending all three flying after Aramal. Shock flashed across the man’s face, the spikes too close to evade or deflect—

A shadowy force expelled outward from his blade, knocking the slivers of ice aside.

Serraemas tensed and changed his stance, holding his weapon with both hands and bringing up his staff defensively.

That barrier was not something Aramal generated of his own accord.

Aramal continued to breathe heavily and appeared exhausted. He muttered something under his breath that Serraemas could not hear, as if talking to himself. Regarding Serraemas once more, the man opened his mouth to speak—

For the third time, Serraemas would not let him do so. The icy elementalist dashed forward, then leapt to his opponent’s left side and swung his staff in a wide arc.

Aramal raised his blade and parried the attack, though the force of the swing overwhelmed him. In defense, a shadowy tendril launched out of his blade at Serraemas as the man staggered backward, nearly tumbling over before regaining his composure.

Serraemas reflexively leapt several feet behind him, evading the counterattack. He waved his arm again and shot another signature sliver at his target, but the same dark force radiated outward once more and protected the stranger from harm.

Aramal kneeled to the ground in exhaustion, and struggled to support himself with his blade. He looked up at Serraemas weakly, his face pale and trickles of sweat disappearing into his forest of a beard.

Looking more closely, Serraemas noticed that the man’s features now seemed as though he had aged several years from when they met in the tavern; his beard contained considerably more grey hairs, and the staff-wielder even saw wrinkles beginning to appear more pronounced.

Serraemas walked slowly toward his target, creating spikes of ice in quick succession and hurtling them at the stranger as he neared. The man attempted to deflect the attacks with just his blade at first, but quickly resorted to relying on the dark energy to continue shielding him from the barrage. Lending evidence to Serraemas’s presumption, it seemed as though the shadowy force caused the crippling exhaustion that plagued Aramal.

Just a few feet from where the man now lay, Serraemas raised his arm and created the finishing blow—

A deafening explosion erupted from behind him.

Serraemas wheeled around to see the source. To his surprise, he saw Raxxil swinging his released hammer in a furious rage in wide arcs. The fiery elementalist was surrounded by several dozen of the shadowy minions, and had sustained multiple injuries including several deep cuts throughout his body that bled profusely.

Serraemas turned back to his to where his target had been, but discovered that Aramal had seized the opportunity to flee. Off in the distance Serraemas saw the man’s silhouette disappear into the night.

Of course.

He turned his attention back to Raxxil, clicking his tongue and shaking his head in disapproval before dashing toward the burning rage.

“Well, he broke the rule after all”, remarked Zaranet.

—-

Erendil instinctively leapt backward several feet, away from the eruption of fire that radiated outward from where Raxxil had just been. The blast purged scores of the shadowy minions, and Erendil could hear their screams pierce the night as they vanished from sight. He watched in awe as his explosive companion emerged from the raging inferno. It appeared as though Raxxil did not even acknowledge the injuries that he had sustained, instead opting to continue his assault with burning purpose.

What was most dumbfounding, however, was the new weapon that Raxxil now held in his hands. Much like Erendil’s bow, the hammer Raxxil held was far different than its simple form used to appear. It was now much larger, and its shaft was black except for strange runes that emanated a reddish, orange glow. The shaft continued until the head of the weapon where a large, black gauntlet with similar runes gripped a thick, squarish block. Depressions in the block that resembled streams of lava ran throughout the black stone, while two curved spikes that resembled horns jutted from the top. The weapon radiated a yellowish, orange aura that scalded its surroundings except for its wielder.

Despite his many wounds, Raxxil appeared to be in an uncontrollable rage. The explosive elementalist swung his weapon wildly, which caused bursts of lava and fire to spew forth with everything it touched, illuminating the night sky. If he had been an efficient killing machine before, Raxxil was now an unstoppable eruption that consumed hordes of the shadowy monsters. Unfortunately, there were also several villagers still fighting valiantly nearby, and they were in danger since Raxxil seemed to pay no mind to the destruction he caused.

Erendil rushed over to aid a man nearby who was struggling against one of the minions. The archer quickly nocked an arrow and loosed it upon the demon. It struck the vile creature in its chest, its essence disappearing with a shriek.

Relieved, Erendil approached the man—

The man swiped his blade at Erendil. Reflexively, the archer dodged the attack. He raised his free arm, gesturing for the man to stop.

“Wait, I am not your enemy!” yelled Erendil, ducking as lava flew past where his head had just been. He looked over at Raxxil, who was still in a rage—callous to the damage he caused around him. “Please, listen to me and get everyone away from the battle. There are children in harm’s way!”

The man stared at Erendil in shock for a moment, then regained his composure and looked around. He nodded and dashed off to warn the others. Erendil did the same, looking around for those in need of aid.

He came upon the child that Raxxil had fixated upon just before entering his new state. She sat on the ground, cowering and raising her arms up to her head in meager protection. Her hair, which covered much of her face and head, was a beautiful, bright blond. The little girl wore plain and simple clothing—a crudely patched shirt with matching trousers that appeared to have splotches of fresh blood on them.

Erendil made his way to where she sat with agile maneuvers, firing a barrage of arrows upon his enemies along the way. As he neared the girl she cowered even further, visibly shaking and beginning to whimper. He stopped a few feet from her and kneeled, extending his arm out to her.

After a brief moment, the girl lowered her arms and peered out at Erendil. Her eyes widened upon gazing at him, and she appeared to lose herself in shock at his presence. She had a smudge of blood on her face, though it did not appear to be hers.

Do they all think me a monster?

“It’s all right, little one”, he said reassuringly. “I am here to help.”

The girl furrowed her brows and narrowed her eyes slightly at his words, seemingly moved by his ability to speak. She lowered her arms completely, but continued to whimper and made no effort to accept his aid.

“I want my mama and papa”, she said hoarsely.

Still extending his hand, he moved closer to the small child. “Just take my hand and all will be—”

A shadowy claw aimed to pierce his scaly hide, but Erendil sensed the malicious presence behind him in time to evade the attack by shifting to the side. He lurched forward, grabbing the defenseless girl and leaping backward as he turned to face his foes. The girl screamed and thrashed in his clutch, but he kept firm.

He felt slightly lighter, and for a moment he could not figure why. He then noticed his quiver lying on the ground in front of him with the strap torn, which meant that the attack had been even closer to reaching him than he had thought. Luckily, he no longer had a need for his arrows so long as his weapon was released.

Shifting his attention to the enemies before him, Erendil beheld several of the shadowy minions. Their gazes were fixated on him with murderous intent. Beyond them he noticed that the majority of the monsters now congregated on Raxxil like insects to a bright light. Unfortunately for them, they perished in droves under the hammer-wielder’s might.

The archer focused his attention back to the enemies that lunged at him. He strafed to the right as a ghostly claw slashed the air he had just occupied, and set the flailing child down next to him.

“Stay near me!” he yelled to the girl.

Erendil raised his bow and aimed at his opponent as he pulled the string taut, holding his breath as he concentrated. Darkness swirled and molded into the shape of an arrow from where he held the string to the smooth wood where he gripped. Releasing his grip on the string, the arrow flew rapidly at his foe and pierced its chest. Erendil quickly twisted his torso to the right, nocking and firing a series of arrows in quick succession at several more shadowy figures, and their forms dissipated with shrieks of pain.

Drawing his focus away from the battle, Erendil felt pressure around his right leg. He looked down, discovering that the girl clutched onto him desperately, her gaze fixed on the horrific battle that was taking place. She was visibly shaking and appeared to have wrapped herself around him instinctively.

Poor thing…

Erendil looked back at where Raxxil continued his unrestrained furor dozens of feet away. The archer discovered that Serraemas was now making his way to the center of the fray expertly. Every move the staff-wielder made was graceful and precise, and he dealt swift blows to the monsters that barred his path.

Raxxil raised his arm and shouted in rage, preparing to bring down his weapon forcefully—

Serraemas closed the gap much faster and reached up with his right hand. He grabbed Raxxil’s arm before the hothead could bring it down, locking eyes and shouting something Erendil could not hear amongst the deafening sounds of battle.

Whatever Serraemas said must have been profound, for Raxxil apparently awoke from his self-induced frenzy.

Around him, Erendil saw that the villagers were still locked in small skirmishes with the malicious entities, but their numbers seemed to finally be thinning. The majority of the shadowy entities were now focused on the veteran elementalists, though his companions overwhelmed them with ease.

Serraemas dashed about gracefully, spinning his staff in agile maneuvers and striking down the monsters in numbers. Next to him Raxxil was now in control and wielded his weapon with focused purpose. He still swung with forceful blows, clearing the sea of darkness much as he was doing before, but was at least aware of his surroundings. Strangely enough, his hysterical laughter and demeanor was now replaced with a quiet, stern visage.

Erendil decided to focus his efforts on ensuring the safety of the villagers, and within a short span of time the shadowy monsters all but dwindled until their last numbers as the battle drew to a close. The archer surveyed the area, noticing that several of the villagers—both armored and unarmored—had fallen during the course of the battle. Several of the nearby structures had also been damaged severely, though whether that was just from the explosive surge that Raxxil had just displayed Erendil did not know. As a result of the hammer-wielder’s abilities, the ground had been scorched from the lava that was now smoldering, sending smoke into the morning sky.

He looked down at the small child that still sobbed uncontrollably next to him. She had loosened her clutch slightly, but still held firm.

“Where is your mama and papa?” asked Erendil softly.

“I d-don’t know”, she replied as she sniveled. She looked around, but could not seem to locate them. “I was w-with them until the m-m-monsters showed up and I don’t know what happened after.”

Erendil sealed his bow, returning it to its normal form. Satisfied, the towrth looked around.

The sun had started to rise, its bright smile peeking out from the edge of the world. The villagers were now going through the fallen and tending to the injured. Quite a number had been slain mercilessly, and he felt his heart sink. Many women and children—grieving for the brave men that had defended them courageously—were crying or otherwise expressing their sorrows.

Some of the villagers were huddled in groups, whispering amongst each other and pointing at the questing elementalists—particularly at Erendil. He guessed that they thought the traveling elementalists a strange cohort, especially considering that the towrth held a bow and had one of their own wrapped around his leg. Erendil even caught sight of the oddly costumed man who, despite sustaining several injuries, managed to remain valiant in his efforts to lend aid.

Raxxil approached hurriedly to where they stood. He held a solemn expression—teary eyed and quivering. Just as quick as his weapon had changed forms, it was now reverted back to a simple hammer and was once again slung over his back. Raxxil kneeled down and grabbed the little girl, pulling her away from her clutches and hugging her despite her resistance. She flailed her limbs again much like she did earlier, but his grasp was too strong.

“Everything is okay, Tanaria”, Raxxil whispered softly under deep breaths. “Raxxy’s here.”

“Let me go!” screamed the girl, still attempting to wrest free. “My name is Arwynn!”

Serraemas intervened, grabbing Raxxil’s arm and pulling with such force that he dragged the fiery elementalist several feet away and caused him to release his hold on the little girl. As soon as she was free from Raxxil’s grip, she scurried off without a word into the crowd of villagers.

Erendil had an inkling as to where she was going and why. Looking around he noticed that Raxxil’s odd behavior, and subsequently the girl’s outbursts, had garnered even more attention from the troubled villagers; the villagers now looked their way with more than just curiosity. Off to the side, the two veteran elementalists had broken into an argument, leaving Erendil to his own musings.

If the girl was looking for her parents, then perhaps he could help. While Arwynn had had a head start, Erendil caught up to her easily and followed her as she waded through the crowds of people, glancing up at their faces and calling for her parents. Nobody seemed to pay her any mind, and she seemed invisible to the other villagers. They focused their attention on Erendil instead.

Have they not seen a towrth before?

No matter where he went, it was as if the eyes of humans were pulled in his direction and held there by an unseen force. Even the costumed man that called himself ‘The Ujok’ hardly garnered any double-takes when Erendil was around.

Despite having such unnerving thoughts, Erendil brushed them away in favor of more practical, and beneficial, pursuits. He continued to follow the child, moving through the villagers that looked at him with a mixture of disgust and curiosity until the little girl stopped in her tracks. Erendil followed her sight and discovered two lifeless bodies on the ground, blood pooling from under their corpses. One was male, and the other was female.

They had been slashed down mercilessly—their clothes bloodied from grave wounds.

The child buckled onto her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. Her anguish shook him to his core, and while he could not say that he empathized, Erendil sat down next to her. He gazed intently at the grieving child.

He had never known such pain, and he guessed never would. His thoughts shifted to his own parents. Even though he had never met them, Erendil imagined what they looked like and who they were.

Are they dead as well? Would I even want to know them?

Several moments passed, and the poor child’s sobs gradually diminished. They both sat in silence, simply staring blankly into the distance.

“I never knew my parents”, said Erendil, breaking the silence. “I don’t know if anything can help you right now, but at least they died for you because they loved you. I will never know what that feels like.”

The child looked down, and remained silent.

Erendil sighed solemnly.

To be abandoned as an infant… Master Sora, you are the closest thing to a parent I’ll ever have. Is your love the—?

“Tanaria, listen to me!” blurted Raxxil as he charged toward them. “Nothing will ever hurt you again, of that I promise.”

Startled, the child quickly stood up and scuttled behind Erendil. She peeked over his shoulder, eyeing Raxxil warily.

“I told you, my name is Arwynn!” she squealed back.

“Leave her be, Raxxil”, ordered Serraemas from behind the flustered hothead. “We must tend to your wounds, and this is no time for your antics.”

Raxxil looked down and cursed under his breath. It seemed as though he hadn’t even noticed the injuries inflicted upon him. The confused elementalist looked up again and glanced at the child with melancholic eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but paused and decided otherwise as was evident in his audible sigh.

Serraemas pulled Raxxil aside again, and once more they were locked in an argument—the former making several gestures with a disapproving look and the latter pointing in the direction of the girl and offering rebuttals. After several moments of the exchange, they both turned in Erendil’s direction and walked his way.

“Why does that man keep calling me Tanaria?” asked the little girl inquisitively.

Erendil shrugged. “I’m not sure. Raxxil is insa—”

“You three!” boomed a feminine but firm voice from behind the group.

—-

“You fool!” chided Orbo harshly from within Aramal’s blade. The demon’s voice was distorted, fluctuating as he spoke. “Your arrogance nearly spelled our doom.”

Aramal trudged weakly through the thick trees just outside of the road. He was completely drained, and would have been struck down at the hands of the staff-wielder just then if it had not been for Orbo’s spells. To Aramal’s dismay, that took an even greater toll on his body.

“I need your vessel alive and the grimoire intact before the summoning!” continued the demon in scorn.

“Shut the hell up already”, Aramal retorted hoarsely. “I know what I have to do.” Aramal coughed violently. He staggered, losing his balance slightly, and placed his arm on the trunk of a nearby tree to catch himself. Aramal took a deep breath, slowly lowering himself until he sat at the base of the tree and out of plain sight. It was clear that those three elementalists would continue their pursuit at the first chance, and he needed to stay low until the cover of Merchant’s Keep. The forest ran all the way northeast until his destination, so the trees would be able to cloak him until he could fade into the crowds.

“Typical humans”, babbled his condescending partner. “Your kind is consumed by avarice and pride. Your nature is your failure.”

Aramal paid him no mind. Instead, he drowned out the demon’s conceited words. He sighed deeply, staring off into the distance. The sun was beginning to rise, illuminating the dark sky. The air was still save for the occasional sounds of nearby fauna.

Birds chirped. Foliage rustled nearby. The quietness now felt welcoming. Aramal looked down at his hands. They were rough and dirtied, with deep calluses that revealed a lifetime of labor. He continued to stare at them blankly for a considerable amount of time. He knew the hands were forever stained red.

—-

“I don’t care if she is her or not”, Serraemas snapped coldly to the hammer-wielder as they approached Erendil. “We had a mission and your carelessness allowed him to escape.”

Raxxil merely shrugged, instead focusing his attention to the child that had been able to disrupt him so easily. Under normal circumstances, Serraemas would have chased after the fleeing stranger, leaving the others to catch up. Given Raxxil’s grievous wounds—and perturbing dilemma—some things were unwise to be left untended to.

The villagers, and the soldiers that accompanied them, gazed upon the traveling elementalists. The townsfolk expressed stern visages, whispering amongst themselves and pointing in their direction. Serraemas noticed the lanky guard from earlier speaking to a young woman. The soldier shifted his eyes to where they stood, gesturing in their direction.

“It’s all right honey, you’re safe”, Serraemas overheard a woman not too far from where he stood say between gentle sobs to who he assumed was her son, “But… you’ve grown nearly three inches, and you look older! How is that possible?”

Serraemas shifted his attention in the direction of the mother and her child. He furrowed his brows and narrowed his eyes. Surely that was not a coincidence.

“Our target must have had a hand in that”, Zaranet affirmed.

Serraemas strode up to the boy, who looked to be in his teens. “Did a bearded man approach you? He was an outsider, and wore tattered clothes.”

“Yes”, replied the boy with a nod. “The strange man asked me to read from his book, and gave me some coin for it. I don’t know why, but I had an odd sensation after I did. I was drained, as if I had exerted myself much too hard.”

Serraemas looked around at the other children, and it seemed that some of them had fallen prey as well; their families were just as shocked to see that they had seemingly aged several years overnight, with hardly anything to point fingers at except magic or some odd ailment inflicted by rotten meat. The mind was powerful, and considering that most education here involved a trade and nothing more, an answer was to be found somewhere, whether it be complete fabrication or not. Now the villagers had laid eyes upon the wrath of demons, which meant that most answers would come in the form of the monsters man feared most.

“Did that man create what attacked us?” asked the boy’s mother.

Serraemas nodded, but otherwise remained silent. He turned, heading back to where Raxxil stood.

“Thank you for saving us!” exclaimed the woman.

Serraemas did not stop to turn around.

“Ashkar needs more heroes like you to defend those who cannot protect themselves from fiends, like that man and the terror he loosed upon us”, she continued gratefully after him.

Serraemas paused, clenching his jaw and flaring his nostrils. Still, he remained with his back to her, and after a few moments, took a deep breath. He released his tension, then decided to continue without acknowledging her words. Just as he rejoined his allies, he braced for the inevitable confrontation that was about to take place, for the armored woman that had eyed them warily now focused all her attention in their direction, as was evident by the rhythmic beat of her plate boots striking the ground and the clinking of her armor that grew steadily louder.

“You three!” shouted the woman abruptly. She stepped forward with her blade drawn and raised at them. The soldiers behind her followed suit, though their numbers had dwindled significantly from the battle. If there had been a dozen at the beginning of the battle, there was now half that.

Serraemas, Raxxil, and Erendil stood together in the center of the village as the woman firmly approached. She was clad in silver armor that enveloped the entirety of her body save for a helmet. The plate was pristine and unscratched, as if it had just been forged. If she had participated in the battle, she must have had a second set of armor to preserve her image—perhaps to uphold her men’s morale, for she did not look the type to pay much heed to vanity given that she must have been a person of rank. Either that, or she was as swift as the winds, which would offer an inkling as to why such a young person would even hold leadership. If anything, the most obvious answer was the one that held the most truth.

As she drew closer, Serraemas was able to make out her facial features clearly. She had relatively shorter red hair that fell to her shoulder plate while her bangs fell down to her brows. Her face was chiseled with a strong jaw, though her complexion still held the femininity of a young woman, dotted with freckles along her nose and upper cheeks. Fire from a nearby torch flickered in her sea green eyes that were filled with stoic purpose.

The young woman stopped several feet from where they stood, keeping her blade raised and pointed it at them. The remaining soldiers followed behind her with weapons raised. Even the costumed man joined, crossing his arms and looking at the traveling elementalists sternly.

“Who are you really?” she barked. “I’ve no mood for deception or games.”

“She’s right!” repeated the burly man with an accent. “The Ujok wants to know who are you really, eh?”

The woman turned her head in his direction and contorted her face incredulously at the costumed hero. The other soldiers followed suit. Silence befell the village. Despite the collection of gestures, the man seemed to pay no mind and continued to fixate on the trio. If the costumed man was aware of the woman’s reaction, he did not acknowledge it.

Serraemas stared at the young woman blankly. “We are—“

“I am Raxxil Nemudel!” interrupted Raxxil as he stepped forward, placing his hands on his hips and sticking out his chest proudly. He then gestured to Serraemas and Erendil. “That’s Serraemas Mavrin, and the other guy’s the ‘Green Wonder’.”

Serraemas stared at the back of Raxxil’s head and sighed deeply, shaking his head disapprovingly in an I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-that look. Beside him, Erendil shrugged with a confused expression.

The woman contorted her face again for a moment, then smiled at herself before giggling, a giggle that gradually escalated into laughter, as if the more she thought of the answer the more amusing it became. The other soldiers looked at each other in confusion, but then joined in the laughter. One of the soldiers, an elderly man who seemed to be a veteran amongst their ranks, did not indulge in the clamor.

Abruptly the woman ceased her laughter. Effective immediately, the remaining soldiers silenced as well.

“I’m so honored to be in your presence”, bellowed the woman sarcastically with a smirk. “The Lord of Frost and the Volcano are gracing the quiet village of Bellis!” She looked at Raxxil. “So, if you are who you say you are, then you’re nearing ninety, and…” she turned to Serraemas. “…you are about to reach a hundred ages. Am I right?” Suddenly her face darkened, leaving no time for neither Raxxil nor Serraemas to answer. “I said no more games! What happened here?”

Again a silence fell before them, and even the other villagers had stopped what they were doing to catch whatever bits of the altercation they could. Raxxil’s playful complexion disappeared as he defaulted attention to Serraemas, who mulled over his words.

“Your village was attacked by a man dealing with demonic powers, as you just experienced”, Serraemas answered calmly as he stepped forward. The tip of the woman’s blade was now mere inches from his forehead, and he locked eyes with her. “If not for us, you would have been overwhelmed and lost even more people, including your own men. Perhaps you would have completely lost the battle, leaving everyone here to perish most untimely. “He continued to stare at her with an unmoving expression, awaiting her response.

The woman narrowed her eyes at Serraemas, as if dissecting his words and attempting to see through, what he assumed she held suspicions of, his false guise. After a moment of eyeing all three of them meticulously, she softened her face and cleared her throat. “Your words ring true, but that does not so easily constitute an alibi”. The young woman lowered her weapon and sheathed it. “What of the girl?”

“The little girl likes you dangerous men too much, eh?” interjected the costumed man, though his efforts continued to be ignored by both parties.

Serraemas looked over his shoulder at the child, who was still clutching Erendil dearly. Oddly enough, she seemed to fancy the towrth, but, not surprisingly, still appeared wary of Raxxil. He looked back at the woman interrogating him. “What of her?”

The armored woman turned her head and gestured at the soldiers behind her, and they broke their ranks to continue assisting the other villagers. The costumed man still remained, almost as if he thought his presence relevant.

“Why is she so fond of you instead of her fellow villagers?” asked the woman demandingly. “Where is her family?”

“Her family was slain during the attack”, Serraemas answered calmly. “She is now alone, subjected to darkness.”

“Explain yourself!” barked the woman. “I grow weary of your riddles.”

“Every second we delay our target creates distance”, reminded Zaranet.

“I know, but we must not create any more disruptions than necessary”, Serraemas responded to the elemental. He looked back once more at his allies.

Raxxil gazed at the little girl solemnly, appearing lost in his thoughts while Erendil exchanged words with the child. Raxxil’s behavior was troubling, but they had no time to spare to heal his wounds or his mind. If the child reminded him of Tanaria, then Serraemas knew it was no simple matter. Still, their task was not yet completed, and they needed to make haste.

“The longer we waste time and sit idly, the farther the man responsible for this travels”, Serraemas stated firmly. “What is your name?”

“Samantha Kell, Lieutenant of the 11th battalion of the Order of the Faith”, stated the woman proudly. “What business do you have with the man responsible for this?”

Serraemas turned, gesturing for his allies to follow him to the north exit of the village. “To punish him for what he’s done.”

—-

“What of the dark-haired one?” Samantha asked the little girl that had seemed drawn to the odd cohort. “What can you tell me about him?”

“I don’t know”, responded the child absentmindedly, still sitting on the ground and playing with dirt. Naturally, the loss of her parents would have a profound effect on her, but Samantha was unsure if the girl even accepted the reality of it or was simply in shock.

At this point, any information was crucial.

“And the taller man?” Samantha pressed with a stern expression.

The child paused momentarily before looking up at Samantha and shrugging. “He called me Tanaria, but I don’t know why.” The child returned her attention to the ground and resumed her work as if dismissing Samantha entirely.

Samantha softened her complexion and breathed deeply.

“Despite the unfortunate circumstances, I’m sure she will find her way”, assured Kavem in her mind. “From pain comes adaptation.”

Samantha looked around at the devastated townsfolk that grieved with deep sorrow. Such a tragedy had not befallen the village in ages, especially not of the demonic sort, and Samantha could not fathom their melancholy.

The lieutenant had been awakened by the shouting of men and the screams of battle in the middle of the night, bearing witness to a gruesome sight: shadowy figures running rampant throughout the village, slaying hapless villagers mercilessly. Her men, though they fought valiantly, were almost cut down entirely as well. Only Graf and Samantha seemed capable of handling the fiends.

If not for the strange group of elementalists that had appeared, the casualties would have been much higher. In fact, Samantha feared that the one that called himself Serraemas was right and that they would have been overwhelmed completely. The elementalists, alongside the several children that had somehow grown several ages during the night, claimed that a mysterious traveler had summoned the fiends.

Devue, the thin Knight of the Faith that had stood guard during the night, claimed that the man had spoken of being attacked by Executioners. If anything, it appeared to be that the mysterious travel was the ‘Executioners’, and must have been the one that had perpetuated the rumors. Either that, or this was all just a convoluted ruse.

“Those are not ordinary elementalists”, said Kavem, and he was right.

She had witnessed them briefly during the clashes, and the man that claimed he was Raxxil had a release that was truly a spectacle to behold. Despite his wounds, his blows were devastating, taking out scores of the monsters. His ally, the shorter, dark-haired man was just as deadly—though considerably more graceful in his maneuvers. Serraemas handled the battlefield with ease even without releasing his weapon. Lastly, the towrth, who apparently was blind, swiftly struck down foes with his bow.

For what strange reason that they had appeared at the same time as the demons, she hadn’t the slightest. To claim that they were Serraemas, the Lord of Frost, and Raxxil the Volcano was equally bizarre. There was not so much as a wrinkle on either their faces, yet they claimed the names of men who, at this point, should be elderly and nearing the end of life? By God, Serraemas would have walked Ashkar for more than a century—a feat she had never seen anyone do with that kind of youth.

If they truly were the legends they claimed, then Samantha feared their presence boded ill for the surrounding villages. What irked her even more was that they fought against the malevolent shadows and helped defend the village. The legends did not speak of benevolence, but she had to admit that she was grateful that they had appeared.

Why would they be here, and why chase this mysterious man?

“Please be careful, Sam”, warned Kavem. “I fear that this may be something that is beyond us.”

Samantha clicked her tongue. She had lost too many good men, and many of the villagers lost their lives as well. Her commanding officers situated in the Order of the Faith’s main city in Lenas would be none too pleased to read her report.

God, tell me what choice is the right one.

“Sergeant Graf!” she yelled, attempting to garner the attention of her second-in-command.

“I’m right here, ma’am”, said Graf from behind, standing only a few feet from her.

“Status report!” she barked as she wheeled around to face him.

Graf’s complexion was as grim as ever, and he frowned so hard she thought it would turn into a smile.

“Six of our men fell during battle, leaving us with five remaining, including you and me”, he answered soberly. “Amongst the villagers, the total death count is twenty-two, including men, women, and children.”

“God’s goodness…” muttered Samantha.

By now, the sun hung happily in the clear sky, its hot light bearing down on her exposed face. The injured and the dead had been tended to, and all that remained was the next course of action; while she knew the mourning would last and Bellis would continue to suffer, she needed to concentrate her efforts on ensuring another attack didn’t happen.

Samantha looked north briefly, where the mysterious company had gone in pursuit of the accused perpetrator some time ago. She then placed her hands on her hips and looked down, furrowing her brows in pensive contemplation.

“I highly recommend that you don’t do that, Sam”, warned Kavem, reading Samantha’s thoughts. “This is no longer our concern.”

Samantha turned to Sergeant Graf, who awaited her orders patiently.

“You’re now in charge of overlooking Bellis, Sergeant”, she said as she started walking toward the stables.

“Yes, ma’am”, Graf answered with a swift salute. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your plan?”

Samantha stopped and turned to the elderly man, locking her eyes with his. “There’s more to this than demons, and I’m going to find out.”

“Oh dear…” lamented Kavem.

Chapter 10

347th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Golden dreams of false hope lie

I wasn’t able to say goodbye

The flames expel, they consume all in woe

Where did you go?

 

Fire burns inside me

The inferno rages, I am set free

Alone, I can barely stand

Promise me you’ll hold my hand

Is that really her?

Raxxil trudged on, his thoughts absorbed in disbelief at the events that had just recently transpired. Memories of his life long ago that he had repressed surfaced, tormenting him with hope that he had once held dear to his heart.

“He shouldn’t have gotten far in his state”, Serraemas said.

The icy elementalist had taken point and was adamant about finishing the task. They traveled along the dirt path that led to the northeast. Forest greeted them on either side. Up ahead, the path led to a wooden bridge that arched over a roaring river, which was probably the Haln River.

“Erendil, can you still sense his presence?” Serraemas asked as he looked over his shoulder at the towrth.

