The Storm King (Ch. 1 - 35)

edited April 7 in Original Stories
Synopsis:
Leon and his father, Artorias, are the last remaining scions of a once powerful and illustrious family of lightning mages.  After barely surviving an attack that destroyed their home fifteen years ago, they now live in the dangerous Northern Vales, a desolate wilderness far away from civilization.  But those who want them dead are strong, patient, and relentless, and it is only a matter of time before they find the two they seek...

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I intend to post a new chapter every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  If you enjoy this story and want to see what comes next, consider visiting my website, wardenreading.com, which will be 4 chapters ahead of everywhere else I happen to post.  It is also now available on RoyalRoadl.com.

If you happen to see a mistake or something I missed, do let me know.  This is the first long term story I've ever tried writing, so there are bound to be mistakes.  And don't be shy about telling me your opinion, either!  I'm very open to feedback.  And with that, I'll leave you to it, and I hope you enjoy The Storm King.





Chapter 1:  The Forest of Black and White


In the plane of Aeterna lies a multitude of Kingdoms and Empires.  In the center of the plane is an immense continent, more than twenty thousand miles in all directions.  It is surrounded by an even larger ocean, extending more than twenty thousand miles further. 

In the center of the continent lies the most powerful and prosperous empires, where mages have a command of magic that borders on the divine.  As one gets closer to the edge of the continent, however, the nations are less prosperous, less populated, and less advanced.  In the far north lies an isolated kingdom, known as the Bull Kingdom.

This kingdom is flanked on its northern and eastern border by nigh-impassable mountain ranges, in the south by a wide gulf, and in the west by the Endless Ocean.  But even further north, deep in the Frozen Mountain Range, lies a number of comparably temperate vales inhabited by tribes of people who scoff at the southern lords and their knights.  They are a hardy people, fearless and territorial, and theirs is a violent and typically short life.

But as ready as The Bull King’s soldiers are for battle, as eager as those northern warriors are to spill the blood of their enemies, there are places in those Northern Vales that even they refuse to enter.

One of those places is the Forest of Black and White, which takes up the entirety of one of the smaller vales.  No tribe lives there, and few even dare to live near the mountain passes that lead to it.  It is a place of horror, of terrifying bedtime stories told to the children of the tribes.  If they are not brave against their enemies and true to their friends, the wraiths and evil gods of the forest would come to take them in the night.

The vale is one hundred miles east-west and seventy miles north-south, and the Forest of Black and White has covered almost the entire place.  The forest got its name from the trees of dark bark and brilliant green leaves, and the trees of pale white bark and deep, twilight blue leaves that are most commonly seen within it.

Many strange and otherworldly beings call the forest home, from the vicious beasts of flesh and blood, to the spirits of ice, earth, and wind.  But perhaps the strangest beings that live in this forest are two men, a father-son pair, who built their home deep within the forest, in a large clearing of purple grass.

The father was tall, well-built, and looked roughly in his mid-twenties, though he was at least a decade older than that.  He had black hair, warm brown eyes, sharp features, and a straight nose.  The son was a youth of sixteen, slightly shorter than his father, and with a skinnier build.  His features took after his father for the most part, except for his bright golden eyes.

The son, Leon, was dressed in a loose-fitting shirt made of dark green woven grass, a specialty of the nearest tribe, with brown leather pants and boots.  He had a hunting bow slung across his shoulder, a quiver full of arrows on his back, and knife at his leather belt.  His father, Artorias, was largely dressed the same, except for a light brown fur coat and a longsword at his hip.

Artorias watched Leon as he tracked the beast they were hunting, an enormous stag large enough to feed them for several weeks.  If Leon wasn't careful, this beast would have no trouble goring him with its horns, or crushing his chest with a single kick.  Luckily, his father was there, keeping an eye on him.  Without Artorias, Leon would’ve long been killed by the beasts of the forest.

Artorias was a powerful mage, able to project magic outside of his body and use it to detect everything within half a mile of him.  By virtue of his strength alone, Artorias had no trouble finding the stag, but this was a learning opportunity for his son.  He wanted his son to learn how to hunt, how to survive in the wild, but most of all, Leon needed to learn how to kill.

Theirs is a chaotic world, and to survive among the mages and warriors one needs a strong killing intent.  In fact, this was one of the reasons Artorias had the two of them live out in the wild, to hone Leon’s killing intent, so that he would never falter in the face of his enemies.

This was not the first time Artorias had Leon take the lead on a hunt, and each time Leon would have less trouble finding his prey, and less hesitation killing it.  But for all his skill and natural talent, Leon had never brought down anything larger than a wind wolf, let alone the other more terrifying and bizarre monsters that live in the forest.

“We’re getting closer.  I’d say it came through here maybe ten minutes ago, can’t be more than a quarter mile away.”, whispered Leon.  He wasn’t saying this for Artorias’ benefit, he knew his father could probably see the stag with his magic senses.  No, this was so his father knew what Leon thought, and to justify his actions.

Leon didn’t wait for Artorias to respond.  He just continued onwards, following the tracks.  Artorias allowed a small smile to appear on his face, his son was correct, the stag wasn’t very far.

As they got closer, Leon slowed down somewhat.  He began to regulate his breathing, allowing his heart to calm down.  He unslung his bow and drew an arrow from his quiver.  This was the largest creature he had ever hunted, and if he missed and it attacked him, there would be little he would be able to do to stop it.

As he breathed, magic within the air was drawn into his lungs.  From there it entered his bloodstream, and upon entering his heart it fused with his blood to form mana.  This mana would then enter his muscles, and saturate them with magical power, making him stronger and faster than normal.

When he finished preparing himself, Leon took the last few steps to crest a hill, and saw the stag.  It was only about 100 meters away, easily in range of his bow.  He took aim, nocked the arrow he’d drawn, channeled his magic through his palms and into the enchantment of his bow, then drew the bowstring.  He held it near his check for a single heartbeat, and released.

The arrow crossed those hundred meters in the blink of an eye, but the stag still noticed and had time to look over in confusion before the arrow sank deep into its body, penetrating its heart, and killing it instantly.

Leon drew another arrow, preparing to let loose another shot, and watched the stag.  After several moments, he began moving towards his kill.

“Good kill, boy.  No hesitation.” Artorias said with pride.

“Thanks.” Said Leon, with a big smile on his face.

“Now come on, we have to get this thing home soon as we can.  Wraiths tend to be drawn towards death, and we don’t want to be caught out here when night rolls around.” Artorias allowed Leon only a small moment to savor his accomplishment before getting back to what needed to be done.

The two found a large tree branch, fallen from a huge white tree.  Leon cleared off the leaves and smaller twigs while Artorias tied the stag’s hooves around it.  They lifted it up, and after a few seconds of adjustment, began the trek back home.

Leon had a little trouble, as the stag was quite large and he was only a first-tier mage, but Artorias was far more powerful and able to pick up the slack with ease.

The two made good time, not stopping even for a moment to rest or to admire the brilliantly colored flowers and leaves seen in this forest.

After about several hours of walking, the trees and foliage began to thin out.  They approached the clearing where they had built a fort, their home for more than a decade.  However, the sun had nearly disappeared in the west, and creatures were beginning to stir in the darkening woods.

The hair on the back of Leon’s neck began to rise, and he felt the eyes of awakened beasts and other nocturnal beings.

“Damn, we need to hurry.”  Leon said, nervously looking around into the darkened forest.

Artorias, too, was looking into the forest, but he saw much more than just the trees and the dark.  He saw the things stalking them among the trees, the black shadows and the cold blue eyes.

“No, stop.  Put down the stag.”  Artorias and Leon slowly put down the stag, as per the older man’s instructions.  “Good, now stay low, and stay put.  Concentrate your mana in your legs, and should anything happen, just make your way back home.  Don’t stop for me, or for the beast.”  Artorias looked at his son, who nodded in response.

Leon watched his father move off into the darkness, drawing his sword.  It was a rather unremarkable weapon, a leather handle, round iron pommel, and a straight guard.  Though the blade looked to be made of good steel, it seemed to be of a quality that any city blacksmith in the southern kingdom could make with little effort.

But no ordinary blacksmith could make this plain-looking sword.

Despite how ordinary the materials were that made up this weapon, in Artorias’ hand it appeared to be something out of legend, sparking with lightning and rumbling with the sound of thunder.

It was with this sword in hand that Artorias went out into the dark forest.

Leon couldn’t tell what all was happening in the dark, but he heard the terrible screeching of banshees and the cracking sound of an ice wraith freezing the ground it was walking on.  Every scream from the banshees sent his blood into turmoil, and his mana began to boil.  But Leon stayed still, with the utmost confidence in his father.

His confidence was rewarded when he saw Artorias’ sword, with flashes of lightning piercing through the dark of the trees.  He felt the wind from every swing, and the cold seeping off the wraith.

Soon, the noises ceased, and Artorias returned.  No words were spoken between the two.  This was a normal thing, a hazard Artorias accepted when he decided to come here.  This was something that Leon had always known, and he didn’t find this sort of thing too remarkable.

They silently picked the stag back up, and continued onwards.

Leon still felt the attention of beings in the woods, but after Artorias’ show of force, they backed off, though never quite leaving completely.

It wasn’t until Leon and Artorias reached the clearing of purple grass that they were finally left alone.

In the center of the clearing were four thick wooden walls, fifteen feet high and warded to keep the creatures of the night from approaching.  This could be considered the only safe place in the entire vale once the sun went down.  The entrance into this fort was a small depression leading to a tunnel about 30 feet away from the walls.  Leon descended the familiar dirt ramp, placed his hand on a runic circle etched onto the front of the deceptively flimsy looking door, and after a brief flash of light, the door opened.

Upon entering, Leon looked down the underground stone passageway, and began to relax from the long hunting trip.  He started to walk down the ramp, and paused only for Artorias to close the door behind them.  As the door closed, there was a moment where hundreds of runes carved into circular glyphs on the door lit up, only to just as quickly darken again, confirming that the door had been locked and the wards had been raised.

The stones that made up this passageway were simply, yet expertly carved.  Each stone brick was cut exactly like the others, and even a mage as weak as Leon could feel the magic flowing through them.

There was another, larger door in the tunnel, and more heavily warded as well.  It, too, lit up with magical energy as Leon pushed it open, and when Artorias closed it.

When Leon climbed the ramp on the other side leading up and into the fort, he sighed.

“It’s good to be home.”

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  • Chapter 2:  Magic


    The most noticeable thing about Leon and Artorias’ home was the large stone obelisk in the very center of a large stone square.  It was almost twenty feet tall, and every side was covered in carved runes and magical formations.  This obelisk was the keystone for almost everything magical within the compound.

    Magic was omnipresent in the world, but there are places where it is naturally denser.  This obelisk could control the flow of magic within almost two miles, channeling it through itself and into the formations carved onto it.  This allowed for a myriad of functions, but its primary purposes were to create a magical field that repelled most weaker creatures that inhabited the forest, and to increase the density of magic in the air.

    Was the former function strictly necessary?  No, as the wards in the walls of the compound did the same thing.  However, Artorias refused to take any chances when it came to personal safety, and indulged every crazy fantasy that popped into his head.  He had felt the sting of loss before, and was not going to take any chances.

    There were five buildings around the obelisk, forming three sides to the pavilion, with one more side for the tunnel exit.  On opposite sides were the two largest buildings, Leon and Artorias’ homes, and were the only ones with windows.  The far side had the three smaller buildings, consisting of the ice shack, the main storage room, and the pelt storage room.  All five buildings were made of the dark wood from the forest, and contained similar wards to the walls of the compound.

    By the time Leon and Artorias returned, night had long since fallen, and all they could think about were their beds.

    “Just stick the thing in the ice shack, we’ll deal with it tomorrow.”  Said Artorias, eyeing his house.

    Leon led them to the door of the shack and kicked it open.  He was immediately assaulted with a gust of cold air.  The floor of the shack was made of a single slab of stone which had an ice glyph etched into its surface, keeping the wooden building chilled to below freezing.  While there were a few carcasses already hanging up in the room, Leon and Artorias just lazily tossed the stag down on the ground and left, closing the door on their way out.

    “You did good today, boy.  I’ll let you sleep in tomorrow, but don’t think tomorrow’s training is cancelled!”

    “Sure thing, dad.”

    Leon smiled.  He wasn’t sure if his father was letting him rest longer as a reward for killing the stag, or as an excuse to sleep in himself.  ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter, either way I’m getting a ton of sleep tonight.’, he thought.

    He walked towards one of the houses by the pavilion, while Artorias made for the other.  As Leon pushed open the door, there was a brief flash of blue light quite similar to the one on the door leading into the compound, indicating that even Leon’s house had been heavily warded. 

    Leon’s house wasn’t particularly big, only three small rooms.

    One was the living area, with a table, two chairs, and a bench covered in furs near a fireplace.     

    His bedroom was just as simple, with a fur-covered bed, four large chests, and a small furnace.

    The final room was no larger than a closet, and the only thing in there was a crude toilet leading to a thin underground trough the flowed out of the compound, and a water rune to flush everything out.  Not a perfect solution to the waste problem, but neither Artorias nor Leon were engineers skilled enough to make a standard sanitation system.

    As Leon entered his house, he casually brushed his hand against a gently glowing magic circle next to the door, and the fire rune carved onto the bottom of the fireplace lit up, instantly forming a crackling fire.

    He placed his bow on a pair of hooks on the wall, and set his quiver in the nearby corner, next to a woodcutting axe.  He then took off his grass shirt and collapsed onto the bench in front of the fireplace.

    There was nothing he wanted more than to go climb into bed and pass out, it had been a physically draining day.  The hunt itself wasn’t anything special, but that stag they brought back was large and heavy.  There was also the attack Artorias had fended off, and even though he didn’t let Leon help fight the attackers, it had still left Leon tense and on edge.

