After another two days, they arrived at a small quaint village along the roadside. From what they were told, it was the village of Esperen, one of many farming settlements under the control of Countess Belinde.
Entering its vicinity, the few farmers who were out on the fields began staring at them. Some began whispering to each other and two men who had been moving towards them, turned back and hastily walked away.
As they passed the fields and entered the village, there was an odd sense of anxiousness floating about. The previously occupied dirt roads were now empty, and all the doors and windows of the houses had been shut. Eyes peeked out from the shadows and windows, jerking away whenever they turned to look.
“What’s with everyone?” Vick asked, glancing around.
“Don’t know,” Kaidus shrugged. “Let’s see if we can find a place to rest. We’re also running out of a few things so it’d be a good time to resupply.” He suggested, moving along without worry.
Further into the village, they spotted a building very different from all the other wooden houses. A two-story building made of stone.
The large entrance was wide open and looked like someone had ripped the double doors off of their hinges. To the side of the opening, a broken sign was leaning against the wall. The words “T-h-e P-r-a-n-c” could be seen on the side that was facing outward.
‘The Prancing something?’ Kaidus wondered as they both began walking towards the conspicuous building.
“They’re coming this way!” A boy’s voice came from inside as they got closer, followed by some hushing, then silence.
A dimly lit room welcomed them as they entered. There were a handful of tables lining one side of the room, and four tense looking men sat at one of the tables, each with a drink before them. Directly across from the entrance was a set of stairs, one going up and another probably down to a food cellar. The young boy whom they had heard earlier was nowhere to be seen.
*CLANG!* the sound of a tankard slamming against a table sounded through the room, and one of the four men stood up.
“What in Talaras’ tits are ya fucks doing back already?” The man spoke with an angry huffing tone, stalking over to them while the three others frantically jumped out of their seats. “We told you we’d have yer damned provisions in six days! Not two! Now get the fuck out of here!”
Vick and Kaidus both looked at each other in confusion. The man’s red face and uneven steps told them that he was drunk. Not yet to the point of being an inebriated stupor, but enough to start trouble.
“I think you are mistaken,” Vick calmly replied, trying to pacify the situation. “My friend here and I–”
The man closed in on Vick and the other three tried to stop him, but he shrugged them off. “Mistaken?” The man eyed the swords at Vick’s waist. “You lots go around forcing and stealing from good hardworking folks. What’s there to–” *Thuck!* a wooden ladle flew over and smacked the side of the man’s head.
“Shaddap, ya dolt! Can’t-cha see you’re disturbin’ the guests!?” An old woman shouted as she descended the stairs.
“That hurts, you old crone! And what guests!?” The man snapped back, holding the side of his head.
“If you’re goin’ ta start trouble again, take it elsewhere. Or must I remind you about last time?”
The man looked to the door, then at the old lady once more before storming out of the building.
“And fix my door already!” The old lady shouted after.
The other three hastily finished their drinks and rushed out.
“Don’t mind Diller and them. It’s been rough for everyone, and with the recent turn of events, he’s just takin’ it harder than the rest of us.” The old lady explained as she walked over to them. Her white hair was tied into a large bun on the back of her head, and she walked with a hunch, making her look very weak and small. “Now then, how can I help you?” The old lady questioned, looking up at them.
“Ah, right. Might this be an inn?” Vick answered respectfully.
“Indeed. The Prancing Myrtle be its name. Although there’s not much to be prancing about nowadays, as you can see.”
“Are you the owner?” Vick replied as they both glanced around the empty room.
“I am.” A smile appeared on the old lady’s face, seeing their surprise. “I run this place with my three grandchildren and a couple of helping hands.”
“The door and that broken sign out front. What happened?” Kaidus interjected curiously.
“A long story sonny, and not something for strangers like you to worry about. Now, would you two like a room? How about some food? I’ve got mashed abrusal with mulse grit, bird stew, and dronnon blood sausage ready to serve if you’re hungry.”
“Lunch?” Vick asked, turning to Kaidus with a hungry smile.
“And a room for the night.” Kaidus added.
After lunch, while Vick opted to stay downstairs to drink and fish for information from the owner, Kaidus was sitting alone in their room, adding to his map.
A quill in hand, he was drawing in the roads that they had traveled, trying to supplement the simple map with what he could from memory.
He drew a dot and labeled the approximate location of where the forest village was, then made a couple estimations and did the same for their current location—the village of Esperen.
After he finished adding in what he could recount and noting down where the roads split, using the map, he started calculating their current distance from the other towns and villages that Narissa had marked. There was a dot denoting a village about four days northeast of Esperen. A large circle with an X through it to the far north, and two other circles signifying towns to the west. Looking at the map, his eyes fell upon the western mountains, and to a few of the villages that were marked around them.
They were still quite a long ways away, and at their rate, it would be close to a turn before they reach their destination. Even with horses, it would still take a considerable amount of time. The distance wasn’t all that far in actuality, and they were both capable of riding long distances, but reaching the western mountains was only the beginning. If he could not find what he seeks there, then they would have to turn around and trek across Malpaars once more. To make matters worse, there was also Tal’hrus always looming in the back of his mind. If they were as spread out as they had been in Darsus, then it could possibly take even longer.