“It’s faint, but I can feel his energy a few miles ahead to the northeast”, responded Erendil. The archer looked down for a moment, uncertainty in his expression. “Oddly enough, I also sense something from the south.”

“Perhaps the dark aura from our battle in Bellis still lingers”, replied the staff-wielder.

“It feels… different”, continued Erendil, shaking his head, “Not only that, but it emanates from further south than the village—and it’s moving.”

Serraemas paused momentarily and turned to face the archer, furrowing his brows in pensive thought. “It moves?”

“I feel it making its way northbound”, answered the towrth as he scratched the side of his head.

Serraemas shifted his gaze down the path behind them briefly, then looked down at the ground, no doubt contemplating an explanation for the strange occurrence. After several moments, he turned and continued forward again. “Let us quicken our pace.”

Raxxil gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. They hadn’t stopped to rest and properly tend to his wounds—not that he particularly cared, anyway. He had only received crude bandages, with wraps of white over most of his wounds. The pain was his reminder of life. What troubled him was something else entirely.

Is that really her? No, but…

He looked up at the clear blue sky and stared at it blankly. Memories he had suppressed so long ago continued to rush at Raxxil, threatening to drown him. Their lively faces filled his mind, basking him in warmth. Mother, father, and Tanaria. Little Tanaria… He still vividly remembered her soft, blond hair. Those large, innocent green eyes that looked upon him with childish hope. Her toothy smile that appeared every time she found joy in the most mundane of things. It was all so lucid.

I can’t lose you again. I promise—

“Raxxil!” exclaimed Serraemas, interrupting the hammer-wielder’s thoughts and glaring at him with all-too-familiar cold eyes.

“What is it?” snapped Raxxil a bit harsher than he really intended as he was shaken from his daze.

Serraemas narrowed his eyes. “You are not focused on our task. I told you already, she is not Tanaria, nor will she ever be. Tanaria is gone. Do you not recall the fate of your family?”

Erendil gasped loudly, but looked elsewhere and attempted to appear as though he had not heard the harsh remarks.

Raxxil stopped and looked down at the ground in an effort to fight the tide of memories that still sought to overwhelm him. He clenched his fists tightly, his knuckles whitening and blood beginning to drip from his palms.

“Are you listening to me?” whispered Serraemas vehemently as he stepped closer and looked up at Raxxil with disapproval. Their faces were merely inches apart, and Raxxil felt his partner’s eyes fixated upon him. “Your sister is dead and gone, and she won’t be coming back.”

Raxxil jerked up and met his ally’s blank, unsympathetic eyes. Rage consumed him, and he felt his face flush red as hot blood coursed through his veins. “How dare you!?” He grabbed Serraemas by the collar and lifted him off the ground. “You of all people should understand! What of your precious Elena? Where is she?”

Serraemas’s dark blue eyes widened in shock for a moment before his complexion darkened. He pushed off Raxxil’s chest with his hand forcefully, causing Raxxil to stumble backward. Crouching, Serraemas launched himself at the fiery elementalist, and brought his arm back as he flew through the air.

Raxxil regained his composure and sidestepped, narrowly evading Serraemas’s attack. Using Serraemas’s momentum, Raxxil grabbed onto the staff-wielder, then brought down his arms in an attempt to slam Serraemas onto the ground—

Serraemas shifted in mid-air and kicked Raxxil hard on his side. Raxxil grunted in pain, releasing his grip and staggering to the left from the force of the blow. He buckled and kneeled onto the ground, still weakened from his wounds. Serraemas landed on his two feet softly, then lunged at Raxxil again.

HAHAHA!” erupted Vrand like a roaring flame, reveling in the conflict. Raxxil paid the elemental no heed.

Serraemas closed the distance rapidly and stopped just next to Raxxil, who was still kneeling from the blow. His furious partner’s shadow loomed over him, and Raxxil felt an icy stare penetrate his soul. Serraemas brought his knee up, aiming for Raxxil’s head—

Raxxil reacted faster.

He blocked the blow and pushed up with his legs. Rising upward quickly, Raxxil flew his fist up in an uppercut and it connected with Serraemas’s cheek, causing a loud smack and sending his partner flying backward.

Serraemas soared through the air for just a moment before recovering, shifting gracefully in mid-air and landing on his feet while his black cloak fluttered about in the wind. A sizable bruise had made its mark on the staff-wielder’s cheek. Serraemas’s pale complexion grew even darker. He widened his stance, lowering himself for another lunge.

Beads of sweat rolled down Raxxil’s face, and he panted heavily. He reached for his hammer—

“Stop!” yelled a squeaky voice from behind them.

Raxxil turned to the direction of the outburst and beheld a surprising sight. Tanaria stood in the middle of the dirt path, with furrowed brows and pouted lips. She gazed at the trio with a smudge of disdain and a whole lot of concern, as if they were the children and she was the adult. “Friends shouldn’t fight!”

Raxxil released his grip on his weapon and sighed deeply. He looked over at Serraemas, who was still clenching his fists and ready to pounce. A breeze blew by the two unmoving figures, causing the branches of nearby trees to sway. The moment froze, and Raxxil could still feel the tension. He braced to jump into action, but a moment later Serraemas relaxed. The staff-wielder’s complexion lightened ever so slightly as he crossed his arms. He scowled at Raxxil, giving him a you-deal-with-this look.

Raxxil buckled from exhaustion. He coughed heavily, and the taste of metal hung on his tongue. Looking down, he noticed he had expelled some blood onto the ground. He willed himself into a seated position, crossed his legs, and, facing the young girl, smiled warmly.

“Why were you fighting?” asked the little girl as she strode up to Raxxil.

Raxxil’s smile grew even wider. “Sometimes we get into arguments and we need to talk with our fists.”

“Why can’t you just talk it over?” she continued, plopping down in front of Raxxil and mirroring his posture. She stared intently at him, and their eyes locked.

Just like hers. Innocent and naive…

“There are times when words cannot suffice, and the solution is to fight”, he answered, attempting to fight back the surge of emotions.

The girl sat in silence and continued to stare at him, as if processing his words and ascertaining their meaning. After several seconds, she looked up at Erendil and Serraemas, who were both standing several feet behind where Raxxil and Tanaria sat. “Where are you from?” The question seemed to have been asked to no one in particular, though her eyes stuck to Raxxil.

Raxxil mulled over his words, contemplating his answer. “We are—well…” Raxxil paused again, unsure of what the proper answer could be. “It’s hard to—“

“We are children of Ashkar”, interrupted Serraemas. Raxxil turned to his dark-haired ally as the staff-wielder stepped forward. “We are from everywhere, and nowhere. The ground we walk upon is our home. Why are you here?”

Raxxil looked back at the girl. If there was anyone that had trouble understanding Serraemas, it would be a child, and her’s was the face of a child confused at a riddle. She cocked her head to one side, narrowing her eyes and furrowing her brows. Raxxil chuckled heartily at her perplexed complexion.

“I will not ask again”, said Serraemas, raising his voice. “Why did you follow us?”

Apparently dismissing Serraemas’s words, and her own previous question entirely, Tanaria abruptly stood up and pointed to the northeast, where the road continued to snake its way. “Where are you goi—?”

“Are you going to continue to ask questions for eternity?” interjected Serraemas impatiently.

“Are you going to be a big doo-doo head forever?” retorted the girl in frustration.

“Raxxil”, stated Serraemas calmly as he turned and walked in the opposite direction away from everyone else.

“Wait here”, Raxxil said to the girl softly, then strode after Serraemas. He passed Erendil, who merely offered a shrug. Piercing eyes stared at him intently as Raxxil joined Serraemas, and the latter now stood with crossed arms several feet up the road.

Raxxil did not have to ponder much to know what Serraemas was going to say, and he brought up his arms to protest. “Listen, Serrae—“

“She can accompany us”, interrupted the icy elementalist.

Raxxil gaped, taken completely aback. “What?”

Serraemas shifted his stance uncomfortably, raising his brows and sighing deeply as he looked away. The bruise on his right cheek continued to throb, but he seemed to pay no mind. Such inflictions were hardly physically painful, Raxxil was certain of that. Most of the time, he found it a more effective tool of communication than the tongue anyway.

“We’re focusing on the mission and she will not be a distraction”, continued Serraemas, his gaze still fixated on nothing in particular, “Lest Sora hears of your frailty. I’m sure she wouldn’t object to the addition of a new member, though.” He waited for the words to settle. “But… that would be your will, not mine. You know the risks we take.”

Raxxil exhaled deeply in relief, forgetting that he had been holding his breath in suspense. He chuckled heartily, but pain coursed through his body and his laughs gave way to coughs.

“You are responsible for her”, Serraemas stated boldly, locking eyes with Raxxil again and uncrossing his arms. “Now make haste, our quarry could not have gotten—”

“Someone approaches!” hissed Erendil from behind.

Raxxil wheeled about as the towrth barreled past both him and Serraemas, the flailing child in his grip. Serraemas stepped forward, reaching for his staff. He brought it in front of him, shifting his stance defensively.

From the southwest, Raxxil made out an armored figure on horseback galloping toward them quickly.

—-

Now I’ve seen it all.

Graf grimaced.

Death and destruction now befell the quiet village of Bellis, ravaged by malevolent demons. Knights of the Faith dying to fulfill their duty wasn’t any less tragic—but they died with honor, valiantly defending the innocent and upholding their righteous oath. Their souls would no doubt reach the gates of Heaven. Simple townsfolk, however? Women and children? Their deaths were nothing short of tragedy.

If demons run rampant throughout Ashkar, where are the angels? Does Heaven ignore our prayers?

“Sergeant Graf, sir!” shouted one of the guards, pulling Graf out of his mind and back into the village’s center. His men bustled about, fulfilling their orders while the townsfolk continued to recover as best they could. Even the traveler that called himself The Ujok volunteered eagerly to aid the village, and despite his odd attire and even stranger demeanor, any help was welcome.

Graf turned to face the gaunt soldier, who saluted. The younger soldier had dark circles under his eyes and appeared fatigued. No doubt, everyone was exhausted, but his tiredness seemed more, as if he was burdened by a weight.

“At ease”, Graf answered after returning the salute. “What is it, Private Devue?”

“The situation is stable, sir”, reported the soldier weakly. “We have secured the perimeter. The wounded have all been tended to, and preparations for burial have been put into place for the deceased.”

“Well done”, Graf responded. “Get some rest, soldier.”

Devue smiled weakly, then saluted again. However, he continued to look at Graf with what seemed like a mixture of uncertainty and fear. In fact, he appeared to quiver where he stood.

“What is it, soldier?” Graf asked.

Devue hesitated for a moment, shifting his eyes fearfully.

“Spit it out!” commanded Graf, raising his voice slightly. The younger soldier winced from the outburst.

“T-the Order of the Faith never trained me to fight demons”, Devue finally divulged. “I felt the darkness enveloping the air. Their sick laughter resounding as they killed us, feeding off of the screams of the fallen.” The man looked down, apparently ashamed of the words he spoke.

Graf sighed. He stepped forward, placing both hands on the private’s shoulders. “You courageously fought and defended those who needed protection. Having fear itself is not a weakness. Weakness is not taking action in the presence of fear.”

Devue’s complexion lightened. His lips curled upward slightly in relief, as if a great burden had been lifted off his shoulders.

“Regardless of our foe, we, as Knights of the Faith, must face the evil that threatens all that is good”, continued Graf. “Understood, soldier?”

Relieved, Devue nodded and saluted once more. “Thank you, sir!”

Graf returned the gesture. “Now go get some—”

“Sergeant!” yelled another armored knight from the south. Graf turned in the direction of the voice and faced the man who rushed toward him. The guard stopped just a few feet from Graf, placing his hands on his knees and panting heavily. Without words, he pointed in the direction he had just come from.

Confused, Graf shifted his attention to the south and narrowed his eyes. Off in the distance, flocks of birds flew out from the trees and into the sky, escaping from some unknown threat. That threat was coming their way.

What now?

Graf turned and placed a gauntlet-covered hand on Devue’s shoulder. “Call the remaining knights, now!” He turned and unsheathed his weapon, and the other men followed. Paranoid and fearful, shouts arose throughout the village as townsfolk retreated into their homes in panic while some of the able-bodied men reached for what weapons they had and grouped.

Graf heard the galloping of several horses emanating from the south. Squinting, he made out three silhouettes that charged straight for them with astonishing speed. After a moment, the silhouettes gave way to dark, shadowy figures.

More of those demons?

As they neared, Graf’s eyes widened in shock.

The three riders wore black, spiked armor from head-to-toe that could only come from nightmares, rode hellish steeds that exuded a foreboding miasma in their wake, and brandished ghoulish blades that seemed to drain the life of the very space around it. Orbs of green and blue glowed from the depths of their helmed visages. Graf could feel them burn with malevolence.

“Stand your ground!” commanded Graf to the quivering men around him. “Defend your honor and the innocent!”

With weapons raised, the soldiers awaited their foes. The dark riders were nearly upon them, and Graf whispered a quick prayer—

To his surprise, the ghastly figures flew past them, completely ignoring the silver-armored soldiers and villagers entirely. Instead, the riders charged straight to the north and out of the village. In the distance, their eerie forms reverted back to silhouettes until they vanished completely out of sight.

Silence loomed, and Graf felt all eyes fall unto him in search for answers. He had no reprieve to offer. He continued to stare to the north, mouth agape and eyes wide.

Lieutenant, may your blade be blessed by the heavens…

Chapter 11

347th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Quinn sighed.

“The First Pillar of the Four Pillars of Earth, named Grasping Earth, was created in the 4787th Age of Lion by Buffo the Earthshaker, a renowned earth elementalist”, continued Master Felen. She had been instructing for the better part of an hour, though his ears had remained deaf to her words.

What is the point when I can’t learn it anyway?

He sat on the far side of the room near the window, and decided to focus his attention outside. The sun shone brightly and the skies were blue. White, puffy clouds drifted by to fulfill an objective unbeknownst to him. Flocks of birds flew above, while several groups of students mingled with smiles. Their cheerful laughter matched joyful countenances, boring a hole into him. He turned away and looked down at his lap.

Why did it have to be—?

A scrunched up parchment struck his head from behind, and he heard devious giggles mocking him. Quinn looked over his shoulder, leering at his aggressors. They peered back, contorting their faces mischievously and enacting rude gestures.

Quinn gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. He felt his face flush red with rage as he stood up from his seat.

“The Second Pillar, Stone Slab Slam, is—Quinn, what are you doing?” asked Master Felen, but he ignored her. He rushed over to the back of the classroom to where the bullies continued to snicker at him mockingly.

The nearest one, a plump boy that was a couple ages his senior, smirked at him with round, bulbous eyes and an even rounder face. Quinn noticed another crumpled parchment atop the aggressor’s desk.

“Look, it’s Quinn the Magicless Moron”, jeered the bully. “He’s too stupid to learn anything!”

Fury consumed him, and Quinn lunged at the bully. The bully’s face shifted from mockery to fear as Quinn landed a blow across the side of his face. Without hesitation, Quinn lifted his left arm for another strike—

A hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him back. He turned to meet Master Felen’s stern gaze, her dark purple complexion and bright eyes revealing concern.

“Quinn, it is not okay to strike your fellow classmates”, she said, releasing her grasp on his wrist. “What happened?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Quinn screamed. “Nobody cares anyway!”

He stormed out of the classroom and into the hallway. Eyes bored into him as he made his way frantically through other students. Emotions flooded him, and he made no attempt to hold them at bay. It wasn’t long until he wound up outside in the courtyard just outside the classroom. If he had turned in the direction of the window, he guessed he would have seen the scrutinizing eyes of his classmates. He stopped next to a tree and sat at its base, looking down and covering his head as he felt his eyes begin to water.

Mom and dad, why did you leave me here?

“Oh look, a failure”, said a familiar voice—a voice that resonated throughout his entire being every time he heard it. A shadow loomed over him, and again he felt rage beginning to fester inside. Quinn looked up to another mocking gaze. His blood started to boil.

Damian…

Quinn hated that stupidly-styled blond hair, that stupid, impish smile, and most of all, those stupid, condescending eyes. They peered at him intently, enraging him even further.

“Why are you still here?” jeered Damian. Other students shifted their attention to them and started to gather in the courtyard. “You don’t belong here. You’re trash.”

Quinn gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, rage fueling him again.

—-

Doriel shook her head as Quinn rushed out of the room.

Not this again…

She shot Gezzi a disapproving look. “You and I are going to have a talk about this.”

“Master Felen, what is wrong with Quinn?” asked a student who was seated at the front of the classroom. Doriel turned to face the girl—a veri, like herself. She was about the same age as Quinn.

“What do you mean, Yafn?” answered Doriel inquisitively.

“Well, he can’t cast any spells”, said the girl, genuine concern displayed in her expression. “Is he sick?”

Doriel stood there for a moment, pondering the question and how best to approach it. Unable to come up with a proper explanation, she smiled embarrassingly. “Everyone is special in some way. Quinn just hasn’t found it yet.”

“Master Felen, look!” shouted another student as he pointed toward the window.

Doriel shifted to see what the child pointed at and gasped. Steeling herself, she bolted into action and ran for the door, nearly crashing into it before slamming it open. She stumbled onto the hallway, though caught herself before she could crash into a student. Without stopping to offer explanation to the confused expressions of passersby, Doriel sprinted down the hall and outside the building.

She jumped over a stone bench, then rounded the corner as fast as she could. Shouts of excitement emanated from the origin of the altercation. Doriel nearly collided with several others before stopping behind the gathering crowd. Catching her breath, she peered past the other students to where Quinn and Damian were exchanging blows.

This has to stop…

Doriel stepped forward, intent on resolving the confrontation.

“Master Felen, let’s not be hasty”, said an elderly voice from behind her.

Surprised, Doriel stopped and turned to meet the cheerful smile of Master Wu. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his narrow eyes calm and without concern. She bowed respectfully. “Grand Master Magus! I’m glad that you’re here, but I am ending this right now.”

“Do not fret”, assured Master Wu as he stepped forward to join her. “There are times when one must find their way on their own.”

Doriel shifted her gaze at him, perplexed at his words. “Are you suggesting that we allow them to harm each other, Master?”

“Have you pondered the nature of this conundrum?” asked the elderly man, still focused at the two boys clashing ahead.

“What do you mean, Master?” answered Doriel, still confused at the puzzle laid before her by the senior elementalist. She was only met with silence. She turned back to the commotion, just in time to witness Quinn land a convincing blow to Damian’s abdomen, and the bully reeled over in pain.

Despite the successful attack, Quinn was not without his own injuries. Admittedly, Doriel was surprised at how well Quinn fought, given the disparity in age. Next to her, she heard the Grand Master Magus chuckle. It was clear that Quinn’s strike brought him some sort of satisfaction that she could not understand.

“If you were to interject,” began Master Wu suddenly, “Is that a permanent or temporary solution?”

“What if their lives are threatened?” Doriel asked her esteemed master.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the elderly man. “This is but a simple childish clash. A few wounds of the flesh is but an afterthought.”

Doriel shifted uncomfortably, and her expression beheld uncertainty as she continued to watch the two children attack each other. Still concerned, she turned back to the Grand Master Magus for an answer.

“Their feeble, undeveloped minds default to arbitrary emotions that cloud enlightenment”, continued Master Wu. “We must cultivate them so that they may reach their potential. For now, however, children will be childr—”

The elderly man’s eyes widened suddenly, and Doriel turned to face the clashing boys. She gasped, her heart skipping a beat as she witnessed a ball of fire fly toward Quinn. The boy attempted to leap to the side, but the fiery orb struck him on the chest. Screaming in pain, he fell to the floor in a panic and tried his best to diminish the flames that engulfed his garment, but to no avail. The cheering first gave way to gasps of shock, and then utter silence as the crowd looked around at each other in uncertainty.

“Is his life threatened now?” lashed Doriel, annoyed at Master Wu’s foolhardiness.

He smiled sheepishly, scratching his head and shrugging in defeat. Bracing herself, she diverted her attention ahead and waded through the roaring crowd. She made her way quickly to where Quinn flailed frantically and summoned a fount of water. She gushed the boy with soothing liquid, leaving no trace of burning embers.

“Are you all right, Quinn?” Doriel asked worriedly.

The boy was still lying on his back, and he looked down in confusion. The flames had scorched a considerable portion of his robes, revealing his chest. Quinn patted the area, and was surprised to discover that Doriel’s water had not only doused the fire, but had also healed his burnt flesh completely. Quinn then looked up at her and nodded. If his eyes held rage before, Doriel found nothing but helplessness now.

Doriel turned to Damian. The bully was clearly reveling in his apparent triumph. Whatever that triumph was, she would probably never understand no matter how many hours she studied it or how many books she read on it.

“You should be ashamed of yourself”, she denounced, and not just to the bully, but to the others as well for remaining idle. “Such conduct soils the prestige of this academy!”

Some of the students lowered their heads, while others simply walked away. Even Damian displayed hesitation, though whether that was simply a ruse to feign sympathy she did not know.

“You bring dishonor to the Dassic name, Damian”, Doriel continued, “Why do you disrespect your revered family so?”

The bully looked down, deciding not to address her and instead remaining silent. He stood frozen and twiddled his thumbs.

“Do you need to be disciplined more harshly?” she said threateningly as she raised her voice.

“Now, now, Master Felen”, interjected Master Wu from behind her, “It would be wise not to enact unsolicited punishment.”

Whispers and murmurs began to circulate amongst the crowd.

“Why yes, students, the Grand Master Magus is indeed gracing you with his presence”, stated the elderly man with a hint of arrogance. “Now, return to your activities.”

Some of the students heeded the man’s words and left, but a significant portion remained, apparently curious as to why the renowned elementalist involved himself with something so trivial. Wu looked around at the faces in the crowd, frowning in clear displeasure as they remained motionless and ignored his words.

“Be gone, little worms!” roared the Grand Master Magus, raising both arms as if to conjure a wicked spell upon unsuspecting souls. The students scrambled and scattered frantically, and within moments the courtyard was empty save for three.

Quinn stood up and patted himself down, exhaling a melancholic sigh as he looked up at Doriel with watery eyes. She kneeled down to match his height and smiled warmly.

“Poor child”, lamented Auria, her elemental, echoing her own thoughts.

“Never give up”, assured Doriel to the young boy.

Quinn locked eyes with Doriel, and she swore she saw a hint of determination flare up again.

“Well done, Master Felen!” commented Master Wu. She turned to meet his carefree complexion and whimsical smile. “You’ve proven a capable teacher and example for our young minds!”

Doriel rolled her eyes and contorted her face in an are-you-kidding-me look.

Master of eight yet such a fool.

Ignoring her reaction, Master Wu turned to Quinn with a wrinkled smile. “One day you will have power unimaginable. Of that, I promise you.”

Chapter 12

347th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Serraemas lowered his weapon and relaxed.

Up ahead, Samantha’s armor shined under the sun, and she rode toward them with haste. Her persistence was beginning to become quite troublesome.

“Admittedly, her persistence is admirable”, commented Zaranet.

“Raxxil”, said Serraemas, looking at the fiery elementalist. The latter grinned at the approaching figure, completely ignoring his call. “Raxxil!”

Waking from his trance, Raxxil shifted his attention to Serraemas. “What?”

“No more foolish games”, snapped Serraemas.

The armored woman was nearly upon them. She commanded her steed to stop to the side of the path, several feet away from where they stood. She quickly dismounted, and her footsteps resounded as her plated boots struck the ground with each step. At her side, the woman’s blade remained sheathed. Her complexion displayed determination while she strode up to where they were gathered. She examined each of them individually, though her attention lingered on the child.

“Why does the little one accompany you?” she demanded, confusion flashing across her face.

“Your interruption impedes our task”, stated Serraemas coldly, ignoring her question completely.

“And what would that entail?” scoffed Samantha as she crossed her arms. She stopped a few feet from Serraemas and the two locked eyes. “If you truly are who you claim to be, then this isn’t simply about monsters and heroi—”

“Your presence is unnecessary”, interrupted Serraemas, once again ignoring the woman’s words. “Return to Bellis. You delve in matters beyond your capability, and I will not humor you further.”

“Your knowledge regarding the female gender is always astonishing”, chided Zaranet playfully.

Clearly dismayed, Samantha’s expression grew furious. She drew her blade and held it threateningly at Serraemas. “As if I require two of you to belittle my strength!” Without hesitation, Samantha lunged forward at Serraemas. She raised her weapon above her head before slashing down in a vertical arc.

Serraemas raised his staff to parry—

A hammer shot out from behind him, meeting with the woman’s sword with such power that it knocked the weapon from her grasp. The blade flew to the side and buried itself in the ground. Samantha staggered backward, recoiling from the blow and attempting to recover her bearings.

Serraemas turned to meet a stern visage. Raxxil retracted his arm and slung his weapon over his right shoulder.

“A Knight of the Faith should not make foolish choices”, scolded Raxxil, “Nor should a lieutenant abandon her men.”

“Here we go…” said Zaranet disapprovingly.

“This is neither the time nor place to allow your past to influence the present circumstances”, Serraemas commanded, eyeing his hotheaded ally.

Surprise flashed across the armored woman’s angular face as her eyes widened, caught off guard by Raxxil’s disconcerting words.

“Raxxil the Volcano proclaiming judgment?” blurted Samantha incredulously. “Your past certainly does influence the present. I’ve not forgotten the legend: a burning rampage of death and destruction that razed the entire city of Lamli during the Daon War between the Order of the Faith and the heretics that sought to exterminate them, ending the lives of many. Your title is not an empty notoriety.”

“Foolish girl”, Serraemas uttered softly as he shook his head. “That’s not what I was refer—”

Serraemas’s eyes widened.

Behind Samantha, in the distance, a collection of dark silhouettes neared.

—-

Raxxil grinned.

Blood surged through his veins as adrenaline kicked in. Up ahead, the trio of armored figures were converging on their location, and this time, these were no mere humans compelled by curiosity.

Serraemas cursed under his breath. The man’s dark hair swooshed about as he shifted his stance and turned his head, looking at Erendil. “Why did you hold your tongue?”

“I wasn’t certain and I… I didn’t want to cause false alarm”, stammered the Towrth shamefully.

Serraemas shifted back to Raxxil and the two locked eyes.

“Is it time?” asked Raxxil gleefully. The pain from his wounds vanished under the power welling up from within.

The icy elementalist nodded silently, and the two focused their attention on the looming darkness ahead.

TIME TO BURN!” exploded Vrand.

Confusion displayed on Samantha’s face. She turned to look behind her at the encroaching specters. She froze for a moment, paralyzed by the troubling sight.

“If you value your life, I would suggest reclaiming your blade”, remarked Raxxil, his own hammer firmly wrapped in his grasp. “Executioners are remorseless.”

The woman turned once more, fixating on Raxxil and studying his face for a moment before uncertainty gave way to resolution. She dove for her weapon, reaching for it as she rolled and then rising on two feet in one swift maneuver next to Serraemas. The three of them stood in a line, bracing for the impending clash.

“Stand back and let us handle this, Erendil”, ordered Serraemas without looking back. “If tragedy befalls us, run. Flee as fast as you can.”

“And protect Tanaria!” added Raxxil. He would die a thousand times before an enemy even looked in her direction.

“It’s Arwynn!” she exclaimed bluntly, her words wrapped in annoyance.

“There’s no shortage of surprises with you”, remarked Samantha as she held her blade in front of her. “Blow with resounding force, Kavem!”

With her command, a gust of wind swirled around Samantha’s sword and it transformed. The blade itself grew in size significantly, its basic hilt becoming golden and intricately designed with swirls that formed into what looked like cyclones. In her left hand appeared a small horn out of thin air. It was also golden, etched with runic letters and curled in the shape of a crescent moon.

Alongside her, Serraemas uttered his command to release his weapon, and his simple staff was replaced with its true, frost-tipped form. Raxxil felt its chilling aura emanate outward as the temperature around Serraemas dropped significantly. Icicles hovered and rotated in a circular pattern around the icy orb that manifested just above the stave’s tip.

“Erupt in blazing fury, Vrand!” shouted Raxxil, following suit with the others. In an instant, his weapon’s fiery aura radiated as it too transformed from a mere hammer into its true form.

By now, the approaching Executioners were nearly upon them, and Raxxil could see their armored forms clearly. He studied their black, depthless visages, noting two sets of blue and one set of green. He turned to the left and gazed at Serraemas. The staff-wielder nodded silently, understanding Raxxil’s thoughts without the latter having to utter a word.

“You’ll have to handle the green-eyed one”, commanded Serraemas to his left. “If you distract it long enough, you may very well leave here alive.”

“You must think me nothing but a fool”, retorted Samantha. “I’m not as weak as you believe.”

Alright, let’s do this.

BUUUURN!” boomed Vrand again.

The armored shadows were mere moments away from being upon them, and Raxxil braced to attack—

The Executioners rushed past them without even a second glance, ignoring the elementalists completely and continuing down the road.

Out of the corner of his eye, Raxxil saw Serraemas wave his arms, and in an instant, a wall of ice coalesced in front of the riders’ paths. Horses whinnied as the Executioners pulled on their reigns to halt their movement, nearly smashing into the thick wall from the momentum.

Glowing orbs now fixated on Raxxil and the others with more than just cursory glances, as they had just a moment ago. Only a couple dozen feet away, the dark figures brandished their ghastly blades and charged toward the elementalists. Wicked steel glinted under sunlight, ready to carve into flesh.