    All told, Leon had expended quite a bit of mana keeping his body moving, and he needed to recover a little before going to sleep.  As he was only a first-tier mage, and couldn’t generate mana on his own, he needed to meditate and perform some breathing exercises to take in the magic in the air.

    Before he began in earnest, though, Leon got back to his feet and opened both wooden panels covering the windows in the living room.  He then sat back down, enjoying both the heat from the fire and the cool night air the wind brought in through the windows. 

    He breathed in, held it for a moment, then breathed out.  He breathed in, held it, then exhaled.  He breathed calmly and consistently, holding in his breath for several seconds each time.

    As he breathed, Leon’s heartrate slowed.  His heart began to beat so slowly that it almost seemed like Leon had died, as the color in his tanned arms and face began to drain away, matching his pale chest.  His extremities grew cold, but Leon didn’t shiver once.

    As Leon’s bodily functions slowed to a crawl, his breaths began to sync up with the wind, inhaling as it blew, and exhaling as it died down. 

    The magic from the air filled his lungs, and bit by bit, made its way into his bloodstream.  This magic energy flowed alongside his blood, but it didn’t truly fuse to become mana until entering his heart.  Not much magic made it into Leon’s blood, but every heartbeat fused it into his blood, slowly increasing his mana reserves.

    Humans are not naturally able to use magic, and must adapt their bodies to make use of it.  As a first-tier mage, Leon has completed the initial steps of this process, and adapted his lungs to absorb magic energy alongside the air he breathed.

    This magic then entered his body, fusing with his blood to form mana, and then rushes throughout his body.  The next step in the adaptation process comes when Leon’s muscles have been saturated with mana long enough to start storing magic power.  During the adaptation, physical training is of paramount importance, as the more blood that can flow through the muscles, the faster they grow and adapt to magic.

    The biggest change at this point, the one that brings a mage up the second-tier, is when their heart fully adapts to magic power, allowing a comparatively immense amount of magic to be stored within the mages body.  The heart becomes the core of everything a mage is, no longer simply pumping blood, but storing more than ninety percent of their magic supply.

    At Leon’s current level of power, once his heart adapts, his supply of magic will almost triple overnight, and continue to rapidly grow for several weeks afterward.  Given that he is able to channel magic through the muscles in his palms and into the runic enchantment on his bow means that he is getting close to crossing this boundary.

    After that will come his bones.  As the bones adapt to magic, they strengthen and harden.  A late-second-tier mage would think nothing of jumping off a four-story building, as they would be completely uninjured from the fall.

    That mage wouldn’t step into the third-tier until their magic sinks deep into their bones, though, and their bone marrow adapts.  Once this happens, the mage will be able to generate magic within their bones, creating it alongside their blood.  A third-tier mage would no longer need lengthy meditation sessions to recover from magic depletion, and even stronger mages can recover magic power at a noticeable rate.

    It is only once a mage has crossed the boundary into the third-tier that they are no longer considered a novice, but most tribesmen who practice magic are unable to surmount it.  Those who do are usually the tribal chieftains, or their thanes.

    This was very different in the south, though, as Artorias had told Leon that knights of the Bull Kingdom were all of the third-tier or higher.  Most knights reached the third tier before the age of twenty, that being when they were awarded their knighthoods.  If they were still a second-tier mage by then, they might still earn their knighthood, but their career in the king’s service would be limited. 

    Leon wanted to meet that standard, and when he became a first-tier mage at the age of eleven, after only two years of training, he was elated.  It had been five years since, five years of very slow growth.  Leon had been growing nervous at the seeming lack of progress, but when he asked his father about it, Artorias had simply smiled and told him not to worry about it, to let things happen in their own time and to not try and force anything.  Leon had tried to put it out of his mind, but the fear and frustration was still there, always in the back of his mind.

    Leon meditated within his house for over an hour before finally going to bed.  He had recovered a good portion of his power, but he would still need to meditate tomorrow before being back at his peak.

    By the time he woke the next morning, the sun was already high in the sky, and he could hear Artorias training outside.  Despite this, Leon still laid back in bed, enjoying a few moments of peace and rest before he began his own training.

    He left his house about thirty minutes later, dressed in light leather shorts, a sleeveless shirt of woven grass, and leather sandals.  Artorias was dressed almost identically, which wasn’t too surprising given their simple lifestyle.  And, of course, because those woven grass shirts were light, comfy, and deceptively sturdy, making perfect training wear.

    Artorias was sitting cross-legged in front of the stone obelisk, with his eyes closed and back straight.  There were no visible changes to the obelisk, but Leon could vaguely feel the magic in his surroundings being channeled through the obelisk and towards Artorias, but never actually being absorbed by him.  It didn’t even feel like Artorias was actively pulling the magic energy towards him, more like the magic moving towards Artorias was something natural, like water flowing downwards.

    As Leon got closer, he could feel the magic surrounding his father, rapidly revolving around him like a magical cyclone.  Artorias didn’t often train where Leon could see him, so the boy decided to observe his father for a while, to see if he could learn anything it.

    He couldn’t tell how Artorias was controlling the magic, or if he was even controlling it all.  All he could sense was the effect, and even then, it wasn’t much.  The magic flowed around his father, forming a small tornado with Artorias at the center.  Leon could see tiny water droplets being pulled from the ground and entering the cyclone, but the dirt and gravel of the pavilion remained largely motionless.

    As Leon watched, whatever Artorias was doing intensified, as the cyclone grew in power, and started affecting the air around Artorias and formed an actual cyclone.  It was too weak to even pick up pebbles more than a few inches off the ground, but it kicked up a ton of dust and dirt and nearly knocked a very surprised Leon backwards.

    Several seconds later, the wind died down and Leon wiped the dust and water droplets off his face.  Artorias was standing, looking at him with a big smile on his face.

    “All right, consider me duly impressed.  That’s what you were going for, wasn’t it?”, Leon said as he regained his balance.

    “Oh?  You think I need to impress my own son?  Whatever would give you that impression?”

    “Because you always disappear when you want to train, and it’s almost invariably when it’s raining.  You most certainly don’t come out here for demonstrations, especially when it’s this sunny out…side…”  Leon had just looked up for a moment when his words got caught in his throat.

    The weather was beautiful, without a cloud in the sky.  The only exception was a single, dark grey storm cloud directly above Artorias.  The cloud wasn’t very big, small enough that Leon hadn’t noticed until now, and was gently spinning like the cyclone that had surround Artorias just now.

    “Finally noticed, have you?  I almost though I would have to point it out.”

    “…”  Leon had never seen something like this before.  When the weather would take a turn for the worse, Leon would always head inside, but Artorias would always leave the compound and go… somewhere.

    “When you took down that stag, it showed me that you’re ready for a more intensive training schedule.  You’re almost a second-tier mage, and there are things you need to know.”

  • Chapter 3:  Inherited Blood


    “What sort of things?” asked Leon.

    “Where you come from, and the power within you.”, answered Artorias.

    Artorias had never said anything like this to Leon before, and the young man was understandably confused.

    “All right, I’m all ears.”

    “First, tell me something.  What does it mean to be a mage?”

    “It means that a person can use and control magic.” Leon answered with no hesitation.

    “A good answer, but not quite the one I’m looking for.”  Artorias continued to smile at his son.  This answer was close, but still not what he was getting at.

     “It means they have achieved strength through their hard work.”

    “You’re not wrong, but again, not right either.”

    “It means they are smart and wise, and have achieved an understanding of the world around them.”

    “You were closest with your first answer.  A person who can use and control magic is most definitely a mage, but that is more of a symptom, a byproduct of what using magic means.  As for the other two, a strong, smart, and wise person isn’t necessarily a mage, are they?”

    Leon frowned in thought.  He didn’t quite get what his father was talking about.

    “Perhaps I haven’t asked the question right.  How does a mage come to be?  A mage has magic, but before that they are just a weak mortal.  How do they go from mortal to mage?”

    “They change their body.  They allow magic to permeate everything within them until their body adapts to it.  Then that person can use magic, and thus, is a mage.”

    “Exactly, their body must adapt.  A mortal is someone who hasn’t started this process, a first-tier mage has adapted their lungs, a second-tier mage has adapted their muscles, and so on.  This is a process that allows one to walk the path of magic.  We are born mortal, weak and powerless, and must adapt to our surroundings to fight and survive against the monsters that seek our downfall.”

    Artorias began to get a bit worked up, gesturing with his hands for more a dramatic effect.

    “Listen to me, little lion, we are at the edge of the world, living away from the safety of civilization so that we grow strong through adversity.  Up here, we can focus on our own training, and we can hone our killing intent.  This is the way my father taught me, and the way his father taught him, and so on.  Though, admittedly, they didn’t go this far out into the wilds, heh heh heh…”

    Artorias seemed to look off into the distance, and his smile changed a little into one that was prouder, and perhaps a little more smug.

    “What is the point you’re trying to make, father?  I think you might be getting a bit off track.”

    “Ah! Right!  Well, we are born weak, and must gain strength and power through our own efforts.  Every scrap of magic we possess is something we had to work to achieve.”

    “Yes, this the way of things.  An iron-clad law.”

    After hearing his son’s words, Artorias’ smile faltered for a second, and he grew more serious.  He lowered his hands, and took a few small steps closer to Leon.

    “Is it?” he asked quietly.  “There are exceptions.  You’ve even seen them, they’re all around us.”

    Leon was shocked to hear this, and looked at Artorias with more seriousness.

    “Humans are weak when they are born, but what about an ice wraith?  Have you ever seen a powerless banshee?  How about the wind wolves that can kill a man from over a hundred meters away?  Or the black-iron bears, with hide stronger than steel?  These are creatures born with great strength and power, though they are unable to raise it much in their lives.  Only a select few individuals can become truly great, but all are born strong.”

    Leon calmed a bit after hearing this, thinking that such ‘exceptions’ don’t really count, but he let his father continue without interruption, wanting to see where he was taking this.

    “A monster that has the potential for a large amount of growth is rare, and is dangerous beyond measure.  They can gain true intelligence, and at higher stages can even take on human forms!  Some even take humans as wives and husbands, having children with them.”

    Leon’s eyes grew wide at hearing this.

    “What kind of beings would these children be?  Are they the exceptions?  Are they strong from birth?”  Leon had many more questions than that, but Artorias cut him off.

    “Hang on a bit, little lion, let me finish, I’m getting to it.”

    Artorias was glad at his son’s interest, as these were things that pertained to him was well.

    “It would make sense that these children would have both traits of their parents.  Strength from their inhuman parent, and growth potential from their human parent.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  Most of these children were born with both weaknesses rather than both strengths.  An innate weakness and limited growth potential.”

    Leon frowned again, disappointed.

    “Well, it was that way for a while.  The beasts and monsters that could grow that far were powerful indeed, and managed to find a way around this, a way for their children to grow at least as fast as their human counterparts and with some of their monstrous power as well.”

    Artorias had gotten his fire back again, speaking in dramatic tones as if he were telling a story to hype people up rather than speaking to his son alone.

    Leon was looking more interested now, and getting a bit tired of Artorias’ dramatic pauses.

    “Come on, dad, cool it a little.  There’s only me around to witness your performance.  So what sort of process was this, that allowed these children to grow in power?”

    Artorias’ smile quickly disappeared, before being replaced with an aggrieved expression.

    “How did I raise such an unfun and humorless son?  How about you get into the story a little, huh boy?”

    Leon’s face began to turn into a smile not unlike Artorias, and he said, “How about you tell the story a little, rather than chastise me for my seriousness.”

    Artorias’ look of aggrievement vanished quickly seeing his son’s own smile.  These two had been living together for 16 years, and no one knew them like they knew each other.  These little play fights where they poke fun at the other were one of their favorite pastimes.  At this point, they knew exactly how far they could push things, and how far not to go.  Some things are always off-limits, after all, no matter who you’re talking with.

    “Damned killjoy.  All right, where was I before you so rudely interrupted?”

    “Interspecies parents learning how to make less-shit hybrids.”

    “Right!  Well the process they learned to do this was more than a little gruesome, in that they needed to find a suitable enemy to sacrifice in order to ‘awaken’ the dormant power within these hybrids.  These children were made to drink the blood of their enemies!  Normally, doing such a thing would be repugnant, but little more than that.  For most of these children, however, this proved to be fatal.  But a few survived, and this ritual allowed their inner power to awaken and they grew exceptionally strong as a result.”

    “This ritual was to drink blood?”  Leon had a more than a little disgusted expression on his face.  He had seen quite a bit of blood, and had spilled more than a bit, as he and Artorias’ main source of food was hunting, and so thought nothing of it.  But he couldn’t stand the taste.  Artorias had some trouble teaching Leon how to cook properly without overdoing it, as Leon would typically often overcook his meat to get the taste of the blood out as much as he could.

    “Well, technically, they had to drink mana, but blood sounds better, no?”

    Leon looked a little less queasy after Artorias clarified.  Mana had a far different taste then blood, even though it was basically the same stuff, just more magical.

    “Well, eventually this ritual was refined to be significantly less dangerous, with the right materials and preparations, and when these bloodlines awakened, these kids could rid themselves of their limitations.  They would gain their monstrous parent’s power, and their human parent’s adaptability.  An impressive combination.

    “These kids would eventually go on to have children of their own, starting dynasties and passing down their own power as well as the knowledge to unlock it.  This passed-down power is usually referred to as an inherited bloodline.  The Bull Kingdom in the south is ruled by a dynasty with an inherited bloodline.  Their ancestor was a sacred bull, and through its power they have built a kingdom that has lasted over five thousand years.”

