The candle on the nightstand flickered enchantingly, as if dancing to the soft melody traveling around the room.
Holding Lance to her breast, Adalina watched as the boy’s tired eyes fought to stay open, while humming to him of days long past, of love struck maidens awaiting their beloved, and of a mother’s affection. As he fed, she lovingly ran her hand through his fine red hair, stroking it as the boy was slowly pulled into the ever tranquil world of dreams once again.
Just like Anise, the child bore the fire of Troyle’s red hair, along with his light brown eyes. He had grown up quite well, but in contrast to Kaidus’ silent independence or Anise’s cheerful reliance on her older brother, Lance was more of a selfish crybaby.
She smiled at his sleeping face and leaned down to plant a kiss on his forehead. Placing him back on her side of the bed, Adalina picked up the candle and left the room.
Lance’s cries had woken her up in the middle of the night, but something else had caught her attention. On his side of the bed, Troyle was nowhere to be seen.
The two swords laid side by side on the table before him, naked and glistening softly as they were bathed in candlelight.
Whatever was within one of the swords was alive. It had protected him, had mercilessly dealt with their enemies, and would have killed the young noble too—had he not screamed out for it to stop.
He picked up the sword that the black spears and shield had emerged from. The weapon was of plain dark steel, newly forged only a few turns ago in the same design as his others: long and slim with a slight curve, and guardless—perfect for the Formless Blade style.
With a quick forward flick, the sword hummed through the air gracefully. The weapon felt perfect in his hand, no different from when he first got it. “…” Raising it to eye level, “I know you’re there. Come on out.” He spoke, addressing whatever was lurking within.
What answered was the darkness, mocking his every word with silent echoes.
“What are you?”
Again, there was nothing but silence.
“I know you can understand me. I have seen you do so. Show yourself.”
“I command you in my son’s name. Reveal yourself!” He demanded, yet the sword in his hand remained motionless and unchanged.
“Troyle?” Adalina’s voice came from upstairs, and the sound of light footsteps followed. “Just what are you doing? And who were you talking to?” She questioned, coming down the stairs.
“Nothing. I’ll be right up.” He replied, placing the sword back onto the table.
“What’s wrong?” Holding a candle in her hand, Adalina moved across the room to where he sat.
“Is Lance asleep already?”
“He is.” Setting her candlestick onto the table, Adalina sat down next to him. “Did something happened during the trip to Gravas?”
“…” His mind scattered as he tried to think of what to say.
“Look at me.” She took his face in her hands and turned it to face her. “No secrets remember? And you should know by now that I can tell when something is troubling you.”
Troyle chuckled. She was right. Looking at Adalina in the dim light, she was beautiful. Even more so than when he first met her all those years ago by the river.
With resigned breaths, “Two men died under my watch, Ad.” He spoke, lowering his eyes to avoid her gaze. “Because of my carelessness. Because of my complacency, I failed to notice that we were being watched.” He paused, and she released him. “Seeing their lives fading before me, I was so blinded with anger that I… I could have lost my own life. I could have lost you all…”
“You’re still here. You didn’t lose us.” Adalina warmly reminded.
“No, but the thought of it was frightening. All I could think about at the time was not being able to come back to you. To my daughter. To my sons… It’s been so long since I’ve felt like this, that I had almost forgotten what it is that we do.” He slouched forward on the chair and his mouth twisted into a disappointed smile. “Ha… look at me. Oris’ and Kanaar’s family are grieving right now, and all I thought about at the time was myself. I failed them Ad.”
“You didn’t fail anyone. They gave up their life to protect the lord, just as you would have.” She embraced him.
“No. They lost their lives because of me. I was the target this time.” He felt Adalina’s body tensed.
“W-why? Why would anyone be after you?”
Taking a moment to sort his thoughts, Troyle began disclosing to her about everything that happened. About the surprise attack, the entity that emerged from his sword, the young mage of the Vatenger house, interrogating the captives and what they had learned, and about their return to Ferrent.
“…” In shock, Adalina wordlessly sat beside him, quietly listening.
She didn’t know what to say. The incident at the academy had occurred around the beginning of the year, and the other side had been silent all year long without a word or summon. They had already prepared for the worse should there be repercussions regarding the unsavory case, even ready to move or depart the city, should the laws demand it. Yet nothing had occurred. To hear that something like that happened, she was taken aback by the reality of the situation.