Unfortunately for the Executioners, Raxxil decided to strike first. He crouched and then pushed off with his powerful legs, his black cloak fluttering in the wind as he launched into the air toward one of the Executioners. Fiery blue eyes flared at Raxxil as he brought his arm back and then swung his burning weapon in a horizontal arc. With a resounding smash, the hammer met the Executioner’s plated chest guard, creating a fiery explosion. The force of the blast hurled the dark figure off of its steed until the Executioner crashed into the icy wall that Serraemas had just created. With a satisfying crack, the wall shattered and the figure fell to the ground.

The blast left a plume of smoke that permeated the air briefly before being swept away by the wind. Behind him, Raxxil heard the clashing and clanging of metal as the others joined the fray, though he quickly drowned it out. His heart pumped madly, the lust of battle overtaking him. His mind and body felt free from the shackles of pain, all thoughts focused on the ghastly armor that lay on the ground ahead of him. The Executioner smoldered from Raxxil’s explosive blow, smoke rising off of its black armor.

“We both know that wasn’t enough to kill you”, taunted Raxxil with a smirk, “So how about you get your ass back over here for another smashing?”

As if on cue, black gauntlets pushed off from the ground followed by a plated boot, and in a flash the sturdy figure rose to face Raxxil.

“I will enjoy slicing that arrogant grin in two”, lashed the dark warrior. Gripping his wicked weapon firmly, the Executioner lunged at Raxxil while raising its arms over its head. With a diagonal thrust, the blade sought to cleave Raxxil in half—

With quick reflexes, Raxxil braced and raised his hammer, parrying the attack with the shaft of his weapon. Still, the Executioner pressed down in an attempt to overpower Raxxil, and the two became deadlocked. Raxxil continued to hold his ground as best he could, but a plated foot struck him in the abdomen, and he skidded back several feet before kneeling in exhaustion. He could feel his previous wounds reopening and rupturing once more.

“NO TIME TO SIT IDLE!” erupted Vrand.

“Yeah, yeah,” retorted Raxxil as he wiped the blood from his mouth. Relying on his hammer, he pushed up with one leg and arm and stood up slowly. Without words—taunts or otherwise—his opponent approached him again, firmly but slowly, like a predator circling its maimed prey.

Muscles aching, Raxxil bounded to meet his foe. He gripped his weapon tightly and lifted his arms to his right while twisting his torso, then swung with all his might to the left—

Unfortunately, his attack was dodged, and the courteous Executioner returned Raxxil’s generous gesture with a plated fist. The uppercut sent Raxxil flying upward several feet into the air before landing on his back, his weapon crashing onto the grass several feet away from him. Disoriented, Raxxil laid on the ground while his world spun in circles.

WOUNDS ARE MEANINGLESS IF YOU’RE DEAD!” Vrand yelled.

Raxxil tried to move, but he felt his body ache. The adrenaline was slowly fading away. Turning his head, he noticed black boots stepping toward him. They stopped just a few feet away. A shadow loomed over him, ready to deliver the finishing blow.

“Raxxil!” he heard a little girl scream in terror.

No! I won’t let you die again!

“Raxxil, get up!” shrieked the same voice again. It echoed throughout his mind and body. Gathering up what energy he could, Raxxil rolled away from the Executioner and toward his hammer just as the blade pierced the ground that he had just laid upon. Using the momentum, Raxxil pushed off with his arms and stumbled before standing upright. Panting, he reached for his burning weapon and rested it on his shoulder.

The hammer felt much heavier than before.

Without a word, the Executioner grasped his buried blade and pulled it out of the ground. His eyes flared at Raxxil, as if the elementalist had done a great disservice by evading the killing blow. Once more the dark specter advanced at him with grim purpose and sword in hand.

“All or nothing”, wheezed Raxxil.

BURN IT ALL TO NOTHING!” shouted his explosive elemental.

Raxxil grinned, lifting his weapon off his shoulders and bracing to attack.

Suddenly, the blowing of a horn reverberated across the air. The sound galvanized Raxxil, and the pain of his wounds vanished. His body felt as light as air and the weight of his weapon disappeared. He felt energized. It was as if he was no longer flesh and blood, but pure will. That will sought to crush the foe before him.

Bringing the fiery hammer to his side again, Raxxil pressed the counterattack and lunged forward. Once more, he swung with all his strength. Without time to evade, Raxxil’s deathly adversary raised his blade to parry, and the fiery hammer met with ghastly steel. The blow released another explosion, hurtling the Executioner backward. The dark warrior soared through the air before striking a tree with a loud crack and falling to the ground.

Raxxil rushed up to where the armored figure had fallen, and after examining his foe, noticed that the Executioner’s hateful orbs that had previously glared at him with purpose had faded, leaving but a husk of black armor.

“Hah!” cheered Raxxil triumphantly before shifting his attention to the commotion still raging behind him. He turned his gaze just in time to witness a merciless blade slash Samantha’s face.

Chapter 13

347th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

“Good, Pann”, praised Sanjin. “Again!”

The sound of men grunting and clashing weapons had filled the air for the better part of the cool morning at Enept-Ihs’s training grounds. It was here that the kingdom’s armed forces were trained, whether guards, infantrymen, or even the renowned individuals of the Blue Swords.

The training grounds were quite large, spanning a good portion of the King’s Court, the upper level of the kingdom that housed its palace, along with its barracks and other military structures. Unlike most other kingdoms, such as the Asmani of Terra Nort or the Veri to the west, Enept-Ihs’s military was its royalty for all intents and purposes.

Rows of armored wooden dummies lined the edges of the training grounds, while the vast middle space was open for sparring. Sanjin sidestepped just as a sword slashed downward through the space she had just occupied, her braided ponytail bouncing about.

“Why don’t you fight me with your weapon?” whined Pann. The younger child was doused in sweat and was breathing heavily. “This isn’t training, this is mockery!”

Sanjin laughed heartily. “Now, dear, if you can’t even hit me what would be the point?”

Frustrated at her remark, Pann lunged forward and swiped repeatedly in futility. Sanjin evaded each attack with ease. One could say the veteran was merely dancing with the sharp blade, a quick dance like the Tattel dance that was identified by its rapid, rhythmic steps that gave it its name. Except this time it was not a man that Sanjin was paired with, but a sharp blade. Depending on the point of view, one could argue there wasn’t much distinction anyway.

“Who’s training who?” Sanjin teased playfully with a smile.

“Now it’s just a game to you?!” roared Pann in fury. Her face reddened even more, clearly flustered and insulted. The outburst rang throughout the grounds, and some of the nearby trainees stopped to look over at them curiously.

“Oh, Pann!” giggled Sanjin. “You’re always too serio—”

“Miss Sannoh, please forgive my intrusion, but I bring important tidings!” bellowed a voice from behind Sanjin.

Sanjin turned to face the interrupter. He wore a blue, buttoned collar vest made out of silk, with matching pants and strapped boots. Slung around his shoulder was a satchel that rested at his hip brimming with letters and parcels. On the left side of the vest, near his chest, was an insignia of a wing.

The couriers of Enept-Ihs were responsible for delivering messages throughout the kingdom, both from within and from outside kingdoms and settlements through trained birds. This way, the kingdom’s forces, such as the Blue Swords, were able to respond to important matters across Makka swiftly and efficiently.

“What is it?” asked Sanjin.

“Urgent news from Bellis”, answered the man gravely. He lifted his arm, unveiling a letter with a red seal. He moved closer and handed the parchment over to Sanjin. She took the letter and inspected it briefly before opening it. Quickly scanning its contents, her eyes widened.

“What happened?” squeaked Pann, who peered at the parchment with curiosity.

Sanjin looked up at Pann with a stern visage. “Get to the meeting room. Now.”

—-

“And why are we all summoned here in such a dire hurry?” groaned Gelm. His old, wrinkled face seemed to be permanently fixed at a frown regardless of any circumstances. He situated himself in his stone-carved seat by the matching round table in the meeting room of the Blue Swords, a room which was housed in the halls of the king’s palace. He let out another deep grumble of dissatisfaction before quieting from Sanjin’s venomous glare.

Okay, Pann, Mellin, Dasa, Iyo, Tevin, Raff, Jak, and Gelm, of course. Everyone’s here except…

“Where is he?” Sanjin asked, shaking her head in disappointment.

Silence.

Nine members of the Blue Swords looked at each other for answers, but were only met with blank faces and shrugs.

Sanjin clenched her fists tightly in quiet anger. She stomped her foot with such power that the entire structure shook as if about to collapse, and released a disapproving grunt that echoed throughout the room. All eyes were now upon her.

“We will make do without him”, she said finally as she calmed herself down.

Always off doing your own things…

“So, will you tell us what this sudden meeting is about?” asked Mellin with half-closed eyes. He yawned and stretched his muscles, then sank back down into his seat sleepily. “You interrupted my afternoon nap.”

“Oh shut up, Mellin!” hissed Pann harshly. “All you do is sleep all the—”

“That’s enough!” Sanjin interrupted as she moved to her seat. She sat down and withdrew the letter from Bellis, then laid it on the large, round table where the members of the Blue Swords sat around.

The room quickly quieted under Sanjin’s booming command, and once more she captivated their attention.

“Now then”, Sanjin stated firmly, “The matter at hand. I have received word from Bellis that they were visited by the Lord of Frost and the Volcano.”

Gasps and murmurs filled the air as Sanjin’s words settled in.

“Hold on… w-what did you say?” squawked Tevin, clearly perturbed by this new revelation. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and Sanjin could see him turning pale. “Those two are on Makka? Why?”

“They were also seen with a towrth”, continued Sanjin. “Even worse, the village was sieged by what appears to be demons.”

Again, the room was filled with reactions of surprise. Mellin perked up, seemingly roused from his usual trance. Sanjin read a mixture of curiosity and apprehension amongst the more youthful faces. Even Gelm stopped grumbling.

“Uhh, hellooooo!” shouted Pann, her high voice piercing the still air. “Lord of Frost? Volcano? The hell are you talking about—?”

“Mind your tone, young lady!” snarled Sanjin. “This is no trifling matter!”

Pann drew back from the outburst. A frown displayed across her face as she sat back and crossed her arms before sticking out her tongue.

Sanjin felt her face flush red at the gesture, but held back another scolding outburst before it could escape her lips.

“Ah, so you haven’t told her?” chided Gelm, his lips curling upward in what Sanjin could only guess was his best attempt at a smile.

“Told me what?!” spouted Pann, apparently annoyed by the fact that she was not in accord with everyone else.

“The legend of those two, you dummy”, mocked Mellin.

“A long time ago, there was a prominent elementalist among the ranks of the Order of the Faith,” Sanjin explained. “During the Daon War, several groups of people on the continent of Onturi joined into an alliance to crusade against the Order of the Faith and their kingdom of Lenas. In a decisive battle at the city of Lamli, this elementalist engulfed the battlefield with explosive fire that wreaked havoc and turned the tide in favor of the Order of the Faith. Some even claim that the fire itself was alive, that this man was able to physically call out his elemental. Exaggerations or hallucinations, most likely. War can have a dangerous effect on one’s mind, or someone wanted to sell their version of history.”

“What happened after that?” asked Pann eagerly. She had risen from her seat, leaning forward and placing her hands on top of the table. For what seemed like the first time, Sanjin had the young girl’s full attention. Even the others were heavily invested with what Sanjin was saying.

“Unfortunately, his flame did not discriminate”, continued Sanjin. “Many lives were lost on both sides, burned to naught but ash. Hence Raxxil the Volcano.” Sanjin sat back and paused, drawing breath and letting the history sink in. “He won the battle, but Raxxil was deemed an enemy by the very kingdom he fought for. He fled, leaving behind only legend. After that, a few sightings were reported across human lands under the rebels by the name of the Skyward Hands, including alleged assassinations and small skirmishes throughout Ashkar, though he was never quite confirmed. Until now, of course.”

“That’s it?” whined Pann as if she expected something more. She fell back into her stone chair, crossed her arms, and scoffed.

“Do you find something humorous?” Sanjin inquired with annoyance, directing her question—and gaze—to the pretentious girl.

“What about the other one?” asked Pann, ignoring Sanjin’s inquisition entirely.

“You young pipsqueaks know nothing of history”, fussed Gelm. “Why, listen here. It was after the fall of Lorine, years before the Daon War, a time when being attuned with the elements was met with both fear and hatred. A young elementalist that had an affinity for ice sought to change that. He traveled across Terra Sur, teaching those that would listen about elementals. He gained much prestige during that period, and he too was purported to be involved with the Skyward Hands.”

“Ahem”, asserted Sanjin. “The Lord of Frost that exists now has been involved in many crimes across the world, most notably assassinations much like his counterpart. The benevolent teacher from your story has no merit.”

“Hmph”, snapped Gelm. He muttered something else under his breath, but Sanjin couldn’t hear.

Pann rolled her eyes. “So what are the fists in the sky or whate—“

“Skyward Hands”, corrected Gelm coldly.

The young girl paused for a moment, giving Gelm a dirty look. “Right…” She then turned to Sanjin. “So what are the Skyward Hands?”

“Not much is known about them, or whether they still exist”, explained Sanjin, “But what we do know is that they were a group of elementalists that rebelled against the Asmani Empire nearly a century ago. Most of their activity happened in either Terra Nort or Terra Sur, attacking the vast kingdom strategically and offering aid to those less fortunate that were either ignored or taken advantage of by the kingdom.”

“And then?” Pann asked impatiently.

Sanjin shrugged. “That’s all we know.”

“That’s wonderful news and all”, complained Pann, once again disappointed. “And the demons? Please tell me there’s something interesting about them.”

Sanjin shook her head. “Under the chaos, Bellis could only defend themselves as best they could. They know nothing of any origins or intents, other than claiming a mysterious traveler was the culprit. They have no idea why or how they were under attack.”

“Well then”, uttered Mellin with a chortle, shooting Pann a cursory glance, “Now that we have that out of the way, what is the plan here?”

“Y-you mean we’re going after them?” stammered Tevin again, uncertainty in his voice.

“Yeah let’s go pummel ‘em!” roared Jak, who sat next to Tevin and had been quiet until now. Jak, nearly twice as large as Tevin, brought down a heavy hand on the apprehensive boy. Tevin winced from the gesture.

“Can you all just be quiet and listen to Miss Sannoh?” added Raff.

Jak shot Raff a menacing look, and the two locked eyes briefly. After a few moments, Jak grunted, turning away and looking at Sanjin expectantly.

“We ride in a half-hour”, Sanjin stated without hesitation. She looked at both Pann and Tevin. The latter was quivering, while the former still sat with crossed arms. “You two stay here. The rest will meet me at the front gate.”

With that, bodies rose from seats, moving toward the wooden doors to exit the room. Only Sanjin and Pann remained in the meeting room. Still seated, Pann’s jaw dropped, glaring at Sanjin with enough bewilderment to start a fire.

“What did you just say?!” exclaimed the young girl in frustration. “I am a part of the Blue Swords just as much as you are!”

“Watch your tone, young lady!” Sanjin bellowed as she rose from her seat angrily. “You’re not ready for a task such as this.”

“But I’ve been training for months!” rebutted Pann.

“I said you’re not ready!” asserted Sanjin. She grabbed the inked letter and made her way toward the door, past the rebellious child.

“Father would have let me go”, she heard from behind as furious eyes bored into her back. The words stung painfully, like a wound being reopened. Sanjin’s breaths grew heavy, and she felt her knees buckle.

“And he is gone”, Sanjin replied hoarsely, still staring at the door. She waited for a response, but heard none. After several moments in silence, Sanjin opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. As the door shut behind her, she heard the muffled sobs of the only light she desperately clung onto.

Chapter 14

347th Dawn of the 4999th Age of Rimas

“I do hope that you know what you’re getting into”, Kavem said with concern.

“Like I’d flee from this”, replied Samantha, dismissing her wary guardian. She gripped her ornate blade in her right hand. However, she held the true source of her powers in her left hand, clutching it like an infant held her favorite toy.

“Hmph, a brave little girl”, beckoned her adversary with glowing green eyes. His voice was twisted, reminding Samantha of creatures of nightmares. Still, she held steadfast, unwavering in the wake of these so-called ‘Executioners’. If they wore armor like men, they could be cut down like men. If they brandished blades of steel like men, they could be cut down like men. And if they spoke like men, she was damn sure they could be cut down like men.

As his deathly, blue-eyed comrades charged into battle against her unlikely allies, the green-eyed Executioner followed by slicing at Samantha’s head—

To the Executioner’s dismay, she leapt backward with stunning speed. Samantha took the opening, lunging forward and thrusting her blade in an attempt to pierce black armor.

The Executioner parried the blow, then reached out with a free hand, aiming to grab ahold of Samantha—

Again she moved faster, ducking and avoiding the death grip. She then reached down with her left arm, stabilizing herself before kicking with her right leg. Her plated foot struck the armored nightmare in the abdomen hard, and grunting in surprise, the black figure skidded back several feet.

This is the might of the feared Executioners? How disappointing.

“Worthless worm!” growled the Executioner in frustration. He regained his composure and charged at her again in a rage, but this time with more fervor than he had previously displayed, as if he had expected to cut her down with minimal effort and was only now placing more conviction in his efforts. His movements suddenly hastened, and Samantha barely had time to react. The ghastly shadow swung horizontally—

Again Samantha crouched out of harm’s way. Leaving her no reprieve, the Executioner drew back and thrust his blade at the crouched woman.

Samantha grunted, stumbling backward and falling onto her rear.

“Raxxil!” cried the young child from somewhere behind her. Surprised, Samantha turned her head and gazed upon the still figure of the hammer-wielder.

“Samantha, the Executioner is upon you!” cried Kavem, his voice almost quavering in concern.

Samantha snapped back to her own situation, but her foe had already taken advantage of her carelessness. In an instant he was upon her with wicked blade at the ready. With a swift gesture the blade rushed down, seeking to pierce Samantha’s chest.

Samantha brought her left hand to her mouth, and with it, the horn she held tightly. With no time to waste she blew, sending forth a wave that invigorated not only herself but her allies as well. Hastened like the wind themselves, Samantha strafed to the side as steel pierced the ground she had just stood upon.

Still, the Executioner gave her no respite. He quickly drew his blade and rushed at her. Even with her augmented speed, Samantha was hard-pressed to even catch her breath; the deathly figure swung repeatedly with monstrous strength and without remorse. She parried blows left and right, but was overwhelmed. Samantha felt a cold, armored fist strike her square in the face. She closed her eyes as she winced in pain and stumbled backward in a daze.

“Samantha!” yelled Kavem.

Instinctively, she leapt backward, but not before the Executioner’s vile blade sliced her face diagonally.

Pain consumed Samantha, and she dropped her weapon. She fell onto her rear, clutching her face with her now free hand. Warm blood gushed forth, running down her face and neck. For some reason, Samantha could not see out of her right eye. There was no time to figure out why, for she felt a dark presence loom over her. Looking up, Samantha saw the shadow that spelled her doom.

Green eyes flared at her in gleeful triumph.

“This is where your petty life comes to a close”, claimed the deathly figure. Death raised its culling blade high into the air—

A large sliver of ice pierced through the Executioner’s chest from behind. Shocked, he dropped his weapon and looked down at the mortal wound. Shaking, armored hands slowly moved up to grasp the blood-stained shard.

The last thing Samantha saw as her world faded into darkness was a fiery hammer flying in from the side and colliding with the Executioner’s head. The force of the blow and resulting explosion was so great that the shadowy warrior’s head—now almost indistinguishable from a fireball—flew into the trees as the limp body fell to the ground.

—-

Serraemas breathed a sigh of relief.

“I suppose they had not anticipated a group such as us to chase their prey”, said Zaranet.

The elemental was right. Had the Executioners anticipated elementalists such as Serraemas and Raxxil, they would have sent a stronger force to complete the task. A red- or purple-eyed Executioner would have changed the situation drastically.

Serraemas looked at the beaten and bruised Raxxil. Several wounds had reopened, red liquid seeping out and staining the white cloth wrapped all over the man’s body; the quick triage that they had utilized was insufficient for a battle such as this one. Raxxil was slumped over and breathing quite heavily, but still standing nonetheless.

Even less fortunate was the stubborn young woman that now laid on her back unconscious. Blood gushed out of the wound she had sustained on her face, pooling underneath her across the ground. Her body was still, but she drew breath ever so slightly.

To her misfortune, that would soon cease.

Serraemas examined both Erendil and the young child that refused to do anything but accompany them. They both were in shock at what had transpired, clutching onto each other and staring in horror at the motionless body of Samantha.

“We’re done here”, Serraemas said calmly. “Erendil, can you still sense our target?”

The towrth did not reply, mouth still agape and attention focused elsewhere.

Serraemas gritted his teeth. “Death is a part of this world, so become accustomed—”

“We’re not going to just leave her like this”, said Raxxil in between breaths.

Serraemas glared at the burning elementalist, the latter returning a stern and unwavering complexion.

“First the child, and now her?” Serraemas berated. “You cannot protect everyone you fancy!”

“I said we’re going to save her!” roared the hammer-wielder defiantly. He rose to his full height willfully despite grunting in pain, his furious eyes still fixated on Serraemas. Raxxil’s green eyes flared with a mixture of tenacity and desperation.

“Have you forgotten what befalls those that are cut by an Executioner’s blade?” returned Serraemas vehemently. “She’s not long for this world, and there’s nothing you nor I can do about it.”

Raxxil’s expression shifted from rage to melancholy as the words registered. His eyes softened, and he looked away in shame. Raxxil focused his gaze on the young woman’s body one last time before turning and walking down the path, past Serraemas without a glance.

—-

Death comes. Death comes as the light fades away and the shadows envelop.

Erendil trudged on behind Serraemas and Raxxil, the former hastily leading the charge again down the serpentine dirt path with determination. For several hours everyone seemed to keep to themselves, hardly exchanging any words.

Since then, Erendil’s gaze had been fixed on the ground before him. He let his thoughts wander. He hadn’t given the attack on the village much thought until he saw Samantha struck down in front of him. The cries and shouts of the fallen echoed in his mind. It was so visceral.

Life… it is so fragile.

He had offered Arwynn to sit atop his shoulders, and she had happily obliged. For the most part she had been quiet, but now she was humming a tune softly. It reminded Erendil of the lullabies Sora would sing to him listen when he was a child, the kind that would ward off the monsters of his imagination and allow him to sleep. Only this time, the monsters were no longer just a figment of his mind.

“The next town, Enorra, should be just up ahead”, Serraemas called out from ahead, his voice calm and without expression. Faint plumes of smoke rose into the sky up ahead, signaling civilization. Unrelenting and determined, the staff-wielder showed no signs of slowing down. Had the man not witnessed what Erendil had seen? How could his friend be so apathetic? Surely life was more precious than their mission? Erendil had so many questions, but elected not to ask.

“Where is he now?” Serraemas asked coolly as he turned his head slightly in Erendil’s direction.

The soul is the dark depths where light cannot remain and where shadows reign.

Erendil frowned. There it was again. The voice that echoed in his mind, whispering words of dread. Words that dismayed Erendil greatly, implanting troubling thoughts and images he wished not to see. A voice that wasn’t his own. It belonged to Akaba, for the voice was the same that he had heard when he had initially used his newfound powers. It was the voice of his elemental. He was sure of it. What he wasn’t sure about was why the elemental continued to mar Erendil’s thoughts with such awful words.

“Erendil”, said a different, much more familiar voice that pierced his bubble. “I need you to concentrate.”

Snapping out of the trance, Erendil returned his attention to the physical world and met the gaze of Serraemas, who was now looking up at him with a fair share of urgency. Their faces were mere inches apart. Erendil felt the man’s eyes pierce right through him.

For the first time, he was terrified by the much smaller elementalist.

“He’s several miles to the northeast”, replied Erendil hastily, “But I think he has stopped moving.”

Serraemas looked up, then looked down the path pensively for several moments before glancing at Raxxil. How the fiery warrior was able to not only stand but travel with such grievous wounds—without a word at that—amazed Erendil. It seemed Raxxil had also been preoccupied with his thoughts.

“It could be a trap”, Serraemas finally said as he looked back at them. “Raxxil needs aid and rest, so we will take refuge in Enorra.” With that, he continued to lead the way.

Erendil followed hurriedly, and did so for more reasons than one.

—-

“And here we are!” said the innkeeper cheerfully as he opened the door that led to a small, simplistic room on the second floor fitted with three equally small beds. Light poured in from a window that one could view a good portion of the town with. “The village medicine man will arrive shortly to take a look at your… uh… wounds.”

The town’s militia had initially been apprehensive toward the newcomers, receiving word of the demonic attacks. However, upon seeing Raxxil’s wounds and the small child, their trepidation gave way to sympathy. With no proper protection, a group of human elementalists was probably a welcome sight, even if they traveled with an unsettling towrth.

“Thank you”, replied Serraemas as he set down his belongings next to one of the beds. “That will be all.”

The innkeeper remained motionless, however, and stared at their weapons nervously with beady eyes.

“He said that will be all”, asserted Raxxil strongly.

“Oh!” blurted the jittery man, nearly jumping at Raxxil’s reminder. “Of course!” The innkeeper wheeled around and stepped out the door, closing it abruptly behind him, and Serraemas heard rushed footsteps descending down the wooden stairs.

Arwynn jumped onto one of the beds and wrapped herself in one of the sheets. It wasn’t long before sobs emanated from where she lay bundled. Both Raxxil and Erendil sighed deeply, uncertain of what to do or say. The former turned his gaze away, instead looking out the window while the latter twiddled with his thumbs.

“She is much too young to bear the struggles of reality”, said Zaranet.

“No”, replied Serraemas in his mind. “If Raxxil truly wishes for her to stay, she must face the truth of this world.”

A series of knocks came from the door. The sound was hardly loud enough to wake a heavy sleeper, but to Serraemas it was almost abrasive as it entered his ears and caught his attention. He perked up and reached for his staff.

A few moments later, the knocks came again.

“Who is it?” asked Serraemas as he readied into a defensive stance. Meanwhile, Raxxil reached for his weapon and Erendil quietly moved in front of Arwynn.

“A concerned father”, responded a deep, sullen voice.

Serraemas paused briefly, and the air became still as he mulled over the words. “You may enter.”

The door opened slowly with an obnoxiously loud creak, revealing a balding, mustached man wearing a dirtied blacksmith’s apron on top of stitched clothing. As he stepped into the room, light shone on his features, illuminating narrow green eyes that flickered nervously—although Serraemas surmised that, unlike the innkeeper, it was neither from their presence nor from their weapons.

“What business do you have with us?” inquired Serraemas. He loosened his stance, but still clutched his weapon tightly.

“My name is Charles, and I am this village’s blacksmith”, answered the older man as he faced Serraemas. “Word has traveled that Bellis was attacked, and my daughter was a Knight of the Faith stationed there to protect the town. She was a lieutenant in command of several soldiers. I understand that you lot are travelers that were present during the attack, and I have not received word from her.”

“Samantha…” muttered Raxxil softly.

“Yes, that’s her name!” stated the man eagerly, diverting his attention to the wounded warrior. “Where is she? Is she all right?”

Raxxil looked away, unable to answer outright.

The man’s expression changed from hopefulness to confusion as his brows furrowed and his forehead wrinkled. He looked back at Serraemas.

Serraemas shook his head. “She didn’t make it.”

Even Arwynn’s cries had stopped, and the room was bathed in silence for a significant amount of time. The distraught father trembled, stumbling slightly as he made his way over to the wall next to the window. He leaned forward with his head down, pressing a free hand on the painted wood. Though the blacksmith was turned away from Serraemas, he noticed the floor next to the man’s feet darken with drops of sorrow.

“She… she was all I had”, said the mustached man shakily. After several moments, he wiped his eyes and turned back to Serraemas. “Thank you for telling me.”

With that, the door opened and closed once again.

Chapter 15

347th Dusk of the 4999th Age of Rimas

Serraemas sat in darkness, peering out the window at nothing in particular.

By now, the sun had gone to sleep, and the moon shined its white light indiscriminately. The medicine man had arrived shortly after the departure of Samantha’s father, providing much needed aid for the hammer-wielder. While Raxxil required much more than simple medicine and bandages, anything was helpful at this point.

Though Serraemas wished otherwise, he had made the decision to rest for the night. They were nearly caught up with their target, but Serraemas could tell that the others needed the rest. Erendil claimed that the dark aura moved slowly anyway, so they would not lose much time during the night.

He peered over his shoulder and surveyed the small room. The other three had fallen fast asleep, their rhythmic breathing and occasional snoring filling up the otherwise quiet air. Turning back to gaze out the window, Serraemas looked up at the stars.

“Raxxil troubles me greatly”, rang Zaranet.

“He had repressed those memories for quite some time”, responded Serraemas.

“Can you blame him?” asked his elemental.

“I suppose not”, said Serraemas, taking in a deep breath, “However, he’s never regarded newly met strangers with such concern. Actually, he’s never really regarded anyone with much concern at all since I met him.”

“Except you”, reminded Zaranet. “Perhaps you should try to empathize. We both know that you understand his pain.”

“And we both know I buried that long ago”, Serraemas replied.

“Oh, you have?” chided the elemental. Serraemas heard a chuckle echo in his mind, though it was not his own.

Serraemas gritted his teeth. “Some things are better left—”

He felt a strong pat on his back. Serraemas lurched forward from the force, but stopped himself lest he break the glass window and fly out into the night. He turned his head and locked eyes with his explosive companion. The moonlight shone on Raxxil’s face, illuminating a silly grin.

“I thought you were asleep”, Serraemas stated.