    “And we’re from the Bull Kingdom, aren’t we, father?  I remember you telling me that you were in the service of the king once, did he tell you all about this?”  Leon was asking the question, but the look on his face was anything but casually quizzical.  In fact, he was looking at Artorias with great expectation, expecting something else.

    “Why even ask me that, it’s not what you want to know.  Just ask me what’s on your mind, and don’t play at being humble with me.”  Artorias knew exactly what Leon was doing.  The boy wanted to appear like he wasn’t he wasn’t too interested, but he had likely begun to piece things together from his own troubles with magic and what Artorias had just told him.

    “Do we have an inherited bloodline?  You’ve taught me so many things, from how to handle a sword to how to ride a horse.  You’ve taught me how to hunt, how to carve runes, and how to build shelter when in the wild.  You’ve even taught me military strategy, despite it only being the two of us here.  Past few years I’ve been feeling like you’ve been preparing me not to survive up here in the Northern Vales, but how to live in the Southern Kingdom, with their knights and wars and nobles. 

    “But for all your work in training and educating me, you have never once taught me anything but the very basics of magic.  I’ve asked you about this so many times, but you’ve always been so frustratingly vague and deliberately mysterious about it, saying ‘don’t worry about it’.  So, is this why?  Have we inherited some kind of power from our ancestors?  Is this why my own progress in the adaptation process has been so slow?”

    Artorias’ smile widened.  His son had picked up on so much, but hadn’t let on any of his suspicions until now.  And he was right on the mark with a lot of his points.

    “Yes, little lion.  We have an inherited bloodline.”

    With Artorias’ words, Leon felt a great feeling of joy welling up from within him, and almost jumped in excitement.  But he restrained himself.  He wanted his father to finish, first.

    “We don’t just have an inherited bloodline, either.  Our family was one of the highest among the nobility down south, and were even once kings, when the Bull Kingdom was nothing but petty kings and independent dukes fighting for what little territory they could acquire.”

    “We were kings?  But then how were we also nobles of the Bull Kingdom?”  Leon was a little confused now.  They were descendants of royalty, and even had an inherited bloodline, so how was it that they had been subordinated to the Bull Kings?

    “Our power is not without a certain degree of cost.  All those with inherited bloodlines have significantly lower birthrates, and there is always some danger when awakening their dormant power, but our family has it worse, and can lead to problems if we don’t have a genius in our younger generation.  Far as I know, our family was strong, but not enough to repel the first Bull King and all his armies.

    Not to mention, one of the last times we went south, I overheard that the Bull King had his sixth child, at the age of one hundred and twenty.  Barely middle-aged at his power, but still.  He has a royal harem with dozens of concubines, and has had been sitting the throne for over eight decades, yet only has six children!

    My own father, your grandfather, died at age two hundred and forty-five, yet he only had two children, me and my older brother, your uncle.”  When Artorias mentioned his father and brother, his smile faded a bit, to be replaced with an odd look.  His eyes seemed to glaze over, as if he were seeing something far away.

    Leon knew not to continue this line of conversation.  His father had gotten that look before, and when he had asked him about it, Artorias had gotten weirdly serious and even almost angry.

    “What about the dangers of awakening our bloodline?  You said that we have more trouble than others.”  Leon decided to try and move past the talk of his father’s family, and simply continue the conversation.  There are always some things that are best left unsaid, even to the closest of family.

    The question seemed to pull Artorias back from wherever he went, and the smile returned to his face, though maybe a little too wide and forced this time.  Leon knew it would take his father a few minutes to return to normal, so the odd-looking smile went by unremarked. 

    “Ah, yes.  Ours is damned difficult, but in ways that are hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  During all awakenings, we see an apparition of our ancestor.  I spoke with several relatives of the Bull King, and they all said that they were able to speak with their ancestor, but I barely even caught a glimpse of ours before I woke up within the ritual circle.”

    “Our ancestor doesn’t speak to us?  Why the hell not?”

    “I’m not too sure.  Maybe it can’t, maybe it doesn’t want to, maybe it simply doesn’t care.  Whatever the reason, our ancestor is quite aloof compared to the Sacred Bull.”

    Leon frowned, clearly somewhat insulted.  “Well then, can you tell me what our ancestor is?”

    Artorias glanced at Leon with wide grin.  “No.  Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise, now would I?”

    This evil man.  He just wants to seem mysterious and cool.  Probably also wants to see me sweat a little.’  Leon decided to drop it, to Artorias’ secret disappointment.

    “All right, so why are you telling all this to me now?  We’ve had years training, and you’ve never mentioned this even once, so what changed?”

    “I saw you channel power into your bow’s enchantment.  You’re getting close to the second-tier, and so I’ve decided you’re ready to know these things.  I’ve also finished acquiring just about everything I need for your ritual.”

    “Wait, what?  What did you need to get and where did you get it?”  What was Artorias talking about?  He’d barely left Leon unguarded in this forest for the past decade, so what then was needed for this ritual?

    “Last night, when I killed that ice wraith, I managed to take its core intact.  In the past few years, I’ve stockpiled magical cores from some of the beasts in the forest, and now I have one that’s suitable for the ritual.  There is little else we need, apart from the mana for you to drink, and some… special herbs.”

    Special herbs, you say?  Not the kind the tribesmen use, right?  I’ve heard that crap can burn the insides, thoroughly set back magical adaptation, and turn the user into an idiot.”

    “No, not those kinds of herbs.  These are more medicinal, and uh… poisonous, than recreational.  Besides, with our bloodline, even when dormant, it is nigh-impossible to get intoxicated.  Most of what the tribes use would just pass harmlessly out of our system.  There are a few things that can knock us out, though, and it is some of those herbs we need.”

    Leon sighed in relief.  He’d seen some of the tribesmen who had gotten addicted to some of the wilder herbs of the north, and he wanted nothing to do with those.  Some of the tribesmen had also tried on a few occasions to offer him some safer and gentler herbs, but he always declined.  Leon wasn’t a particularly friendly person with strangers, either, so he he’d typically decline quite… emphatically.

    “And now that you’ve mentioned it, I can’t believe I haven’t noticed you stockpiling magic cores, you’ve never sold any when we go to the tribes to sell furs.”

    “Don’t worry, son, we can’t notice everything.  Besides, it’s not like you were ever paying much attention when we went to the tribal markets, always looking everywhere but where our deal was being made.  Now then, you know what your goal is, right?”

    “Get ready for the ritual!”

    “Good!  I did say that we need both the materials for the ritual as well as adequate preparation.  With that in mind, we’ll start with a little training.”

  • Chapter 4:  Preparations


    Leon walked over to the storage shack and grabbed a wooden practice sword.  Artorias also picked up a practice sword, and both walked back to the pavilion.

    “Alright, little lion, show me that you are ready to awaken your power.  Come at me, let me taste your strength.”

    Leon slowly circled Artorias, his weapon held at the ready.  Artorias, on the other hand, barely even bothered holding a decent sword posture, simply letting his arm hang at his side with the sword all but stuck in the ground.

    The practice weapons that Artorias had made were all lightly enchanted.  Nothing too fancy, just a small light enchantment that made them glow when filled with magic.  This allowed Artorias to see how well Leon was imbuing his weapon with magic power, and allowed Leon to get accustomed to using his magic in this way.

    Leon continued to slowly circle Artorias, but the older man didn’t even turn to face the younger.  Eventually, Leon had made his way to behind Artorias, but at his father’s level of strength, this hardly mattered.  Artorias hadn’t even moved his head, but Leon had never left his sight.

    Leon swung his sword down towards Artorias’ shoulder, but right before the wooden blade hit the man, Artorias took a half step to the side and spun to face Leon, and the sword tasted nothing but air.  Leon wasn’t discouraged, though, and followed up with an upward slash, this time aimed towards Artorias’ arm.  Again, Artorias easily dodged at the last second.

    Leon drew back, and stabbed towards his father’s stomach, but Artorias simply raised his own sword just enough to deflect Leon’s sword away from him.

    Their training sessions always began like this, with Leon not even being able to touch Artorias no matter how fast he moved, and Leon moved fast indeed.  Every time he attacked, Artorias would dodge, block, or deflect like it was the easiest thing in the world.  Leon barely even got angry over it anymore, one thousand and one losses is hardly different than one thousand, after all.

    Eventually, Artorias would slow down, and allow Leon to start getting close and would start fighting back.  An enemy would never let Leon simply attack without making a move, and Artorias’ training would never be so passive.

    After about half an hour, Leon and Artorias changed out the wooden swords for swords of blunted metal.  These blades of low-grade iron had similar enchantments to the previous, lighting up when magic is channeled into them.  Leon’s blade glowed a dull white, but Artorias didn’t even bother with it.

    At first, Leon pressed his attack, slashing and hacking at Artorias, aiming at joints and vital points.  Artorias blocked again and again, and started throwing his own counter attacks into the exchange.  Leon would dodge just like his father, but much slower and with less precision.

    Artorias slashed down at Leon’s chest, but Leon swiftly parried and followed up with a counter attack.  Artorias blocked, and slammed his body into Leon’s.  The younger man reeled, but stayed upright and quickly regained his footing.  However, Artorias had taken advantage of Leon’s brief vulnerability and attacked again, with Leon barely dodging in time.

    At this point, Artorias had Leon completely on the defense, not able to get a single attack in.  Artorias finally ended it when Leon blocked his attack, only to have his feet swept out from under him, bringing him to the ground.

    “You still over-swing.  Getting all your strength and body weight behind your attack is good, but the windup you have beforehand gives it away.  And you overstep when lunging forwards.  Makes your footing rather unstable and leaves your leg vulnerable.  An experienced fighter will knock you to the ground before you know it.”  Artorias bent down to help Leon back to his feet.  “Remember, don’t take one step when you need two.  But you can’t take three when two will do, either.  Keep your forward steps in battle about the same distance as when walking, and you should be fine.”

    Leon began again, trying to keep Artorias’ words in mind.  He carefully measured his movements, but began to get distracted when Artorias pressed his own attack.  Eventually, he was knocked down again with another sweep of Artorias’ leg.

    “Good.  Or, well, better at least.  Again!”

    Leon rose again and attacked, only for Artorias to knock him down again.  They continued like this for about an hour, before having a brief rest and moving on to other weapons.  Artorias made sure that Leon was at least semi-competent in several weapons, but Leon favored longswords so that got the most attention.  Artorias himself preferred swords so it worked out well, but he also gave basic instruction in shorter one-handed blades, spears, and axes.

    After the morning’s weapons training came strength training.  This mostly involved using carved rocks and boulders as weights.  Only Leon participated in this part, as Artorias was too strong for such conventional means of training.

    While Leon sweated lifting stones, Artorias went back to sitting and meditating before the obelisk.  Leon slowed down to better observe Artorias as the older man formed another magical cyclone, until a powerful gust of wind nearly knocked him over.

    “Don’t slow down, keep going!”  Artorias may have reprimanded Leon, but he was still smiling at the interest his son showed in his magic.

    The training eventually stopped when Leon’s stomach growled like an angry bear, and Artorias’ responded in kind.  The two almost literally dropped what they were doing, and walked over to the ice shack.

    “So, what are you in the mood for, little lion?”  Artorias asked with a smile.

    “That bread we made a few days ago was damned good, and maybe some of those Greenhand potatoes.  We still have some of that wild turkey, right?  Maybe some of that.”  Leon responded with the utmost seriousness.  The two men treated their food as business of the utmost importance, and oftentimes would debate for longer than an hour about what to eat.

    “Yes.  Yes to all of that.”  Fortunately, they both agreed about their meal, and pushed open the door of the ice shack.  What they saw immediately stopped them in their tracks.

    The smile disappeared from Artorias’ face, and he said, “But first, we should probably deal with this.”

    The stag from the day before was still on the floor.  Both had clearly forgotten about it after getting caught up in training.

    They looked at each other, and their stomachs growled again.

    “Should… we just hang it up and deal with it tomorrow?”  Leon suggested.

    Artorias looked conflicted for a moment, but a quick glance at the bread basket was all he needed to agree.  They quickly tied up the stag and hung it from the ceiling next to several other, smaller, animals.

    The two grabbed what they needed for their meal and went outside. 

    In front of Artorias’ house was a small awning over a stone slab.  The slab had several heat runes carved into it, and the two used them like oven burners.

    After a hearty meal, Leon walked over to the small pond behind his house and sat down to meditate.  Artorias had dug a pair of three-foot-deep holes, one behind his house and one behind Leon’s, and lined them with stone bricks.  On the center-most brick on the bottom of the ponds he carved a water rune, which kept the ponds filled with clean water that each of them could use for bathing.

    Leon liked to meditate in front of his, and had even planted a few bushes and small trees around to give himself some privacy.

    Meanwhile, Artorias had pulled out a number of wild plants he’d picked and had begun to boil and grind some of them down into a light-grey paste.  Others were boiled and mixed into a brown tea that he filled a water skin with.  Others still had been dried and preserved, and he simply packed them up into a small satchel.  His paste and water skin joined them in the satchel, and he moved on to weapon maintenance.

    Leon and Artorias would often venture out of the Forest of Black and White, usually to trade their pelts with the local tribe in the nearest Vale, but sometimes Artorias would take Leon down south to the kingdom for training. 

    Most of what they’d buy from the tribe would be clothing or food, but sometimes Artorias would get something like weapon oil for his longsword, paper for making spell runes, or certain alchemical ingredients.

    Artorias had little skill or knowledge in alchemy, but he did know how to make what he needed for bloodline awakening, and that was what he prepared and packed away into the satchel.

    His longsword didn’t need a whetstone to keep it sharp, as it was clearly a magical weapon even though there weren’t any obvious enchantments, but he liked to keep it polished to a near-mirror shine.

