Setting down Vick who had fainted during the flight, Kaidus moved toward the Countess. He had bound her legs to keep her from kicking, and her arms behind her back. She glared at him, her dark eyes filled with animosity and anger. Yet beneath the willful and ironclad countenance, there were traces of fear in those eyes.
He had also sealed her mouth shut with magic, and made it quite clear to her that she was at his mercy. Should she try anything, he would not hesitate to end her.
Reaching down, he pulled the woman onto her feet so that everyone could see.
A voice came from his left side, and Kaidus turned to see the elder.
In the torchlights, he also saw the numerous men, women, and children, staring in his direction. Their eyes were filled with curiosity.
He didn’t notice during his descent, but before him was a large mass of people. From the amount of torches and from those he could see, they easily numbered over a hundred. Each and every one of them was carrying something or had something strapped to them: a bag of clothes, a wooden chair, cooking utensils tied together in bundles, torches, luggage of some sort. Some of the women carried babies in their arms while others held onto the hands of younger children.
It quickly made sense why the Countess had required such a large force of soldiers.
“Burn her! Burn the bitch!” A man shouted, throwing a torch before Kaidus’ feet. Others hesitantly stalked forward to get a better look. Their anger and vengeance taking priority over what they had all just witnessed.
“How is this possible?” The elder questioned, and everyone else halted and quieted down upon seeing the old man hobbling over to him.
“Such details are insignificant. Is she not the source of your ire? Of your worries?”
The old man stepped closer. “How could I ever forget that face…” He replied, voice shaking with a dry fury. “Or her despicable laughter when she murdered my sons before my very eyes.” The old man reached out a trembling hand as if to go for her throat. The young lady beside him placed her hands on his shoulders, and he stopped.
The commanding elder from that evening looked extremely small now. Sorrow oozed from him like a leaking water skin, and there were tears in his eyes.
“Giv’er to us! She needs to pay for everything she’s done!” A man bellowed.
Kaidus pulled the Countess out of reach of the bloodthirsty group. “I don’t know what transpired between you all, but as you can see, she is my hostage. If you wish to have her, I would like to propose a trade.”
“Trade?” The elder looked up at him.
“Coincidentally, I have business with those she is affiliated to. I have questioned many of her kind before, and have grown tired of not getting what I need.” He saw the dread on the Countess’ face. “You provide me with what you know, and I will hand her over to you, to do with as you wish.”
The old man silently stared at him for a moment. “B-Business with people like her?”
“It is personal, and not something you should worry about.” Kaidus replied as he looked around once more. “I have also taken the liberty of dealing with your pursuers. None of you will need to flee this night.” He added, not going into details. “Now, do we have an agreement or not?”
The elder gave him with a look of shock and surprise, along with an understanding stare. “I… of course. But I’m afraid we might not be able to help with what information you are seeking.”
“We shall find out soon enough. Perhaps we can discuss further in one of the houses?”
“C-Certainly. That one right over there.” The old man pointed behind him to a hut nearby.
Kaidus stepped over to where Vick was lying on the ground.
“Aaaah!!!” Vick screamed as he attempted to pick the man up. “What happened?! Where am I? What in the world is going on?!” Vick glanced around before locking eyes with him. “Kaidus! What happened?! I was- We were- Were we really flying?!”
“Yes. Now settle down.”
“When?! How!? Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?!” Vick questioned excitedly.
“Later. We’re going inside. Come on.” He walked over to the Countess and pushed her toward the small hut. She attempted to put up some semblance of a fight, but was easily forced into the house.
Behind them, the villagers were questioning what was happening. The elder was talking with some of them, telling them to notify the others of the new developments.
“Elder, we cannot trust them.” A man spoke up as he sat down with them.
It was the same man he had held at sword point earlier the previous evening—the one who was yelling for blood.
They were sitting in the elder’s house.
Of a rudimentary design, it was a single room with four walls. Built with a wooden frame but padded with mud, the structure had a rough wooden roof lined with plant fibers and leaves. Two wide slits decorated two walls of the hut, possibly for ventilation.
Thankfully, all of the furnishing had been packed and moved outside already, allowing it to fit in seven people comfortably. An oil lantern hung from the ceiling, illuminating the room.
“I don’t need you to trust us. This is merely a business transaction, to be paid with information.” Kaidus swiftly countered.
Vick sat beside him and the Countess was lying on the ground behind them. Due to her incessant struggles, he was forced to put her to sleep.
Across from them was the elder, along with the young lady who was always beside him. Two other men sat beside the old man: the outspoken man earlier, and a balding man who looked barely over forty.
“Indeed…” The elder affirmed, stopping the other man from saying anything else. “But before that, I would like to know who you two are, and what purpose you have in doing all this.”
The old man glanced at the woman behind them.
“I am Kaidus. My friend here is Vick. We are travelers from Darsus, and have just arrived in Malpaars not too long ago.”