“I know you’re tired as well, so don’t try to hide it”, remarked Raxxil, ignoring Serraemas’s comment as he plopped down next to the staff-wielder. The landing seemed to be a little too hard, for the blazing elementalist grunted in pain before rubbing his rear.

“You should be resting”, replied Serraemas dryly. “Your wounds need healing.”

“Don’t be ridiculous”, scoffed his partner. “Rest comes after the mission.”

The two sat next to each other in silence for a while, both looking out the window.

“I’m sorry for provoking you like that back there”, whispered Raxxil, his voice breaking the still air.

Serraemas sighed. “You don’t have to apolo—”

“Yes, I do”, pressed Raxxil. “I’ve been clouded. Tanaria brought it all back, and Samantha’s resolve—her devotion to the Order of the Faith—the memories were overwhelming.”

“I understand”, Serraemas assured. “She reminded you of yourself? The Raxxil you used to be?”

Raxxil nodded quietly.

Serraemas looked to where Arwynn rested. “Does she really look like Tanaria?”

Raxxil opened his mouth to speak, but looked down and hesitated momentarily. “Just like her. Even her personality.”

“Then you would put her above all else”, Serraemas said bluntly. “Even our goals.”

Raxxil’s eyes softened and he pursed his lips, but remained silent.

“Perhaps, then, we shall train her so that she is the one that will protect us”, Serraemas assuaged.

Raxxil leaned forward abruptly and wrapped his arm around Serraemas’s neck. “Hah! That’s what I’m talking about.”

They sat next to each other for quite some time, still embracing as they gazed out the window. Neither said a word. Serraemas surveyed the town, noting that Enorra was much like Bellis. A small village, with a few structures surrounded by wooden fencing. Guards stood watch, but these were only militia instead of Knights of the Faith, and had probably been temporarily roused by the ill tidings of demons. Unlike Bellis, however, there were no flickering shadows tonight.

Serraemas turned his head to regard Raxxil, and the latter returned a warm smile. Serraemas did not reciprocate the gesture, instead placing a hand on the hammer-wielder’s shoulder. “Never should we let—”

The sound of hooves and horses neighing filled the air outside, interrupting Serraemas before he could finish and captivating his attention. He looked out the window, noticing a group of armored horses approaching the inn. They stopped just in front of its steps. Equally-armored soldiers with blue capes were mounted atop the steeds.

Serraemas counted seven.

The front door of the inn opened, and the innkeeper stepped out as he held a lantern. He exchanged words with one of the soldiers, a woman, who Serraemas presumed was the leader. She held a large hammer, much like Raxxil’s, but with a longer shaft and smaller head.

“Who are they?” Raxxil asked excitedly.

Serraemas turned to his eager ally. “The Blue Swords are here.”

Raxxil’s eyes widened, but not in fear. He shifted his torso to the right and reached for his weapon—

“Not this time”, snapped Serraemas as he grabbed Raxxil’s other arm and pulled him back. “Not here.”

Confused eyes scanned the staff-wielder for an answer. “What’s the plan? Escape? You know I don’t do that too well.”

Serraemas shook his head. “Surrender.”

“This is a bold move”, commented Zaranet.

Raxxil raised a brow, completely taken aback.

“Trust me”, Serraemas added.

“That’s it”, replied Raxxil, sitting back and folding his arms across his chest. “You’ve gone completely insane now.”

By now, rushed footsteps ascended, growing louder as they pounded on creaking wood.

He will help us”, Serraemas stated assuredly.

“You’ve got to be kidding me”, groaned Raxxil. “I’m not going to hear the end of this one.”

The footsteps halted abruptly just outside the door. Serraemas heard mumbled words emanate from the other side, then silence. A few moments passed with neither party moving so much as a finger, and it felt as if time had frozen. Except for the snoring that still invaded his ears, of course.

Suddenly, the door burst forth and toppled over into the room. Raxxil dove to the right, rolling onto Arwynn’s bed and encapsulating her in his arms as snores changed into groans of confusion.

Serraemas did not move an inch, instead focusing his attention on the seven figures that squeezed through the doorway with weapons drawn and lanterns lit. They must have braced for an immediate counterattack, for they quickly moved into formation. Well, as best as they could have in such a tiny room anyway.

They were all heavily armored from head-to-toe in silver plate. Their helms were forged in a way that revealed their eyes and most of the bottom half of the face including the mouth, though protected the nose and sides. An oval-shaped blue sapphire was encrusted near the forehead. On the left side of the chest plate was inscribed a blue sword. Their capes, which draped over their right shoulders, were completely blue—the clearest sign of their presence.

The person in front, the same woman, appeared surprised that they had not retaliated. She looked at Serraemas, then glanced to the left at the other three. Had they not had their weapons visible, and perhaps without the obvious towrth, Serraemas felt that they might actually have evaded the prestigious group of warriors.

“Surrendering just like that?” asked the woman cynically, clearly not as daft as she may appear.

The leader removed her helmet and held it at her side, revealing the visage of a beautiful woman. She had a strong nose, thin lips, and round, yellow eyes. Her hair was braided in a long ponytail that cascaded down her right shoulder and ended at her ribs. While she looked to be in her early-thirties, she held on to her youth much better than most did at that age.

Serraemas locked eyes with the woman. “Get on with it.”

She glowered at Serraemas, still perplexed at their lack of retaliation. “As you wish. I am Sanjin Sannoh of the Blue Swords, and you are under arrest by the kingdom of Enept-Ihs for crimes of—”

“I said hurry up”, interrupted Serraemas.

The woman appeared taken aback. She opened her mouth to speak—

“Come on now, Sanjin”, moaned an elderly voice behind her. “Just cuff them and let’s go already. Criminals don’t care to hear about the stupid laws.”

“Shut it, Gelm!” boomed the woman as she turned to face the older warrior before turning back to Serraemas and pointing a finger at him. “Be quiet and let me offer you your condemnation.” With brows raised she glared at Serraemas expecting a remark.

He remained silent.

“Now then”, continued the woman, slightly irked at his lack of retort, “You will be taken and imprisoned at Enept-Ihs to await trial by the Grand Judge. There you will be deemed either guilty or innocent, based off of any evidence of your crimes, if such evidence exists. You will be appointed someone that will argue in your favor, though the kingdom will also have someone to argue against you. The truth will be revealed, and justice will be served.”

She drew in a deep breath, clearly pleased with her words. She brought up her hand, opening her palm face-up and motioning to one of the warriors behind her. One of the larger men withdrew several cuffs that were engraved with runes and handed them to Sanjin.

Serraemas said nothing as the woman stepped forward and enslaved him.

—-

YOU SHOULD HAVE BURNED THEM ALL!” shouted Vrand.

“You’ve been at it for hours”, retorted Raxxil. “Give it a rest already. Besides, can’t do anything with these cuffs on, you idiot.”

Not ordinary bonds, the ones that now tied Raxxil’s hands and feet together were enchanted with elemental-inhibiting properties; even if Raxxil wanted to, he would not be able to use his powers.

They were all tethered to one of the horses, trudging behind the seven riders on horseback that ushered them to their doom. Fortunately for the riders, Tanaria rode with the leader, Sanjin. Understandably, they treated the three men like worthless scum, but saw it unfit to treat the child as a criminal. Otherwise, Raxxil would have—without a doubt—burned them to ashes once he was free from his shackles.

And he would be free of them, of that he had no doubts. And he would still burn them. He was so certain of it, in fact, that he resisted pulling on the reigns, toppling one of the Blue Swords onto the ground, and smashing the bastards face in with his bare hands then and there—a sequence of events that had run through his mind over and over again since Enorra.

Unfortunately, that kind of gesture would probably lead him to a swifter death, potentially put Tanaria in harm’s way, and more than likely lessen their chances of escaping. Oh, and it would absolutely piss off Serraemas.

Quickly traveling through Farrin Forest to the northwest, they had found themselves on the hilled plains that occupied Enept-Ihs lands. Much like the outskirts of Port Yjur next to the Kaghro Grasslands, farmers tended to agriculture. Livestock and crops were bountiful, providing the kingdom with the resources it needed. Raxxil also noticed several quarries along the way that would be necessary for anything that required minerals, from precious stones for trading, and iron and copper and everything in between for smithing of all kinds.

“Walk faster!” barked one of the warriors—the one Raxxil imagined crushing over and over again—as the bastard tugged on the tethers.

Raxxil grunted in pain. By now, his feet were numb. He could barely feel his legs.

The rider tugged again, and leered in Raxxil’s direction. He was the largest of all the warriors, and brandished a massive sword on his back. Raxxil would destroy him utterly the first chance he got.

Up ahead loomed towering stone walls that sat atop the largest set of hills: a bastion of might. A massive stone ramp ascended to the front gate that sat in the center of two such walls on each side. They rose high into the sky, and the walls stretched all the way around the kingdom, with towers placed in sections: two on either side of the gate, continuing with one more in each direction every hundred feet or so. Guards were stationed at each tower, overlooking the lands and watching like hawks.

A few more minutes, and they were at the bottom of the ramp with their prison towering before them. Hooves thudded on stone as they made their way closer to their doom, and with another tug, they began their ascent. Raxxil looked at Serraemas for assurance, still uncertain about simply surrendering. The latter said nothing, but shifted his eyes past the hammer-wielder, as if there was something important that needed his attention. Turning his head, Raxxil’s gaze fell upon the towrth. He had almost forgotten about the lizard-man.

Erendil had said nothing since their capture, and had spent the entire time staring absentmindedly at the ground. No extravagant curiosity. No silly, absurd questions about the world. Silence.

“Hey, what’s up with you?” whispered Raxxil as he leaned toward Erendil.

No response. Not even a gesture of acknowledgement.

Raxxil looked to his left and shrugged at the icy elementalist. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Serraemas opened his mouth to speak—

Raxxil crashed into the rear of one of the horses. It lurched forward, trying to regain its footing and almost throwing the rider off its back. Pain surged through Raxxil as he looked up. They had reached the kingdom’s gates. Its walls rose high, solidifying its presence as a formidable fortress.

One of the guards up on the tower on the right peered down at them before signaling to someone on the opposite side of the wall. After a brief pause, the gate first rumbled, then rose slowly. Several moments later, the gate was fully raised and exposed the inner sanctum of their new prison. Raxxil felt the glaring eyes of countless guards boring into him.

Up ahead, Sanjin waved her hand and motioned for the group to enter. With one last nudge they trudged to their doom.

—-

“Haven’t seen any sign of them”, said Aramal out loud. “I suppose you were right about those other guys meddling. Maybe they finished those elementalists?”

The sound of hissing invaded his ears.

“Do not be so foolish as to underestimate your enemies”, stung Orbo. “You are much too weakened to retaliate at this point.”

For once, the demon was right. Aramal stopped. Demon… He sighed. Monsters, demons, angels, and elementals—all stories he had thought were just fairy tales. After discovering he was an elementalist himself, his eyes had opened. That was a long, long time ago, and, somehow, the demon had been able to possess his sword, effectively severing his connection with his original partner. Aramal didn’t really like the elemental anyway. He looked up at the sky.

If God allows such evil to corrupt the world, what hope do we have?

He was never really one to put much faith in something beyond his own life, but there was a Hell. He had proof of that. A lot of it, in fact. If there was a Hell, then surely there was a Heaven? The dark-haired staff-wielder in the tavern spoke about hope. Witnessing the darkness that enveloped Ashkar, how could that man still preach of such a thing?

“Your thoughts betray you”, scalded the demon, “There was never any hope to begin with. Now cease your incessant daydreaming and make haste to our go—”

“Your goal”, interrupted Aramal. “This is all your doing. I’m just along for the ride.”

He heard a sinister laugh that shook him like the sound of shattering glass. “Then why continue as my vessel?”

Aramal trudged on without moving his lips.

Chapter 16

???

“So what’s the plan now, genius?” remarked Raxxil, hands still bound in the specialized chains.

The three of them were led through the maze that was Enept-Ihs. It was structured in a way that the king’s palace was elevated on the highest plain and situated in its heart, with barracks and other militaristic structures surrounding it. Below was the middle level, dedicated to markets for commodities and other services. The last level, at the bottom, was dedicated to the commonfolk and residential areas.

They passed through a marketplace on their way up to the military compound, where they were welcomed into the kingdom’s hospitable dungeon, with equally accommodating cells equipped with iron bars—just in case they had the urge to step outside for some fresh air.

The prison was built underground, consisting of multiple complexes of cells. The only light emanated from the flickering braziers that lined the cold, rough walls. In here, time was non-existent. Raxxil’s very world was now a tiny box, with well-equipped guards keeping watchful gazes just outside the bars. On their way to their cell, Raxxil noticed countless of incarcerated criminals. Some of them wailed obscenities at the newcomers, while others were silent with curious looks.

It felt as if they had been locked up for nearly a month, but it was hard to tell without the ability to watch the moon fill and fade.

“Do not be so callous as to alert the guards”, whispered Serraemas softly. He sat on their only bed, if one could call it that. It was shoddily carved and constructed out of wood, and their generous captors had even provided an extra-itchy blanket and hard pillow. Regardless, the bed was too small to fit either Raxxil or Erendil, the latter of which preferred the darkest corner away from everyone else.

“To what?” shot Raxxil as he walked over to the bed. “Your master plan of escape from Makka’s paragon of lawful justice?” He plopped down onto the shoddy bed next to Serraemas—

His landing was too harsh, and the frame collapsed, crashing the two elementalists onto the cold, hard floor. Next to him, Raxxil saw his partner shake his head and sigh.

The thunderous crash had alarmed the armored soldiers outside. Without fail, the sound of weapons being unsheathed echoed down the halls. Just as quickly, however, they were sheathed again, and laughter echoed instead.

“And I thought the lizard was the dumb one”, said one guard to another as they continued in annoying chuckle.

Oh, I’ll be the one laughing very, very soon.

Raxxil raised his bound hands up to Serraemas’s face and jangled the chains. “Forgot about these?”

“You’ll understand…” muttered Serraemas. “In time.”

Raxxil sat back and breathed deeply. “You know what I would do if anything happened to Tanaria, right?”

Serraemas shot him a cursory glance. “Unfortunately, I know exactly what you would do.”

BURN IT ALL!” shouted Vrand inside Raxxil’s mind.

“You’re damn right I would”, responded Raxxil with a grin. “I would raze this whole kingdom.”

Serraemas remained silent, and hardly a sound pierced the air for a while save for the occasional murmur or cough that echoed down the fire-lit halls.

Bored of his partner’s lack of interaction, Raxxil lifted himself off the floor and walked to the other side of the cell, where, much to his chagrin, he was met with similar treatment.

The lizard-man sat with his back against the wall and his head down in what seemed to be an effort to shut off the physical world. For nearly a minute, Raxxil examined the stone statue that had once been a blind, yet overwhelmingly curious, towrth archer. Erendil had not acknowledged anyone, or anything, since withdrawing into himself. No, the lifeless husk was no longer the eccentric lizard-man he had gotten to know, yet Serraemas seemed indifferent to such a radical transformation.

Raxxil inched closer and tapped the towrth gently with his foot in an attempt to rouse the quiet bowman.

Erendil rocked back-and-forth slightly, but still did not acknowledge Raxxil’s presence nor his efforts. The only indicator that the green-skin even lived was his steady breaths, and the rhythmic rising and falling of his chest thereof.

Raxxil grumbled in discontent. “Alright, joke’s over. We haven’t the time to mess around.” This time, Raxxil kicked the lizard-man fairly hard and sent him hurtling into the wall—

A scaly hand shot up to the wall, steadying the moving body. Erendil’s head rose to regard Raxxil, his lips curling into a slight sneer. Raxxil thought the gaze could melt iron.

“What do you want?” croaked a familiar but slightly warped voice. Raxxil couldn’t tell if it was because the lizard-man had not spoken for a while that his voice cracked, or something else entirely.

Raxxil returned a stern expression. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Erendil let loose a laugh, as if amused by the question—a laugh Raxxil had never heard echo from the lizard-man’s mouth. It was a cruel laugh, mocking Raxxil. Mocking him like an aristocrat does to a peasant, or a scholar does to an ignorant and narrow-minded student.

“Fools…” muttered this strange, new persona absentmindedly without answering Raxxil’s question.

Irritated, Raxxil glared at the towrth with eyes of fire. He mulled over how best to proceed, but couldn’t come up with a better course of action then knocking Erendil silly.

“His elemental must be the source”, whispered a voice in his ear, interrupting his thoughts.

Raxxil looked over his shoulder and regarded Serraemas, who stood right behind him. He hadn’t noticed the other human slip next to him even though they were all bound by chains. He should have heard Serraemas from a mile away.

Raxxil frowned. “So it’s one of those, huh?”

“Perhaps that is why Sora sealed the elemental in the first place”, Serraemas whispered again calmly.

Raxxil looked back at Erendil. The lizard-man had returned to his unmoving position, uninterested in their conversation.

“Well, I suppose I’m not too surprised”, responded Raxxil. “Dark elementals can be twisted and terrible. Even Vrand can be—well… you know.”

Serraemas nodded, but said nothing further.

Raxxil looked down at his chained hands. “What are we going to do about it? We’re not exactly in the position to focus on something like this.”

“Exactly”, murmured Serraemas. “We don’t have the luxury, so we will lend our efforts to the task at hand.”

Raxxil chuckled as he pointed first to their shackles, then at the walls of the cell, and finally at the guards that roamed the halls just outside the metal bars. Still, his efforts failed to garner much more than a shrug.

“Patience”, reiterated Serraemas, shifty with his words.

“Oh, really?” whispered Raxxil cynically. “You have yet to divulge this master plan, remember? How about you let me in on it before I start banging my head on that wall over there in anticipation.”

At this point, he wasn’t even expecting Serraemas to answer. Instead, he focused his gaze down at his cuffs. Even before attempting the suicide mission, whatever it was, they would need to remove the cuffs that inhibited their abilities. After that remained actually fleeing in one piece through the entire force of the kingdom—which happened to include the Blue Swords. He would love the fight, but he also was no fool. Given that his wounds were still healing, and alongside a warped and deeply troubled towrth, and, of course, Tanaria as both distraction and liability, there was no shortage of variables. Only Serraemas was unscathed and capable of fighting at his full strength, but was that enough still?

Serraemas shook his head, probably noticing Raxxil in pensive thought. “I told you to be patient.”

Raxxil sighed. “Yeah, yeah. You’ve said that a thousand—”

Suddenly, the faint sound of plate boots striking ground echoed throughout the halls, capturing Raxxil’s attention. They grew louder and louder, each strike of heel on stone penetrating the quiet air. Almost as if synchronized, murmurs and whispers grew louder until they became excited shouts and obscenities.

Raxxil turned around and regarded the soldiers on the opposite side of the metal bars. They were looking in the direction of the approaching footsteps, and metal clanked as both of them bowed graciously at this mysterious person. Straightening, one of the guards turned toward Raxxil. Though the man’s plate helm covered most of his face, Raxxil swore he saw a leer directed at him.

A few moments later, the visage of their captor came into view. She wore the same uniform of silver plate and blue vestment, though her helm and weapon were missing. The woman’s braided black hair fell down her right side, flowing until just below her armored chest. Yellow orbs stared at him, but held no contempt like the other guards. There was a different air about her, as if she viewed them not as criminals but unruly children, the way one does when viewing someone else’s offspring act in a manner that was frowned upon. Hers was a face mixed with pity and disapproval, like she expected more from them. At least, that’s what Raxxil thought that was.

The woman known as Sanjin perused the three of them briefly. “Your trial begins now.”

—-

“Judge Bane, eh?” whispered Raxxil to Serraemas as the former pointed with both hands still shackled at the elderly man in black robes. The judge sat behind a wooden desk atop an elevated platform. “Looks like time is his bane.”

The judge sat at the end of the room that served as what was called a courtroom, facing the rest. The old man placed his fist on his bearded cheek, and looked unamused while people filed into the room.

A few feet in front of the judge’s platform were two desks, one where Serraemas and the others sat with the man appointed to defend them. At the other table sat several people that were tasked in making sure that they paid for their crimes. The far right of the room was dedicated to the Blue Swords, though they did not have a direct role in the trial. At the far left was an area that appeared to be reserved for another group of people separate from the spectators behind him. To the right and left of their table stood two guards, just in case the prisoners had any bold plans.

Behind where Serraemas sat were rows of seats for those that were also not part of the trial but wished to spectate. Commonfolk mostly, but some soldiers were among them. Lastly, to the left of the judge was another platform reserved for what he assumed were witnesses. Serraemas wondered who they would use, for he hadn’t left many chances for anyone to witness his efforts and stay alive.

They had been ferried in by none other than Sanjin herself, plus a dozen or so armed guards. Exiting the prison, they had traveled across the highest level where the king’s palace stood, if one could even call it that; Enept-Ihs was a kingdom of warriors, leaving behind any form of royalty or wealth. In here, power was from the sword and not the coin or dogma.

That isn’t to say that Enept-Ihs was led by barbarians, however. As one of the central kingdoms in Makka’s affairs, certain individuals of high rank also had to wield the pen with as much expertise as a weapon. The king, in particular, though he was not present today.

Diplomacy was a large aspect of the kingdom. This very courtroom was housed in the large, yet practical structure that was the king’s palace. The palace was not as lavish as the palaces of other kingdoms, opting for more straightforward purposes. It resembled more of the headquarters of a sizable military, which was quite fitting.

Serraemas felt a tap on his left shoulder that took him out of his thoughts. He turned his head and met the gaze of Gallo, the man tasked with acquitting them of the allegations put forth against them. The defender was cleanly groomed, and wore a tailored suit and matching pants.

“Just to remind you”, began Gallo, “It would be best to avoid any outbursts, justified or not. Don’t threaten anyone verbally or otherwise.” He then looked past Serraemas, observing the other two prisoners. “You know what, just don’t move or talk really. It’ll boost your chances.”

Raxxil let out a hearty chuckle. “Yeah right.” Out of the corner of his eye Serraemas saw a finger pointed at him. “He’s the dangerous one.”

Gallo seemed confused at the words, and he looked at Serraemas quizzically. Perhaps the man regarded Raxxil’s stature and demeanor, and Erendil’s origin as much more threatening than Serraemas’s smaller—and quieter—form.

“Did you not review the allegations and evidence?” asked Serraemas with neutral intonation.

Gallo scoffed. “Well of course I did. However, allegations are just that until proven otherwise. The evidence… well, it’s not always factual. There are many elementalists on Ashkar. Fire and ice? By God there are thousands of you.”

“Yeah right”, said Raxxil mockingly. “There is nobody like—”

A loud crash rang throughout the room, instantly silencing all chatter and rousing attention to its source. In his right hand, the judge held a gavel that had just released its captivating force. Gone was his expression of boredom, now replaced with stern purpose.

“Let us proceed with the trial”, said the judge. His voice was stronger than Serraemas expected, belying his age. The elderly man’s white beard covered much of his face, falling down to his chest. His lips were completely covered, and the only evidence of his speech was the rustling of his beard as his hidden lips moved. “Is everyone present?”

He looked first at the crowd in the back, then at the two tables, the jury, and finally at the group of Blue Swords to his left for a moment before doing a double take. The judge’s expression shifted from boredom to discontent. “Where is he?”

Nine heads of the Blue Swords turned to their right. An empty chair sat next to Sanjin, whose reaction echoed the judge’s sentiments. They all shrugged, clueless as the rest of the participants.

“My apologies, your honor”, Sanjin said as she stood up from her seat and bowed. “His behavior has always been like this, especially as of la—”

Behind them, the two doors to the room burst open, sending out a wave of crashing noise as they slammed against the walls. A man with long white hair with a single lock of black entered the room. He looked disheveled, like a weary traveler that had just returned from a long journey. He wore an outfit that matched that of the Blue Swords, including the insignia that was inscribed on the breastplate, though it appeared that he had been in a rush when he had fashioned the gear.

“Ah, Sevag”, said the judge, his words betraying the quiet air. “We were just wondering where you could possibly be.”

—-

Light flooded her world as Samantha tossed and turned in bed.

“Just five more minutes, dad”, she said, still half-asleep and groaning as she was roused from slumber. “I promise.”

But no one answered.

She laid there in silence, under the covers and protected from the outside world. Then reality dawned, and she remembered. Samantha bolted up with the speed of a Makkan Bluebeak. Her face throbbed in pain, and she instinctively reached up, feeling the soft cloth and realizing that nearly half her face was covered in a bandage.

She put the pain in the back of her mind and looked around. She was in a small room, accompanied by a small table, a lamp, a large mirror, and the bed she laid upon. Next to the bed rested her blade. She was at the inn at Bellis.

Ahead of her was the door, while to her left was the window. Even with the drapes drawn, a streak of sunlight still invaded the space, conveniently flashing across where her head had just been.

One of her soldiers busted through the door, most likely sensing the ruckus. He saluted swiftly. “Ma’am, you’re alive!”

Samantha looked up at him but offered no words. In fact, she was only following his voice, looking through him and lost in thought; the events before her collapse still swirled in her mind, transpiring over and over again.

Just as quickly as he had appeared, the guardsman stepped out and vanished on a mission she did not know, leaving Samantha in her daze. She stood up, albeit clumsily as her legs buckled. She staggered but caught her balance. Why were her muscles so weak and atrophied? How long had she been resting?

Struggling, but determined, Samantha made her way over to the mirror. It stood but slightly shorter than her, garnering a slight chuckle out of her, though the pain quickly corrected her gesture. She had always been taller—and more muscular—than most other girls, and even some men. When she had first arrived at the Order of the Faith, she was younger and smaller, and a few thought they could tease her. They said she was too weak to fight. She had quickly proved them wrong. Perhaps that made others more apt to follow her orders. But, she was not a man, and she glanced at a beautiful, feminine face. At least, what used to be an alluring complexion.

Only a slight portion of her face was visible—mostly the left side. The rest was engulfed in searing pain, physical or otherwise. Samantha feared what laid underneath the white cloth, but she needed to see. With trepidation, she reached for the bandage and slowly unwrapped it in a circular motion. Layer after layer came off until at last she witnessed the truth.

She was horrified.

A deep gash ran from above her right brow down through where her eye had once been, then past her nose, and finally ending its cruelty on her left cheek. It had already begun scarring, and though she wished otherwise, would be a deep reminder of the blade that caused the wound for as long as she lived. That was certainly not the worst, however, for what truly struck her was the void that now encompassed where her right eye had once been. Samantha felt the urge to look away, but resisted as tears swelled up in her eyes. The truth was right in front of her, and to deny it was a disservice to herself.

“Kavem?” Samantha asked within her mind.

“Yes, Sammy?” answered the elemental swiftly.

Samantha sighed in relief, afraid that something terrible had befallen her comrade even though she knew he had rested by her side the entire time. “Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“I thought it best to remain silent and allow you to discover for yourself”, he said sincerely.

Samantha smiled weakly. If there was someone who understood her well, it was Kavem. Even though he tried his best to offer her wise words and caution, she usually decided otherwise. And despite that, she knew he would always be there.

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you”, she said. Tears once again attempted to flow, but she fought back.

“I know”, said Kavem. “Mankind learns from the choices they make and the consequences thereof. It is not your fault.”

“But that is our fault”, she said, her voice cracking at the emphasis. “Isn’t it?”

Kavem did not respond immediately.

Samantha waited, gazing deep within the abyss of her vacant eye-socket.

“You are very wise for your age”, he replied finally, but she didn’t know if he was being truthful or just trying to lessen her pain. “The elementals have conflict with each other, but that is their nature. Humans aren’t much different. Fire and water. Light and dark. It is not the conflict that defines you, it’s what you do that matters.” Perhaps he truly was speaking from the heart.

Kavem had told her many stories of his life as an elemental, in another realm appropriately named as the Elemental Plane. There, strife among the different elements was as abundant as that among the people of Ashkar. She had only been there once when she had traversed there to retrieve her weapon, connecting with Kavem for the first time. All elementalists endured that process—or died trying. The process of becoming an elementalist was a test, designed to measure one’s character, will, and strength.

Hurried footsteps stomped across groaning wood, rising vertically and heading to her room. The door was still open, and in seconds appeared the weary visage of Sergeant Graf, accompanied by just about the entire remaining regiment. At this point, there weren’t too many of them. The others shared the same reaction of the first soldier, apparently astounded that she had roused from her slumber.

Samantha did not look up, instead looking at the wall so that the right side of her face was hidden from the eyes of the men. Out of the corner of her eye she made out Graf’s expression, and it was the most solemn she had ever seen from him. He quickly saluted, as did several other sets of hands behind him.

“Report!” she ordered commandingly, skipping pleasantries or any conversation of her status for that matter. At least her voice remained strong even though her body failed her, and she remained sitting on her bed in weakness.

“Bellis is secured, ma’am”, responded Graf. He rubbed his chin as if he was hesitant with his words. “So is Enorra, and the other towns down Nokle for that matter. There have been no more sightings of the mysterious traveler nor of his demonic minions.”

Samantha waited expectantly for more information, but was only greeted with silence. “Is that it? What about the other travelers?”

Graf turned around and motioned for the other soldiers to file out. They saluted to both commanding officers, then disappeared quickly. Hushed whispers broke out amongst them as boots once again struck the creaky wooden floor the inn. Graf waited just outside the door expectantly.

“You may enter”, said Samantha softly as she gestured for the sergeant to come in. She looked down at herself to make sure she was presentable, noticing for the first time what she was wearing: a simple cloth gown.

It served its purpose—covering the majority of her body and providing comfort to the wearer. She much preferred to wear her armor, but it was nowhere to be seen. Graf entered and closed the door behind him.