    After polishing the blade, he pulled out some of his paper, and inscribed several lightning runes onto the sheets.  These lightning spells then went into the same satchel he’d prepared before, next to a few first aid spells.

    All this took about four hours, and by then Leon had finished meditating and regained his full strength.  Not that that was saying much at his power level.

    “Leon! Come over here.”  Artorias called out to his son when he saw him come out from around his house.

    “What’s up?”  He asked as he walked over.

    “We’ll be leaving tomorrow for a few days.  Make sure you’re packed and fully rested by morning.  We’ll need to find something good to kill so you can awaken your bloodline.”

    Leon smiled in anticipation.  “What do you think we should be on the lookout for?”

    “Obviously, something with magic.  That stag you brought down yesterday, while impressive, won’t do.”

    “How about another wind wolf?  I’ve already killed one of those.”

    “No, that won’t do either.  Wind wolves are far too weak.  You need something stronger than you, or it won’t catalyze the change in your blood we want.  What the ritual does, basically, is poison you with the mana of a magical beast, with the body forced to awaken its blood in order to combat it.  If we go too weak, then your blood won’t be woken.  We’ll have done all this for nothing and I’ll have to reacquire the ingredients I’ve gathered.  We only have enough for one try, so we have to get it right.”

    “How about a black-iron bear?  I think I could bring one down, given the opportunity.”

    “Hmmm, that might work, but I’d prefer a surer thing.  A river nymph or a tree sprite would be better, but they don’t fill me with confidence.”  Artorias’ expression suddenly changed.  He normally had an easy-going smile, but now he looked rather conflicted, and maybe a little worried.  A possibility had occurred to him.  “There is something that would all but guarantee success.” he said softly, more to himself than to Leon.

    Leon waited a few seconds before asking “What?”

    Artorias hesitated a moment before answering.  “…An ice wraith.”

    Leon’s expression of excitement immediately fell away, to be replaced with one closer to fear and dread.

    “An ice wraith would definitely be sufficient… but we’d need another core.”  Artorias looked at his son after saying this, and continued.  “You’ll need an enormous amount of preparation, but it might be possible for you to do it.”

    Practically speaking, Artorias could kill an ice wraith with relative ease and take its core, as he had done the day before, but that was not the point.  There were some things about parts of this ritual that Artorias wanted his son to do himself.  But an ice wraith was unquestioningly out of Leon’s league, and if push came to shove then Artorias would rather spoil his son than let him continue to grow up with his bloodline remaining dormant.

    “Here’s what we’ll do, we’ll go out tomorrow, and spend a few days scouting around.  We might find something more suitable, but if not, we can always risk taking on an ice wraith.”

    Leon looked a little better after Artorias said this.  He desperately wanted to get stronger, but not so bad he’d take that great of a risk.  Long ago, Artorias had told him that he should never fight any kind of wraith head-on unless he was at least a fifth-tier mage.  Leon had taken this advice to heart, and the prospect of fighting a wraith terrified him.

    “Alright, we’ll head out tomorrow morning, so go pack your things and get some rest.”  Artorias was back to his usual smiling self, but Leon was decidedly less cheerful.

    As Leon walked back to his house, there was only one thing on his mind.  ‘Dad said a river nymph or a tree sprite would probably do.  I’ll just look for one of those in the next few days.  Fighting a wraith is suicide, and there is no damned way I’m fighting one anytime soon.’

  • Chapter 5:  The Hunt I


    The next morning, Leon had everything he would need packed up and ready.  His bow was slung over his shoulder, arrows on his back, knife at his belt.  He had a bag with him full of food, and a full water skin at his belt.

    Artorias was dressed similarly, just with his sword and satchel as well.

    Seeing Leon, Artorias asked “Ready to go?”

    Leon nodded in response.

    “Alright, go open the door, I’ll lock things up here.”

    Leon walked down the ramp leading out, while Artorias went to the central obelisk.  There were three small formations on the side facing the exit, runes carved into a circle, and he placed his hand in one of them.  The obelisk briefly shook and the runes on its surface lit up.  A nigh-imperceptible barrier had been raised around the compound, its highest level of defense.

    With this done, Artorias followed Leon out.

    As the two men locked the door behind them, the compound became like a mighty fortress, all but impenetrable.

    “So, what should we be on the lookout for?”  asked Leon.

    “Keep an eye out for any beast with significant amounts of magic power.  I suppose we could settle for a black-iron bear if we absolutely have to, but I’d rather find something with a higher degree of power.”

    “Yesterday, you said a river nymph or a tree sprite might do, but they’re weaker than a black-iron bear.”

    “Make no mistake little lion, a black-iron bear is stronger and will kill you faster and bloodier, but nymphs and sprites have more magic, and magic is what we need.”

    And with that, the two made their way into the forest.  The morning was uneventful, with the two trudging through the outer-forest and seeing nothing bigger than a few large hares, so they rested a while for lunch.

    Leon hardly touched his meal of dried meat and bread, and couldn’t seem to sit still.  He was still a first-tier mage after spending five years training, and the knowledge of having hidden powers he had to awaken filled him with excitement every time he thought about it.  But the one thing that really gave him pause was the ritual itself.  He knew next to nothing about it, save that he needed to drink mana.

    “Father, there’s something I’d like to ask.”

    “Go for it.”  Artorias responded between mouthfuls of bread.

    “What did you kill to awaken your bloodline?”

    Artorias stopped chewing, and got an odd look on his face.  He was a man who enjoyed his food, and Leon had somewhat of a difficult time seeing what kind of expression he made around the swollen cheeks.

    “Sorry, is that a question I shouldn’t ask?  You didn’t explain the etiquette for this ritual.  If there even is etiquette for it.”  Leon asked worriedly.

    Artorias finally swallowed his food, and smiled.  “No, it’s fine.”  His faced his son, and had a big smile on his face.  “When I was your age, my father brought me out to hunt down a certain flying beast.  We had been getting reports of this thing swooping down into farms and stealing an entire pig in each claw, and flying away before the farmer could defend his livestock.”

    “What kind of beast was it?  A light-winged eagle?  A griffin?”  Leon asked excitedly, but quieted down before asking “Was it a drake?”

    Artorias was slightly taken aback with Leon’s sudden passionate questioning, and looked a little embarrassed as he answered.  “No… it was actually a Cartallian Hawk…”

    Leon’s look of excitement quickly vanished.  “A Cartallian Hawk?  Really?  How did one of those things carry off two pigs at once?!  They’re maybe twice the size of a crow, no way they could steal even one pig, let alone two!”  He stared at Artorias, waiting for an answer.

    “Ok, well maybe it was only a single pig.”  Leon kept staring at Artorias, clearly not believing his father.  “A baby pig is still a pig.”  Leon could only roll his eyes at that.  “Well, we went out to the areas it had been seen most frequently, and we waited.  For three days, we slept in a tree, watching the sky.  But our patience bore fruit, for we saw that hawk flying around on the fourth day.  So, I did what I had to, drew my bow and put an arrow through the things eye on my first shot!”

    “Really?  First shot?”  Leon asked incredulously.

    “When did you get so damned cynical?  You used to believe my stories.”

    “Yeah, but then I learned you exaggerate more than you don’t.”  Something quickly occurred to Leon, though.  “If you only needed a hawk, why did you say I needed an ice wraith?”

    “A hunch.  I can sense our bloodline’s aura coming from you, but it seems off.  Familiar, yet strange and foreign.  That you have yet to awaken may be the problem, but I just get the feeling that your awakening may be a little harder than most.  A better, higher quality mana catalyst than mine would go far in soothing my worries.”

    May be the problem… Is there anything else that may explain it?”  asked Leon, looking rather troubled now.

    Artorias was silent for a while before answering.  “All I am comfortable saying, is that your mother had her secrets, secrets probably passed down to you.  Secrets she didn’t even tell me, though I probably wouldn’t have believed her if she had.” 

    I’d believe her now, though’ he thought.

    Leon watched his father, hoping he would continue, but his hopes were dashed.  Artorias simply put away his half-finished meal, and sat there, leaning against a tree and staring off into the distance.

    Leon didn’t try to talk to Artorias now.  There would be little point.  He’d tried to talk about his family before, but simply mentioning these things would more often than not make Artorias so depressed that he wouldn’t say a word, and would even stay silent for the rest of the day.

    The next few hours were spent in silence.  Artorias got them moving again about fifteen minutes after Leon finished his food, and they continued walking around the forest.  The forest was quite large, and much of the terrain was very rough, with a thick underbrush and more than a few small hills and cliff, so Artorias had no expectations that they would find what they were looking for in a single day.  But there were still a few hotspots he knew of that he wanted to check.

    The first they arrived at was a small shallow tributary of a larger nearby river, filed with extraordinarily clear water.  But this small river had no fish, no obvious living things within.  Even the trees and grass stopped growing several dozen feet before the water’s edge.

    They didn’t stray too close to the water.  The safest place was well within the tree line, and that was where they were.  The simply followed the river upstream, but at a safe distance.  It didn’t take long before they found something.

    This ‘something’ looked like a bathing goddess, splashing water onto herself in the middle of the river.  Most men would immediately lose themselves in her otherworldly beauty, but Artorias knew better.  Leon was a little taken in, but he quickly regained control over himself before doing anything stupid.

    She had the kind of pale and unblemished skin of a rich noblewoman that spent all her days indoors and out of the sun, and slender body that all but cried out to be embraced.  She had long blonde hair that fell halfway down her back, and a face with soft features and an innocent, carefree look.  Her eyes were closed, enjoying the feeling of the water on her body, but if she opened them Leon and Artorias would see her yellow reptilian eyes.

    But they didn’t need to see her eyes to know what she was.  They only had to look down, as her body below the waist merged with the river water, completely disappearing just below the hips.  This was a river nymph, laying out a trap to catch anything that came close.  If Leon hadn’t been able to control himself, was captivated by her beauty and ran over to her, she would’ve wrapped her arms around him and dragged him under the water.  She would then use her magic to transform into water to enter his body, and eat him from the inside out.

    Despite their beautiful appearance and rare intelligence, river nymphs were cruel and uncaring beasts, and those that crossed their paths would rarely be heard from again.

    Leon, quiet as he could, went to draw and his bow and an arrow, but was stopped by Artorias.

    “Wait, she’s got friends.”

    Leon froze, and continued to watch.  Sure enough, three more nymphs rose up out of the crystal-clear water, their bodies appearing only after leaving the river.  All four then immediately began rapidly swimming upriver.

    Leon frowned and asked “They’re probably going to meet up with more of their kind.  Should we follow?” 

    “We can, for a ways.  We might catch one on its own.  Might not, too, but taking a quick look at where they’re going won’t hurt.”

    They pursued the river nymphs for a while upriver, going steadily north, always staying out of sight of the water.  Artorias could make this rather easy, as he and Leon could stay well into the forest and he wouldn’t lose sight of the nymphs, but this was Leon’s hunt, so Leon would have to rely on himself for most of the work.

    Suddenly, contrary to that policy, Artorias grabbed Leon’s arm and told him to hold back.  He could see where the nymphs were going, now, and it was not a place they should follow.

    The river went far enough north to start getting close to the edge of the mountains that surround all the Northern Vales, and it is from the melting snow on the mountains that the river is formed.  The nymphs were making their way towards the bottom of a waterfall, where several dozen other nymphs had gathered.  They were all gazing up in reverence at the top of the waterfall.  A monster had come down from the mountains, and was looking down at all of them, a monster with the upper half of a beautiful woman, and the lower half of a dark-green snake.

    A Gorgon, a terrifying monster that has a great control of both earth and water magic, eats stone, and possesses the unique ability to petrify someone simply with eye contact.

    Artorias could fight ice wraiths, but a Gorgon would not be so easy, so he had them turn around and leave quick as can be.  He knew that if he could see the Gorgon with his own magical senses, then she could see them as well, so he and Leon abandoned stealth and tore off back into the depths of the forest where the creature wouldn’t follow.

    There wasn’t much time left in the day, but enough to go to one more place.

    The one closest was a large glade, a section of the forest surrounded by immense boulders, that almost sealed off a portion of the forest.  Within this glade were a number of heartwood trees, with dark brown bark and bright golden leaves.

    There was always some creature of the forest that desires to call this glade home, but heartwood trees are not so welcoming.  They are extraordinarily beautiful when viewed from afar, and even when walked among, but lingering too long will see them start to emit a powerful magical aura so strong that not even the most terrifying beast of the forest would dare stick around.

    But there are still a few creatures drawn by the immense amount of magic power that gathers around the trees, and Artorias thought they might be able to catch one of sufficient strength around the glade.

    But in truth, going there was also just a way to avoid sleeping out in the open during the night.

    When they finished the uneventful trek over, the sun was already setting, and they could feel the darker things in the woods beginning to rise.  They quickly entered the glade, and were spared having to set up a defensive magic circle.

    “This place is always quite the sight to behold.”  Leon whispered.  Artorias simply nodded in agreement.  Neither man spoke anymore, and they grew solemn.  There were old legends about the trees, that they were brought to the plane by fallen gods and contained little hints of divinity.  They didn’t really believe these stories, but they still kept the peace within the glade.

    The night passed peacefully, but they could still hear the shrieking of banshees and the screaming of dying animals out in the distant dark.  They kept their distance from the heartwood trees, sleeping in a clearing in the center of the glade.

    Artorias had a hard time sleeping that night.  The day’s conversations had brought things up that were hard to put out of his mind. 

    It had been more than fifteen years since he had to leave the capital, with nothing but his sword, the clothes on his back, and his son in his arms.  He remembered having to find a skilled healer to treat his burns, for his first aid skills were inadequate.  He was at least able to stitch up the cuts and lacerations from wind magic on his own, though.

