Cutting through the morning mist, a squad of four galleys surfed the open sea in formation. Patrolling the area assigned to them, the four ships moved in unison, making sure nothing got in or out of their territory. Each galley was fitted with two medium sails and two rows of fifteen oars, making the squad extremely fast and mobile even without wind.
Upon the deck of one of the ships, a man was scanning the ocean, trying to look past the mist. Clean shaven, the man wore a crisp red waistcoat with a white undershirt, and clean brown breeches with fine leather boots. The sword at his waist was decorated with gemstones, and the man gave off an air of refinement—whether it be from his nice clothes, or his narrow handsome face filled with charismatic charm.
If not for where he was and his true occupation, anyone would have believed him the lord of a fiefdom elsewhere.
He turned to another man, barely awake and lazing beside him. “Make sure we don’t stray from the others. I’m gonna go check what’s takin’ Hector so long.”
“Aye, ma lord.” The second man replied sarcastically with a mocking grin and salute.
“Ya know what Jenks? You can shove that smirk right up yer ass. Who says a man can’t plunder and look good at the same time?” He rebuked, walking away.
“Plunder? We’ve not done a single thing but watch these damned waves fer the past two turns. Admit it. Ya just wanna look pretty.”
A cold morning breeze blew right through him, and he shivered. Tired and cold, he ignored Jenks and headed straight for the stairs leading below deck. Before even taking a handful of steps, there was a flash of light from behind him, and the ship suddenly shook. “What in the-” world. He turned around, only to find Jenks missing. A large hole that was quickly filling up with sea water in the man’s place. “ENEMIES!!” He shouted, looking around frantically.
There was another flash, and he saw that it was not just their ship, but that all four ships were being attacked. The others were also scrambling about and shouting in panic. He watched, as rays of light fell from the sky, piercing through men and wood.
He began scanning the horizon one more time, only to see the wall of mist and a dreary sky. More light rained down upon the other three ships and his own, creating large gaping holes wherever they hit. The men were all dying, and there were no explanations.
In his panic, he pulled out his sword as if it would help. The last thing he saw, was his body being enveloped by a hot searing sensation. Then nothing.
Hidden in the air, Vishan watched as the ships were torn to pieces. After the screams died down, it descended to the water’s surface, looking for survivors.
As an orb of light, it pulsed gleefully, seeing that there were people desperately trying to hold onto pieces of the ships’ wrecks. Without warning or mercy, it quickly dispatched the survivors, erasing them from the world before shooting back up into the sky.
To keep watch.
Pouring rain drummed against the Maid Marie, creating a rhythm of pitter-patters alongside the hollering of sailors. After 13 long days of rocking back and forth with the waves, they had spotted land. The once deathly nervous crew was now cheering with gusto and vitality, acting like they had already landed. Whether it be by the blessings of the gods or the luck of the devil, they made it to Malpaars without being hounded by a single pirate ship, and everyone was celebrating the fortuitous event.
Below the ship’s deck. In a secluded corner of the storage room.
Kaidus quietly sat on a small wooden fruit crate, away from all the shouts and cheers. Holding the silver communication ring in the palm of his hand, an invisible sound barrier covered the area around himself, preventing any noise from escaping. “I did. I saw five of them swimming together.” He was talking with a warm smile on his face.
“Were they big like the books said?” Anise questioned excitedly from the ring.
“As big as the ship I’m on right now. Three eyes and four long tentacles just like the books said. The head was very big, and they swam right alongside us.”
He was talking about large sea creatures called Kuurens. The beasts were aquatic mammals and looked like large seeds that sprouted roots. They had three large eyes—one in front and two on each side of its head—that looked like they were always open, four long metal plated tentacles that were constantly in motion, an elongated cartilaginous body that could harden to the toughness of steel, and short pectoral fins that helped it maneuver underwater. He could not see it from the ship, but he had read that the creatures fed by extending thousands of smaller tendrils from their four tentacles down into the ocean. The tendrils would ensnare small prey or debris, and reel them back up to its mouth.
“Awww… I wanna see them too…” Anise replied. This time with a low voice that was filled with envy.