“Do you think me a fool?” she asked aloud, still looking away.

“Why would I think that?” asked the older man, clearly confused at her question.

Samantha raised her head and looked at Graf dead in the eye, revealing her misfortune. He winced, but not in disgust. His eyes contained the sympathy he held inside for what had befallen Samantha, and stayed fixed on her.

“Surely I do not deserve to be your lieutenant”, she lamented. “First I failed to defend the town, then I failed to enact justice in God’s name. He got away, and who knows what he’ll do next, or to—”

“No”, interrupted Graf. “I failed you for not following you after them.”

Samantha gritted her teeth and withdrew in frustration, but not at the sergeant. She could have been smarter, or faster. She could have beaten that dark knight. She didn’t have to have this wound—

No. What’s done is done. God had a plan, and she would not doubt him. It was time to figure out the next step in the path that was laid before her.

“How long was I out?” Samantha asked. She stood back up, albeit with unease. She moved her limbs in different movements, testing out the capacity of her muscles. To her satisfaction, she was able to move her body with full, pain-free range of motion; at the very least, she was not debilitated beyond the weakness of her muscles.

Graf’s expression darkened. “A little over three weeks.”

“What?!” she exclaimed in disbelief.

How could she have been slumbering for so long? She remembered the blade slicing across her face, searing her as blood rushed out. She lost consciousness quickly, but before she blacked out she had heard that hothead of an elementalist Raxxil wanting to help her and something about the blade of an Executioner—

“Samantha?” called Graf, bringing her back.

“Sorry”, she said, blinking back into the present. “When did you find me?”

The older man shrugged. “Actually, we didn’t. Not long after you left, a strange man walked in from the north with you unconscious in his arms. He was rugged, with a full beard and looking as if he had been in the wilderness for some time. He was wearing an identical cloak as that of those elementalists, but tattered and torn in many places. He left you in our care, saying something about dark magic that had assaulted you, and that if he had not intervened you would have died regardless of medicine or triage. After that, he declined any questions and simply walked out into the forest. We haven’t seen him since.”

Samantha scratched her head. There have been no shortage of odd characters lately, and she still had no idea why. “What of the elementalists?”

“They were apprehended in Enorra by the Blue Swords, and I hear they are to stand trial at Enept-Ihs”, responded Graf.

Samantha looked down and scoffed. She had witnessed firsthand that they were no allies to those hellish creatures, and they did not seem to have sinister purpose. They even went so far as to aid her, though if that was for practical reasons she did not know. She turned back to Graf. “And they didn’t go for the other traveler? At least those elementalists fought against demons.”

“I’m not sure ma’am”, began Graf, “But Enept-Ihs is a kingdom of justice, and justice will be dealt. They are by no means a nation of ulterior motives.”

“You’re right”, Samantha said, continuing her movements and already seeing improvements. She made her way over to the door. “Then I shall enact my own justice.”

“Lieutenant, wait”, Graf urged softly.

Samantha turned around, and regarded the sergeant’s outstretched hand. In it was a black eye patch. She grabbed it and brought it up to her face, inspecting it. It was made of leather, and was soft to the touch. It was probably her best option, lest she walk about with such an unsettling feature.

Samantha walked over to the mirror and placed it on her face, making sure it fit correctly. She fidgeted with it until she found the perfect placement, then examined her face briefly. As satisfied as she was going to get, Samantha wheeled around and again headed for the door. There was something to be done about that demon-summoning bastard. “Alright Graf, let’s go.”

“Are you sure you want to go out there?” asked Graf reluctantly. It seemed to physically pain him to say it. “Isn’t it much nicer in here, lieutenant?”

Confused, Samantha turned to regard Graf. It was unusual of him to speak in such a way, and she felt fear rising within her. She pointed to her face, specifically at the epicenter of her wound, and searched his eyes for answers. “Surely there is nothing more ill-conceived than this?”

Graf frowned. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I fear the contrary.”

—-

Raxxil groaned. “I can’t believe we’re relying on that bast—?”

He felt a sharp pain in his side as an elbow jutted into his ribs.

Raxxil rubbed his side with snared hands and looked to his left. Serraemas gave him a you-better-not-ruin-this look. Raxxil rolled his eyes, but sat back and said nothing while Sevag walked down the aisle. As Sevag passed their table on his way to his seat, he glanced at them and, unsurprisingly, offered a smug look directed at Raxxil. Even without words the bastard made Raxxil’s face flush red.

“Let us begin”, rang Judge Bane the second Sevag’s ass connected with his chair. The old geezer sat atop his high throne, gavel in hand and peering down at those that were helpless to his whims. In here, Raxxil had the feeling that the man was judge, jury, and executioner—and that he enjoyed his position thoroughly. “Prosecutor, you may proceed.”

The sound of a chair sliding across the floor echoed throughout the otherwise silent room as one of the men seated at the opposite table stood up and stepped out into the open space in front of the judge’s rise. He wore the same sharp attire as of the defender assigned to them.

“Your honor”, said the accuser as he bowed. He straightened and turned around, speaking to the crowded room. “I call on Hami to serve as my first witness.”

A guard next to the doors opened them, stepped out, and returned moments later with another man. The witness had tanned skin and wore a cloth robe with a swirl of colors, fashioned with a matching belt and hat. Raxxil could not identify the garment’s origin, but one thing was for certain—the man was nobility. He looked to be in his thirties. The foreigner walked down the center of the room, past the rows of curious spectators, then past the tables where Raxxil and the others sat, and finally sat at the seat designated for witnesses next to the judge. He dared not look at Raxxil or the others, not even glancing at their table.

A different guard stepped forward, his plate armor clanging as he faced the witness. “Do you swear to speak only the truth, for not only are we present in this courtroom, but also Enept-Ihs the Exalted One?”

“Yes”, replied the man after taking a deep breath. His voice was resolute, as if he had waited for this moment for a long time.

The armored soldier bowed in the direction of the judge, then stepped back into his former position at the right side of their table.

“Very well”, said the judge, seemingly pleased with the witness’s vow. He then looked at the prosecutor that was still standing and nodded. “Continue.”

“Hami”, began the prosecutor. “Will you please explain who you are and where you hail from for the court?”

“My name is Hami Yoyen”, said the witness after clearing his throat. “I come from Garabas, a kingdom much like this one, in southern Arcadia. I am the head of one of the noble houses there.”

“Very good”, said the prosecutor as he clasped his hands behind his back, walking back and forth pensively. “Now, tell us your relation with the men on trial and how you may help us reach the truth.”

Raxxil scoffed. He did not recall ever being in the kingdom the man spoke of. Then again, he had been to many places and done many things that would cause many people to want his head.

“My… my father was an ambassador in Garabas”, stated the witness, though his voice was now shaky. His eyes glinted as what looked like tears started to form. “Our kingdom had traded extensively with a neighboring one, so much so that many thought it best to simply merge together so that we could grow and flourish as a nation. My father had worked tirelessly to realize that future.”

The prosecutor stopped pacing and looked directly at the witness. “You say ‘was’ and ‘had’. What do you mean by that?”

The witness looked down, and wiped away a tear that was making its way down his face.

The entire room waited with bated breath for the man’s answer.

“He was murdered, along with the ambassador of the other kingdom”, proclaimed the teary-eyed noble, finally glaring at the three captives.

Looks certainly can kill.

Silence filled the court as Raxxil felt several pairs of eyes boring in his back. No doubt a few knew where this was going and had already jumped to the conclusion. They might have been correct in their assumption.

“I apologize for your loss, Mister Yoyen”, said the prosecutor. “Are you claiming that these men are the ones responsible?”

“Yes”, snapped the witness, “I have no doubt in my mind that they murdered my father.”

“Objection, your honor!” exclaimed Gallo out of nowhere as he jumped out of his seat, “Where is the proof for such a bold claim?”

The judge pointed a gavel at the prosecutor. “Mister Fash, I assume you will not leave it at baseless claims?”

“Of course, your honor”, said the suited and well-groomed man as he bowed. “Mister Yoyen will back up his claim.”

The judge nodded at the prosecutor. “Very well.”

Gallo eased back into his chair and looked expectantly, clearly curious to see what his colleague would present.

Fash walked back to his table and picked up a sheet of paper along with a pencil. He then walked over to where the witness was sitting and handed him the items, and turned to face the spectators. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Yoyen here is going to illustrate for you the wounds that the murdered ambassadors sustained, as well as the weapons used to do so.”

Next to Raxxil, Gallo guffawed and shot straight back up into a standing position. “Your honor, it is folly to back such an accusation with a drawing.”

The judge looked at the prosecutor, searching for answers.

“Mister Fash, will this illustration actually offer insight for the fate of these men?” asked Judge Bane, his beard shifting about as he spoke each word.

“I assure you, and everyone in this room that what our witness has to offer is quite enlightening”, responded Fash. “And it is certainly not folly.”

The bearded judgment shrugged, then nodded to the witness. Even Raxxil was curious to see what the robed man would conjure up. Several minutes passed as dozens of heads stared at Yoyen. Paying no mind, he scribbled on the parchment for what seemed like forever.

If it wasn’t better than Lenarro’s The White Moon, Raxxil was going to be disappointed. At last, the witness dropped his pencil and sighed heavily. He pushed the paper forward and looked away. “Take it. I cannot look upon it any longer.”

The prosecutor briskly walked up to the elevated platform where the witness sat and reached for the paper. Fash took the parchment and turned to face the audience again, perusing it before holding it up for everyone to see. Most couldn’t actually see it, but Raxxil had a clear view. On the top were two men laying on the floor, wearing robes identical as the witness. The one on the left was impaled by none other than one of Serraemas’s ice lances. On the right, the lifeless corpse had severe burns and a crushed skull.

What was more startling, at least for Raxxil, was the bottom half of the parchment. On it, was a fairly good representation of both Serraemas and Raxxil with their cloaks, armor, and weapons—something Raxxil dearly wished he had at his disposal. They were, in fact, sitting right in front of the witness, but to accurately depict their accessories was nigh impossible unless they had met before.

By now, whispers and murmurs grew louder and louder until they turned into overwhelming chatter. Keeping his promise not to mess anything up, Raxxil did not say a word, but instead looked at Serraemas and raised a brow. The latter shook his head and returned a don’t-worry-about-it look.

The courtroom was assaulted in noise until the gavel slammed again. “Silence!”

And silence was what the judge received.

Judge Bane gestured at the prosecutor to come forward and present the evidence to him. Fash obliged, handing the parchment to the old man. He examined it for a few seconds, then turned his head in the direction of the Blue Swords.

“Is the bottom depiction accurate?” asked the old geezer, holding up the paper so that they could get a good look at it.

Nine pairs of eyes turned to Sanjin, who took charge whether she wanted to or not. The woman stood up and walked over to the front of the judge’s platform then studied the parchment.

“These are exactly the items we confiscated from the alleged”, she said loudly, so that the entire room could hear. Without pause she handed the parchment back to the judge and walked back to her seat.

Raxxil expected chatter to erupt again, but the air was still. The gavel, such a small little thing, appeared to be an effective tool. He leaned over to Serraemas, and made sure his voice was as low as possible. “I don’t remember that. Must have been boring.”

“Garabas was quite a long time ago”, whispered Serraemas.

Raxxil reached up to scratch the back of his head, and the chains binding his hands together jangled—

Suddenly the room went into high alert, with even one of the guardsman unsheathing his weapon while several heads shifted their attention to Raxxil as if he was about to try something foolish. Registering that his intents were misread, the tense atmosphere released.

“I said don’t even move”, reminded Gallo harshly.

“Really?” retorted Raxxil as he rolled his eyes.

“Mister Fash, is there anything else your witness would like to add?” asked the judge.

The prosecutor shook his head. “No, your honor.”

Bane then looked at Gallo. “Mister Buci, do you have anything to ask the witness before he is relieved?”

“Yes, your honor”, said Gallo, “Just a couple of questions for Mister Yoyen.” The defender stood up and walked over to the witness. “When did this alleged crime occur?”

The witness took a deep breath. “About twenty years ago.”

Gallo nodded thoughtfully. “And your drawing depicts the accused as appearing about the same age they are now?”

Confused at the question, the witness wrinkled his forehead. “Y-yes but—”

“No further questions your honor”, interrupted Gallo, walking back to his seat. The defender sat back and glanced at the prosecutor with a look of triumph.

“Very well”, announced the judge, “You are relieved as a witness.”

The man looked down as he walked to the opposite end of the room and out the double doors.

Raxxil felt a nasty itch on his nose, and contemplated whether he should scratch it away or not. The fiery elementalist turned to Serraemas with pleading eyes, the latter of which shook his head, obviously disapproved at whatever Raxxil’s plight could possibly be. “My nose itches, damn it.”

“The guards might run you through if you try another questionable gesture”, replied his partner unapologetically.

“Scratching an itch is questionable?!” responded Raxxil, but he did not receive a response. “Where’s the justice in that?” He shifted in his seat and turned to the towrth next to him. “I need you to do me a favor, buddy. Better if you go than me.”

Erendil did not answer him either.

“Oh I forgot, I’ve got two of you”, lamented Raxxil as he leaned back in his seat. He then wrinkled his nose in an attempt to alleviate the inconvenience, but failed.

“Mister Buci, your first witness is next”, said the judge as the trial continued.

Gallo turned and nodded to the same guard by the doors. The guard vanished again, this time reappearing with another witness. This one wore much different clothes than the first: a rough leather with simple cloth pants and polished leather shoes. He looked to be around the same age as the other witness.

“I call upon Niru as my witness”, announced Gallo. The man rushed to take his seat and looked at Gallo expectantly.

The defender rose from his seat and stood in the open space just as his opponent had done prior. “Hello, Niru. Please tell the court your background.”

“I come from land far to the east, a continent that name Onturi,” said the man with a thick accent. The common tongue was not his first language. “There, in northern part, is my tribe of the Emi.”

“Tell us the culture of the Emi, so that the court may understand your relevancy”, ordered the defender.

“In northern land, life simple”, began the witness, “There are no—ehm… kingdoms. No kingdoms.” He made a large circle in the air with his hands. “No big iron wall. No court of law. Many tribe live in isolation, but trade with each other sometime. Five years ago, man named Brom become warlord of another tribe. He had power of… of…” he stopped for a moment, contemplating hard on what to say. “How you say mowei?” The witness looked at Gallo for an answer.

Gallo narrowed his eyes, unsure of what the witness was asking for. Suddenly, his eyes widened, as if remembering something important. “Oh, yes. Elementalists.” Gallo turned to face the jury. “He means elementalists.” He then turned back to Niru. “Please, continue.”

The witness nodded. “But Brom use to hurt and kill. Brom took control of many tribes, wanting to ride to south and conquer all of Onturi.”

“I see”, said Gallo as he nodded. “And you attempted to stop this Brom?”

“Yes, me and our strongest warriors battle Brom”, replied the witness.

“What happened?” questioned Gallo.

“He kill everyone but me”, said Niru solemnly.

“Why did he not kill you?” Gallo continued.

“To use me as example”, said the witness. “Many fear for life. I try persuade people that still want to fight. No more bloodshed.”

By now, the court had been so invested in the witness’s story that the only sound came from the two men’s voices back and forth, as well as Gallo’s boots striking the hard floor as he paced.

“Now, what is your relation to these men?” asked Gallo as he pointed at Raxxil and the others.

The witness looked at both Serraemas and Raxxil briefly, then turned back to the defender. “They stop Brom. They save tribe.”

“You mean they defended innocents and defeated a tyrant?” asked Gallo with brows raised, as if this was the first time he had heard of such a revelation. The crowd seemed to share the sentiment with incoherent murmurs gliding through the air, but quickly cleared as Niru opened his mouth to speak again.

“Yes”, said the tribal man. He pointed in Raxxil’s direction. “Mowei. They use ice of Fala and fire of Gbal. Stop Brom and other bad mowei before he kill more.”

Raxxil noticed Fash about to object—

“Mister Buci, you know that mere statements hold very little weight in this court, no matter how true they may be”, said the judge, knowing what the prosecutor was going to say.

“Of course, your honor”, said Gallo as he turned to the prosecutor, “Since Mister Fash here used an illustration as evidence, I will have my witness use the same method.”

Gallo walked back to the table and gathered a parchment and pencil, just like Fash had done. He returned to the witness and handed him the materials, then turned around and glanced at Fash as if challenging him to say anything.

If there was any protest, Raxxil didn’t hear it.

“Niru, please illustrate for us the weapons and armor these men wore when they liberated your people from Brom”, ordered Gallo. Everyone waited as the witness scribbled on the paper. This time, however, the witness finished much more quickly. He handed the parchment to the judge, and the old man examined it briefly before holding it up for everyone to see.

While the first witness’s illustration was crisp and detailed, this picture was much simpler and crudely drawn. The man left out particular details, with the two figures being more angular than the other depiction had been. The weapons of the drawn men were completely accurate, which served to verify the man’s statement.

“Do you have any questions for the witness, Mister Fash?” asked the judge.

The prosecutor shook his head.

“Very well, we will have a brief recess before resuming the trial in one hour”, announced the old man as he scratched his beard. “We will then reconvene here for the last two witnesses. You are all dismissed.”

The gavel struck wood a third time, officially pausing the trial. The majority of the spectators left the room quickly while the stragglers took a bit longer. In a matter of minutes only Gallo, Serraemas, Raxxil, Erendil, and the guards remained. Gallo was rummaging through the collection of documents on the table, while the others sat silently.

“Do you think we are innocent?” asked Serraemas to the defender.

“It doesn’t matter what I think”, said Gallo simply, attention still focused on the papers.

“The evidence was strange”, continued Serraemas in what Raxxil guessed was satisfying curiosity. At least, that’s what it was for him.

Gallo scratched his chin, but didn’t look up. “What do you mean?”

Serraemas eyed the defender. “You both used words and drawings to—”

“Look, this process may be unfamiliar to you so let me explain it”, interrupted Gallo as he turned to regard the three of them. “Enept-Ihs was founded a very, very long time ago on the premise that all men and women live by justice and truth. This kingdom, and especially this court, is fueled by those values. During this trial, the truth will be revealed and the judge will be the one to decree it.”

“I’m sure there are lies”, said Raxxil, finally entering the conversation. “It’s human nature. And what about the age discrepancy, huh?”

“Unfortunately, you are not wrong”, replied the defender. He had finished whatever he was doing and relaxed into his seat. “In the past, there were those that attempted to use deception for their benefit. However, the truth is always exposed—and the judge is always there to enact… justice. In your case, both of the witnesses accurately depicted things that they had only seen in the past. As soon as you were captured, your weapons and armor were stripped. Therefore, the statements were sound and approved of. As for the odd timing of events… well, anything is possible in this world. Maybe you found the legendary Sarian Pools of Life since you’ve apparently been all over Ashkar.”

“So, what about us?” asked Raxxil, veering the conversation to something more practical. “If it doesn’t matter what you think then how are we getting out?”

“After the intermission, we both have one witness each”, said Gallo. “Whatever John—Mister Fash has up his sleeve, I have recent and first hand evidence of your good deeds. Unless he has some extremely credible evidence, then I believe your sentence will be much less severe.”

“So you’re saying that there is no way for us to be acquitted?” asked the fiery elementalist expectantly.

Gallo shrugged. “I don’t know, but what I do know is that I can save you from being executed. A life in bondage is still a life, isn’t that so?”

Raxxil chortled. “I’m inclined to disagree. I’d rather die than live enslaved.”

Again Gallo merely shrugged.

“Have you ever looked upon their faces before they pass?” asked Serraemas.

Gallo wrinkled his forehead and glanced at Serraemas. “Pardon?”

“The faces of those executed for their crimes”, Serraemas explained. “Did you ever watch their faces just before their souls departed?”

Gallo shook his head.

“Even the ones you have defended?” asked Serraemas.

The defender did not answer.

“You must think a life incarcerated is a fate better than death”, continued the staff-wielder.

“And you don’t?” asked Gallo.

Serraemas stopped for a moment. “If you were there. If you saw the faces of those people about to leave this world. What do you imagine you would see?”

“Fear”, replied Gallo almost instantly, as if the answer to the question was as obvious as can be.

“Perhaps”, said Serraemas. “Fear might be something that you see leading up to that moment when death calls. But what you wouldn’t see as you turn away is that lingering moment, the moment where all the muscles loosen, the breathing stops, and the body does not jerk and flail madly, but lies perfectly still. In those last moments, that person is finally able to let go. All the fears of existence washed away as comfort sets in. The comfort that there is no longer a need to resist, and at last, the peace settles in.”

Gallo held his gaze in silence even after the last words left Serraemas’s lips.

Raxxil shifted slightly in his seat, and the chains that bound him jangled as he did so. This time, however, he did not move too much so that the guard that stood nearby did not feel compelled to take off his head. He stared at Gallo, waiting expectantly to what the defender would respond with.

“You know”, started Gallo after a few moments had passed, “I’ve defended a lot of people. Some I managed to get a lesser sentence. Some I even proved innocent, and trust me, they were. But out of all of them, none have been as steady as you. It’s like you’re indifferent to what befalls you. Like you’re not even a prisoner of Enept-Ihs.

“Imagine being imprisoned for the rest of your life”, continued Serraemas, brushing Gallo’s words aside. “Chained where not even the sun can find you. The power taken from your hands, leaving you with nothing. Nothing but time. Time to think, to obsess. Obsess over all the things you will never have or be able to do again. Years will go by, but the only difference is the madness that begins to creep up on you. You can feel it. Feel your mind rotting. Death becomes the only peace you look forward to. Now tell me, which one is worse now?”

Gallo took a deep breath and sat back to ponder the words. “Are we still talking about the same thing?”

Serraemas didn’t answer him.

“What if we are the alleged?” Raxxil said, changing the subject back to his initial inquiry. “What if we are men who have murdered countless and committed many crimes? Why should we deserve a lighter sentence?”

Gallo crossed his arms with a pensive expression. “Did you save a tribal culture from a barbaric warlord?”

“Perhaps”, replied Raxxil.

“So, you’re saying that you could have done both good and bad things during your lifetime?” asked the defender, a smug look forming as his lips curled upward.

“I suppose so”, Raxxil responded with a shrug.

“I believe that means you are human”, said Gallo. “Well, two of you are. And my job is to get you what you deserve, but in my eyes, death does not change anything.”

Raxxil chuckled. “I don’t think you have any idea what we are.”

Chapter 17

4th Dawn of the 5000th Age of Lion

Pann sat at the highest level of the Courier’s Tower, the structure in Enept-Ihs devoted to the myriad of messenger birds that flew in-and-out. Subsequently, couriers organized and delivered messages all across the kingdom. It was a bright and sunny day, but the climate in the center of Makka was always temperate aside from the bitter winters. The sun’s rays were refreshing rather than scalding, and puffy, white clouds glided above them.

The Makkan Bluebeaks carried letters to and fro from all over Makka, and sometimes even other regions of Ashkar. Pann liked to spend her leisure time here. The chirping of the birds was soothing, and the view of the kingdom was gorgeous. The tower was built in the middle level, but rose high enough where Pann could see all of Enept-Ihs, and even what lay beyond.

The top level of the tower was a circular, open space. Couriers bustled about as birds landed and flew off while Pann leaned on the elevated edge of the tower and gazed beyond the kingdom’s walls at the vast rolling hills.

“Always in your usual spot, my dear”, said a familiar voice from behind. Normally, the words brought warmth to her heart, but at the moment they stung like daggers. Pann didn’t turn around. Instead, she kept gazing across the expanse of green past the cold, iron walls. She heard footsteps getting closer, and the figure behind her waited briefly before gently placing a hand on her right shoulder.

Pann jerked away from the hand and moved to another spot.

Her visitor followed her movements, then leaned onto the tower beside her. Both of them looked out at the expanse for a while without either saying a word. Pann felt an overwhelming urge to say aloud unpleasant thoughts that continued to run through her mind, but instead focused her attention on the beautiful landscape before her. If not for the pleasant view, she might have exploded then and there.

“I know how you are feeling and the words you wish to say”, stated the woman next to her. “I was once your age. I yearned to see what was out there too.” The woman placed her hand on Pann’s back and rubbed it softly. This time, the young girl did not resist.

“I wanted to go on adventures”, continued that same soft voice bubbly. “To explore and discover new things. To meet new people. But Ashkar is not the same place we imagine and wonder about in our heads. There is evil out there. Injustice, death, and pain. All of these things exist alongside the excitement of adventure.”

Still Pann did not utter a word, or even budge for that matter. The person next to her might as well have been speaking to a ghost.

The woman took a deep breath. “In here, you’re safe. But out there, anything can happen. Good… or bad. Your father understood these things. He wanted to fight for a world that’s better for you. It was all for y—”

Whatever the woman next to her was going to finish saying, Pann never heard it for she turned and embraced Sanjin deeply, her head burying deep into the older woman’s bosom. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

“M-mother, I’m s-so sorry!” exclaimed Pann in between sobs.

Sanjin reciprocated the embrace and held her tightly, rubbing Pann’s back assuredly the way mothers did. The young girl continued bawling, unable to contain the pent up emotion she had failed to block. The two sat together in each other’s arms for an extended period of time until Sanjin pushed her away slightly and pushed her chin up so that the two locked eyes. The woman smiled brightly, her yellow eyes glittering as she wiped away Pann’s tears.

“I’m sorry too, sweetie”, replied her mother. “I just want to protect you. When you’re older—and stronger—we will travel all over the world together. Just you and me. I promise.”

—-

Samantha stared deeply at the tombstone before her, breathing heavily with fists clenched so hard that her knuckles went white. Graf had accompanied her to Enorra’s graveyard, a grove in Farrin Forrest a little ways away from the village. The two now stood in front of one particular grave, in front of the resting place of someone that should not have done what he did.

But how could you know, father?

Graf was silent, and so was Kavem. The two thought it best to give her space, but she couldn’t decide whether she wanted comfort or isolation. She read the words written on the thick stone over and over and over again:

Here lies Charles Kell

4952nd Age Of Rimas – 5000th Age Of Lion

The Best Blacksmith Of Enorra, And An Even Better Father

May He Rest In Peace’

Samantha shook uncontrollably, and unable to cope with the overwhelming pain, shouted in despair as she stooped to the ground. Rage overtook her, and she expelled a gust of wind so powerful that grass, trees, and all manner of foliage rustled violently. Behind her, Graf was almost sent flying as he staggered backward to find his footing. Her hair whipped about as she continued to summon gales of force around her until she could no more. Samantha fell to her hands and knees, biting back tears.

“I apologize for your loss, ma’am”, explained Graf from behind in what seemed as his best attempt to soothe her, even if a little. “The villagers said your father was overcome with grief after he heard news of your demise. Before he took his life, he told others that you were everything to him, and that he had nothing to live for anymore.”

Why father… why?

Samantha slammed the ground with her fist as hard as she could, as if she could strike the pain away. Everything went wrong so quickly. Her whole life ran through her mind, like an onlooker passing by a panorama of experiences, surreal and disconnected. Memories flooded her that she couldn’t hold back: first adventuring out into the forest at a young age and chasing any animal she could find with a stick, learning craftsmanship and swordsmanship from her father, and then traveling to the east to Onturi, enlisting in the Order of the Faith’s training academy and devoting years of focus to learning the Faith as she perfected her combat skills.

Her whole life was the path laid before her, a series of events that directed her where she needed to go. Until now there had been nothing even remotely close to what had transpired in these few, short weeks. Not only was she less than whole, losing an eye and thus reducing her combat effectiveness, but now she lost the only man she held close to her heart.

Tell me, God. Tell me what purpose does this all serve?

She sat upright, then looked at her father’s tombstone. Samantha closed her eye and recited a prayer. She then stood up, her armor clanging as she drew to her full height. She turned around and headed in the direction of Enorra past Graf. They walked back to the village, and were stopped by everyone who recognized her.

The townsfolk offered condolences, but she felt nothing. Apologetic faces pitied her. Their words—whatever they could muster that sounded sympathetic—might as well have been insults, for they did not lift her spirit in the slightest. In fact, she felt herself fall even deeper.

Quickly making her way across the village, Samantha entered the butcher’s shop, and was greeted by a familiar face as she stepped inside.

“Ah, Sam”, said the heavyset man, “It is nice to see you.”

The man wore a bloodied apron, and had been chopping a fresh shank with a large carver. He set it down before offering them a seat. The odor of meat perforated the air, and carcasses of several kinds were hung behind where the man stood. He had been her father’s best friend for longer than she was alive, and she considered him her uncle; he was always there to offer advice or soothing words, much like her own elemental. If the words of the villagers were empty, she hoped at least his would not enter her ears the same way.

“Hello, Kahm”, said Samantha weakly.

“I assume you’re not here for meat”, said the butcher with a faint smile. He set a chair for himself in front of them and sat down. Her wound didn’t seem to faze the butcher much, and he stared her right in the eye. It was like she could waltz in missing an arm or leg and she would be the same Samantha to him. In a way, it was endearing.

“I knew Charles since we were but wee little lads”, started the man as he laughed heartily. “One time, when we were about your age, Enorra was attacked by bandits from Merchant’s Keep. And when I say one time, I mean lots of times. Since Enorra is farther north than the other villages, we’re closer to Merchant’s Keep and we’re always the first to get their scum. Ah, those were the days… Anyway, what was I saying? Erm…” Kahm stopped, distracted by his tangent. “Oh, right. So this one particular time when we were younger was special. Those scum came over here and thought it easy to pillage a defenseless village. Can you guess what happened?”