    He’d considered stopping at his family’s palace, though he hadn’t parted on good terms with his father last time they’d met.  His noble father didn’t want Artorias marrying some girl he’d never heard of before, but Artorias had married her anyway.

    It was a good thing Artorias didn’t stop there.  He’d brought Leon south when he was twelve, figuring it was safe to come out of hiding.  He found his family home in ruins, and the locals told him his father and brother had been dead for almost a decade.  Artorias immediately took Leon back north, and didn’t even entertain the thought of going back south until a couple years later.

    Leon believed that Artorias had been preparing him for life in the south, in the kingdom, and that may have been true when he was younger, but now Artorias taught him different things.  Where once, Leon’s days had been spent learning to read and write, learning strategy and the history of the kingdom, Artorias now made him hone his killing intent, and his fighting skills.  He doubled down on teaching Leon everything he knew about magical engineering, enchantments, and the runic arts.

    But the thing Artorias hoped for now was that Leon could successfully awaken his bloodline, then he could grow strong enough to no longer need Artorias to look out for him in the forest.

    Artorias always regretted never reconciling with his father, and not going back to him when his home in the capital was attacked, but his biggest regret was the loss of his wife.  He loved her with all his heart, and wished she could see how Leon had grown.  He wanted to hold her in his arms again, hear her voice, feel her presence.

    Thinking of these things made him anxious.   When he got anxious, he could never sit still.  Leon was fast asleep not too far away, so Artorias quietly got up, and went for a walk in the glade.

    He breathed in the cool night air, and released a small bit of his magic.  The wind blew in response, and the clouds overhead split apart revealing the night sky, filled with the stars of distant planes, like tiny silver coins.  Every so often, one of these planes would vanish into the darkness, and another would appear somewhere else in the heavens.

    He released more of his magic, and the wind blew stronger, rustling the leaves of the trees and drowning out the distant sound of banshees.  If Leon could see him now, he would be struck speechless at the ease with which Artorias was using such powerful magic.

    He kept walking like that for half an hour, lost in his memories, when he noticed something in the dirt in front of him.  Upon closer look, he realized it was a pair of heartwood seeds, each about the size of a fingernail.  One was gently glowing a dull gold, and the other was black as night.

    The sight brought a frown to his face.  Heartwood seeds are not so easily obtained, but the legends and myths about the trees used to say that the seeds would only fall for the gods, to be used in their funeral rites.

    Seeing the trees in person, Artorias found it hard to say he disbelieved the stories.  There was an aura to the trees, a majesty that radiated from the bark. 

    Down south, most heartwood trees were grown in copses, to be cut down and made into weapons and ships.  But here, they still thrived, and Artorias could feel their heavenly aura.

    He decided to slip the seeds into his pocket, and began to make his way back to the camp.  He’d cleared his head, and calmed down.  It was time to sleep, for there would be plenty of work to do the next day.

  • Chapter 6:  The Hunt II


    Leon woke early the next morning to the smell of bread and bacon.  Artorias had woken up a little before, and thrown together some breakfast.

    The two gave each other terse greetings, and immediately dug in.

    When finished, they quickly packed up and began to make their way out of the glade.  As peaceful and serene as it was, it was also not a place to stay for very long.

    “Any idea of where to go now?” asked Leon.

    “East.”

    Where east?”

    Artorias looked a bit uncertain, but answered without pause.  “We need to cross the river, but we should actually go south a bit, to avoid the nymphs.”

    “Why avoid them?  I just need to kill one and we’re done, no?”

    “No.  That Gorgon we saw yesterday didn’t leave.  Or, at least, I doubt she has.  Those nymphs worship her, and so long as she doesn’t return to the mountains, we don’t touch her people.”

    “So, then what do you have in mind?”

    “If we find a tree sprite, that would be good.  A wraith nest might be better, but significantly more dangerous.  If all else fails, we could go south to the Banshee Lake, but I’m certain we won’t have to.  There are other things in the forest to hunt, so we’ll go further in to check.  But first, to cross the river we’re going to have to go south to the Troll’s Bridge to cross, otherwise we’ll have river nymphs all over us.”

    Leon frowned.  “I’d rather not have to deal with any of them, especially the troll, but if we must then we must.”

    Artorias sighed, looking a bit resigned.  “We must.  Else, we’d have to go all the way around Banshee Lake and that would take days.  Better to just grit our teeth and deal with it.”

    With that settled, they went south a ways before turning east, towards the river.  Artorias even found the last of the herbs he needed on the way.  It didn’t take too long, but the sun was quite high in the sky by the time they came within sight of the bridge.  It was an old thing, but still strong, made entirely of what seemed to be a single piece of stone, it spanned the entire width of the river, all three hundred and fifty feet. 

    The bridge had been made from earth mages digging up and setting the granite rocks, while fire mages slightly melted it all into one single massive stone.  It was then cut and smoothened with more earth magic, and carved with intricate patterns.

    But that had been many millennia ago.  Now, the bridge was cracked and covered in moss and vines, the carved decorations had all but faded away, and had become home to a troll squatter.  Still, the first time Artorias had seen it, he was amazed.  The bridge itself didn’t amaze him so much, as there were similar construction techniques down south, but he recognized what few carvings remained on the stone railings as being from a kingdom that had long faded from all but the most ancient of history books, and even then, the references to it had been frustratingly vague.

    This bridge, unremarkable it may be on its own, was proof that that kingdom had extended from the very center of Aeterna to almost as far north as north goes.

    But that kingdom had been gone for so long that no one even knew its name, and its works fell into ruin, if they still existed at all.

    As Artorias and Leon crossed the bridge, they saw on the other side, a large ten-foot tall creature with thick, oily, brown and white fur covering its body, and an immense nose that took up over half of the creature’s face emerge from underneath the bridge.  As they neared, they could see small, beady black eyes, and a hunched back.  It had arms that hung down to its knees, and legs thick as tree trunks.

    This was the troll, and it quickly moved to block off the opposite side of the bridge.  As the two men approached, it began to beat its fist into the ground, causing the bridge to shake, and screamed in a harsh guttural language.  Neither could speak this language, but they got the gist of what it was saying:

    This is my bridge! Leave!

    But they continued to advance.  When they had closed to within several dozen feet of the creature, Artorias drew his sword and began to channel his magic through it.  The sword lit up with electrical sparks, and arcs of lightning travelled between the ends of the guard and the tip of the blade.

    The troll stopped its screaming and restrained itself at the sight.  Artorias slowly reached into his coat and took out a large silver coin, and tossed it at the troll.  The troll caught it, and brought it closer to its snout to examine it.  After a few short seconds, it slowly, almost reluctantly, turned around and left, disappearing back beneath the bridge.

    Artorias and Leon finished crossing, and continued walking into the forest.

    “Dad…”

    “Yes, little lion?”

    “Why do you always pay that thing when we need to cross?  I might not be able to fight it, but I’m sure you could kill it with a single swing of your sword.”

    “Why would I do that?  Just to save a few coins?”  Artorias stopped, and looked at Leon.  “Yes, I could obliterate that troll with ease, but that doesn’t mean I should.  Remember this, boy, strength does not equal righteousness.  There are many people who think that being strong means they can do whatever they want, but they are little better than animals.  We are not animals.  We are civilized men, and we might kill for food, but we don’t kill just to save a small inconvenience.  That troll is intelligent.  It wouldn’t leave when paid if it weren’t.  All it wants is to live in its territory in relative peace, and if it lets us pass for only a few shiny coins than all the better.”

    Having said that, Artorias began walking again.  Leon had a look of contemplation, but he followed his father.

    As they walked through the black and white trees, Artorias kept a lookout with his magic senses.  He saw many animals that would otherwise make for good prey if they were simply hunting like normal.  He saw pure white foxes living in equally white trees, large hawks flying overhead, rabbits, squirrels, and boars.  None escaped his sight, but none had even the slightest trace of magic, making them worthless for their purpose.

    Leon was still lost in thought when Artorias suddenly stopped.  Leon didn’t notice and ran into his father, being almost knocked to the ground in surprise.  Artorias, however, barely noticed it.

    “What do you see?”  asked Leon.

    Artorias was staring off into the distance, with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth.  Leon looked into the same direction, but all he saw were trees and leaves of various colors.

    It was almost ten seconds of staring before Artorias finally spoke.  “I think I just found our goal.”

    “What do you see?”  Leon repeated.

    “A Snow Lion.”

    Leon’s eyes widened, his heart beat faster, and his hands began to shake.  Snow lions made their home within the caves of the Frozen Mountain range, and very rarely came down into the vales.  They were aloof, solitary beasts, and possessed of great skill with ice magic.  Leon had never seen one, but he had occasionally seen what had become of the creatures the lions hunted.  Everything from river nymphs to black-iron bears were considered prey by the snow lions.

    He took a few deep breathes to calm himself, and his hands stopped shaking, though he was still both terrified and excited.  This lion would make for easier prey than an ice wraith, but he would have to be perfect to bring it down.

    The two began creeping towards the beast’s lair, high up on a nearby mountain.  There were a few small mountain clusters within the vale, heavily forested and several hundred feet high.  The lion had made this particular group of mountains its home, as there were no other mountains around this deep into the vale.

    The forest was dense enough that it took over an hour to approach the foot of the mountain.  They didn’t start climbing the mountain upon arrival, however, as Artorias had said that the lion was out hunting, and its lair now lay empty.

    There was a small path among the mountain boulders leading up, and it was at this path’s entrance that they stopped.

    Artorias looked around, and smiled.  “If that lion wants to go home, it will have to come through here.  Let’s prepare for when it comes back.”  He then looked at Leon expectantly, and didn’t move.  It was up to Leon to plan and carry out the ambush.

    Leon looked around, carefully analyzing the surroundings.  The area was filled with trees, but they thinned out considerably as the forest approached the foot of the mountain.  The mountain itself was quite thick with trees, but the path leading up was virtually bereft of any plant life.

    He saw a large oak fairly close to the start of the mountain path, with plenty of branches to climb and brilliant green leaves to hide behind.  Leon quickly scampered up the trunk to the lowest branch, about twenty feet off the ground.  He was about to settle in, but decided to climb up a bit more, reaching another branch ten feet higher.

    Artorias, meanwhile, climbed up another nearby tree, a white poplar with dark blue leaves and lighter blue marks along the trunk, like blood vessels.  He climbed to where he wanted and got comfortable, and if Leon hadn’t seen his father climb the tree, he never would have guessed Artorias was there.

    There they waited, for several more hours, barely moving.  Leon fished out a few pieces of dried bread to snack on, but otherwise remained completely still.  At Artorias’ level of power, he ate food for pleasure, not out of necessity, so he simply allowed his magic to fill his body with energy rather than eat lunch.

    Leon started to grow worried about whether or not the snow lion was actually going to come that way when he heard something off in the distance.  It was the lion, snapping fallen tree branches and brushing past the bushes without any attempt to hide.  As it got closer, Leon saw a few glimpses of moving white in between the trees and plants, but the beast was still well concealed within the forest.

    It kept coming closer.  Leon slowly drew his bow and one arrow, made a few last-minute adjustments to his quiver so it was easy to access, and began to channel his limited magic into his bow.  His mana rushed into his hand, then magic power flowed into the bow, and concentrated in the middle, right where the arrow rested against the weapon.  The minor enchantment within activated, and though there was no outward sign, the bow was now ready to fire an arrow at a terrific speed.

    By the time Leon was done preparing, he looked up just in time to see the lion emerge from the tree line.  It was a massive beast, over six feet tall and nine feet long.  It could probably swallow his entire upper body in a single bite.  It had a beautiful coat, white as freshly fallen snow.  Its mane was thicker and slightly darker than the rest of it, but it only added to the majestic aura the lion gave off.  The only parts of the beast that weren’t some shade of white or extremely light grey were its pitch-black eyes and claws.  Its snout was covered in the dark red blood of the small fox it had in its mouth.

    Leon was awed by the beauty of the lion, but he drew the arrow back anyway.  He aimed at the creature’s eye, intending to kill it in a single shot.

    The lion paused, sensing a sharp killing intent directed towards it, and it began to channel its own magic.  It looked around carefully, attempting to find where the killing intent was coming from, but it failed to notice Leon or Artorias.  Until Leon released the arrow.

    The bow’s enchantment was weak, but well made, and the arrow flew across the clearing so fast it was nearly impossible to see it, but see it the lion did.  In fact, the lion was fast enough to cover the side of its face in ice and the arrow bounced off harmlessly.

    The lion dropped the fox, glared at the tree the arrow had come from, and gave an earth-shattering roar.  Birds half a mile away took flight in terror, and smaller animals rushed for shelter.  The lion charged at the tree, and had begun to climb before Leon had even drawn his second arrow.

    As the lion climbed, it saw Leon, and knew it was he who tried to kill it.  Leon drew his second arrow, and loosed.  Again, the lion protected itself with icy armor.  It easily climbed the tree to Leon’s branch, and snapped it off with a single swipe of its claw.

    Leon fell, managing to grab the branch below, then dropping to the ground.  He drew a third arrow, turned, and fired at the lion in the tree.  The arrow flew towards the beast, and had about as much effect as the first two.

    The lion leaped out of the tree, landing in front of Leon before knocking him down with a headbutt, and roared at him.  The beast’s own killing intent was slamming down onto Leon, putting pressure upon him and making it difficult to breathe.  The lion raised its claw, and swiped at the vulnerable young man.  Leon raised his arm to block it, and the claws slashed the flesh of his left arm to ribbons.