“How about we do that when you are older?” Kaidus asked, trying to cheer her up.
“Really?! You promise?”
“I promise. We’ll bring Lance, mom, and dad too.”
“Yes!!” A joyful cry came through the ring, followed by an immediate silence as Anise quickly held her voice. “Hehehe. Oh Kai! Guess what!” She cried out in a softer voice.
“Hmmm… I think this is going to be hard, so I give up. Did something happened?”
“Uh-huh! You know the big trees at Sylvie’s house?”
The two golden Valune trees popped into his mind. “I do. Did something happened to them?”
“I found a baby birdie around the trees. It was crying for its mommy, so Carise, she climbed the tree and put it back in its na… what do you call a house for a birdy again?”
“Oh yea! She put it back in the nest! Carise is very good at climbing. Hehehe.”
“Really? And who is Carise?”
“Carise is a big girl like Sylvie. Her daddy works for Sylvie’s daddy.”
“Is her father a guard?”
“Uh-huh. And then- and then after that, we told Jill, and mommy, and …”
Anise began unfolding the events of that day.
‘Master…’ Hasen’s voice resounded in his head alongside Anise’s voice from the ring.
‘What is it?’ Kaidus replied, keeping the second conversation in his thoughts.
‘Another attack… the red ones… moving… watching…’ The raspy voice answered.
He immediately understood that Hasen was talking about the Mystiks Guild. His body tensed at the revelation, and he clenched his left hand as power began swelling up from within himself. ‘Was it the guild who attacked?’
‘… I do not know… uncertain… possibility exists… they knew… about… this one…’
He did anticipate that the guild would get involved should anything unnatural happened, but they were moving faster than he expected. For them to also know about Hasen. It was quite problematic. ‘What did you do?’ Kaidus questioned. He had expressly given orders for the two spirits to not harm the guild.
‘…Gave… warning… for valor shown… a chance… that they may better… serve…’
“Serve?” He spoke the word out loud. The spirit had done something unnecessary.
“Kai?” Anise questioned curiously.
“Sorry. I just remembered something.”
“Then you’re not listening…” She pouted.
“I’m always listening. You fell asleep while hiding in one of the rooms, and they couldn’t find you until lunchtime. Is that not what you were talking about?” He quickly summarized what she was telling him.
“Hmm… Eheheheh.” She giggled, then continued with her story.
It was something she had begun to do. Just to make sure he was giving her all his attention.
‘Yes…’ Hasen’s voice rang in his head once again. ‘Your rightful place… Master… Your strength… I feel it… the world must–’
‘Enough.’ Kaidus commanded. ‘That life is no more. Leave it be.’
-A kingdom, born of their endeavors. People who fought alongside him. The laughter, the madness, unwilling to let him go. His mind filled with darkness and rage. A river of blood. The emptiness. The loneliness. The pain once it was all over. An empty void.-
The vivid memories disappeared as quickly as they came.
‘By your will… Master…’ Hasen’s raspy voice had a hint of dissatisfaction, but the spirit did not protest any further.
Discarding what Hasen did, his thoughts quickly turned back to the problems at home. His mind raced through all his possible known enemies in Ferrent, and each time he thought about it, it went back to the Vatenger house. Lord Vatenger was a coward who used his station to scheme and intimidate, but from their short exchange, he was sure the man knew nothing. His prime suspect was Ralfus Vatenger, but would Ralfus dare to go behind his father’s—Lord Vatenger’s—back and do something so rash? He wasn’t sure. The three turns of inactivity from the Vatenger house, ever since the incident, also gave it an air of uncertainty.
Vion’s face came into his mind. The young Ravon had detested him ever since they first met, but he could find no reasons why Vion would bother with him or his family.
There was also the headmaster of Zorin, along with the many students that he overshadowed while at the academy. Yet none felt right.
Whoever it was that went after his family, they cared little for the consequences and lives they were throwing away.
‘Hasen,’ Kaidus finally spoke up after putting some thoughts into the subject. He was not worried about his family’s safety, for the two spirits were more than capable of protecting them. ‘Do not kill the next attackers. Allow them their lives. See if you can flush out the mastermind.’ He instructed.