“What happened?” asked Samantha, like a little girl curious to hear the ending to a bedtime story.

“Well, your father and I were quite skilled when we were younger”, said Kahm with a smile as he reminisced about days long gone. “At least, for that time we were. We alone defeated and pushed back nearly a dozen of the bastards. Just the both of us. Everyone in the village cheered when we came back victorious. Both his parents and mine were extremely proud of what we had accomplished.”

Samantha nodded solemnly, the memories of her father still assaulting her mind.

“What I’m trying to say”, said the butcher with a deep breath, recognizing the anguish that Samantha was feeling, “Is that the mantle passes on from generation to generation. I know this is difficult to do at the moment, but Charles would not want you to give in to despair. He would want you to carry on, and continue to be the strong woman he raised. He was so proud of you, just like his parents were of him. Everyone dies, that is for certain. God has a plan for that. What matters is what you do with your life. The last thing Charles would have wanted is for you to lose yourself.”

Samantha looked away at nothing in particular and nodded absentmindedly, like one does when a new realization slowly creeps up and cultivates the longer the mind rests on it.

Kahm looked at Samantha expectantly. “What will you do with it?”

Samantha took a deep breath, then rose to her feet and did her best to smile at the butcher. “Thank you so much, Kahm.” With that, she turned and headed out the door and in the direction of her horse. The sergeant quickly followed in her steps.

“Orders, ma’am?” asked Graf.

“We find the man responsible for this”, started Samantha resolutely without stopping her charge, “And we send him to Hell.”

If Kavem was opposed to her will, he did not make it known.

—-

“Mister Fash, your next witness”, commanded Judge Bane.

Serraemas looked around, observing the assembly again and making sure that nothing was out of place. They had all reconvened after the break, falling into the same designated spots that they were assigned to. The room looked just as it did before the intermission. This time, however, both the prosecutor and defender seemed much more confident. Clearly, they had been saving their best witnesses for the lasting impression. Gallo claimed that trials were about truth, but Serraemas felt there was also an aspect of pride abound.

The prosecutor rose from his seat, his suit immaculate and unmarred. Such so, that Serraemas wondered if he had hurried off to clean it during the break. Once again, Mr. Fash nodded in the direction of the door, and the guard returned with an elderly woman. She was also of nobility, and wore a red dress and a tiara with a ruby embedded in it. In her right hand she held a wooden cane, and in her left were two rolled scrolls. With the cane’s help, and the help of one of the guards, she walked down the aisle and toward her seat very slowly. The same guard helped her again as she stepped up into her slightly elevated position.

“Lady Amoria, thank you for gracing us with your presence”, said Mr. Fash with a bow. The woman returned a nod, but her expression seemed stuck at a frown. She locked eyes with Serraemas and frowned even further. Neither seemed to feel the urge to look away.

“Do you swear to speak only the truth?” asked the guard next to her. The women finally looked away, instead focusing her attention on the armored soldier.

“Of course”, she snorted. The guard seemed offended at her scornful tone, but stepped back in silence and nodded to the prosecutor.

“Please tell the court your background and your credibility in this trial”, said Mr. Fash.

“I am Queen Amoria Senna of Palav”, croaked the elderly woman harshly. She said no more, as if her words would be recognized throughout the entire world.

“Okay”, continued Mr. Fash, “Can you share what information you have that will expose the truth for—?”

“They are murderers!” snapped the witness as she raised a wrinkled hand and pointed her finger directly at Serraemas. “They are criminals that should be hung a thousand times for what they did!”

Serraemas expected the gavel to come crashing down, but only saw amusement in the judge’s eyes.

“Please calm down”, said the prosecutor. “Everyone here knows the charges brought against these men, so tell us why and not what.”

“Many sleepless nights I have endured”, recollected the woman. “My husband, the previous king, was assassinated by those men.”

“A bold statement”, boomed the judge. “Your evidence?”

The woman hastily unrolled one of the scrolls and held it up for everyone to see. Gasps echoed throughout the room as what the woman revealed was not a drawing. On it was a much more vivid illustration of the two warriors, almost as if they were looking at a mirror. The background, however, was of a distant land.

“Shit”, whispered Raxxil as he leaned to the left. “What are those called again? Cameras?”

Serraemas nodded. “Technology is moving rapidly.”

“Can you explain to the court what exactly you have presented?” asked Mr. Fash.

“This is a picture taken from a new invention called the camera”, announced the elderly woman, pleased at the reaction her evidence incited. “This is not a drawing, but an actual moment in the past captured onto paper.”

“Uh-oh”, heard Serraemas from the defender sitting to his left. “Objection, your honor! What the witness holds only depicts these men as travelers and nothing more.”

“Indeed it does”, agreed the judge. He looked at the prosecutor expectantly. “Mister Fash?”

The suited man motioned for the witness to continue. She obliged and unrolled the second scroll, revealing a vividly-depicted dead king sitting hunched over on his throne. The wounds on the lifeless body matched the description of the other evidence, and Serraemas felt Gallo begin to sweat next to him. Even the judge had an expression of surprise at the new revelation.

“No further questions, your honor”, proclaimed the prosecutor as he tried his best to keep from smiling. On the opposite end, Gallo was visibly frowning. The judge looked at him and opened his mouth to speak, but the defender shook his head quietly in anticipation before the judge uttered a syllable.

“You are free to leave the premise”, announced the judge aloud, clearly speaking to the witness. With the help of the guardsman again, the women made her way toward the back of the room, but not without a sour glance at the accused.

“You may bring in the final witness”, ordered Judge Bane.

Gallo wiped his forehead with a cloth and fidgeted with his suit in his best attempt to collect himself as he stood up. The guard at the back stepped outside and returned with a younger man who looked to be in his early twenties. The last witness wore a white cloth shirt and a pair of brown cloth shorts. His long black hair was ruffled and fell past his ears. It bounced slightly as the witness briskly walked to his seat. For the last time, the guard next to him made sure that the witness would provide no deceit.

“Thank you for taking your time to offer your testimony”, said Gallo. “So, what is your relation to these men?”

“Well, my name is Jaco and I’m a villager from Bellis”, began the young man, “And not too long ago we were attacked by these demons. It was so crazy. I had never seen anything like it. It felt like they were pure evil, and they…” His voice trailed off as he looked down at his lap. “Well, they killed a lot of people…”

Around him, Serraemas noted that the audience was absorbed in the witness’s words. For them, he surmised that the spawn of Hell had up until this point been nothing but topics of discussion and imagination. To actually hear of the actual appearance of such beings, especially in a place not too far away, must have been quite intriguing.

“I see”, responded the defender. “What happened after you were attacked?”

The young man brightened and pointed at the captive trio. “Those heroes showed up and helped soldiers from the Order of the Faith fight back the monsters. They saved us!”

“And do you know the charges brought on these men?” asked the defender.

“I have no idea what they are accused of”, said the witness as he shook his head, “But what I do know is that they protected innocent people.”

Gallo smiled at the witness. “Thank you for your time. I have no further questions, your hon—”

“Now, Jaco, you say your village was attacked by demons”, interrupted the prosecutor as he leapt out of his chair and cut off his colleague. “Is that correct?”

The witness scratched his head in confusion. “Yes I did, sir.”

“And the alleged showed up right around that time?” continued Mr. Fash.

“Well yes… they claimed to be traveling elementalists in search of the man responsible for summoning the demons”, responded Jaco.

“Did you yourself see this mysterious man responsible for such an atrocity?” pressured the prosecutor, his voice becoming more adamant.

The witness furrowed his brows. “No, but others said they saw—”

“You mean there is a possibility that the alleged were responsible for the attacks?” interrupted Mr. Fash.

“Objection, your honor!” shouted Gallo. “Mister Fash’s questions are bordering on harassment.”

“Yes, I believe you’re right”, said the judge, who looked at Gallo and then his rival. “Mister Fash, take a step back or risk contempt.”

The prosecutor sighed, then put a hand over his mouth and rubbed his face as he collected his thoughts briefly. “Is there any possibility that this mysterious man was just a hoax and that the alleged were the ones responsible?”

“I suppose so, but I think they really are heroes”, added the witness with a shrug.

“No more questions, your honor”, said the prosecutor as he returned to his seat. The judge motioned for the witness to exit, and the young man walked toward the back of the room and out of sight. All eyes were now fixed on the elderly man.

“Very well, the Blue Swords, the jury, and myself will convene in private as we come to a conclusion”, announced the judge. “We will not dismiss the court, for our deliberation will not tarry.”

With that, a door located to the right of the judge was opened and over a dozen pairs of feet shuffled into the room beyond. The door shut with a bang, and the courtroom froze in silence. Serraemas heard some hushed whispers and felt some angry eyes staring at the back of his head.

“I thought that went pretty well”, said Gallo aloud sarcastically to no one in particular.

Serraemas decided not to say anything. Even Raxxil was quiet, waiting expectantly for the verdict. It took naught but fifteen minutes when the door opened again and the men and women shuffled back into their seats.

The judge struck down with the gavel once more just to make sure that all eyes were on him. “We have come to a decision regarding the fate of these men, but before we announce the verdict I will allow the alleged to speak as they will for the court to hear.”

Serraemas stood up, the shackles that bound him clanging as he drew to his full height. He cleared his throat and looked at both Raxxil and Erendil, the former giving him an expression of encouragement and the latter appearing apathetic of the events unfolding around them.

“In this court, you have all witnessed the accounts of a select few that offer claims of both heroism and malice”, said Serraemas. “Some consider us men of valor and righteousness, while others view us as a terrible evil. We are neither. I admit to all accusations against us.”

With that, Serraemas took his seat, and more than one person gawked at him in utter surprise.

“You’ve got the biggest balls right now”, muttered Raxxil as he shook his head.

The judge scratched his beard and appeared to contemplate for a moment. “Very well then. Guilty as charged! The punishment will be death.”

“So, uh, what in Enept-Ihs’s name was that?” whispered Gallo. He was just as stunned as everyone else was, and his words were minced with slight frustration. Rightfully so, for his efforts had just been undermined by a simple sentence.

Serraemas looked at Gallo blankly. “In your own words: the truth will be revealed.”

Chapter 18

4th Dawn of the 5000th Age of Lion

“Your plan was to get us hung all along, wasn’t it?” blurted Raxxil sarcastically.

They were back in their poorly kept cell. Back in the cold, dark recesses of the dungeon that the citizens of Enept-Ihs called prison. The bit of sunlight they embraced to and from the courtyard was refreshing, but it was only a sip. At least their bed was fixed.

“Don’t be silly”, responded his dark-haired ally. “How many times have you entrusted your fate to me?”

Raxxil kneeled next to Serraemas, facing the direction of the wall and away from the guards. “Alright then, how about you divulge the plan? Sevag, I’m assuming?”

“He will be here shortly”, whispered Serraemas into Raxxil’s ear as the former leaned forward.

“I hope that the Green Wonder goes along with it”, mused Raxxil as he tilted his head in Erendil’s direction.

Both of them glanced over at the towrth, who was in his usual brooding state in the shadows. Whatever was going on with Erendil, Raxxil wondered if he would sabotage their escape. It truly was a most unusual situation given the archer’s previous personality. The new one that they were presented with was unnerving, and Raxxil didn’t appreciate it one bit.

“He will do exactly what he needs to do”, said Serraemas in a manner that was almost threatening. “He wishes to escape just as much as we do.”

The lizard man’s mouth curved up in a wicked smile.

Raxxil sat down next to Serraemas, albeit much more carefully this time. To his relief—and probably Serraemas’s as well—the bed only yielded a slight creak. The combination of silence and boredom made Raxxil drowsy, and he slipped in-and-out of consciousness before the sound of whistling awoke him. It was an unfamiliar tune, but the person responsible was familiar and clearly enjoying the act. Alongside the whistling were footfalls that drew closer and closer until they stopped just outside their cell.

Raxxil looked up to meet the gaze of a smiling devil.

“Well, well”, chided Sevag. “If it isn’t our guilty little rascals.” The white-haired warrior turned to the guards. “Leave us be. I wish to talk to these men regarding private matters.”

Without question, the guards bowed and walked in the opposite direction away from their cell. Sevag made sure that they were gone before returning his attention—and his grin—to the three prisoners.

Both Serraemas and Raxxil stood up, moving closer to the bars to ensure that not only did the guards not hear their conversation, but the other captives around them as well. Sevag wore the same armor of blue and silver as the other members of the Blue Swords. The garment of a paragon representing truth and justice adorned the man that was furthest away from such virtues.

“How go your endeavors?” asked Serraemas in a hushed tone.

“Always a breeze”, returned Sevag smugly, then looked at Raxxil with condescending eyes. “Obviously, it hasn’t been the case for you.”

“Blow it out your ass”, blasted the hammer-wielder.

“Once you get out, take out the guards and meet me by the armory”, continued Sevag as if he didn’t hear the insult. “It lies to the south of the prison’s exit, about two-hundred feet. The kingdom’s weapons and armor are stored there, along with your weapons in a stowed-away cache.”

“So we’re not exactly sneaking out of here then?” questioned Raxxil, brightening up from the revelation that he was about to cause an inordinate amount of destruction.

“How perceptive”, jeered Sevag.

“What about Tanaria?” inquired Raxxil further, deciding not to take the bait.

“Ah, so little Raxxil’s heart does indeed burn?” replied Sevag playfully. “Last I heard she was being kept in the orphanage on the lower level. It’s one of the larger buildings in the residential area on the western side.” Sevag’s sneer grew even wider. “How admirable to feel for another, considering who and what you are.”

“Are you sure we will be able to handle your peers with no loss?” asked Serraemas before Raxxil could provide an outburst.

“The Blue Swords?” blurted Sevag. “Those guys are a bunch of losers. Well, most of them are. Sanjin is the only one that could put up even a modicum of a fight. Unfortunately for her, she’s up against our might. Other than that, the only one we have to even glance at is that bastard that calls himself judge. The king is decrepit, withering away atop his thro—”

Sevag abruptly closed his mouth, and at first Raxxil didn’t understand why. Instead, he focused intently on the man’s face. The fiery elementalist envisioned the satisfying crack of his fisting connecting with Sevag’s nose. However, he soon snapped out of his daydream as he realized that Sevag was not their only visitor. Sanjin’s visage came into view, and her yellow eyes glowed under the blaze of the mounted flames. Her eyes narrowed at Sevag.

“Offering jests to lighten their impending doom?” asked the woman. Raxxil wasn’t sure whether she said it in mockery or suspicion.

“Sending these men to the afterlife without letting them smile would surely be an injustice, wouldn’t you agree?” Sevag replied with a silver tongue.

She continued to stare at him as if trying to determine something Raxxil did not know, but relaxed after a few moments. “I did not come here for your childish games. Illistainn has come under attack, and we ride in one hour.”

Sevag’s eyes widened for a moment before he burst into laughter, his voice echoing down the halls. “What idiots would attack those insane Veri?”

“We’re not really sure”, responded Sanjin as she shook her head. “Attacking the kingdom of the Makkan Veri would be suicide for many, but it seems that they were attacked from within. I said one hour, and don’t forget this time. We meet at the front gate. We’re not leaving without you.”

Before Sevag could say anything, Sanjin whipped around and vanished out of sight.

“Looks like Enept-Ihs will still stand another day”, whispered Sevag, once again leaning closer to the bars. “With the Blue Swords away, your escape should be much smoother.”

“I’m sure we will still run into heavy resistance”, said Serraemas. “They won’t take too kindly to the notion that we’re free.”

“Certainly the guards are nothing compared to Raxxil”, claimed Sevag in between laughs.

“Of course not”, boasted Raxxil. “After them, I’m coming for you.”

“My, oh, my!” responded Sevag as he feigned a shiver. “I’m shaking in my boots.”

“Sevag”, intervened Serraemas calmly before Raxxil could erupt. “The key.”

The jester reached to his side and rummaged through his pack before withdrawing two keys. Sevag handed them to Serraemas discretely, who caught the keys in between his palms and stuffed them out of plain sight.

“One for the shackles, and one for the cage”, said the white-haired warrior. “It’s probably best if I leave now, or else she might figure out a thing or two. That woman’s been on my case for a while now. She’s a bit more perceptive than those other goons, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“Thank you for the help”, replied Serraemas.

“I’d say you’re good in a couple hours just to be safe”, continued Sevag as he walked out of sight, but not before giving Raxxil a smirk.

As Raxxil growled his discontent, the whistling of a happy man’s tune once again punctured the still air.

—-

Sanjin stood in the kingdom’s stables, situated on the lowest level of the kingdom near the front gate. She placed her saddle and supplies on the horse, making sure that they were secure. She then fastened her hammer behind her back, ensuring that she could reach for it quickly if they were attacked.

Enept-Ihs had been formed by the original group of Blue Swords more than a half-century ago. Her parents had been among them, and the values that founded her home was what fueled her. Years ago, her predecessors had fought for something more—something better. Her parents had instilled in her those beliefs, and after traveling to the distant lands of Terra Sur and training under a prominent earth elementalist, she had returned to join the Blue Swords herself.

There was more to life than barbarism and injustice. Inflicting misfortune upon others was not tolerated here, nor should it be anywhere on Ashkar. Even though life was not always fair, Sanjin believed—No, she knew—that truth and justice would always prevail. That was what Enept-Ihs the Exalted One, the divine entity above, showed the kingdom so that they could lead others in the path of virtue. It was by the Exalted One that morality was derived, or rather that’s what Sanjin had been taught growing up. From what she had seen so far, there was an innate light and dark in everyone. Enept-Ihs simply illuminated the path so that people could choose the light.

Others, by essence or just from circumstance, chose the dark. From that darkness emerged all the death and suffering that was inflicted upon each other. That’s why the Blue Swords existed: to remind Makka that virtue was ascension, and that meant fighting for what was just.

Sanjin’s thoughts shifted once more to the ill news that she had received minutes ago. Enept-Ihs forbid Illistainn had already fallen, for if the Veri were defeated then surely her own kingdom would be sieged by whatever it is that they were being attacked by. At that point, she wasn’t sure if even her strength and the strength of her group would be enough.

“Together, our fortitude is a match for even the strongest opponent”, rumbled a deep voice from within her mind, assuring her that her fears would not come to fruition.

“Bantham, you’re always so confident”, she said to the elemental.

“And why wouldn’t I be?” replied Bantham. “Not only are you a strong warrior, but an even better mother and friend. Together, we shall preserve through anything.”

A good mother…

“Mom?” asked a voice from behind.

“Pann”, said Sanjin as she turned around to regard her only daughter. “Illistainn has come under attack to the west, and—”

“I already know”, interrupted Pann. “Why didn’t you tell me yourself?”

Sanjin walked over to the young girl and embraced her. “I was going to, dear, but I need you to stay here.” She expected Pann to jerk and push her away again, but instead found the girl embracing her more tightly. Sanjin sighed deeply.

“Tevin said he felt he would be more of a hindrance and wants to stay”, said Pann.

“I would be inclined to agree”, responded Sanjin with a laugh. “You should train with him while we’re gone. Perhaps your eagerness will rub off on him.”

Pann giggled, still deeply embracing Sanjin. “I love you, mother.”

Sanjin smiled. “I love you too, Pann.”

—-

“It’s been like three hours now!” cried Raxxil in a hushed voice. The explosive hammer-wielder paced the cold prison back and forth impatiently, giving Serraemas expectant—then disappointed—looks every few minutes.

Serraemas stood up and walked over to his friend. He grabbed Raxxil’s arm with both hands tightly and brought him close. “Imagine that they did not leave, or that some sort of delay occurred. Imagine that the second we step outside, we are greeted not only by the Blue Swords, but the entire military force. Without our weapons.”

Raxxil pondered Serraemas’s words briefly before looking down at the floor and taking a deep breath.

Serraemas gently released his grip and stepped back, examining the fiery soul before him. Even though the larger man yearned to make something explode, Raxxil wasn’t a fool despite his direct and often reckless approach. At least, that’s what he would have liked to think. “Soon, Raxxil.”

The hothead looked up at him and nodded. “I know, I know.”

Serraemas then focused his attention on Erendil. He walked to the towrth’s darkened corner and gazed at the sitting figure. “Are you with us?”

No answer.

“Whoever you are”, began Serraemas, “I’m sure you wish to continue existing. So I ask again, are you with us.”

“Lead the way”, replied the towrth coolly, though the words did not seem to come from Erendil. Rather, the words were not said in a way that Erendil ever would.

“All we can do is hope that Erendil doesn’t completely lose control”, echoed Zaranet from within.

Serraemas nodded in agreement, and he made eye contact with Raxxil. The icy elementalist jerked his head in subtle fashion at the two guards nearby, and received a grin of approval at his intent. Careful not to alert the armored soldiers, Serraemas unlocked his shackles with the key, but kept them on. He walked over to Raxxil and handed it to him. “I’ve got the right.”

“Finally”, gushed Raxxil with a grin.

In unison, they threw off the chains and immediately attacked the unsuspecting guards. Hearing the commotion, the soldiers turned in the direction of the now unbound captives, and their eyes widened in shock as they were struck by a barrage of fire and ice. Both guards fell simultaneously, one incinerated by a fireball and the other impaled in the chest.

“More of them will be here soon”, said Serraemas as they exchanged keys. He hurried to remove Erendil’s shackles while Raxxil unlocked the gate. If the display of elemental magic wasn’t enough to alert the other guards, then the rising cacophony generated by the other prisoners was sure to. Serraemas ripped off the towrth’s shackles and threw them aside. He then grabbed Erendil’s arm, yanking him up without paying any heed to his status.

“A couple more coming in hot!” shouted Raxxil without looking back. Even in the clamor his voice was clear. The fiery elementalist stepped out of the prison and quickly loosed more fireballs at an unseen foe, smiling in satisfaction from either their freedom or simply reveling in battle. Probably both.

Serraemas rushed past the cold, iron bars and turned to the left. All that stood between them and the exit of the dungeon was a long hallway and several guards, a few of which already littered the stone floor. Indistinct chatter filled the air as they rushed to their freedom.

As the elementalists passed the other prisons, dirty hands shot out and even fouler words were directed at them in desperate attempts of garnering the attention of the escapees. Serraemas made sure that Erendil was accounted for, then sprinted down the hall and led the way to the exit with the other two behind. More guards charged at them, but the soldiers were easy prey to the combined assault of ice and fire. In mere moments, the trio had bounded all the way to the stairs before the exit of the prison.

The sun’s rays poured in from the open hole that was the entrance to the prison. Serraemas made his way up the stairs swiftly and out into open grounds, his gaze immediately met by another set of surprised guards.

“Alert the others!” shouted one of the soldiers to his ally. The second guard quickly turned around and staggered slightly before speeding to the west. The first guard stepped in front of Serraemas and lunged at him in an effort to buy time, but the latter side-stepped, pushing the guard behind him with one hand—right into Raxxil’s eager fist.

Serraemas did not bother to look behind him as the shattering of bone filled the air. The body flew past his right side and collided with the ground. Instead, he focused his attention on the escaping messenger. By now, the second guard was nearly fifty feet away and making his way across the open courtyard that led to the kingdom’s palace. Serraemas conjured a single ice sliver, took a moment to aim, and released it. The spike caught the unsuspecting guard in the back, and he fell face first.

“Sevag said the armory was to the south”, reminded Serraemas as he turned and ran toward a structure that was in that direction. They made their way across the wide space that was the top level of the kingdom, past the occasional clipped shrubbery and establishment. In the highest level, it was more difficult to cover themselves on their way toward their goal. A large space was reserved for training grounds, and the wooden dummies would not provide much protection as they slipped across. Unlike the lower levels, there were little houses or other structures that could conceal their movement.

On the other hand, there was certainly an abundance of guards. In the few moments that they escaped the prison, their presence had alerted a host of soldiers. Some of them rushed to attack the trio, while the others went to alert the rest of the kingdom. Taking down the first set of guards had only bought the escapees a few seconds, but Serraemas was hoping that those fleeting moments were enough.

They made short work of the guards that vainly sought to defend the armory, and the trio barged through the front door. Once inside, they were met by a wealthy collection of weapons and armor. The building was split into two rooms, one larger and one smaller that was locked behind a door. The larger room spanned about a hundred feet in length, seventy feet in width, and rose nearly thirty feet. Swords, axes, and shields of all sizes lined the walls, while stores of finely made plate and other weapons were organized neatly in the wide space.

Despite the large collection, they were not here for ordinary weapons. Serraemas scanned the larger room quickly, yet found no trace of their own weapons. The shouts of guards and the clanging of armor increasingly grew from outside the armory as Serraemas then bolted for the locked iron door. He placed both hands on the cold surface and concentrated. Heat began to transfer from surface-to-surface. Serraemas could feel his own body heat rising, and if he was not careful, could become overwhelmed by the transfer of energy. It wasn’t long before the sound of groaning metal filled his ears, and a few moments later, the hinges of the door broke off. The door crashed onto the ground as it fell forward.

Behind Serraemas, Raxxil loosed a triumphant cheer as they rushed in. The smaller room contained dozens of confiscated items, including the cache that Sevag had mentioned. Luckily, their garments were also stored here. Within seconds, they were out of the prison garbs and back into their familiar attire—including their formidable weapons.

At least, Serraemas and Erendil were.

Raxxil scrambled to fit his plate on frantically as a score of armored guards dashed into the room with weapons drawn. Serraemas waved his hand, generating a slew of ice shards and unleashing them upon the soldiers. They easily fell prey to his attack, nearly a half-dozen collapsing on the floor from mortal wounds. Serraemas shot a glance at his clumsy partner.

“What?!” exclaimed Raxxil in protest, who was now fully armored. “It’s easy to strap in your blasted leather. One day, you’ll understand the benefit of heavy armor. Probably when there’s a sword stuck in your gut. You’ll be thinking ‘I really wish I was Raxxil right now’.”

“Ready?” asked Serraemas, ignoring the hammer-wielder’s comment. Receiving two nods, Serraemas gripped his staff tightly in one hand and moved toward the doorframe. With their items restored, it was time to escape—

A hand shot up and gripped his ankle, tethering Serraemas to the ground. He looked down to find that one of the soldiers still clung dearly for both life and him. A shard of ice protruded from the man’s bleeding chest. The dying man tried to mutter a word, but only managed a gurgling noise as blood came out of his mouth. Serraemas waved his hand again with the intent of ending the guard’s misery—

An arrow pierced cleanly through the dying man’s skull. Serraemas looked up to Erendil, who smiled at him darkly.

“Lead the way”, said the towrth casually, in a way that Erendil never would.

—-

“You’re just going to hide?” yelled Pann.

Tevin was quivering behind a desk in the meeting room, weapon half-raised in futile defense. News of the escaped prisoners had reached their ears, and it seemed that Tevin was not going to represent the Blue Swords.

“What are we supposed to do?” asked the shaking boy. “They’ll kill us too!”

“Coward”, snapped Pann. She played with her blade for a few moments, pondering what course of action to take.

Mother, what would you do?

“Fine, stay here then”, scolded the young girl. She sheathed her weapon and headed for the door, leaving Tevin to mewl in fear. The Blue Swords were all that was righteous, defending Makka from the unjust. She would not be worthy of the title if she stood by idly.

And when her mother returned, Pann would have proved her capability.

—-

“Where are we headed?” asked Raxxil as they exited the armory, the inflection of his voice offering the implication that they were not quite ready to leave the fortified kingdom.

By now, the sun was beginning to set. The blue sky was replaced by a swirl of orange, purple, and red as the yellow orb bade its farewell. Serraemas looked toward the eastern wall of the top level, then looked down at the lower levels.

“We can use the horses by the stables to head east to Merchant’s Keep”, said Serraemas as he pointed to the bottom-most level. Scores of Enept-Ihs’s military continued to close in, but were repelled by the combined efforts of the three elementalists.

“Aren’t we missing something?” asked Raxxil again, in between swinging his hammer at foes that dare to come too close.

“Hurry up then”, replied Serraemas as he brought down his staff, striking a soldier that thought close-quarters was his weakness. Without pause, Raxxil stormed off toward the west and destroyed just about everything in his path.

Serraemas wiped out another wave of encroaching guards with a display of ice before motioning Erendil to follow him. The towrth had abandoned his cocoon-like state, and fired volleys of dark arrows with expertise. It was slightly different then the way Erendil had done before. It was as if instead of drawing from the source of his elemental, Erendil was the darkness that fired from his bow. The arrows struck multiple foes, and each time they did so, Erendil became faster while their enemies slowed.

“Let’s make it to the wall and hold out there until Raxxil returns”, commanded Serraemas. They bolted across the cobblestone ground, past the prison’s entrance and over to the eastern wall. By now, multiple deep horns had been blown, and the entire attention of the kingdom was focused on its uppermost level.

Toward the center, where the palace stood, were barricades and fortifications. They must have expected an attack on the king, and were using a considerable amount of resources to defend the palace. That left them with a smaller force to engage the fleeing elementalists, though Serraemas was not about to complain.

Man and towrth hastily closed the gap to their destination, their dark cloaks billowing in the wind as they bobbed and weaved through the ranks of soldiers that sought to defy their pursuit. Serraemas continued to gesture with his arms as they ran, this time creating sheets of ice that blanketed the ground around them. Hapless soldiers slipped on the frozen ground, falling and colliding with each other. Next to him, Erendil seemed more than happy to pick off their enemies with deadly accuracy. They were nearly at the eastern wall, and from there they could hold out—

Before them, about thirty feet away, stood a young girl wearing the silver-and-blue garment of the Blue Swords, and behind her were several dozen more soldiers. Their weapons were already drawn, ready to strike down the fugitives. The girl sported a thin blade. She lifted her arm and pointed the tip of the weapon at them.