“You should have seen him Ad. So full of hate, I could see it in his eyes that he wanted me dead. And I too… at the time of the attack, I wanted nothing more than to plunge my sword into his chest for what he had done. Were it not for the lord being able to recognize him, I don’t know what would have happened.” Troyle sat back on the chair, disappointment showing on his face. “There will definitely be trouble to come. The lord plans to press this matter and bring it up with the royal court. He is adamant about pursuing justice for Kanaar’s and Oris’ families.” He sighed and looked into her eyes again. “And I fear we are right in the middle of all this.”
Feziel listened in silence.
Though it had been discovered, been commanded, it remained motionless.
Only one being had the capacity and capabilities to compel one such as it to act, and that being was currently absent.
It had done as instructed, and had no cause to present itself before them.
It was a shield. It had protected and it would continue to protect. That was all it needed to do.
-Malpaars. Capital Maverus-
As expected, news of the previous night’s assassination tore through the city like uncontrollable wildfire. Guards and knights scrambled to scour the city for the killer, and by late afternoon, even those living in the slums were whispering about it.
Having left Zirus behind at the inn with his belongings, Kaidus made his ways through the slums, heading for the lower castletown area where a mercenary guild was said to be operating.
After a little friendly conversation with one of the younger servants earlier while waiting for his lunch, the boy had pointed him in said direction. If it was anything like those from Darsus, he would be able to buy information, maybe even hire someone to look out for anything that may pique his interest.
Crossing one of the bridges to the lower town market, he immediately noticed a change. Although it was an open market, the place was quieter now compared to before, and an even larger number of guards were moving in groups, patrolling the area and questioning those who crossed their paths. Including vendors and store owners, many of the people were looking more on edge than the previous day, and he quickly understood why.
Rounding one of the many intertwining paths in an attempt to avoid the patrols, the reason for the city’s sulky atmosphere and why everyone had been so careful and apprehensive easily came into full view.
In the middle of the road, a group of three wearing brown leather armor were standing over a man. One of the guard was pressing the butt of his spear against the downed man’s chest, as the other two spat out questions. A gray haired woman, presumably the man’s wife, was kneeling behind them, pleading for them to stop—to no avail. Along with the distasteful spectacle, an overturned table lay to the side of the road with a substantial amount of dried fish scattered all over the ground.
“Tell us old man,” one of the guards exclaimed, “Who was it?!”
“Please! It’s the truth! We don’t know anything!” The woman cried out, begging and grabbing at their legs before being kicked away.
All around the disturbance, the spectators merely stood in place, wordlessly watching. Some turned their gazes and walked away, while those who could not do so listened and tried not to incur the same wrath.
“Take him. He will talk soon enough.” The guard holding the spear ordered.
Watching as they pulled the man up, he noticed that it was an old man, probably close to his late fifties. The man was bleeding from his lips and looked to be in tears. His dark and leathery arms indicated that he was a fisherman, easily explaining the overturned table and goods.
“No! Please! This isn’t right! You can’t just do this!” The woman shouted, grabbing the guards in an attempt to stop them.
Without so much as a warning, the one holding the spear twisted and slammed the back end of his weapon into the woman’s side, dropping her to the ground.
“!” Kaidus unconsciously clenched his fists.
He had not planned on showing himself so soon after what happened, but could not simply stand by and watch any longer. As he stepped forward to intervene, a hand grabbed his shoulder from behind.
A large and imposing man wearing a set of worn brown leather armor stood behind him. With ease, the man pulled him aside to make way and stepped forth toward the others. A full blooded kovus, the man’s head was lined with sleek dark green plates running down the back of his skull to his neck, and two powerful elongated arms fell to his sides, carrying a spear even longer than himself. “What exactly do you all think you’re doing?” Sounding almost angry, his deep voice passed through the air, turning the heads of those who heard.
“Ardan…” The woman cried, and the kovus man walked over to her, helping to sit her up.
“Taking a criminal in for questioning.” One of the guards answered.
In quick strides, the large man stood before the group of three. Standing almost two heads taller than the others, he stared down at them. “On what grounds?”
“H-harboring, and withholding information that may lead to the assassin’s capture.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The kovus man quickly shot down the allegations. “Mr. Elsiur has been selling fish in this city for the past ten years without so much as a problem. You dare to accuse him of such a thing?”