“That’s impossible! No one’s been able to enter these forsaken…” The distrusting man exclaimed but quickly went quiet, realizing the sort of situation they were in and remembering what he saw earlier.
“As for our purpose in doing this, let’s just say I’m curious. Not to mention, it worked out quite favorably for me.” Kaidus added after the man’s outburst.
His actions had been due to a need for understanding, and to witness for himself the depths of corruption within Malpaars. To find agents of Tal’hrus within the midst of everything, it was quite surprising.
“…” The old man silent watched him with his piercing gray eyes, assessing his story.
“Now, how about yourselves? I would like to know who you all are, and from what I’ve gathered, I’m guessing ‘elder’ is but a moniker you are going with now.” He stared at the old man. “The outcry from the scout last evening, the look you gave her earlier when you saw the Countess. There’s got to be more going on here than what I can see.”
“Indeed… I am Shradech Vinsolus, the former lord of Imvera.” The old man spoke with a dignified tone befitting his claims. “This is my daughter Fera, the last of my line. These two men here are Pelwin, a former guard, and Nikai, a carpenter. Both are formerly from the village of Vernigale.”
“We passed through Imvera yesterday. The town was a ruin.”
“Yes. The town’s been abandoned for almost half a year now.”
“I see. I would love to hear more about the events that transpired, but first, there is something that I must ask all of you.”
“What is it?”
“Does the name Tal’hrus ring a bell?” He questioned.
There was confusion in the old man’s eyes and from those beside him, but Vick perked up.
“Oi Kaidus. You don’t mean Tal’hrus, as in the Tal’hrus organization that’s been devastating eastern Darsus?”
“You catch on quickly.”
“Please tell me you’re joking. Even Captain Zikale has cautioned us about them.” Vick replied with a troubled plea.
“I warned you about the perils of this trip. It is a little late for your objections now.”
“I- Guh… what have I gotten myself into?” Vick relented and went quiet.
“An organization from out of Darsus?” The old man enquired.
“I do not know of their origin, only that they are prevalent throughout the seven continents.”
The elder turned to the two men beside him. Both shook their heads. “I cannot say I’ve heard of such an organization.”
“I see… That is unfortunate. I was hoping you all may have heard of something.” Kaidus looked back to the woman behind him. “Another question then. Would you mind telling me why someone like her is a Countess, and why she is hunting you all?
“It’s because of the war. Because of that blasted revolution a couple of years ago.” Nikai the balding carpenter, answered.
“Yes. If there was a point that began all this madness, it would have to be that. Malpaars’ decline began after the new restructuring…” The old man supplemented, and started recounting the past few years.
He spoke about the revolution that swept through the country like a violent storm. About the hunt and public execution of the former Royal Family, and the new King’s ascension. About the boons granted to those who contributed to the revolution’s success, and lastly about what happened to the town of Imvera and why they were on the run.
It turned out that after the instatement of the new monarch, the woman sleeping behind them, who was an heiress to a small estate was granted the title of Countess and given a large portion of land to govern. She and many others like her had joined during the end of the civil war and overwhelmed the opposition, tipping the tides of battle and paving the way for the new regime. Everything happened extremely fast, and in just a few short years, a system that had been running the country for generations easily crumbled, and was replaced with a new one.
As for the reasons they were now in hiding, it was through a series of events.
Unfortunately for them, the land granted to Countess Belinde encompassed much of southern Malpaars, including the town of Imvera.
After the war, Imvera and its surroundings began getting raided by bandits. Even after taking it up with the Countess and asking for help, she had done nothing.
Using his resources as a lord at the time, the old man discovered that troops belonging to the Countess were disguising themselves as bandits to raid Imvera. Upon his accusations, the town was accused of harboring dangerous war criminals, and its residents forcibly relocated. While on the road to the Capital of Maverus to seek assistance from the King, they were attacked by the Countess and her troops. It was then that they learned just how far gone Malpaars was.
Many of the citizens were captured and the old man’s two sons were slain during the assault. The old man, along with his daughter and a sizable group of people, were able to escape and make their way to the village of Vernigale, where they had been hiding ever since. With the cooperation of the villagers, Vernigale eventually began assisting the Liberation Army. It was because of that, that the Countess got wind of them once more and quickly brought her soldiers upon the village, forcing them all to flee.
“You said others were granted titles and privileges. How many others?” He questioned after the old man finished talking.
For an agent of Tal’hrus to have obtained the title of Countess and all its privileges, the chances that other agents had also infiltrated the upper echelons of Malpaar’s ruling class was very high.
“Well… If memories serves me right, two other men also received the title of Count. An unknown man became the new King’s advisor, and many more were bestowed titles.”
“Any mages within those ranks?”