“It ends here”, she shouted.

Serraemas said nothing, instead weaving his hands as he created a host of deadly spikes just above his head. He whipped his arm back, then forward—

“You’re right”, shot back Erendil, stepping in front of Serraemas. “It does end here. For you, that is.” The towrth then turned to regard the icy elementalist. “The girl is mine, and the ground will run red with blood before I’m through.”

Chapter 19

4th Dusk of the 5000th Age of Lion

“Ah, finally!” exclaimed Orbo excitedly as the vast city of Merchant’s Keep loomed before them. The end of Nokle Road gave way to the city’s large—and crude—gate. Merchant’s Keep was built on the side of a mountain, and its foundation, or lack thereof, was built upon just about any material. This lent to the city’s colorful, albeit mismatched and disorganized architecture.

In here, Aramal’s ragged clothes and rough look were prevalent. In fact, hardly anyone looked twice at his appearance, and he entered the city with ease. With haste, he made his way to the nearest bar.

“What are you doing, you fool?” chided the demon. “We must prepare for the summons! The cult members must be notified immediately.”

Aramal grunted as he plopped down onto a chair and gestured at the bartender. “What’s the rush? We’ve got plenty of time.”

The bartender walked up to the weary traveler. “What’ll you be havin’ tonight?”

“Give me your worst”, responded Aramal.

“Suit yourself”, scoffed the barkeep. He reached for a bottle of something Aramal could not identify and poured a glass, then handed it to the newcomer.

Aramal wrapped his hand around the glass and brought it up to his nose. While most would find the powerful odor to be overwhelming, it was as sweet as candy to him. He downed its contents in one gulp, the liquid burning his throat as it went down. “Now that is alcohol.” The traveler raised his empty glass to the surprised bartender. “Another—”

“That’s enough, human”, scalded Orbo.

Aramal froze. He stared at the bartender, who was waiting for him to finish. A few moments passed. Aramal sighed. He reached for his sack, withdrawing several coins and placing them on the counter. “Fine.”

In a rush, he stepped outside of the bar and back into the wild streets. He made his way past the crowds, walking briskly toward the quieter sections of the city. After some time Aramal was alone under the moon’s light. He continued walking, passing several houses and darkened alleys.

“This one”, hissed the demon as Aramal walked passed a particular alley. He took a deep breath, then walked where light would not follow. After a few steps, he came upon a door that was slightly ajar.

“Here?” asked the traveler.

“Yes, yes!” urged Orbo. “Now, hurry!”

Aramal obliged, opening the door and immediately descending a set of stairs. He smelled a concoction of strange aromas as he continued to step downward until he came upon another door. Opening it, the traveler was welcomed by the gazes of several dozen men that were robed in cloth. They had been busy marking the floor and walls, setting candles, and engaging in other nefarious preparations. One of the men walked up to Aramal and bowed, clearly expecting his arrival for some time.

“Welcome”, said the cultist. “We are the Cult of the Red Dagger.”

Aramal nodded slowly, then reached for his satchel and withdrew the grimoire.

The robed man brightened at the sight of the book. “Ah, how lovely!”

“Are the preparations complete?” asked Orbo aloud expectantly.

The cultist gestured to the center of the room, where a few of the members were etching the floor. “Soon, my lord. Soon, you will be free.”

—-

Erendil was horrified by what he saw.

Trapped within his own mind, he could see himself striking down dozens of people—people simply acting out of duty. His hands were stained. Stained with the blood of the soldiers that perished on the very hallowed ground they defended. No. He did not do this.

This… elemental that he had been so eager to meet was not what he had imagined to be. It was a monster out for mindless killing that now governed his own actions. Powerless to stop it, Erendil could do nothing but watch what unraveled before him.

The ranks of soldiers were soon upon them, led by the girl dressed in the same uniform as the soldiers that had captured them. She displayed no fear, only foolhardy resolve. Erendil lamented her naivety, for it was clear she thought her efforts were not in vain. As she charged, the girl muttered a phrase under her breath, and her weapon transformed from an ordinary sword to one that seemed made purely out of water.

Without his consent, so too did Erendil—or rather Akaba—ready for another bout of killing.

As she descended upon his corporeal form her allies did the same, but Serraemas deemed it unfit for them to interfere. He diverted their attention to himself, unleashing a flurry of his signature attack and efficiently eliminating those that had the misfortune of being impaled. He then generated a dome of ice that encapsulated both Erendil and the lone member of the Blue Swords.

The girl did not wane in her attack, however, and she sliced downward with her newly formed weapon. A thin line of water shot out from the blade, like a slice of air surging at Erendil. He quickly leapt out of its path, though the movement was not of his own accord. The towrth returned fire with a dark arrow, but the girl evaded also.

Is this what I’m here for? Sent out into the world in callous pursuits. I will not allow it, and you will stop this bloodshed!

“Be quiet, you fool”, were the words that echoed in his mind from none other than his captor as Akaba forced Erendil to evade another attack. His adversary sought to close the gap, but Erendil continued to dance about the enclosed space. The girl’s expression contorted into impatience, and this time she cut the air three times. In an instant, Erendil was beset by the watery attacks. He crouched to jump upward—

Stop!

Trapped inside his own body, Erendil focused with all his essence to regain control. His body stopped before it flew off the ground, control of his physical form in struggle with the dark elemental. He felt in power for just a moment until he was thrown back into his mind. His body went through with the jump, just narrowly being touched by the harmless looking water as they collided with each other and dispersed.

“You’re just going to get yourself killed”, he heard the elemental spit vehemently within his mind.

The fighters exchanged ranged attacks back-and-forth to no avail in between struggles of control. The towrth was beset by two battles: one for his physical form, and one for his mental form. Several times was Erendil almost killed attempting to restore what was his, but he no longer cared for survival.

The blood was already spilled, and he could never change that.

Abruptly, the girl shifted her stance and plunged her weapon into the ground. Its watery form disappeared from view, instead zipping across the ground to where Erendil stood. As soon as it reached his feet, it burst from the ground like a jet. He leaned back, twisting his body as he avoided the attack. Just as quickly as it appeared, the jet of water retreated into the ground and raced back to its source.

Taking advantage of the respite, Erendil nocked several arrows and launched a volley at the girl. A look of surprise flashed across her face as she let go of her weapon in an attempt to dodge the barrage—but it was too late. One of the arrows caught her thigh. It wasn’t long until crimson stained the girl’s leg plate. Immediately, the dark arrows effects drained her, transferring over to Erendil instead.

He smiled victoriously. Or rather, Akaba did.

She gasped in pain, but did her best to pick herself up and scramble for her weapon. Shock shifted to confusion at her slowed movements, unaware of what the arrow in her leg was doing. The girl picked her weapon back up and plunged it back into the ground. Again, the watery tendril zipped toward Erendil. With his hastened agility, however, he dashed around it and headed straight to where his opponent was standing. The archer nocked another arrow as he sprinted, firing it and piercing her shoulder plate.

She slumped over, her breaths becoming more ragged. Sweat fell down her face from exertion. Within seconds, Erendil had closed the gap. He somersaulted over her, landing just a couple feet away. Realizing too late what was about to occur, the girl tried to shift her weight and side-step out of the way—

The jet of water shot up from the ground and through her breastplate in an effort to reach Erendil. He smirked and dodged it effortlessly before holding up his bow and aiming it at the girl’s head.

She finally turned to lock eyes with Erendil. Blood gushed from the hole in her chest, and the crimson was smeared around her mouth as she choked on her own essence. Before she could say anything, Erendil loosed the last arrow that spelled the girl’s doom.

The girl buckled onto her knees, then fell onto the cold floor devoid of life.

Inside his own mind, Erendil screamed.

With all the will he could muster, he thrashed against the entity that bound him. This was his body, and not a murderer’s. The elemental continued to resist, but Erendil would not relent. Gradually, control slipped into his favor. He amassed all of his energy into one last burst, and suddenly was back into the physical world. Back into his own body. He felt the tug in the back of his mind of his former captive, but he held it at bay.

He looked at the lifeless corpse in front of him. Blood pooled on the ground from her grave wounds, her eyes stuck on the shock and fear she had experienced in her final moments. For the first time, Erendil felt tears stream down his cheeks. He tossed aside his bow, falling to his knees and placing his hands on the ground. He wept for several minutes, disregarding the clanging of weapons and shouting from beyond the icy dome that had encompassed his battlefield.

The field shattered and dissipated, revealing what had occurred on the outside. Serraemas stood while dozens had fallen, and the experienced elementalist had hardly broken a sweat. He rushed over to Erendil and inspected the girl.

“Are you all right?” asked Serraemas.

Erendil refused to answer, and instead continued to gaze at the floor.

“You regained control”, continued the staff-wielder, as evident of the drops of tears that saturated the ground. Akaba could never be capable of such a thing.

“Is this what we are?” snapped Erendil.

Before Serraemas could answer, a string of fiery explosions filled the air to the west, heralding Raxxil’s return. In the distance, the burning elementalist coalesced into view. One hand flung his hammer about, while the other locked Arwynn into placed by his side. He made his way with a lack of finesse, just about destroying anything—and anyone—in his path; those that had the misfortune of getting in the man’s way were crushed by his weapon. A few seconds later, the group was together again.

“Where to?” asked Raxxil between quick breaths. Tucked in his arm was little Arwynn, though this time she was hardly flailing as before. She looked sullen, and Erendil wondered if she was perturbed by their actions but at the same time helpless to stop any of it, just as he was.

Serraemas quickly pointed to the eastern wall, and the two started off in that direction. Erendil did not bother to move. The others had only taken a few steps before they stopped and turned to him.

“What’s the matter with him?” inquired Raxxil.

Serraemas dashed toward Erendil, picking him up with one hand by his leather vest. The two looked at each other face-to-face. “We don’t have the luxury for this. In this world, one is pure by virtue of age. Children are naive. Idealistic. If you want to survive, you will have to see the world how it really is. The fallen are not innocent, and neither are you. They’re already dead. You will join them if you don’t move.”

Erendil did not budge.

“War is not about right and wrong”, asserted Serraemas. The tension in his voice rose. “There will be no songs sung of this day, so don’t weep about injustice.”

With that, Serraemas gently released his grasp. He hurried over to the bow, picked it up, and held it out for Erendil to take. The archer took a deep breath, reluctantly grabbing his weapon. Dark thoughts constantly tugged at his mind, but he suppressed them.

Once more, Serraemas led the charge. They bounded above the walls of the kingdom. First the upper level, then down to the middle level, and finally over the walls to the lowest level. They neared the stables as commonfolk fled in fear. With haste, they saddled three horses.

The icy elementalist nodded to Raxxil, and the latter brought his hammer upon the stone wall. With a booming crash and fiery explosion, the stone relented and created a gaping hole. The sky was dark as they touched grass, once again free.

Chapter 20

4th Dusk of the 5000th Age of Lion

My heart is black and hollow

I can feel the darkness rising

Withdrawing inside where none can follow

Only to find that this is where you’re hiding

 

I cannot bear this

My hands shake, unsteady as my soul

Return me to bliss

I am no longer in control

“We can ask around in Merchant’s Keep”, explained Serraemas. “He was headed north, and someone like him might even have business there. If not, someone might know something anyway.”

They had continued on horseback to the east for several hours before reaching Nokle Road, and then pursued the road’s route until they reached the end of Farrin Forest. Up ahead was the notorious city itself, and the bustle of its inhabitants could be heard for miles.

Clearly, sleep was not on the city’s to-do list.

Much like Enept-Ihs, high walls lined the city, though that was it as far as similarities go. The walls of Merchant’s Keep, much like everything else it was built with, was a patchwork of materials. The city was formidable in its own right, but it was not structured in a way that most other kingdoms were, as its inhabitants were the dregs that congregated here. Merchants, bandits, thieves, and anything in between all made their home here.

The only governing body, aptly named the Tradesman, was a collection of wealthy and powerful barons. While the city did not quite uphold strict constitutional laws, rules were loosely enforced as long as relative order was maintained.

Guards—or rather sellswords, given by their less than formal armor and ruffian features—kept watch as they approached, but Serraemas knew that they were only on the lookout for larger and more threatening hosts such as the armies of Enept-Ihs, Illistainn, or some other force seeking to raze the city.

But it was just three elementalists and a little girl that showed up, and they did not receive so much as a prolonged glare—a glare fixated on Erendil, naturally. Other than that, the four of them had no trouble in entering the city. It was only a matter of minutes before they stood in the market section named ‘The Black Exchange’, where all manner of stores, street vendors, and bars lined the dirty streets. Immediately they were bombarded, from curious glances at Erendil, to scantily clad women offering services to anyone with a big enough coinpurse, to vendors ignoring personal space and offering whatever goods they wished to sell.

Serraemas motioned for them to enter a relatively respectable looking establishment a little further down the street. It had a sign that depicted a vicious snake baring its fangs with the words ‘Snakebite Pub’ under it. The four of them hastily bolted to their destination, careful to avoid the different characters that sought their attention. Right before they entered the bar, they passed a group of three rugged-looking men who each held steins filled with ale and sung:

“O’er the horizon yonder

There goes our bright future

Setting with the sun

I drink my ale

While our dreams fade one-by-one”

The rickety wooden door swung back and forth as they entered the chattering pub. The smell of alcohol and the bumble of drunkards assaulted Serraemas’s nose and ears. The pub was filled to the brim, but the newcomers had the fortune of finding an empty table with four chairs and quickly took their seats. To his left, Raxxil beamed at the gloomy towrth, who had not said a word since their escape and was now looking down at nothing in particular.

“Finally showed that asshole, huh?” exclaimed the hammer-wielder with eagerness, but was met with silence. He then turned to Serraemas. “He’s back, right?”

“Who’s back?!” said Arwynn as she glanced around at the other patrons. She had also been fairly silent during the night, but seemed energized by the peculiar city and its wide range of inhabitants.

“Why does it matter?” muttered Erendil, finally opening his mouth. He lifted his head and gazed at the other two elementalists. If he had eyes, Serraemas was certain they would display a mixture of fury and self-contempt. “My hands are bloodied regardless.”

Raxxil leaned back and scratched his face. “Welcome to Ashkar, bud. The world you want to see—the world inside your head, will always be just that. Don’t lose your head too often in the clouds, or you’ll lose it for good by the edge of a sharpened blade.” Raxxil then looked at Arwynn and patted her on the head. “That goes for you, too. You’re with us now, so toughen up.”

Serraemas nodded thoughtfully as he looked around, sifting through the patrons and noting any that could be of interest. Toward the back of the room sat a hearty, moon-faced man sporting a thin mustache. He wore a flowing brown robe that bared a portion of his chest, and hung around his neck was a collection of earthen stones fashioned in a necklace. His eyes were slanted and appeared to be perpetually closed, as if the man was sleep-walking or forever stuck in a dream. The man raised a large mug and took a gulp of something heavy.

To their left, Serraemas noticed several men huddled around a table. On it was laid out a board with piles of coins stacked near each of the men, and they were playing a popular game called Bakdan. Of course, no game was complete without some form of gambling, and the men took turns rolling dice and either cheering or groaning as money changed hands.

A barmaid, wearing a slightly more reserved attire than the women outside, walked over to their table. “What’ll it be?”

“Nothing for now, thank you”, Serraemas said quickly.

“Sure thing”, said the girl before she turned and walked away to provide her services to other patrons.

Serraemas continued looking around—

He stopped, catching the eye of a man sitting by the countertop near the bar. This one wore a trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat with a pair of pointed, high-shaft boots. Slung over his back was a large crossbow. The curious gentleman’s youthful yet rugged face lit up with a smile as he chewed on some form of grass. Under his hat was short but messy fair hair. Curiously, it didn’t appear as if he was drinking at all. Serraemas held his gaze briefly before scanning the rest of the room.

A heavily armored figure entered the pub and glanced around hurriedly, as if searching for something. His entire body was covered in heavy, red-and-gold plate from head-to-toe, which included a cuirass and a set of spaulders, faulds, cuisses, gauntlets, and greaves. Both his spaulders and helmet, the latter of which covered his entire face save for a slit exposing his eyes, were forged with spikes that curved upward, making the armor resemble that of a dragon. Likewise, his chest plate bore a depiction of a winged dragon with four limbs and a tail. Matching his armor was a sheathed sword at his side and a shield on his back. Down his back was draped a magnificent cape.

Strangely enough, the armor felt familiar to Serraemas, though he could not recall why.

The knight looked at the group of four first, then their weapons. As he walked toward them, Serraemas watched Raxxil place a hand on his hammer with narrowed eyes. With the other, he reached over to Arwynn defensively.

“Pardon my intrusion, travelers”, began the peculiar warrior, “I mean no ill will. May I trouble thou for a simple request?” His voice was deep and wise, a voice from someone that had witnessed much during a lengthy life, belying the knight’s powerful posture.

“Very well”, replied Serraemas with a nod. The knight’s eyes had a soft, red glow, and looked weary with sorrow. It seemed as though this man was on a quest himself, but one that had so far been long and unsuccessful.

“I am searching for someone by the name of Vanessa Daladin”, said the melancholy warrior. “Have thou brave adventurers heard of her, or anything pertaining to her at all?”

Serraemas shook his head. “No, we have not encountered anyone by that name nor have we heard that name until now.”

He could hear the knight sigh deeply in defeat.

“May I ask you something in return?” inquired Serraemas.

“By all means”, returned the armored warrior.

“We seek someone who may have drifted through here”, explained Serraemas, “He would appear disheveled, wrapped with a tattered cloak and carrying a black tome.”

“Thou hast my apologies, but I have no information that may be of use to thee”, responded the knight after a brief pause.

Serraemas nodded simply.

“Thou hast my thanks for thine time”, said the stranger sincerely as he bowed. “I bid thee farewell.” He looked around briefly before storming off to question another group.

“What a guy”, joked Raxxil as he released his grip on his hammer, then smiled at Arwynn and patted her again.

“You don’t recall where that armor is from?” asked Zaranet inside his mind.

Serraemas continued examining the knight’s armor, attempting to remember where he had seen it before. Hundreds of pictures flashed quickly within his head. Different places—and even different times—but he could not quite find the right one.

Wait, I do remember… He’s a knight from Lorine—?

Serraemas felt a hand on his shoulder, bringing him out of his thoughts. He looked into Raxxil’s eyes, the latter shifting them to the right. Following the directions, Serraemas once again caught a glance from the man with the crossbow. This time, the cheery countenance was replaced with a curious glare.

“No lack of interesting characters”, added Raxxil casually, withdrawing his hand from Serraemas’s shoulder.

“It’s best not to linger and catch unwanted attention”, said Serraemas as he leaned forward before getting up and heading for the door. The others followed suit, and behind them, Serraemas felt movement as they stepped out of the active tavern. The moon shone down brightly upon them, illuminating the various houses and structures down the winding streets.

“Now where are y’all off to in such a hurry?” rang a voice with an accent.

Serraemas whipped around to face the man that had followed them. He stood past the others, next to the door of the pub, and held up his crossbow threateningly with gloved hands. Under his trench coat was a simple vest, leaving only his face exposed. Raxxil pushed the little girl behind him and assumed a poised stance. Serraemas did the same.

“What do you want with us?” Serraemas asked to the figure before them that continued to chew on the long piece of grass.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, folks”, responded the stranger as he lowered his weapon then slung it over his back, his expression shifting back into a toothy smile. “Name’s Darius Van Keele, finest bounty hunter this side of Ashkar.”

“I did not ask for your name, nor your petty accomplishments”, snapped Serraemas.

“Well, I suppose not”, chuckled the intruder, “But I know yer names, and I reckon y’all have a high price on yer heads.”

“Perhaps it would have been wise to not announce your intentions before the deed”, chided Raxxil.

“Let’s not go ‘bout insultin’ my professional skills, now”, asserted Darius. “If I wanted ya’ll dead, ya’ll be dead by now. But… tonight there are some nasty folk summoning even nastier things, and it looks like y’all look the type that could handle yer own. Yer more use alive than dead. For now, at least.” The words captured Serraemas’s attention immediately.

“Tell us what you know”, commanded the staff-wielder, disregarding the man’s arrogance and stepping closer to the knowledgeable bounty hunter.

“Take it easy, I’m gonna spill the beans”, assured Darius, pointing down the street. “Go a few blocks down, take a right into the seventh alley down yonder, and keep going ‘till the third door on the left. It’ll lead ya into a basement full of surprises.”

Serraemas narrowed his eyes as he scanned the man’s rugged face. “That could easily be a trap.”

Darius threw his hands up in defense. “C’mon now. I may be a bounty hunter but I ain’t no scoundrel! My word’s as good as a wench’s bosom after a steamy bath. Besides, if the tales are true, y’all can handle yerselves jus’ fine.”

Raxxil looked at Serraemas and shrugged. The latter returned a blank expression as he perused their options. The hammer-wielder gestured for Serraemas to get closer. The staff-wielder obliged, and stopped next to Raxxil so that the two stood side-by-side and faced opposite directions.

“He knows way too much to be bluffing”, whispered Raxxil.

Serraemas stared off into the distance thoughtfully. “Regardless, we have no choice. This is our only lead.”

“Let’s go get those nasty people!” cheered a childish and feisty voice.

“What—?” started Raxxil. “Oh… this is big people stuff!”

They both looked down to meet Arwynn’s vibrant, green eyes.

Such innocence. Just like Elena’s…

Serraemas blocked out the unwanted images forming in his head and returned his attention to Darius, who was waiting expectantly. Serraemas nodded at their unexpected informant, then turned and headed down the street.

“Don’t forget! Seventh right, third left!” called the bounty hunter after them, already dozens of feet behind them as they bounded to their destination. “Oh, and don’t worry ‘bout the stragglers. I got ‘em.”

“Stragglers?” asked Raxxil aloud, but Serraemas soon realized what the words meant. Around them—particularly in the nooks and crannies of the patchwork city—lurked the familiar presence of those that did not belong on Ashkar, and the night grew ever darker.

Chapter 21

4th Dusk of the 5000th Age of Lion

Raxxil tucked Tanaria under his arm, holding onto the small child tightly. They sprinted down the stone-etched streets of Merchant’s Keep, their footfalls echoing into the still night. As they moved away from the bustling side of the city and into a quieter section of homes, hovels, and whatever the denizens of the city could claim as their own, he felt the lingering aura of darkness in the air.

Shadows moved around them, dancing about like Geunde Ghaliers circling their prey, but they pressed on without looking back as their cloaks whipped in the wind. Within a short span of time they had found the alley, and made a sharp cut into its dark depths.

He glanced down at the little girl, her bright eyes glinting in the moonlight. She looked into his eyes not with fear but with determination, and it seemed that she had placed the tragedy that had befallen her in the back of her mind. For the moment, at least. She was strong, especially for her age, but tonight was a night of demons. Fear would reach her again.

This time he would protect her no matter the cost.

“This is it”, said Serraemas as he studded into a halt. Still absorbed in his thoughts, Raxxil almost crashed into the icy elementalist, but caught himself at the last second. They stopped inside the alley next to the third door that the bounty hunter had mentioned.

Without pause, Serraemas pulled open the door, which was, surprisingly, unlocked. Its hinges squeaked far too loudly in the silent air, and Raxxil cringed. They were met with a set of stairs that cascaded downward. Peering into its black depths yielded nothing but darkness.

Raxxil caught movement to his left, near to the street they had just come from. He quickly dropped the little one and pushed her behind him as he withdrew his mighty weapon. Several dozen familiar shapes slowly approached the group, and the noise of eerie and malicious laughter invaded his ears.

“They’re back”, announced Raxxil to the others. He looked at Serraemas, who was still looking down the staircase and seemingly disregarding the encroaching threat. Abruptly, the sound of loud steps rushed upward from below the stairs. Simultaneously, the horde of demonic creatures from the street as well as below lunged at them.

Serraemas pointed upward. “Onto the rooftops!” He gripped his staff and leapt high above, jumping off the walls toward the top of the building.

Raxxil reached for Tanaria, then crouched down and pushed off as hard as he could with his legs. They soared into the air to the side of the structure, and with another push, bounded onto the rooftop. Erendil followed soon after.

Up here, they had a much better view of the city. To the northeast was the mountain that overshadowed the kingdom. The elevation rose gradually across Merchant’s Keep until the set of structures owned by the Tradesmen, which were nestled next to the mountain itself. Even from here, Raxxil could tell that they lived lavishly, with high, ornately-crafted buildings that culminated in spires jutting into the night sky. To the south was the only gate to the city, and the more commercial area that they had passed on their way.

“Draw them out”, said Serraemas, turning to Raxxil. “I’ll go down there and end it.”

Raxxil peered down into the sea of darkness that surged after them, climbing the walls after the group. In the center, next to the open door, stood two that appeared more unique than the others. The bodies were of the same wispy essence—albeit much larger and menacing—with armor that covered most of their torso and legs, but otherwise their dark essence that constituted as flesh was exposed. To top it off they brandished gigantic axes, waving them about menacingly. Their hellish faces looked up at Raxxil with red eyes as foul as the rest of them.

Raxxil felt small arms wrap around his waist, and he looked down at Tanaria. Her previously determined eyes were replaced with the horror from when they first met. Raxxil kneeled, placed an arm around her tiny head, and brought her closer to him in an embrace.

“I promise you, I will not let harm come to you”, he whispered in her ear, before standing up and motioning Erendil to come near. “Take her, and flee to somewhere safe.”

The lizard-man withdrew slightly, shaking his head as he did so. “Don’t entrust her to me. Please…”

Raxxil looked to Serraemas for answers, but the latter’s eyes only offered a time-is-running-out look. Frustrated, Raxxil reached out and grabbed the towrth’s leather vest, dragging him closer so that their faces were inches apart. “So what can we entrust you with?” The words left his lips like fire.

Erendil looked down in defeat and said nothing.

Raxxil scowled, but released his grasp and pushed the towrth away. He gave Serraemas a sharp look, then reached down and picked up Tanaria before leaping into the fray. The expressions of his enemies shifted from murderous glee to shock as he flew back down into the alley. Raxxil swung his hammer as he crashed down into the ground, eliminating a host of the demons. The others that weren’t immediately crushed counterattacked, but Raxxil swung again and fended them off. The girl was tucked under his left arm, and he made ample effort to protect that side.

He looked to his right, and caught the attention of the two larger and more distinct demons. They glared at him with malice, raising high their wicked weapons and charging. While the horde of minions were just fodder, these seemed stronger and deadlier, which meant that they must have required more effort to summon. Raxxil would get double the satisfaction from sending them back where they came from. Behind them, more demons poured in from the open door, leaving Raxxil with little time to stand idle.

Raxxil put one foot forward, took a deep breath, and then rushed into a sprint in the direction of the street, barreling through dozens of shadowy shapes. He swung his hammer back-and-forth, creating an open path directly ahead. Within a brief span of time, he was out onto the cobblestone street. He placed no effort to look behind him, and neither did he need to to know that the horde of demons were racing after him.

“Alright, Vrand, you have to work with me on this one”, Raxxil said inside his mind. He could feel the elemental yearning to release his fiery wrath. He did too, but despite the temptation, they both kept it at bay. He would not risk the little one so close to his explosive abilities. Unreleased and restrained, Raxxil continued leading the chase, only stopping to swing his hammer a few times for the monsters that got too close. Despite his efforts the tide only grew larger, and the overwhelming flood of darkness seeking to envelop did not relent—

Wind whistled in his ears as a gust flew past Raxxil into the horde of darkness behind him. The wind cut through shadowy hides like butter, shrieks of pain piercing the air as a host of demons perished.

He faced forward again to see where the attack had come from, and his eyes grew wide at what he saw before him. Two armored figures stood in the moonlight: an older man and a young woman, the latter of which he never thought he would see again. “Samantha…?”

—-

Serraemas watched as Raxxil plunged into the dark depths of the shadowy horde with Arwynn still tucked under his arm. Raxxil landed swiftly, then set off into a dash onto the street. It was only a few moments before he was out of sight. Just as Serraemas presumed, the hellish minions chased Raxxil eagerly, giving Serraemas the opening he was looking for. He turned to Erendil, who at the very least was clutching onto his bow with more than just trepidation. “Gather yourself. We must not fail now.”

The towrth hesitated, then nodded slowly.

Serraemas gripped his staff and looked down into the alley. By now, there were not as many demons left, though they continued to pour out of the door regularly. He looked up into the starry night, contemplating their options. He then turned to Erendil and gestured for the towrth’s attention. “Stay here and use this spot as a vantage point.” Serraemas pointed down at the door in the alley. “Shoot whatever comes out that isn’t me.”

“Thank you”, replied the towrth, as if a great burden had been lifted off his shoulders. It was more than obvious that responsibility was not something the archer was up for at the moment.

“Very well”, bade Serraemas before leaping into the air and down into the alley. A graceful landing followed by a dash, and he was soon in a descent he knew not where it lead. The stairs fell deeper into the earth, but it wasn’t long until he reached another open door at the end. Serraemas could hear voices chanting something unintelligible from inside the room beyond. As he made his way to the bottom of the stairs, he was met with several shadowy minions that charged through the doorway. Startled by his presence, they reached out as fast as they could with claws to stab him—

Serraemas swung his staff faster than they could reach him, and they were no more. Surprise no longer to his advantage, Serraemas rushed into the cavernous basement to meet his enemy.