“He was talking about Lord Olivas. He knows something.”
“Everyone and their mother knows that the lord was murdered last night! Now get out of here before I send you after him!”
“Are you threatening us?!” The three released the old man to the ground and poised themselves for a fight.
“Leave before you get hurt!” The larger man barked once more.
In irritation, one of the guards attempted to pull his sword. From a standing position, the kovus man’s spear shot straight out without any tells, splitting the air beside the guard’s face and instantly causing the man to freeze.
Watching from the side, Kaidus smiled. Although the man was quite old, his movements and aura were that of a skilled fighter. Without sticking around to watch the outcome, he back off into the circle of onlookers and continued his way.
He moved carefully to avoid most of the guards. After asking a few merchants for directions, Kaidus eventually arrived at the mercenary guild. Instead of an actual guild house with a training yard for their members, it was more of a modest two-story tavern situated right in between two large inns.
Three men sitting in a corner of the room looked in his direction as he walked in through the door. As he caught their eyes, the three went back to whatever they were doing.
A fourth man stood behind the counter in the back, watching him curiously.
“Can I help you?”
“Sorry. I was told this was a branch of Malpaar’s mercenary guild?”
The three men from the back turned in his direction once more.
“It is. Or it was. If you’re looking to hire, I’m sorry but we’re not taking any jobs right now due to being shorthanded… as you can see.”
The man was right. It was a sorry excuse for a guild branch. The place was nigh on empty, and it looked like a total of four people were in the building. Even the guild’s job board beside the counter was completely empty and looked to not have been used for quite some time.
“Then perhaps you might be able to aid me with some information?” Kaidus spoke, moving toward the counter.
“Information?” The man raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for some people.” He replied.
“Well you’ve found people! BWAHAHAHA!” One of the three from the corner shouted, and they burst into laughter.
“Mages specifically.” He added. The room immediately went quiet.
The man behind the counter narrowed his eyes, his demeanor had also changed. “Can’t help you there.”
“Might there be a few in this city right now?”
“Are you looking for trouble boy? The man said he can’t help you.” One of the three shouted. “Leave before it finds you.”
“Then I shall welcome it.” Kaidus replied, turning around to them and putting a hand on his xeberite sword. “I know how this works. I understand your need to keep information within the guild to prevent it from leaking to your enemies, but I am not your enemy.” He spoke loud enough so that they all heard him. “I am the son of a former mercenary, and have trained with some of the best swordsmen that I know of. I do not fear petty threats.”
“Is that so?” The door swung open, and someone stepped into the building.
“Captain!” The man behind the counter called out, and the others in the room made respectful nods.
Kaidus turned toward the door and saw that the kovus man he had met earlier was walking toward him. Carrying his long spear loosely, the man had an amused expression on his face.
“Who’s our friend?”
“Kid’s trying to look for someone.”
Kaidus made a curt bow, having been vaguely introduced. “The name is Kaidus. Nice to meet you.”
“Hm? Ah, you. I saw you earlier.”
“It was an honor to see how you dealt with such a situation.”
“Really? Perhaps I should have left it to you?”
The man’s smile widened, and Kaidus narrowed his eyes cautiously.
“Hahahaha. I was just kidding.” The man glanced at the others. “I’m guessing you’ve already heard that we’re not taking on jobs?”
“Captain, what did they want?” One of the men interjected.
“I’ll let you guys know later. Let us first see to our friend here.” Looking down at Kaidus, “I am Ardan Lirfain, captain of these useless bastards. We are the last of the once glorious Black Wolves. Now, did I hear you right? Your father was a mercenary?”
“Former.” Kaidus replied, undeterred by the man’s proximity and large stature.
“Ah, right. Former mercenary. Mind elaborating? Name? Which company did he belong to?”
“My father’s name is Troyle Paltos, the former 17th chair of the Droxxon mercenaries under Captain Zikale Lorvak.”
Captain Ardan looked to the others, and they all shook their heads. “Never heard of them.”
“Not surprising. The branch operates in Darsus.” He clarified.
“Darsus?” The man’s brows lifted in curiosity. “That so?”
“Hmm…” The man scanned him carefully then stopped at his sword. “I take it you know how to use that?”