He sighed, hoping against all hopes that he did not make the wrong decision in choosing to head west first.
Starting to second-guess himself, he got up and dug into his pack.
“Hm?” Something caught his attention as he was pulling the items out to reach the notes at the bottom. Instead of the bundle of records, he focused on the extra pair of traveling boots he had packed.
There was something white rolling around in the left boot, and he immediately recalled putting the seed that Zeeke gave him inside to keep it from getting lost or falling out. Spilling the small object onto his hand, instead of its normally dark metallic coloration and hard texture, the seed had turned a dull white and felt malleable to the touch.
The same mana signature and familiar presence could still be felt from it, but there was something else. Something unfamiliar and very different from Zeeke’s presence.
“What in the world?” Kaidus voiced out loud, curious about the changes. Remembering what happened the last time, he began infusing mana into the seed.
Right away, it started glowing dimly as it had done before.
‘Master.’ Vishan’s voice echoed in his mind as four transparent threadlike tendrils unraveled from the glowing seed. Surprised, he stopped his infusion. His mana that he had already poured into it vanished instantly. “Zeeke… What did you give me?” He whispered, staring at the mystifying object before him.
Wondering if something was supposed to start germinating, he simply waited and observed. As he watched, the tendrils began moving, feeling and snaking along his wrist to his forearm as if they had a mind of their own. He felt a prickle as they suddenly twisted and wrapped around his arm. Tiny droplets of blood began forming as the tendrils punctured his skin and wormed their way into his flesh.
“It Wishes To Consume You, Master.” The light spirit spoke, emerging into the room in its humanoid form and reaching for the seed.
A smile appeared on Kaidus’ face. “Stop. I will be fine.” He instructed, and Vishan’s form shimmered for an instant before disappearing without any objections.
Holding his arm up, Kaidus stared at the small threads moving under his skin. Blood was oozing out of the entry points and flowing to his elbow. “You wish to feed?” He questioned.
Strengthening his arm, he began reinforcing and hardening it with mana as he willed his magic to heal himself. He could see the tendrils squirming, trying to figure out what was happening as they were being rejected and forced out. The pain began subsiding as the four threads retreated, emerging from his flesh to wave in the air like confused fingers.
He stopped and carefully observed them once more. And just like before, the tendrils began feeling along his hand, poking and prodding for a weak spot. Another smile appeared on his face. Whatever it was, it was alive in some way.
With a thought, he infused it with a surge of mana and the tendrils quickly moved back to sway in the air once again. “Hmmm…” He opened his mind and willed a deluge of mana into it. As it happened before, the seed quickly absorbed every drop of mana greedily. Alone in the room, be continued with the experiment.
After a duration of persisting without letting up, something else occurred. The tendrils began emitting a red light, and the seed’s dim glow started pulsing until it was bright enough to illuminate the room.
Suddenly, for some unknown reason, the red tendrils began wrapping themselves around the seed, melding into it and turning the white glow blood-red. In a second shift of confusion, the light started fading even while he was still infusing mana. As the glow vanished, he saw that the seed had once again hardened, reverting back to its metallic self. Only this time, it was now dark with shades of red.
“Interesting… What exactly are you?” He questioned again, staring at the unusual item that was exuding heat in the palm of his hand. There was a reason why Zeeke had given it to him. Whatever that reason was, he still had no idea.
He tried infusing more mana into the seed, but nothing else happened.
Puzzled, he placed it in his concealed shirt pocket with the two Nyzacus shards.
After a lengthy meditation to refocus his mana, he cleaned up his belongings and left the room, heading downstairs to check on Vick.
Vick was slumped over one of the smaller tables, looking as if he had drank himself to sleep. On the other side of the room, a small number of people were drinking and talking noisily.
“Anything?” Kaidus whispered, sitting down beside the older man. Vick opened one eye to peek at him then yawned, pretending to wake up.
“Huwahh… so hungry from all this sitting. Is it dinner time already?” Vick’s lips curved into a smile and he stood up.
Back in their room and with plates of food, Vick was sharing what he found.
“Folks don’t seem to like talking to strangers around here even if you tell them you could help.” He made an irritated face as he bit into a piece of roasted meat.
“But you found something?”
“Nothing to help us in our search, but you could say that.”
Kaidus gave the older man a questioning look.
“Hey, I tried asking about Tal’hrus. Guess what granny down there thought I was talking about.” Vick paused, staring back at him.
“An organization of mages?”
“Try a flowering tree,” Vick replied dryly. “I don’t think anyone in this village has a clue about Tal’hrus, but get this. I started probing about what’s been happening around the village, and she started becoming very evasive. I tried asking a few others that came in, but they wouldn’t even talk to me. All except for one.”
“With a couple erns, one of the owner’s grandchildren became very informative.”
“You bribed a child?”
“I didn’t bribe anyone,” Vick quickly refuted the accusation. “It’s called paying for information. A mutual give and take.”