    Artorias, watching this, felt his heart almost stop.  He cursed himself for bringing Leon here, for targeting the lion, and for allowing it to go this far.  But as he drew his sword, and tensed up to leap out of the tree at the lion, the beast raised its paw for another strike.  Leon moved fast, drawing his hunting knife as the claw came down.  He raised it as fast as he could and felt the blade sink into the beast’s paw, pushed in by the weight of the lion’s own attack.  The impact broke his wrist and nearly shattered his arm.

    The lion roared in pain and rage, but Leon had avoided the death blow.  It staggered backwards, unable to put too much weight down on its paw with a six-inch knife stuck in it.  Leon took the opportunity to grab his bow and one more arrow, painfully drawing back the bowstring with all the strength he could muster, and infusing every drop of magic he had left in his body into the weapon.

    The lion ripped the knife out of its paw with its teeth, before turning to glare at Leon and roaring again.  Leon immediately released his arrow before dropping his bow with a yell of pain.  The arrow crossed the space between the man and the beast before anyone could blink, entering the lions mouth and sinking deep into its throat.  The beasts roar was cut off with a yelp of pain, and it staggered backwards.

    It seemed confused as blood and mana poured out of its mouth, and its eyes began to dim.  It glared at Leon one more time before limping towards him.  It could feel itself about to die, but it intended to take this young human with it to the grave. 

    But as it approached Leon, it felt another killing intent, this one orders of magnitude more powerful than Leon’s.  It froze in terror, completely unable to move its own magic within its body.  It didn’t even see Artorias before his blade entered one eye and exited the other.

    Seeing the lion collapse, Leon breathed a sigh of relief.  The entire encounter took less than twenty seconds, but he had been nearly killed several times before Artorias acted.  The lion made a few more ragged breaths, but Artorias ignored it.  He rushed over to his son, but Leon had already passed out.

  • Chapter 7:  Ritual I


    As the snow lion breathed its last, Artorias sheathed his sword and ran over to his son.  Leon had passed out from his wounds, and Artorias immediately began administering first aid.  He wasn’t a doctor by any stretch of the imagination, but he had been raised as a soldier, and that had included first-aid training.

    He frantically began searching in his satchel for a few emergency spells, and once he found the papers they were written on, he wrapped three of them around Leon’s bleeding arm.  With a little bit of magic from him, the runes written on the paper lit up with a golden light.  After a few seconds, the light died down, but Leon’s arm had stopped bleeding.

    Artorias sighed in relief.  The bleeding had been very bad, and though the injuries on the arm remained, at least Leon had been saved from bleeding to death.

    Artorias carefully removed the spell paper, and took out some bandages.  He wrapped the arm up in the bandages, and began to look for a couple of sticks that could serve as a splint.  The forest was thick, so finding what he needed was quite easy.  He wrapped up Leon’s other arm and splinted it, making sure not to jostle the broken wrist too much, then checked the rest of Leon’s body for injuries.  From what he could tell, when Leon had jumped from the tree he had sprained both ankles, but not too terribly, and the rest of him was relatively fine, so Artorias finally turned his attention back to the lion.

    He walked over, drawing an empty water skin, and used his hunting knife to cut open the lion’s chest.  Only a few minutes had passed since it had died, so not too much blood or mana had leaked out of the carcass.  He cut all the way to the heart, where the crimson blood being pumped in was replaced with red mana, so bright it almost glowed.

    He examined the mana after collection.  “This should be good enough, but I might as well butcher the rest before the ants get to it.”

    He sliced open the rest of the lion, and with practiced ease removed the hide, dumped the entrails to the side, and deboned the beast.  He placed the heart to the side, then wrapped up the meat in the hide, using it as a makeshift sack.

    After he finished, Leon began to stir, so Artorias quickly made a fire.  He impaled the lion heart upon a stick and started cooking it.

    Within his hazy waking up head, Leon smelled the cooking meat, and opened his eyes.  With greater clarity, he saw the cooking heart and Artorias smiling down at him.  He tried to quickly sit up, but the pain in his arms was still there, so with a grimace, he lay back down.

    “Careful there, little lion.”  Artorias said with a smile.

    “What happened?”  asked Leon.

    “You did damned good, that’s what’s happened.  You took a few hits, will probably have a few scars to remember this old cat by, but you killed it.”

    I killed it?  It was still moving after I shot my last arrow.”

    “It was a mortal wound, so all I did was to help it on its way.”

    Artorias kept up his usual smile, beaming with pride, but inside he was still berating himself about the decision to come after the lion.  The only consolation he had was that he hadn’t insisted on hunting down an ice wraith.  If Leon had this much trouble with the lion, then an ice wraith would’ve torn him apart.

    “Rest now, little lion.  Firing those arrows out of your enchanted bow took most of your magic, so just rest and recover.  We’ll stay here for the night.”

    Leon closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the magic in the air be absorbed by his lungs.  The magic density was far greater back home thanks to the obelisk, but he still figured he would be strong enough to move again by the morning.

    Artorias, meanwhile was still cooking up the lion heart.  He pulled it away from the fire, and sniffed at it a few times.  Then he offered it to Leon.  “This was your kill, so you should eat the heart.  It’ll be good for getting some more magic into your body.  Might even help you crack into the second-tier tomorrow, when we perform the ritual.”

    Leon immediately opened his eyes in excitement.  “We’ll do the ritual tomorrow?  What all do we have to do for it?  Will it take long?  Where will we go for it?  Do you have any tips?  What do- “

    But Artorias cut him off before Leon could continue.  “Slow down, boy.  Rest, get your magic back.  I’ll try to answer what I can, but your current priority should be to eat that lion heart and perform your breathing exercises.”

    Leon smiled, and laughed with some embarrassment.  He slowly regulated his breathing, while carefully using his non-splinted arm to bring the heart to his lips.  It smelled delicious, and he eagerly took a bite.  The meat was tough and very chewy, but Leon savored every bite.  He could feel a warmth spreading out from his stomach, and felt small amounts of magic entering his blood.  It didn’t take long to finish the heart, despite its size, and by then Artorias had made himself some food.  Leon relaxed, and started his breathing exercises, looking at his father expectantly the whole time.

    Artorias pretended not to notice Leon’s gaze, and ate deliberately slowly.  The lion meat was cooked to perfection, and filled with mana.  Artorias wouldn’t see too much gain from eating it, but he loved his food.

    Finally, he turned to Leon, and began to speak.  “There is a tall mountain further to the east, that is our destination for tomorrow.  The peak of this mountain is a large flat space, and we’ll be digging a large magic array onto it.  I wrote a few spells before we left, and we’ll set them up at the focal points of the array.  There will be two larger focal points near the middle.  You will sit in one, and the ice wraith core will be placed in the other.  The core will provide most of the raw magic, the spells will change the nature of that magic, and the array will direct the magic into you.

    “Meanwhile, you will take off your shirt, and I will paint a few runes onto your body with a salve.  You will also be drinking an herbal tea, to prepare yourself for drinking the lion’s mana.  I need to add a few things to the mana I’ve collected, and then it will be ready for you to drink, after the tea. 

    “There are a few more things I need to prepare before the ritual begins, but I suppose the easiest way to describe it would be to say that I need to make sure that the magic in the area is dense enough.  A few runes similar to what I carved into our obelisk ought to do it.”

    Artorias smiled at Leon, waiting for his response.  Leon, for his part, looked beyond excited, and Artorias guessed that were he not as injured as he is now, he would’ve insisted that they go to the mountain immediately.

    Artorias glanced up, and noticed the sky starting to redden.  “It’s getting late, I’d better set up a few wards to keep us safe.”

    He went to several trees around them, and carved a simple runic circle into their trunks.  Then, he placed his hand in the middle of each circle, and channeled his magic into it to activate it.  He grabbed a few large stones from the mountain path, carved a few runes into them as well, and scattered them around in a small magic array.  There would be no banshees disturbing their sleep this night, though a determined ice wraith would still be able to force its way through.  But then, it would be faced with Artorias and his enchanted blade, and that would be the last thing it would ever see.

    Leon, meanwhile, began to meditate, to regain his lost mana.  He relaxed, allowing his body to synch with the movements of the world.  The wind picked up, and he inhaled.  The wind died down, and he exhaled.  His heart beat slower, but each beat began infusing magic into his blood.  The resulting mana surged through his body, relieving his pain and fatigue.

    Artorias looked at his son.  Mana greatly accelerates the healing process, and Leon would be well enough to walk by morning.  He sat down across the fire from the young man, and lay down.  He stared up at the sky, watching it grow darker, until the sun finally set.

    The wards did their job, their sleep went undisturbed.  They both awoke feeling hale and hearty, and set off early the next morning.  Artorias easily carried the lion meat in the lion’s own skin, while Leon followed. 

    The slashes on his left arm had scabbed over, and even looked slightly smaller than they had the night before.  His right wrist was still very broken, however, so there wasn’t much he could do to help his father carry the lion’s remains.

    It didn’t take long to reach the ritual mountain, it wasn’t even midday when they arrived.  It was very tall, over fifteen thousand feet high.  Leon paled a bit when he looked at the distant peak.

    “We really have to climb that?”

    “Yes and no, little lion.  We need to get to the top, but there is an easy path we can use.”

    Artorias guided them towards a small path, hidden behind a number of huge boulders, and they began their ascent.

    Leon was slightly confused.  This path was just a little too convenient.  “How did you find this path?”

    “I made it.”  Artorias answered simply.

    “You made it?”

    “Yup.  This is called Storm Titan’s Mountain.  It’s the mountain where I come to train.  Every time I sense a storm coming, I leave for the top of this mountain.  I carved a path for myself to make the climb easier.  In fact, it’s no longer even a climb, we simply need to walk to the top.”

    Leon didn’t find this too awfully strange, he knew his father would always disappear when it started to rain.  He also knew that the slow pace they’d been walking at these past few days were for his own benefit, as Artorias could travel from their compound to this mountain in less than an hour at his usual pace.

    They remained silent the rest of the climb up, with Artorias mentally going through all of his preparations to make sure he didn’t leave anything out, and Leon doing all he could to remain calm and suppress his excitement.

    The arrived near the mountain peak by the time the sun started to fall.  The very tip of the mountain continued upward another hundred feet or so, but Artorias had carved out a flat surface about fifty feet in diameter years before, and that was where they stopped.

    Leon was shivering, due both to anticipation and the cold mountain air.  Artorias set down the lion meat, and began rummaging in his satchel for a large chisel.

    “Leon, sit down and eat something.  I’ll get started on the magic array.” 

    And with that, he began carving in the rock of the mountain top.  Leon had his food, and Artorias worked.  It only took an hour for Artorias to be done, and when he finally stood up, Leon walked over to see.

    The magic array was twenty feet long, and about fifteen feet wide.  There were four small circles near the top, connected by lines that made it look like a storm cloud.  A carved lightning bolt was emanating from the bottom of the cloud, and it intersected two larger circles in the center before landing on the ‘ground’, where there were three more smaller circles.  The two circles in the middle were connected by a pair of lines that formed an oval, and the ground was connected to the cloud by two more lines, all of which formed a pair of concentric ovals.  Lastly, Artorias had carved straight lines connecting the seven smaller circles with the very center of the formation.

    Artorias explained all this to Leon, but the younger man didn’t quite see the pattern.  Artorias was certainly no artist, but what he was confident that what he carved would do the job.

    Next, the elder man pulled out seven lightning spells, written on spell paper, and placed them in the seven smaller circles, weighing them down with small stones.  He then carved a few more runic circles all around the formation, and the magic in the surroundings began to gather around them.  The density of the magic in the air nearly doubled over the next few hours, while Artorias finished his preparations.

    During those next few hours, Artorias pulled out a small pestle and mortar from his satchel, and ground down a few of the plants he had brought with him, and mixed them into a ceramic bowl.  He then poured all the lion’s mana into the bowl, and thoroughly mixed the mana with the herbs.  Then, he looked to Leon.

    “Take off your shirt, and put down your things.”  Leon complied, removing his bow and quiver, then his small pack of supplies, then his shirt, leaving his upper body bare.  He sat down in front of his father, facing away, and Artorias retrieved his grey paste from the satchel.  He dipped his finger in it, then began to paint runic circles and patterns onto Leon’s body.

    Fifteen minutes later, Artorias had finished, and had Leon kneel down in one of the center circles.  Relax, and perform some breathing exercises, he told his son.  He then took two more things out of the satchel, before tossing it away.  One was a water skin, and he gave that to his son to drink in between breaths.  The other looked like a diamond, or a thick piece of glass, about the size of an orange.  It gave off a dull blue light, and an unnerving chill.  Leon could feel it pierce directly to his bones, even from ten feet away.  Artorias placed the core in the other central circle, and Leon finished off the potion he’d been given.

    Leon’s vision began to blur, and his stomach felt like it was doing somersaults.  He saw little flashes of light in the distance, and motion blurs in the corners of his eye.

    “Dad, what the hell was in that potion?”

    “A few things, some to dull pain, some to prepare your body for the lion’s mana.  A little queasiness is fine.  Now then, are you ready?  This is your last chance to prepare yourself.”

    Leon took a deep breath, then nodded towards his father.  Artorias passed him the bowl of lion mana, then put some distance between himself and the array, and settled in to watch.  After he had woken up from his own ritual twenty years before, the surroundings had been severely damaged, so he wanted to give Leon some space.

    Leon looked down at the bowl, and the slightly glowing red mana within.  He closed his eyes, steeled himself, then brought the bowl to his lips, tipped it back, and began to drink.  The air was cold that high up, and the ice wraith core wasn’t helping, but the mana was oddly warm, as if it had just been extracted.  Leon didn’t stop until the bowl was empty, and he felt the last drop of mana slide into his stomach.

    Artorias let his smile fall as he watched, and waited for the change to start.  He remembered his own ritual, and was both eager and very nervous about seeing it happen to his son.  So, he simply watched, and waited.