“Undoubtedly. Being this far south, we were lucky to avoid most of the war so I’m uncertain, but the late King had mages in his employ. For them to have lost, there must have been mages within the revolutionary army.”
Very different from what they were doing in Darsus, Tal’hrus had managed to instigate a war within Malpaars and used it to their benefits. Being in a position of power with title, land, and privileges would easily allow them to do as they pleased. There would be no need for covert operations and blackmailing when you can outright enforce your authority upon your victims. “There was a considerable force with her. I’m guessing our Countess here has her own standing army?” He decided to ask something that was bothering him.
“Yes,” The old man frowned. “Though not much better than a gathering of bandits, last time I heard it was at least a thousand strong. Possibly even more now.”
A thousand. The number was nothing to scoff at. He had killed two to three dozen of them earlier, but it was only a fraction of the main force. He had possibly just stirred up more trouble should they come looking for their Countess. “How many others have a standing army?” He continued.
“Forgive me, but may I enquire as to what you are planning to do with this information?”
“I am thinking that we might pay a few of them a visit.” He replied with a smile.
“I-Is that so?” The old man responded nervously at his lighthearted tone. “I do not know much, but from information gathered by the Liberation Army, at least eight others have their own independent forces.”
Kaidus grinned. It was not unusual for powerful lords to have their own armies, or for factions to unify under the banners of some with more authority. Yet for eight distinct factions to be gathering up strength independently, the situation was quite intriguing. There was definitely something else going on. “What is this Liberation Army you spoke of?”
“They are remnants of the deceased King’s men, and people who wish to return this land back to what it once was. It may not have been perfect then, but at least there was stability and order.”
“I am guessing it’s safe to surmise that this Liberation Army also has a large force of their own?”
“Yes…” The old man reluctantly answered.
“What of the current King? Does he have his own army also?”
It was becoming more interesting with each answer.
He began to question them about the new king, and about the division of power within the different factions, but was unable to get anything clear. Most of the information they knew, had been from the Liberation Army. He changed the subject and went on to ask about events happening within Malpaars, but they too had very little idea, due to being on the run for so long.
By the time he decided to end the discussion, it was long past midnight. “Thank you for your cooperation. Might I have a moment with the Countess in private before I hand her over to you all?”
“What are you playing at?” The man called Pelwin snarled—the one he held hostage. “We’ve fulfilled our part of the deal. Now hand her over.”
“Indeed you have, but I would like a moment to talk to her before I relinquish her fate to your capable hands.”
“We will wait outside.” The old man complied and got up to leave. The other two hesitantly followed.
“She’s one of them isn’t she? A member of Tal’hrus.” Vick finally questioned after the others were gone.
“How did you know?”
“This.” Kaidus took out the metal ring he had taken from the Countess and showed it to Vick. There was a distinct trace of mana coming from the ring. “I wasn’t sure, but her reaction to my question confirmed it, along with the three mages that attacked me.”
“Thr-Three mages?” Vick looked at Kaidus then to the alluring woman lying on the ground. He had been too busy fending off his own attackers and didn’t even notice the mages. “Ha… What a waste. What are you planning to do with her?”
“I wanted to leave this matter for later. Much later. At least until I have found what it is that I am here for, but it seems fate had other ideas. It looks like we will have to improvise as we go.” Kaidus reached down and infused mana into the woman.
She quickly jolted awake and attempted to sit up, while glaring back at him. Her mouth was still sealed shut, but he could see that she trying to say something.
“Imagine my astonishment upon seeing that the Countess everyone was talking about was a Tal’hrus agent.” He displayed her metal ring before her. “You see, I have one too.” He pulled out his own silver communication ring. “I know very well how it works. What I don’t know, is the incantation required to get through the enchantment.” He released the metal ring and it gently floated in midair between them. “But you can be sure that this master of yours will try and contact you. And once they do, I will be there to answer.” He spoke with a dry unamused tone, baring his teeth as he uttered the latter part of his statement.
The Countess began protesting by shaking her head along with an angry stare. From her actions, he could see that she was desperate to say something. Kaidus lowered his face to hers. “There is no need for discussion, as you will be facing your due justice soon. But before I leave you to those you have plagued, know that I will find your master and associates, and send them after you. Let the knowledge that you will not be going alone bring you peace of mind.” He stood up and walked out of the small house. A disturbed and confused Vick followed behind.
Upon exiting, the elder and his entourage quickly came over to them. Many of the people who were waiting outside of the house while they were talking had already gone back to their own huts, leaving only a handful of men to stand watch.
“Thank you for catering to my whims. She is all yours.” He stepped away from the entrance to allow the man called Pelwin to enter.
“I apologize for my outburst and words last evening. You both have done us all a great service.” The old man lowered his head graciously. “Might I ask that you stay the night? It is not much better than a sleeping in the dirt, but you’ll have a roof over your head, and a warm meal tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you. We shall take you up on that offer.” He gladly accepted.