“Right. And what did you find out?”
“Anyways. He said a group came by a few days ago and then folks started complaining about the year’s tax.”
“Well, he also said collection doesn’t usually start until the end of Fulta- until after the fields have been harvested.” Vick grinned. “That’s why it was such an odd welcome earlier. They thought we were with the collectors. Apparently that man we met this afternoon got into a scuffle with the group that came by, and the result was… well you saw it for yourself downstairs.”
“Tax collection… Lord Shradech did say this village was under the control of the countess. Could be her men.”
“Exactly my thoughts. So what now? Should we stay here for a couple days and see what happens?” Vick questioned.
“No. We leave in the morning as planned.” He promptly replied.
There was no reason to do anything. The villagers were not in danger as long as they provided what was required, and did not openly revolt. Helping would only endanger them.
“You sure? Could be trouble when they come back.”
“Perhaps, but I’d hate to imagine what would happen once we leave. It’s not like these people are already on the run or in danger, and this place looks peaceful enough as it is. Helping would only ruin their livelihood.”
“… Alright.” Vick replied and dug into his food. After a moment of silent deliberation, he looked back at Kaidus. “What about you? Still nothing from the ring?” He questioned, glancing down at the one tied to the hilt of his sword.
The next morning.
They sat at one of the tables, eating a belated breakfast while waiting for the old lady to put some supplies together for them. Having been unable to sleep in an actual bed ever since leaving Darsus, they had indulged themselves and overslept, knowing that the incoming days would be without comfort.
As they ate, the wind knocked down the doors that were simply fixed into the gaping entrance, and a cold wind blew into the room. The old lady began cursing hysterically from the kitchen about the door, and Vick attempted to hold down his laughter.
As Kaidus was finishing his bowl of stew, his pocket began glowing, and he could feel the familiar mana coming from it. Anise was calling. “I’ll be right back.” He got up and headed back upstairs to the room they had previously occupied.
“Kai?!” The girl’s endearing voice came through as soon as he injected some mana into the ring—forcing him to quickly cast a sound barrier around the room.
“You sound excited.”
“Kai are you okay?” She enquired. Her voice almost sounding worried.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Umm… Some people came here today. They were looking for you.”
“Looking for me?” He questioned as various things began flashing through this mind.
“Who? What did they look like? Have you seen them before?”
“I don’t know, but it was a funny old man and a big man a lot bigger than daddy, and two more people.”
Funny old man. Big man. He was confused. “Did something happened?”
“Mmm… Nope. They talked with daddy for a little bit then they left. Daddy said they wanted to talk to you. Do you know them?”
He had no idea. “Hasen?” He questioned.
‘Zorin… Headmaster… the others… unknown….’ The spirit immediately answered in his mind.
“Hasen?” Anise questioned.
“Nothing. You’re keeping Hasen with you like I told you right?”
“Kai. What did Hasen say?” Anise inquired.
He smiled, hearing her curiosity. “He told me who they were. That’s all.”
“You know them?”
“Only one. The funny old man.” He chuckled, picturing old man Nylen’s face. The man was anything but funny.
“Who is he?”
“From your school?” She continued her enquiries.
“How’re Mom and Lance?”
“They’re okay. Mommy and Lance are downstairs right now.” She replied happily.
“I see. Are you three going shopping today?”
“Uh-huh. Sylvie and her mom too. We’re waiting for them right now.”
“Dad’s at the Varath manor then?”
“Yep. He was supposed to stay home today, but he left after the other people left.”
“And what about you? Are you doing okay?”
“Hehehe. Uh-huh! Guess what Kai!”
“Hmm… A new dress? No that can’t be. You just got one not too long ago. Is it a book? Did you finish a book?”
“Nope!” There was joyful laughter coming through the ring.
“Does Hasen know?”
“That’s cheating!” She rebuked him immediately.
“Hmm… Does it have something to do with an animal?”
“Uh-huh.” There was a muffled giggle.
“Why don’t you just tell me? It was close enough wasn’t it?”
“Hehehe. You remember the baby birdy at Sylvie’s house?”
“The one that fell off the nest?” He recalled what she had told him before their ship arrived in Malpaars.
“Yep. It’s a lot bigger now. We found it hiding in the garden, and I gave it a worm. It ate it.” She replied proudly.
“Really? Maybe it likes you.”
“I hope so. I li-”
“Anise? Who were you talking to?” A different voice came through the ring. A very familiar one.
“N-No one!” Anise replied, and the connection stopped.
He couldn’t help but smile. Anise was keeping the ring a secret like he told her, and even from Sylvia whom she treated like a sister.
With the abrupt end to their conversation, he broke the barrier and returned downstairs.
Vick was already done with his breakfast, and on the table was the bundle of supplies that the old lady had put together. Spices, salt, crushed herbs, and a chunk of cured meat for the road.
Including their room and everything else, his bag was now 46 erns lighter.
“Ready to head off then?” Vick stood up and picked up the bundle.
Grabbing his pack and sword, Kaidus pulled his gray cloak around himself. “Yea. Let’s go.”