‘What of… the red ones…?’
‘… Should they be involved with the attacks, you know what to do.’ He calmly replied.
He did not want to go against the Mystiks Guild. He had seen the good they did: providing utility and order to the city. He had also seen righteousness and justice from them to some extent. Yet, if it should be revealed that they were instrumental in the attacks against his family, he would not despair in wiping out the responsible party.
‘Understood… Master…’ Hasen complied and its voice vanished.
Kaidus focused his attention back on Anise, and listened to her story before saying his goodbyes.
Leaving the dank corner of the storage room, he made his way up to the deck.
Vick was standing at the ship’s bow, talking to Jakob.
Narissa was at the helm shouting orders as she tried to maneuver the ship through an opening in the rock face.
They had arrived. He also noticed that the rain had stopped.
They anchored the ship inside a desolate smuggler’s cove that Narissa knew about. A large rocky overhang sat a stone’s throw from the water’s edge, and underneath it, was a large cave opening. Tall rock cliffs hid their position from all sides, with the only entrances and exits being the cave, and the opening they came through.
On the water, two small rowboats moved back and forth from the Maid Marie to the shore, carrying boatloads of supplies. A small group stayed on the ship loading them, while another group was on the shore unloading.
Having already said their goodbyes to the crew, with belongings in hand, Kaidus and Vick followed Narissa inside the cave. Narissa held a torch as she led them into its depths, walking through a short tunnel before stopping in an expansive room. It was a large cavernous room with four more paths leading into darkness. Looking around, there were evidences that the cave was not formed by any natural means, but instead was carved out by tools.
Kaidus watched, as Narissa walked around the room. She was placing torches in small crevices on the wall and lighting them. After lighting enough torches to brighten up the large room, Narissa walked over to a flat wall.
“I’m finally back…” Narissa spoke, her voice low and filled with emotions. The torch in her hand revealed scribblings on the wall. Names. Many of them she had carved into the wall herself. With her slender hand, she wiped the names before lowering her head in silence. After a short prayer, she turned back to Kaidus and Vick. “Sorry about that. Let’s go. I’ll show you to the exit.” She began walking towards one of the four tunnels.
“Are you alright?” Vick questioned as they followed behind her.
“What was that wall? Were those names I saw?” Vick enquired again.
“Yes. The names of…” Narissa went quiet, and an eerie silence wrapped around them as they walked through the tunnel. The torch flickered, casting bulky and inhuman shadows on both sides of the passage. “The last time we were here,” Narissa began again, having found her thoughts. “We were running. Chased by the usurper’s men. Many people lost their lives before we could reach this hideout… Without their bodies, all we could do was carve their names into stone, so that they would never be forgotten. Arfall, Daeve, Nalt, and many more. They were all good people. People I knew. Traders like me who turned to smuggling others out of this country, after witnessing its decline into oppression and tyranny.”
“… I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. It is no fault of yours…” Narissa replied, turning back to give them a strong smile before continuing forward.
With the gloomy atmosphere, they walked in silence for a good two to three hundred paces, going through two smaller tunnels—barely big enough for two people to squeeze by together. As they moved further, they began to feel a gentle breeze, followed by an opening in the distance.
“This is as far as I go.” Narissa was the first to speak as they approached the exit. “It might not be there anymore, but if you continue north from here, you should reach the town of Imvera in three to four days. I don’t know if you will find what you seek in these wretched lands, but I wish you the best of luck.” She then turned to Kaidus and stared at him for a moment. “Kaidus. I’m not sure how you knew, but we got here as you said we would. Safely and in one piece. You have my thanks.”
“Such thanks are unwarranted. It was the undying vigilance of you and your crew that brought us here. I should be the one thanking you.” Kaidus replied, giving a curt bow.
“Hmmm… Is that so?” Narissa returned a warm smile, reminding him of Adalina’s smile. “Again, I must apologize for letting you both go alone like this. I wish I could spare someone to act as your guide, but we’ve got our hands full. Sorry.”
“No need to worry about us,” Vick was the one to reply. “It’s been what? Almost two years since you all fled from here? The way I see it, your problems have only just begun and you’re going to need all the help you can get. Sorry that we cannot stay to help.”