Candles littered the room, flickering on the walls that were marked with unholy words and drawings. Around him laid the slain corpses of dozens of humans. They all wore dark red, hooded robes that covered them from head-to-toe. What was once full of life, however, was drained; their bodies were withered as if they had been slain at an old age, their very essence sucked out to summon the demons that they worshipped.

In the center of the room was the grimoire he sought, opened up to reveal its dark secrets with a pentagram drawn in the ground below it. Around the open book stood a few of the cultists that were still alive—at least for the time being. They continuously summoned the fiendish creatures, with what looked to be some sort of portal in the center of the room that allowed the demons to enter their world. On the other side, one could catch glimpses of Hell itself. Fires burned within a desolate wasteland as creatures of nightmare crawled, walked, and flew about.

While they looked to number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, it seemed that the only demons allowed through were those loyal to the one responsible for the ritual. As far as Serraemas was aware, the only way for a portal to be opened from Hell to Ashkar was if it was opened from this side. Mere cultists were not capable of this kind of feat alone, which meant that Aramal—or rather, the demon behind this—must have found a way to reach Aramal. With the grimoire, they were able to bring entities into Ashkar that did not belong here.

Next to the cultists was none other than the rugged traveler that had eluded Serraemas for so long. He was reading from the book, holding his blade in one hand and skimming through the content of the grimoire with the other. So focused was he that he failed to notice Serraemas until the elementalist stepped forth and generated shards of ice above him.

Aramal looked up, and surprise flashed across his face upon realizing that he had been found. His shock lasted but a fraction of a moment before he brought up his weapon defensively. The disheveled man looked just as weary as when they met last, and even swayed slightly from exhaustion—or perhaps it was from consuming a fair amount of alcohol. “It’s already begun. You’ve failed.” Aramal then spat out a few words directed at his weapon, as if arguing with his own blade. Whether it was simply drunken stupor or something else, Serraemas did not know, nor did he care.

“Not quite”, Serraemas muttered under his breath. He brought down his arms, and the slivers of ice raced toward his foes.

The same dark energy from the battle at Bellis shielded both the cultists and the book-carrier himself. Aramal scoffed at Serraemas before bursting into laughter. “Surely you can do better than that.” The cultists continued reciting their incantations from the grimoire, and the air around them grew heavy.

“Vos egnell bashuun xala”, they said in unison, over and over again. From the other side of the portal appeared a demon far more vile than the others. With both hands it gripped the edges of the portal and pulled itself through like one did with an open window. This one had a much larger stature than the rest, its head almost reaching the ceiling of the room. Unlike the other demons, it wore armor—armor made out of a metal not native to Ashkar—that covered the more vital areas. A collection of three horns jutted out from its head, imitating a crown.

“Ah, the little cretin that wishes to defy me”, spoke the new entity, his voice deep and distorted, but clearly masculine. Behind him, the men slumped to the ground in exhaustion. Summoning this particular one took a heavy toll, and even Aramal rasped for air. It looked as if he had aged another ten years.

“You have been a thorn at my side for far too long”, continued the demon. “A persistent, little ant that is begging to be crushed under my foot.”

“Orbo, you… you son of a bitch…” wheezed Aramal. He collapsed onto the floor, barely able to even keep himself upright. “Using my… my own essence to bring yourself out?”

The demon looked back at his benefactor. “You’re all the same. Conceited, as if you are the center of the universe. The races of Ashkar couldn’t be further from the truth, and that will be your pathetic downfall.”

Serraemas gritted his teeth, completely disregarding what Orbo had just said. “Did you just call me little?”

—-

“You survived?!” clamored Raxxil in between swings of his hammer. Unfortunately, the sea of demons would not allow them any reprieve to converse properly.

Samantha wore an eye-patch that covered her right eye. Across her face was a scar that ran from above her right brow down to her left cheek, which seemed to be the only evidence of her fatal wound. It was a miracle that she was here now, but her expression was rueful, and she said nothing. She had already released her weapon, rushing in front of Raxxil straight into the fray. Her second-in-command followed suit, providing his aid to stem the tide.

Raxxil followed Samantha and engaged their enemies side-by-side. In between attacks he watched her movements, and it seemed that she was still recovering physically. The lieutenant wasn’t nearly as poised, nor as quick as she was before. She also appeared more hesitant, as if she had entered her first fight ever. She exaggerated some movements to evade blows, particularly those reaching for her head.

One of the two greater demons had caught up to them. He set his sights on Samantha, and raised his axe high into the sky before slamming it down where she stood. The brash young woman leapt backward to dodge the attack, and the axe sliced the air where she stood a moment before. The large weapon crashed into the ground, breaking the cobblestone and creating a sizable hole.

Samantha was beset, however, and she had just jumped into more demons. She whirled around and thrust out her sword, slashing in a wide circle. It was not enough. They closed in, maws and claws hungering to rip flesh.

Damn it, Samantha!

Raxxil took a deep breath, then threw his hammer in her direction. It whizzed past her and collided with dozens of the demons, crushing them instantly. Raxxil then lunged to where Samantha stood, picking her up and rushing to safety.

With the little one tucked in his left side and Samantha now on his right, Raxxil groaned. “One of you is already a handful…” He turned his head to where the sergeant was battling. “Hey old man, fall back!”

The second-in-command obliged, and their bold stand gave way to chase again. Behind them, the cackling horde of demons found it none too pleasing that the humans were fleeing once more, and they scrambled after the four.

Shouts now rang from across the city as its inhabitants were roused by the sound of battle, finally realizing that they were under attack. A little town like Bellis might not be a match for demons, but Merchant’s Keep would be able to hold against the lesser minions for some time.

Time, something that Raxxil didn’t have the luxury of.

Once they had some distance, Raxxil gently released Samantha. He looked deep into her remaining eye furiously, expecting the young woman to lash out at him. When he saw a torrent of emotions, the least of which was anything akin to anger, he withdrew.

“I… I am sorry”, she said as she looked away. “I was overcome with grief. All I wanted was revenge, and it nearly got me killed again. If it wasn’t for all this, I would still have my father.”

Raxxil’s eyes softened. “I met him at Enorra. What happened to him?”

Tears made their way down Samantha’s youthful face.

Raxxil sighed and placed both hands on her shoulder plates. “You never forget, and the pain doesn’t go away, but I promise you that you can overcome it and find purpose in your life. Take the little one and get to safety. Find me when this is over.” He looked at Tanaria, smiled at her warmly, and patted her on the head.

Samantha nodded, still sobbing uncontrollably. She sheathed her weapon, then crouched down and picked Tanaria up. The old man also nodded, and the three of them whisked past Raxxil. He didn’t look back, instead focusing on the relentless demons that approached.

“Hey Vrand!” he shouted in his mind. “Guess what?”

“IS IT TIME?!” replied his ever eager elemental. “BURN?!”

“You bet your ass it’s time to burn!” Raxxil returned excitedly. He raised his arms and cupped his hands together. The burning elementalist focused his energy for a few moments until a concentrated ball of flame formed in his hands. Instantly, his core temperature—and the immediate air around him—grew colder as heat was condensed into a dense form.

Manipulating the fire element came with a cost, as it required taking heat from the environment, and even one’s own internal energy at times if the environment did not support that particular element or when using special techniques that required an exorbitant amount of energy—like the one he was using now. Raxxil would have to be careful, ensuring that he didn’t lose too much heat and risk suffering hypothermia. He continued pouring energy into the ball, and it pulsated as it grew slightly larger and larger. By now, Raxxil was beset by the mass of shadowy figures, and he grinned gleefully.

“Come on over, boys!” he taunted after them. “I want you to check this out, it’s called the First Flame of the Golden Son!”

They lunged at him from all directions. What they didn’t realize was that they were already dead.

Raxxil released the orb, which had grown to be the size of a fist, and it floated upward for just a few moments before it exploded. The size of the flame belied its power, and the resulting explosion was so large it engulfed several blocks. A huge billow of smoke rose into the air, but Raxxil was hardly fazed. Fires roared around him and illuminated his features as he stepped among the rubble, looking for his hammer. A couple blocks later, on the edge of the plume of smoke, he saw its silhouette. He reached for it, pulled it up, and then rested it on his shoulder.

Raxxil smiled. “It really was a bit chilly out, but damn did that do the tri—”

Sensing movement from behind, Raxxil whipped around to regard two figures that slightly rose above him. The two distinct demons had survived the blast, but not without injury. Plate and shadowy flesh alike were singed. Neither of them looked too happy about that.

“And here I thought you guys were just a bunch of pussies”, Raxxil jeered, but he was not going to wait for a response. “Erupt in blazing fury, Vrand!” His weapon transformed into its true state, and once again he was welcomed by its fiery aura.

“A mouth to match your arrogance”, admonished one of the demons with a raspy voice. It brought its large weapon back, then swung it in a horizontal arc. Raxxil crouched, the axe passing over his head harmlessly, then threw his hammer at the second demon. It crashed into the demon’s chest, causing a fiery explosion and pushing the monstrous figure in its path before both collided into a building. The structure collapsed, and stone, wood, and rock toppled over onto the ground.

Without stopping, Raxxil kicked off with his legs and barreled into the first demon, who was still recovering from his wide swing. The two collided, and Raxxil used his momentum to push his adversary through several houses before stopping. He picked the stunned demon up with both hands, then brought him close and performed a brutal head-butt. The dark figure grunted in pain as he reeled back from the blow.

Raxxil leaned back, took a deep breath, and felt his aura blazing with energy. He lurched forward and radiated the energy welling within him, expelling a stream of lava from his lips. The superheated substance gushed over the demon. Howls of fury and pain reverberated in the night as the monster slowly melted. What once stood as a menacing demon was now reduced to a pile of ash.

Movement from behind alerted Raxxil. He peered over his shoulder, noticing that the second demon had survived and rejoined the fight. With axe raised high, the monstrous figure brought his arms down as hard as he could. Raxxil leapt back to evade—

The edge of the weapon still caught him. It sunk into his plate, splitting it in half. His chest throbbed in pain as he felt crimson flow from the wound. Raxxil grunted and threw off his armor, exposing his defined upper body. The monster chuckled with glee and muttered something incoherent as it raised its arms and pointed at Raxxil.

A blast of dark energy flew at Raxxil. He dashed to the right, avoiding the blast. Another kick from his powerful legs, and Raxxil lunged at the demon with blazing speed. He cocked his arm back, then threw a right hook at the ugly bastard’s face. His fist smashed into shadowy flesh, and the demon staggered back as he released his grip on the large axe. The weapon fell to the ground with a loud thud.

Despite the powerful blow, the monster recovered quickly, and returned the kind gesture with a strike of his own. It caught Raxxil on his face, his head whipping back from the attack as he took a step back to steady himself. The fiery elementalist regained his composure, and the two traded blow after blow for what seemed like forever. Sweat poured down Raxxil’s face and his breaths grew heavy from exertion. His muscles ached, screaming for him to stop.

A shadowy fist collided with his jaw. Raxxil’s world spun in circles, and he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as he landed harshly on the ground. A wicked laugh filled his ears.

“Almost did you triumph”, growled the demon. “You fall here, and your friends will soon follow.”

The starry night filled Raxxil’s vision. Hundreds of bright lights dotted the darkness above. Even the moon was out to witness his fate, it would seem. Time seemed to slow, or perhaps it was just his perception deciding to take a walk. It slowed, the way it did when he was facing death. The way it did when his mind traveled to nearly a century ago, where their smiles had waited for him—especially hers. But he never returned. No, they were gone before he did. His mind shifted back to the present. She waited for him again, waited for him to come back.

Will I let you down again? Will I let you die again?

To his left rested his hammer—conveniently out of arm’s reach. To his right, the demon approached. It raised its leg over Raxxil, then slowly lowered it until the demon’s foot pressed down on Raxxil’s chest—particularly on his bleeding wound. Raxxil groaned as pain surged through him. The demon pushed down even further, then put his hand near Raxxil’s face. Again it muttered the unintelligible words, readying another blast. Raxxil could feel the energy coursing through the demon’s fingertips, mere inches from his face. Larger and larger it grew as the energy gathered. From this distance, the blast wouldn’t even leave enough for him to be remembered.

Raxxil’s muscles ached. He could barely lift his arms to resist, nor could he writhe away from the shadowy foot that almost crushed his chest even if he wanted to. Something felt wrong with his left shoulder. He could do nothing but watch as the demon spelled out his doom. Where one would cower in fear and cling for dear life, he glared at the demon in stoic defiance.

“How does it feel?” remarked the demon balefully. “How does it feel to know that everything was for naught?”

Raxxil smiled toothily at his enemy. He then took as much of a deep breath as he could, and, gathering what energy he had left, spat a font of lava at the monster. The hot substance engulfed the demon’s face before he could unleash his own attack. As the demon reeled back from the pain, he fired the dark energy blindly. The blast struck the ground just to the side of Raxxil’s face, boring a deep hole in the stone.

Roars of pain filled the air as the searing lava burned and burned and burned. Raxxil struggled to get up. He first rolled to the side, then brought a knee below him before moving into a kneeling position. His body quivered, and he stumbled slightly before standing up straight.

The lava was not nearly enough to end the demon’s existence, but it was at least enough for Raxxil to find an opening. In blind rage, the shadowy figure flailed around in search for Raxxil.

The pain in Raxxil’s left shoulder remained, and after a vain attempt at moving it, realized that he had dislocated it after striking the ground. He reached up with his other hand, steeled himself, and snapped his shoulder back into place with a loud—and equally painful—pop. It was just in time, for Raxxil dodged a downward chop before it cleaved him in two. Summoning all of his strength, Raxxil punched the demon as hard as he could, and the shadowy entity hunched over in pain.

Using the momentary respite, Raxxil stepped behind his foe and wrapped his arms tightly around the monster’s body. He took a deep breath, then pulled up and backward, performing a suplex maneuver. His enemy’s entire body flew into the air then crashed down head first as they both tumbled onto the ground. A satisfyingly audible cracking of bone filled Raxxil’s ears.

He laid there for quite some time. He looked to the left, then to the right in search for signs of any remaining demons that were lying in wait for an opening. He was only met with near silence, the only sound coming from the barely audible clashes in the distance. A cool breeze swept by him, and he grinned triumphantly as he once again looked up at the stars.

Chapter 22

4th Dusk of the 5000th Age of Lion

“Not yet”, asserted Serraemas.

“We’ll take him out in a flash if you do”, sighed Zaranet. “Come now, let me stretch my legs!”

Serraemas danced about, evading a slew of shadowy projectiles cast forth from the hands of Orbo. They struck the wall behind him, saturating it with hellish energy. The two were locked in a back-and-forth struggle with neither gaining any particular advantage. As Serraemas maneuvered acrobatically he returned fire with his own frozen barrage, but the dark aura surrounding the demon blocked his attacks.

A wicked smile flashed across the demon’s face as he straightened his arms, lifted them up and then moved them back. Serraemas felt the demonic energy behind him surging forward, attempting to engulf him.

He grunted as he whirled around, waving his arm and hastily creating a field of ice that blocked the surprise attack. The field did not hold, however, and it shattered as the energy surged at him again. He rolled forward, glimpsing another volley of blasts being thrown at him from the demon.

“Die, maggot”, cursed the demon.

Sandwiched between the attacks, Serraemas surrounded himself in a thick dome of ice. It shattered under the onslaught, but was able to repel the conjoined blasts, and the energy dispersed harmlessly—

Serraemas felt a burning sensation on his left leg. Looking down, he realized that part of the attack had indeed reached him, blanketing over his leg and burning first through his fitted pants and then through his exposed flesh. While only a fraction of the attack had reached him, it still ate through several layers of his skin. Serraemas could feel the lesions that were forming, and pain surged through him when he tried to move his leg. His mobility was severely crippled, and he could not afford to be hit again.

The room filled with cackling laughter as if the demon had already won.

“Just as I surmised”, berated Orbo. “You’re nothing but a tiny insect. A foolish, little human that cannot see past his own hands. Your elemental powers cannot even pierce my shield, and you will soon meet your end. Pathetic.”

The words struck a nerve. “The Frozen Chain, Zaranet!”

“Ah, it’s about time”, said his elemental coolly.

Serraemas’s staff transformed, its simple form replaced with blue, icy elegance. At the tip of the staff a formation of frozen crystals rotated around an icy core. Serraemas slammed the staff downward and embedded it into the ground. From the core shot out a long chain that was able to pierce the dark shield.

For the first time, the demon’s expression shifted from arrogance to shock.

The chain wrapped itself around Orbo’s ankle, immobilizing his movement and pinning him to the ground. Serraemas then created a barricade of ice in front of him as a shield. The demon cursed at him in a tongue he did not understand while continuing to cast bolts of dark energy at the staff-wielder. They struck the barrier of ice, whittling it down little-by-little.

Serraemas waved his arms once again, this time pouring his energy into a massive lance of ice—one that was several times larger than the rest. It took much longer to generate, and his adversary slowly oozed trepidation at the realization that his protection would no longer suffice. The demon shifted his attacks, instead aiming for the chain that bound him. A blast connected with the chain, breaking its snare as it whipped back—

Immediately, it shot back again. Once more, the demon was held in place, confused at his inability to break free. Even if the demon managed to fully escape the snare, it was already too late.

Serraemas glared at Orbo with furious eyes. “You seem in a hurry to find death, so allow me to hand it to you myself.”

The demon growled, still frantic in his attempts to dismantle the chain. Dark energy flew in every direction randomly in Orbo’s last, futile effort.

Serraemas would not give him the chance. He whipped his arm forward, and the spike soared through the air. It penetrated the shadowy aura and impaled the demon in the chest. The blasts of energy stopped immediately as Orbo fell on his knees in defeat.

Serraemas hobbled forward painfully to the center of the room, still poised in case the demon resorted to trickery. Ragged, heavy breaths emanated from the demon, and he looked up with red orbs at Serraemas.

“You… you think you have… won?” said Orbo weakly. “You’ve done… nothing. The Lords of Hell… will soon rise. Lion, Zorvinus, Titan, Aeuvi, and Rimas. All five of them… and Ashkar will be engulfed in darkness. You’ve done… nothing.”

The demon’s essence dissipated, his body vanishing slowly until there was nothing left. Serraemas walked past where Orbo had just been moments ago, past the grimoire, and to the stranger that had eluded him thus far. The bearded man had propped himself up against the wall, and he sat with legs outstretched. His head was down, his eyes looking at nothing in particular. The man’s chest rose up and down quickly with short, irregular breaths.

As Serraemas approached, Aramal looked up to regard the icy elementalist.

Aramal’s eyes pleaded, but not for mercy. His face, slightly aged when they first met, was now gaunt and much paler. Serraemas stopped just in front of the dying soul and held up his right hand. A sword of ice slowly formed, starting from his palm and moving upward into a sharp edge.

“Go on, do it”, said the man hoarsely. “I’ve got nothing to say to your cold, condescending—“

Serraemas brought down his arm diagonally, slashing Aramal at the throat and beheading him. The head rolled down and onto the floor a few feet away. As the sword shattered into thin air, footfalls bounded down the stairs on the opposite side of the room.

Serraemas turned around to Raxxil, who had his upper body exposed. A gash ran down from the top left of the fiery elementalist’s chest to his right side. Regardless, the hammer-wielder displayed a cheery smile. Behind him entered Erendil, Arwynn, and someone that should have been dead.

Samantha surveyed the room with one eye, and was accompanied by the older officer that always seemed to follow her. They all entered the room with fierce expressions, ready for anything that might assault them, but relaxed when they saw only Serraemas.

“Who got you to release, the enemy or Zaranet?” mocked Raxxil playfully, noticing that the staff was still embedded into the ground in its true form.

“Neither”, lied Serraemas as he walked over to the open grimoire. He reached down, closed it, and picked it up before heading to his weapon. Sealing it, the ornate staff returned to its simple guise. All together, they made their way back up the stairs and out into the alley.

They were met by a host of men that glowered at the group with all manner of weapons raised and ready to strike. The crowd was comprised of the inhabitants of the city, from drunkards to shop owners and even thieves. Likewise, their expressions softened as the elementalist’s emerged.

“You sure don’t look like demons”, croaked one among the crowd. He stepped forward, his bulbous eyes examining the warriors. He wore a well-tailored black suit with a top hat that accentuated his strange look. In his right hand he held a finely-crafted cane. All ten fingers were fitted with golden rings which were embedded with lavish jewels of all types, and Serraemas was sure that the man would wear more if he had more fingers to spare. He was short in stature, and he spoke with an authority that belied his size. Around him stood several imposing bodyguards.

“Neither do you”, returned Serraemas softly.

“Well, no shit”, he spat. “I’m Flint, one of the Tradesmen. I guess you guys took care of this… problem.”

“You bet your ass we did!” clamored Raxxil.

“Alright, take it easy”, responded Flint. “Jeez. So, uh, what do you want?”

“For what?” asked Serraemas, gripping the grimoire tightly at his side and tucking it away from the wandering of eyes.

“Your services?” asked the wealthy entrepreneur incredulously. “In Merchant’s Keep, we live by a code of service and reward. You provide a service, you get something in return.” Flint motioned to one of his bodyguards, and was handed a log book along with a pen.

“We were never here”, said Serraemas. He then pointed to his wounded leg and Raxxil’s chest. “We also need a medicine man for our wounds. That is all we want.”

Flint looked up in confusion, as if surprised that they did not want any sort of monetary compensation. “Now that’s what I call good business.” He handed the materials back and gestured to a second bodyguard, then pointed down the door that Serraemas had emerged from. “Go clean that mess up, Janitor. Do you do this for free? No, so why are you still here?”

—-

After tending to their wounds, Raxxil, Serraemas, Tanaria, Erendil, Samantha, and the old guy made their way out of the city. As they passed the large, front gate, Raxxil brought Serraemas aside.

“Let me have a word with her”, asserted the fiery elementalist.

Serraemas nodded. “Very well.” He then walked away to exchange a few words with Erendil.

Raxxil stepped over to where Samantha and her second-in-command were standing.

“Samantha?” asked Raxxil. She nodded to the older officer, and he also moved away to give them privacy.

Both of them stood for a moment in silence without exchanging words. The air was cool in the twilight hours of the night. Gentle breezes blew through, and the trees of Farrin Forrest swayed as their leaves rustled softly. The sound of insects chirping and buzzing filled the otherwise still air, while the two looked up into the starry sky.

“In the heat of battle”, began Raxxil, breaking the silence, “I couldn’t tell you this, but I was glad that you showed up. Until then, I had thought you gone. Of course, I was only surprised for a moment. True warriors don’t go down that easily.”

Samantha did not reply. Instead, she continued looking up at the stars. Raxxil turned to her, and put a hand on her shoulder. She finally looked at him, her left eye fixed on his own. She took a deep breath.

“I was still awake when you spoke of saving me”, she said finally.

Raxxil coughed loudly, pretending he didn’t hear her words.

“Who are you?” asked Samantha.

“What are you talking about?” he returned.

“Who are you really?” she pressed. “You care after the little one as if she were your own, and you speak of saving the life of someone you just met. A hardy warrior like you doesn’t seem the type, and the other one much less so. If the tales are true, then you are more than just traveling elementalists. You are murderers and monsters. Not only that, you have lived far longer than any human should have.”

Raxxil sighed and turned his eyes away. “There is much you do not understand about us… about Ashkar. Things I can’t tell you now, but things you may discover yourself. Keep training, and keep getting stronger. One day, we might cross paths again.” He faced Samantha once more, smiled, then turned his back to her and walked toward Serraemas.

“That’s it?” she called after him. “You’re just leaving?”

Raxxil continued walking away without acknowledging her words.

You wouldn’t understand. But… maybe one day you will.

As Raxxil approached the others, he nodded to Serraemas. He reached down and picked up Tanaria, putting her over his shoulders. He then wrapped an arm around both Serraemas and Erendil, and the four of them headed down Nokle Road.

“So what now?” asked Raxxil eagerly. “We’ve got the book. How about some more adventuring in Makka?”

“No”, replied Serraemas coldly.

“Let’s go to Wildenwinter and wrestle with some wildebeasts!” continued Raxxil excitedly.

“No”, he heard again.

“How about Valley of the Undead?” tried Raxxil. “We’ve never run into the undead. Let’s smash those lifeless bastards!”

“No”, for the third time.

“Oh come on,” lamented Raxxil. “How about that barbecue place in Yjur?”

Serraemas paused for a moment. “Maybe.”

“Alright!” cheered Raxxil in satisfaction. He looked up into the night sky with a smile on his face. The fiery elementalist noticed a spot of white light, a light larger than the spots of bright stars that dotted the sky, zipping across the sky and into the distance as if it were falling down from the heavens onto Ashkar. It looked like a shooting star, but Raxxil didn’t pay it much mind. His thoughts were elsewhere, looking forward to some delicious, spicy barbecue.

Epilogue

34th Dawn of the 5000th Age of Lion

Wu stood by the window of his office, peering down into the beautiful courtyard. It was a bright day out, the hot sun shining its rays upon them. White, puffy clouds drifted over an otherwise clear, blue sky.

The sound of children happily playing filled Wu’s ears. The students were on recess, and playing whatever silly games they could come up with. He looked down at them, noting their aloof and innocent demeanor. Disconnected from the world outside Arcadia. The fighting, the wars, the death.

The price of innocence. Graeme, I remember when we were both in their shoes.

“Master Wu?” asked the voice of a young child.

Wu turned around to face the small boy, and smiled sheepishly. “Ah, Quinn! I have been looking for you.” The elderly man pointed his hand at a chair that was by a book case in the corner of the room. It levitated, then flew toward his desk and settled down. Wu then gestured for the open chair that was now in front of his desk. The boy obliged and took his seat.

Wu did the same with his own chair and looked up. “Oops.” A stack of tomes were piled so high on his desk, the two couldn’t even see each other. With a flick of his wrist, the entire stack flew to the right. Books, parchments, and scrolls all tumbled through the air and onto the ground. “That’s much better.”

Quinn looked down at the messy pile, nodded, then returned his gaze to Wu and waited expectantly.

“How go your studies?” asked Wu inquisitively.

The boy frowned. “The same… like always.”

“I see”, replied the Grand Master Magus.

“Why do you keep me here?” asked Quinn. His brown eyes were resolute, and it seemed that that question had been on his mind for quite a while. “I’m not an elementalist and I don’t think I ever will be. Where are my parents?”

“Quinn”, started Wu, taking extra care to ignore the boy’s second question, “There is much more than being an elementalist. Not everyone is one, and there are others that do incredible things regardless.” The last part was a lie, for a non-elementalist could never match one that could wield the elements. And, both paled in comparison to Wu, no matter who they were. Still, solace was the matter at hand, not truth.

The boy scratched his head. “But the School of Eight only teaches elementalists, so that doesn’t answer why I’m still here.”

The boy was indeed perceptive, and that fact brought a smile to Wu’s face. “You’re right, but that’s not important right now and not why I called you here.”

“Then, did I do something wrong?” asked Quinn with brows furrowed.

“No, no”, assured Wu. “I just wanted to speak with you privately about something. Can you promise me not to talk to anyone about what I am about to tell you?”

The boy looked confused. He hesitated, then nodded slowly.

“Absolutely no one”, asserted Wu.

“Yes, Master Wu”, promised Quinn.

“Wonderful!” the elderly man said excitedly, his demeanor brightening abruptly. He stood up, walked over to one of the many shelves lined with books, and reached for one. It was larger than most tomes, and it was bound by black leather. With the book in hand, Wu walked over to Quinn and handed it to the boy.

“Another book?!” cried Quinn. “I told you I can’t learn anything here!”

Wu scowled. “You foolish boy, how dare you spout nonse—”

He caught himself mid-sentence and forced himself to calm down. The little child was taken aback by the outburst, diverting his attention down at the tome and away from Wu.

“I promise you that if you take a look, you won’t be disappointed”, assured Wu softly.

Curious, the boy opened the book to a random page and read aloud the first line he came across. “Vos egnell bashuun xala?” His face once again looked up at Wu in confusion as he finished uttering the incomprehensible words.

###

Thank you for reading through this novel! If you liked it, I would be more than happy if you dropped a review at your favorite retailer. Also, look out for the next chapter in the Tales of Ashkar series coming soon!

Best regards,

Kayl A. Karadjian.

About the author

An avid reader and video game enthusiast, Kayl spends his time reading fantasy, sci fi, and playing a host of RPGs and multiplayer games. He is also a huge fan of anime/manga. He lives in Orlando, Florida, and currently works as a personal trainer while attending university.

Other works by Kayl A Karadjian

Look for the next title of the Tales of Ashkar series, Halcyon’s Dream: Tales of Ashkar Book Two coming soon!

Reach out to Kayl

Follow Tales of Ashkar on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/talesofashkar

Follow my blog and catch updates at: https://talesofashkar.wordpress.com/

You can also find the detailed maps of Ashkar here: https://talesofashkar.wordpress.com/maps/


Broken Blades Don't Sing

Elementalists—those that have the ability to command the elements. Only recently has humanity witnessed such unfathomable power. Some believe it is a curse. That elementalists are possessed by demons. Others claim it is a gift from the deities above. It is neither. Some use it for good, helping those in need and dedicating their lives to selflessness. Others use it for power and personal gain. Neither understand what elementalism truly is. Serraemas—one of the first of human elementalists—sees the world not how it is, but how it should be. Able to manipulate the element of ice, he sets out to realize that dream. What he has yet to discover is that in trying to save the world, he might just bring about its end instead.

  • ISBN: 9781311878526
  • Author: Kayl Karadjian
  • Published: 2015-10-05 05:20:14
  • Words: 83951
Broken Blades Don't Sing Broken Blades Don't Sing