  • Chapter 8:  Ritual II


    Artorias didn’t need to wait long.  Leon’s vision continued to worsen, blurring more and more until finally, all he could see was a blank white void.  He felt woozy, and could barely manage to continue kneeling, and felt like he would collapse at any second.

    His stomach churned and roiled, as if it were a living thing struggling to escape his body.  His blood felt like it was boiling, and the magic within the lion mana flooded his body.  His muscles seized up, and if he were capable, he would have screamed bloody murder.  Leon had never felt so much pain in his entire life, but after a few more minutes, he began to compose himself.

    But that was before the real process began.  His body felt like it was on fire, and it radiated heat and magic power.  The lion’s aura had been icy cold, but when its power entered Leon, he felt like he had fallen into an erupting volcano.  What he didn’t realize, is that this was his body’s way of trying to fight against the lion mana that he had drunk.  The magic he radiated increased in intensity, and finally, the array he was in started activating.

    The array was powered by the ice wraith core, and its dull blue glow grew brighter, until it lit up the entire mountain top.  The array lines gave off light as the array activated, glowing a bright blue just like the core.  It took a few more minutes for the power to reach the lightning spells, and when the spells activated, the lines changed color into a brilliant gold, a light so bright that Artorias had to start covering his eyes.  After the color change, the magic power changed direction and flowed into Leon’s body.

    Leon grit his teeth, as the power entered his body and began to clash with the lion’s power.  He felt his muscles begin to tear, his bones crack, and his mind crumble.  In minutes, all coherent thought had left his mind, and he fell unconscious.

    This continued for some time.  The array continued channeling the ice wraith’s power into Leon, destroying his body from the outside.  The lion’s mana continued emitting power from within Leon, destroying his body from the inside.  Artorias watched, with a look of utter seriousness on his face, alert for any and all changes in the surroundings, waiting for Leon’s body to begin fighting back.

    The sun went down, and the sky turned to darkness.  The ritual had been going on for several hours, and Leon was just about at his breaking point.  He’d collapsed onto the ground, with not a single unbroken bone in his body.  He bled from the eyes, ears, mouth, and the injuries the lion had left him with.  His breaths were ragged and uneven.

    Artorias wasn’t too familiar with this part of the ritual.  He had experienced his own just as unconscious as Leon was now, so he only had his father’s word about what happened.  Artorias was told that his bloodline didn’t awaken until his body had almost completely fallen apart.  His father had almost intervened to make sure he didn’t die.

    Artorias continued to watch for signs of Leon’s awakening.  Small amounts of lightning magic should start getting absorbed, rather than passing through his son’s body ripping apart everything it comes into contact with.  This influx of power should then allow Leon to fight against the lion’s mana, and absorb it as well.  The power in the mana would then be used to heal Leon’s shattered body, and he would probably enter the ranks of second-tier mages at the end.

    Artorias didn’t let a single detail escape his notice.  Watching his son’s body break so thoroughly was a struggle, to put it lightly.  He was confident that he could heal Leon should he stop the ritual soon, but it would take months and he wasn’t going to stop this unless he was sure the ritual had failed.

    Artorias frowned, and continued to wait.  The glowing array pumped vast amounts of lightning into Leon, but the young man didn’t even twitch in response.  His body had almost become too damaged to breathe, let alone react to the magic entering it.

    Artorias was so fixated on watching his son, that he didn’t notice something very important.  When the sun had gone down, the sky was perfectly clear.  If he had looked up, he would’ve seen all the stars orbiting distant planes, and the moon as it rose.  Now, the sky had become filled with dark storm clouds, and all the creatures of the forest had taken shelter, for they felt the tension in the air.  They knew that something was coming, and they wanted no part of it.  Even the banshees were quiet this night.

    It wasn’t until it started to rain that Artorias finally noticed the oncoming storm.  It was a gentle drizzle at first, but then it turned into a light shower, building up to a thick downpour. 

    Artorias swore, and started channeling his magic to protect the magic array, but before he could, lightning fell from the clouds and struck the mountain.  Artorias froze on the spot.  He felt his heart beat so hard that he thought it might burst from his chest, and his body felt like it was being pressed down into the ground by some unseen force.  What terrified him the most, though, was that this pressure was coming from Leon.

    Artorias barely managed to keep from falling to the ground.  It was all he could do to keep standing there.

    The wind picked up, escalating from the gentle breeze of fifteen minutes ago to a howling gale.  Rain fell in great sheets that threatened to wash away the entire mountain, and lightning struck the peak more times than Artorias cared to count.  Before long, however, lightning stopped striking the mountain top, and began to fall upon the magic array.

    Artorias’ heart almost stopped at the sight, but he noticed something that served to calm him down, somewhat.  Leon had begun to absorb the storm’s lightning, filling his body with lightning magic, and the wind swirled around him in a large cyclone visible for miles.  The rain washed Leon’s body clean of blood, and his numerous wounds began to stitch themselves together.  The cracks in his bones closed, and when Leon had finished healing, the storm left as quickly as it had come.

    Artorias felt strength return to him, as the pressure coming from Leon disappeared.  He immediately ran towards his son, to check him for signs of any lasting damage.  The magic array he had set up had been completely destroyed, with the ice wraith core shattered and the lightning spells shredded and scattered to the wind.  The ground was charred and blackened from the lightning, and the lines of the array were dark and broken.

    Artorias’ nervousness only abated when he probed Leon’s condition with his magic.  He gave a sigh of relief, as Leon’s body was in perfect condition.  Even the injuries from the battle with the lion had completely healed.  The only thing left to do now was to wait for Leon to wake up, and run him through a few tests to gauge his gains.

    But, if Artorias knew what kind of attention Leon had attracted, he would be left speechless in terror.  Far to the south, past the Bull Kingdom, and past ten thousand miles of squabbling kingdoms and independent duchies, lay an enormous sea.  This sea was in the very center of Aeterna, and here, magic was at its strongest.  The magic density was greater around the sea by several orders of magnitude than in the Northern Vales.

    Four great empires had claimed the lands around the sea as their own.  They generally stayed out of the affairs of the kingdoms, believing themselves above the petty disputes of lesser monarchs.  For the most part, they were right.  Destroying the Bull Kingdom wouldn’t be particularly difficult for them, but such a remote and comparatively desolate land held no interest to their rulers, so they barely even acknowledged its existence.

    In the capital of the western empire, a young emperor holds court.  He hears the appeals of his vassals, administers justice to the common people, and does his best to rule the empire in a just and fair manner.  He is overseen by an old man with silver hair, dressed in all white save for a large purple sash, and sporting a thick silver beard.  This old man is watching with pride as the emperor handles the business of ruling such a large and prosperous nation, but he suddenly freezes, and his eyes widen in surprise.  He slowly turns north, and his gaze seems to penetrate the myriad enchantments of the palace, the thousands of miles of plains, rivers, deserts, mountains, and all between him and the ritual mountain. 

    The sight of the raging storm and the young man within make him recall old memories of his youth, over a thousand years past.  He had spent those years buried in the old books of the palace library.  There was one book there that he had been forbidden to read, a very old book from an age long past, but he had read it anyway, and the stories therein had left him nearly petrified in awe and fear.

    He had read about a cruel and tyrannical king in those pages, one who commanded the power of storms, who could summon wind, rain, and lightning and used that power to conquer the entire plane, leaving hundreds of millions dead in his wake.

    This was the legend he thought of now, noticing this ritual take place, the legend of the Storm King.  ‘We need to send spies north.  We need to find out who this boy is.’ he thought.

    This old man was not the only person who noticed these events, however.  In the northern empire, within an opulent palace not far from the royal keep, an old woman was with a very young girl.  It was the girls twelfth birthday party tomorrow, and the old woman was helping her pick out an outfit.  The old woman had aged very gracefully, with a body as fit and strong as when she was six hundred years younger, though with a few more wrinkles.  Her long hair was still the shining gold of her family, and she was more than capable of defending her empire from any who dare threaten it.

    But suddenly, this titan of a woman who could look down upon all the world, stiffened in shock.  She, too, looked north, and saw the storm.  ‘We must be the first to get to him!  If he comes south, it should be under our banner!’, she thought.

    In the east, a simply dressed bald man who appeared to be in his mid-forties sat on the floor of an equally simple room.  There were no decorations, no trappings of power, and no creature comforts.  The only piece of furniture in the room was a stone bed.

    This serious man adjusted his plain brown robe and prepared to leave the room, when he noticed the storm, and looked to the north.  His reaction was slightly more subdued than the others, but his fists clenched, and his aura became murderous.  His killing intent dropped the temperature in the room to below freezing, and frost appeared on the floor and walls.

    In the south, a seemingly young man was in bed, enjoying a group of gorgeous women.  Most of them had already been left panting and gasping from pleasure, and the last mounted him, intending to join the others in ecstasy.  The man suddenly threw her off him, and sat up, staring to the north.  He smiled when he saw the storm, and fought the urge to burst into laughter.

    All four of these people stood at the pinnacle of magic in Aeterna.  There were those who, not without justification, worshipped them as gods.  They were the ultimate weapon of their empires, and their ultimate deterrent.  Their existence elevated their empires above all the rest of the nations in the plane, and made them unassailable to the rest of the world.  And now, all of them noticed Leon’s ritual.

    Before any of them could act, however, they all heard the same voice in their minds.  “Don’t worry, I’ve already seen it.  There is no need to worry about it any longer.”  It was the voice of a man who lived in the center of the sea, in an immense circular stone tower, two miles tall and more than half a mile thick.  With him involved, any thoughts they had of going north were immediately quashed.

    The young emperor in the west saw the old man acting strangely, and asked “Are you alright, father?”

    The old man turned back to the emperor, and nodded, struggling to put the storm and the boy who conjured it out of his mind.

    The young girl looked at the old woman quizzically.  They had been discussing her birthday party, when her grandmother had gone quiet.  A few silent seconds passed, before the old woman turned back to her granddaughter and the party preparations.

    The simply dressed man unclenched his fists, but his killing intent didn’t abate.  It took him a few more minutes to compose himself before he returned to his sacred duties.

    “Are you alright, Your Majesty?”  The young woman who had been about to couple with her emperor asked in a nervous voice.  She had heard stories of those who displeased their monarch, and had no wish to experience it firsthand.

    The young man turned and smiled at the woman.  He didn’t say a word, he just grabbed her hips and pulled her closer.  Fairly soon, she too was left in the same state as the other women.

    These four had seen the ritual, and all had the instinct to go north to the ritual site.  But as soon as they heard that message, all desire to involve themselves in this affair vanished.  All feared and respected the sender of this message, though none had seen him in person.  They understood his position, and theirs in relation to him.  If he said they didn’t need to worry about it, then worry about it they would not.

    The very top of that stone tower in the middle of the sea was flat and mirror smooth.  There was no visible way to enter the tower, and it was perpetually surrounded by fluffy white clouds.  If a mortal were to find themselves at the top of the tower, they wouldn’t be able to see a thing. 

    There were, in fact, two people there, though neither were mortal.  They were mages of incredible power.  The master was sitting at the very edge, gazing north.  He was the one who had communicated with the gods of the four empires.  The apprentice was standing at a respectful distance, waiting for his master to speak.

    “Hmmm.”  A smile broke out onto the face of the master.  “I had thought that bloodline had vanished from this plane.  Things would probably be better if it had.”

    “Does Master want this apprentice to go there, and extinguish it for good?”

    “No.  He’s just a boy, and the one with him is no threat.  I’ll continue to watch, and if the need arises, I’ll deal with it personally.”  And with that, the two disappeared.

     

  • Chapter 9:  The Vision


    Leon felt like he had just been shaken up and thrown away by a rock giant.  His head spun, and he felt like he was about to vomit.  Most of all, though, he felt absolutely drained.  He couldn’t even muster the energy to open his eyes, let alone do anything else.

    He wondered why he was awake if he was so devoid of energy.  No answers came to him, so he simply decided to perform some breathing exercises.  It took a little while, but he eventually managed to muster up the energy to crack open his eyelids.

    He saw very little when he did, however.  The sky was filled with mist, with a pale golden light permeating through it.  This light was bright enough for Leon to look around, but it seemed there was nothing around to see.  He was on a small grassy island, floating in a vast sea of endless mist.  There was no wind, no sound, no anything out there.  Leon had no idea how long he remained lying down, but it took him a while to begin to move.

    It was a struggle to sit up, but when he did, he got a better look around.  There were no buildings or plants on the island, apart from grass, but he noticed something behind him he hadn’t before.  The island was only about one hundred feet in diameter, and in the very center was a white marble slab, perfectly square, about ten feet to a side, and completely flush with the ground surrounding it.  Set within the center of that slab was another square, this one made of black granite, sparkling with tiny lights like the night sky, and only taking up one square foot.

    There was nothing else around, and Leon was unable to ascertain the purpose of the marble slab, so he simply paced around near the edge of the island.  He calmly walked in circles, trying to think of a way out, but nothing occurred to him.  He was still a beginner mage, and whatever or wherever this place was, was far beyond his meagre knowledge.

    Time passed slowly here.  Or was it quickly?  Leon couldn’t tell.  The light remained consistent, and he didn’t feel the need to eat or drink, so there was no way to tell the time.  It could have been days he was pacing around the island, or simply a few hours, but there was nothing else to do, so he just kept leisurely walking and staring out into the mist.

    After what felt like a long time, he finally noticed a change, and it was a very subtle change at first.  It started as a gentle breeze.  Leon hardly thought anything of it, until he realized that it was the first time he had felt the wind since waking up.  He quickly put some distance between himself and the edge of the island, and began to look around, trying to notice any other changes to this strange space.