“No, you’ve done more than enough. We are here now, and this is our fight. Our problems. I do not know if the usurper is still after us, or how much this place has changed, but we will handle this somehow.”
“Then I wish you the best of luck.” Vick added, stepping out into the open.
“Thank you for the provisions, and for seeing us out. Please take care.” Kaidus supplemented, following behind.
“Vick. Kaidus.” Narissa called out. “Should fate allow it, may our paths cross again!”
Bringing a fisted right hand to the center of their chests, ““May we meet again someday.”” Vick and Kaidus both replied, giving her a mercenary salute.
They had been walking north ever since leaving the smuggler’s cave. The exit which Narissa took them to had opened to a barren landscape of rocks and hardy prickle thorn bushes. Before nightfall, they arrived in a lush woodland with a thick understory.
With a cloudy sky and very little moonlight, Kaidus had conjured a small ball of light to illuminate their path.
“Reminds you of the Abstrus woods doesn’t it?” Vick questioned as they waded through the knee high grass and plants, thankful for the convenience of magic.
“It really does.” Kaidus agreed, stepping over a rotting log in his path. The memories of the two nights in the Abstrus woods came into his mind, and he began chuckling.
“Come on. It wasn’t that funny.” Vick protested, but started laughing beside him.
“I can’t believe you and Asher both stayed up all night on alert, just to make sure there were no ghosts.”
“Blame the villagers and their stupid superstitions. I was just being cautious.” Vick retorted, defending himself.
That night, their group of six mercenaries were hunting in the Abstrus woods nearby the village of Barstone—a village east of Droxxon headquarters. The woods were said to have some sort of spirit roaming it, which kept the locals away, but the six of them decided to brave it regardless of the warnings. During the middle of the night as Vick and another mercenary got up to relieve their bladders, groggy and half-asleep, the two got spooked by the steam rising from their piss, thinking it was a specter.
He recalled suddenly being woken up, only to find two grown men yelling about ghosts. He had gone back to sleep without a care. The next morning, they woke up to find both Vick and Asher with sunken eyes, as neither had gotten any sleep.
They eventually came upon a small clearing with less bushes and shrubs. A part of the woods where they could actually see the ground. With a unanimous decision, they began clearing out a small area to make camp.
Using earth magic, Kaidus created a small shelter for the both of them while Vick gathered dry wood for a fire. Before long, they were sitting in front of a roaring fire pit, enjoying a late dinner of dried fish and bread.
“So now that we’re in Malpaars, you wanna tell me why we’re really here?” Vick questioned, taking a big bite of his fish and spitting bones into the fire.
Kaidus fought down a smile. Vick was sharper than he gave him credit for. “I told you already. For research and personal interest.” He replied, stripping off a piece of fish and putting it on a slice of mulse bread.
“Really? No ulterior motives? You weren’t just using that excuse to get out of the city? Out of Darsus?” Vick grinned.
“Ulterior motives? Like what?”
“Oh… I don’t know… Maybe you have a thirst for blood after spending those three years with us and wish to test your skills in a life or death battle? Or join a guild? Or become an adventurer, traveling from town to town doing odd jobs? Or maybe you’re finally interested in women? Or possibly men?! Is it men?!” Vick made an exaggerated gasp.
“I can do all of that in Darsus. Why would I need to come here in the first place?” He replied with an unamused face, not allowing Vick’s jests to get to him.
“Hmmm… I guess that’s true. Plenty of men in Darsus too.” Vick smiled, picking his fish clean. “So you really think those things exist? Karugas?”
“In records they do, but I’m not sure. That’s why I want to confirm it for myself.”
Vick threw his bones into the fire and reached for another fish. “Well, now I’m curious if that’s why we’re really here. How do you plan on finding them anyways?”
“No idea. My only clue is a mountain range somewhere in the south. Not sure if it’s to the southeast, or the southwest. We’ll just have to ask and look around until we find it.” Kaidus replied before taking another mouthful of bread and fish.
“Hah… So we’re going to be chasing rumors and stories?”
“That’s the plan.”
In contrast to Vick’s sigh, Kaidus was grinning.