“Mind if I take a look?” Captain Ardan questioned.
As he drew the xeberite sword out of its sheathe, the others looked on in awe as the blade began glowing with a green tint upon being exposed to light. Kaidus offered the handle to the man.
“A beauty this one is…” The captain took the sword with his large hand, delicately turning it around to observe the craftsmanship. “This weight and color… Xeberite?”
“Yes.” Kaidus confirmed.
“Ho… Your story becomes more believable.” Captain Ardan grinned. Standing calmly with his eyes still laughing, he swung the sword at the boy before him.
“Do not test me.” Kaidus warned, and the sudden surge of bloodlust from the man before him vanished. His own xeberite sword had stopped a hand’s width from his neck. The kovus man was still grinning.
“Hahahah! Rylin! A drink for our friend here!!” The man bellowed joyfully before handing the sword back.
“Well, what is it you are after, Kaidus?” Captain Ardan questioned after gulping down his fourth tankard of ale.
Sitting opposite each other at one of the many vacant tables, Captain Ardan eventually threw the heart of the matter into the fray—after a few colorful regaling of his past adventures.
As courtesy dictated, Kaidus had listened and entertained with questions of his own, but his purpose in being there was for information, and the man had finally offer it to him.
“I have need of a mage’s skills. I would like to purchase anything you have that may lead me to coming into contact with one that could help me.” Kaidus answered calmly and concisely, before taking a drink from the cup of honeyed wine before him. It was his second, and the sweet nectar was going down more smoothly now.
“What sort of skills are we talking about here?”
“One capable of defending his or herself in a fight. A malgin preferably, but a powerful raezil should suffice.”
“Planning on getting into some trouble are you?” The older mercenary gave a playful grin before calling for another cup.
“Hardly. I need to do some digging, but my destination is far and it would be a bad idea to lose our lives before we get there.”
“Fair enough. Hmm… Well, there are a few capable mages in this city, but I am afraid you will not be able to persuade them to change vocations.” Captain Ardan answered with a wry smile, looking half-drunk already. “They are all court mages, and with the assassination of Lord Krain Olivas last night, I am sure the few of them are scrambling right now. KAHAHAH!”
“I see. That is unfortunate.” Setting the drink down, he paused as the one called Rylin brought over a jug to refill the old kovus’ tankard. “What about outside of the city? Surely there are others?”
“Wouldn’t know. Enough problems inside these walls. Getting mixed up with mages are the least of our priorities.”
“I understand. Then I will trouble you no further.”
“I didn’t say I was done. Perhaps you might have more luck with the merchant’s guild. Wouldn’t put it past them to be dealing with mages. I’m sure they could point you in the right direction.” Captain Ardan paused and took another gulp of his wine. “Then again… those bastards are also quite secretive, so it might take some wheedling.” The man grinned.
The obsidian token in his extra boot came into Kaidus’ mind. “That might not be a bad idea. I’ll do that. Would you mind pointing me in the direction of the merchant’s guild?”
“Head back to where we met earlier, then go north until you reach the guild. Can’t miss it. It’s the largest building in this damned city.”
“Thank you.” Kaidus nodded gratefully and got up.
“What are you doing? Don’t tell me you’re leaving already? Sit down and drink with me some more. We have much to talk about, and who knows when I’ll see another person who I can talk to other than those dregs over there?”
“We heard you,” one of the men called out from behind.
“Shut up!!” Captain Ardan retorted.
“I’d love to, but I had not planned on staying out this long. There is also something else that requires my attention, so I must bid you farewell.” Bowing apologetically, he stepped forward to the jolly man.
“Until we meet again,” Kaidus extended his hand forward.
With the boy gone, Captain Ardan stood up from his chair. His cheerful grin was gone, and no longer did he need to act half drunk. “Augus. Dirk.” He called, and two of the men who had been sitting a few tables behind him—listening—stood up.
“Pack your bags and enough food for eight days of travel. Rylin will provide you both with any additional supplies that you may require. I will have your destination and a letter ready by tonight.”
“Got it.” Without question, the two men headed upstairs.
“Captain. Was it his Majesty?”
“Yes. Although earlier than anticipated, his Majesty has deemed it time for Count Validare and Count Rais to begin. It won’t be long before our enemies learn about Lord Olivas’ death, so we must take this opportunity to strike before they can make a move.”