    And notice something he did.  It looked like a rapidly approaching clump of darkness.  He saw it when it was still just a speck in the distance, but in less than ten seconds it had doubled in size.  As it came closer and closer, he saw brief flashes of bright light within, and seconds later he heard the sound of distant thunder.  This was actually an approaching storm!

    The dark clouds were upon him in minutes.  Rain poured down onto this little island, washing away much of the grass and dirt, revealing stone tiles beneath.  Lightning arced through the sky, and Leon was deafened by the thunder.  The wind turned into a howling gale, and buffeted him ceaselessly.

    There was little he could do, there was no shelter around and he was too weak to make any, so all Leon could do was try and keep his head down, brace himself against the wind, and try to keep away from the edge of the island. 

    Eventually, Leon just hit the deck, laying down on his stomach with his arms covering his head and ears.  He felt the island rumble and shake, but he kept his head down. 

    The storm raged for fifteen minutes, until the wind began to let up and the rain slowed considerably.  Once he felt secure enough to do so, Leon lifted his head, and saw that much of the grass had been swept away, but was still present on the perimeter of the island.  The stone beneath the grass was white and red, arranged in a checkerboard pattern.

    The island’s surface was covered in this tile until about five feet away from the edge, which was the only part of the island that still had grass.  He took a look back at the marble slab, but nothing about it had changed that he could tell.

    Leon couldn’t see any other changes to the island, so he turned his eyes upwards.  The thick mists were still present, but the golden light that had shone through it was gone, blocked by the storm clouds.  The rain had slowed to a light shower, but there were still quite a few arcs of lightning crossing the sky, and they all seemed to be concentrated in a single direction. 

    As Leon looked that way, he heard a noise through the thunder.  It sounded like an eagle’s cry, but he doubted it at first, thinking it was just some kind of auditory hallucination from all the thunder that was still ringing in his ears.  But only at first. 

    In the distance, amidst the deep black storm clouds and arcs of lightning, he saw a large pair of feathered wings.  It was hard to tell from where he was, but he estimated the bird to be at least three times taller than he was.  But even from that distance, he could tell that its golden beak and talons were razor sharp, and its matching golden eyes pierced through him, seeing everything as if he were a naked mortal under the eyes of a god.

    He felt a tightness in his chest, and his legs began to shake.  His blood felt like it was boiling, and he instinctively knew that it was in response to this bird’s presence. 

    The bird opened its beak and cried.  Instantly, all the lightning in the area ceased, the winds quieted down, and the rain stopping falling.

    The bird circled the island a few times, staring at Leon, before deciding to land directly in the middle, right over the granite square.  Now that it was this close, Leon could see that his estimate was off, it was at least five times his own height, maybe six, and its feathers were flecked with gold.  But now, Leon’s blood and mana were resonating with the bird so much that his legs gave out and he fell to his knees.  He looked up, and made eye contact with bird.  He immediately felt a sharp pain in his mind, and the island trembled.

    It didn’t take much for Leon to figure out who this was.  This bird was his ancestor, the founder of his clan, and the progenitor of his bloodline.

    He tried to look up one more time, and the bird spread its wings and screeched one more time, staring down at Leon.  When Leon’s eyes met the bird’s, his vision blurred and faded away.  His mind grew hazy, and he began to slip back into unconsciousness.  His thoughts went foggy, and he had a bad feeling that allowing himself to let go would be a very bad thing, but he didn’t quite know why.  His last coherent thought was to follow his instinct and fight back, somehow.

    He slowly brought his right index finger up to his mouth, and bit down hard.  His teeth went so deep that the finger almost came off, but clarity returned to Leon’s mind.  He glared back up at the bird, enduring the pressure it exerted with its presence.

    The bird glared back, its golden eyes burning with resplendent light, but it slowly retracted its wings.  It screeched again, for the last time, and the storm clouds dissolved away in seconds.  There was no more rain, lightning, or thunder, and the winds died down entirely.

    The bird looked down at the marble and granite slab, and the light from its eyes seemed to melt it down and reshape it.  The marble slab grew, until it became a raised platform five or six steps high, and the granite rose and became a simple black chair in the middle.  It almost looked like a throne, but one for a decidedly humble monarch.

    With one last glance towards Leon, the bird flapped its wings once and disappeared into the distance.  Leon took a few moments to collect himself, and struggled to his feet.  He hobbled over to the platform, up the steps, and stood before the throne. 

    He felt it was pretty obvious what he needed to do now, but took one more look around.  The surroundings had returned to their previous serene state, there was no hint that there ever was a storm here, and the bird had disappeared into the mists.

    With that one last look, Leon smiled, sat down in the chair, and closed his eyes.

    ---

    Leon felt himself lying down on hard rock.  The air was cool, and he felt the heat of the sun on his skin.  His body felt both drained of magical power, but also filled with great strength.  His eyes were closed, and he couldn’t quite summon the willpower to open them.

    He lay there for quite a while, an hour or two, he guessed.  All he did was enjoy the feeling of the sun, and quietly breathe.  When his eyes finally opened, he found himself back at the top of the Storm Titan’s Mountain.  The peak next to the platform had been shattered, leaving it half as tall as it had been before, and there were more than a few burns around him.  All signs of the magic array were gone, save for a few blackened lines, and there were puddles in the shallow pits of the stone.

    Artorias was sitting on the edge of the platform, looking out over the forest, when he noticed that Leon had finally woken up.  He breathed a sigh of relief, allowing his tension of the past night to dissipate.  He got up, as calmly as he could, and walked over to his son.

    “How do you feel, little lion?”

    It took Leon a few moments to really process what he was asking, before giving an uncertain reply.  “All right, I guess.  Very tired.”

    “That’s understandable.  Your body was just flooded with foreign magic, nearly torn apart from both inside and out, and had to awaken its own dormant power in order to not completely break.”

    “So, I’ve awakened?  The ritual worked?”

    Artorias smiled with pride.  “Of course it did, you need only examine your own physical condition to see it.”

    Leon did just that, letting what little mana he had accumulated this far flow through his body.  He felt small amounts of energy return to his muscles, he felt the absence of his previous injuries, but the biggest thing he noticed was that every time magic flowed into his heart, not that much would be turned into mana.  Most seemed to simply disappear.

    “I can feel magic vanishing into my heart, does that mean it’s being stored?  Have I achieved the second-tier of magic?”  Leon asked with excitement.

    “Yes you have.  It’s an easy enough thing to sense when you get stronger, but trust me when I say that you are now counted among the ranks of second-tier mages.”  Artorias beamed down at Leon, every word bursting with pride in his son.

    Leon fought the urge to burst out into laughter, but an enormous smile still appeared on his face. 

    He was about to continue his excited questioning when his stomach gave a huge growl.

    “I suppose you would be a little hungry, you’ve spent almost an entire day unconscious.”  Artorias said, looking at the setting sun.

    “More than a little.”

    Artorias whipped up some of the lion meat into small steaks, and threw together the last of the herbs he’d brought into a pick-me-up for Leon, before serving them to the young man.  Leon tore into the food as if he hadn’t eaten in years, and all the meat was gone in minutes.  The bread soon followed, as did all the dried fruit they’d brought along.  It was truly a feast to the young man, and he had much to celebrate.

     

  • Chapter 10:  Soul Refinement


    Artorias slowly ate his food, in contrast with his son.  “You know, you had me quite worried for a while.”

    “Oh?  How so?”

    “My ritual wasn’t so dramatic.  Yours had quite the storm appear, while mine barely summoned more than a light shower.  Not to mention, it took me no more than a few hours to wake up, whereas you took most of the day.”

    Leon’s eyes widened in surprise.  He’d already passed out from the pain when the storm rolled in, so he had no idea about any of that.  “The storm wasn’t too bad, was it?”

    “Nothing I couldn’t handle, but the magic array was struck by lightning more than a few times.  Nearly gave me a heart attack.  Fortunately, you seem fine, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.”

    Leon lay back down, gazing up at the darkening sky.  “Will you teach me how to perform that ritual?  Seems like the kind of thing I ought to know.”

    “Sure thing, little lion.  When we get back home I’ll show what you need.”

    It wasn’t too much longer after that that Leon fell back asleep.  Artorias had no intention of waking him, the entire ordeal that was the ritual was unbelievably draining, not to mention being suddenly catapulted into the second-tier.

    One thing that truly marks the difference between the first and second-tier is the change that takes place in the heart.  Throughout the first-tier, all of a person’s muscles adapt to the magic that flows through them, roughly in the order of what muscles get used the most.  With this in mind, it makes sense that physical training would be very important to advancing through this tier.  As they adapt, muscles grow stronger and tougher, doubling or even tripling the mage’s strength and speed as they get closer to the second-tier. 

    This applies to the heart as well, but the real change is that the heart becomes capable of storing magic power.  Before this, all of a mage’s power is fused with their blood, kept as mana.  Blood can’t store very much magic, however.  Leon could barely fire off four arrows from his enchanted bow before running low, and his bow doesn’t even have that robust of an enchantment, just one that increases the speed of the arrow as it leaves the bowstring.

    Now that Leon’s heart can store magic power, it will be a while before he’ll be back up to top shape.  Artorias guessed that it would take about three or four weeks for Leon to recover from the ritual and get used to his new power.  These things are far more gradual for other mages, and crossing into the second-tier is far less taxing for them.  Those with inherited bloodlines have it much tougher in that regard, but ask anyone from those families and they’ll agree, the power bestowed on them by their ancestors is most definitely worth it.

    Artorias finished his meal and leaned back, laying his head down on the cool stone.  He didn’t need any kind of shelter or protection from the elements, not even that far above sea level.  Normally, Leon would still need to bundle up a bit, even in the second-tier, but now he needed to absorb as much magic as possible, so Artorias left him uncovered.  He simply stoked the fire a bit more, then laid down, joining his son in sleep.

    It was not long after dawn the Artorias woke up, but Leon didn’t stir until several hours later.

    Artorias glanced over at Leon, as the younger man slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position.  “How do you feel today?”

    “Much better.  I think I can even start the walk back home.”

    “Good.  Get some food in you, we’ll test your words in thirty-ish minutes.”

    With that said, Artorias gathered up all of his things.  It didn’t take long; his satchel and food pack was considerably lighter than it was when they set out.  In fact, they only had enough food and water for another two days in the packs, so they would’ve had to begin the return journey today regardless of how the hunt had gone.  Fortunately, they were heading home victorious, with a completed ritual under their belt and a large amount of lion meat ready to fill their food stores.

    Once Leon finished eating, and everything was packed, they set off down the mountain.  It was slow going due to Leon’s fatigue, but Artorias didn’t mind.  At the pace they started at, they would reach home before the end of the next day, so he wasn’t in any particular hurry.

    The first few hours went by in relative silence, but it was finally broken by Leon, who still had questions about the ritual, and what he saw afterwards.

    “Dad, I have a few questions about the ritual, if you wouldn’t mind.”

    “Sure, I’ll answer what I can.”

    “You said that during the ritual, we see our ancestor, and some of the other bloodlines can even speak to their ancestors.  Can you tell me what you saw during your own ritual?”

    “Yeah.  My ritual went as well as yours did, through significantly less intense, and when it was over I was left as unconscious as you were.  But I wasn’t simply asleep, as I’m sure you know full well by now.  I was in my soul realm!  A world formed from the concentration of magic power within me.  I didn’t spend that much time there after the ritual, a matter of seconds, really.  I remember hearing a screech that tore at my ears, and feeling the rumble of something very large landing very near to where I was laying.  I opened my eyes, and saw a great bird.  It looked down at me, and when our eyes made contact, I was ejected from my soul realm and woke up back at my ritual site.”

    Leon was shocked at this.  He had been at his ‘soul realm’ for who knows how long, and he had been around the bird for a much longer period of time compared to Artorias.

    Artorias glanced at Leon, and noticed that the younger man had started to frown and asked, “Why don’t you tell me your experience, I’m sure it must be quite different than mine, given the sheer power exhibited during your ritual.”

    Leon carefully explained as much to Artorias as he could, and the older man stopped walking, before turning to face the younger.

    “Really?  A storm within your soul realm…”  Artorias took a long pause before continuing.  “My father and his father had a theory about what our ancestor was.  It’s not something we can verify, but if it summoned a storm within your soul realm, then it lends some credence to it.  They believed that that bird is what was known as a Thunderbird.”

    “Thunderbird?  I’ve never heard of it.”

    “It’s a being that no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place.  It’s worshipped in some of the Northern Vales as the ruler of the heavens, and can control the weather.  According to the legends, the Thunderbird was granted the heavens by the sun itself, and sends lightning down to punish those who go against the will of the heavens.  Its greatest enemy was the Great Horned Serpent that ruled the sea, but the Thunderbird threw lightning down upon the Serpent, killing it forever.

    “These are just legends, but given our own family’s skill with lightning magic, and the visions we receive upon our awakening, it seems likely that the Thunderbird existed at some point.  But, ultimately, there’s little concrete proof to be had, and it’s not like our ancestor is in any kind of hurry to speak to us, so I guess we’ll never have the complete truth.”

    Artorias grew solemn as he continued to speak.  Leon didn’t make a sound, he just stood there, listening in fascination.

    “Our family were kings before the Sacred Bull’s descendants conquered or vassalized all of what is now the Bull Kingdom, but the oldest records we had indicated that we had come from somewhere else.  We don’t know from where we came, or when we moved, or even if the records are correct.  They held no information about our ancestor, only referencing it in vague terms, as if it were written for people for whom that knowledge was obvious and didn’t need to be repeated.”

    Leon began to get even more excited now.  It was rare for Artorias to speak so much about the family, though it’s been coming a lot in the past few days what with the ritual.  He suppressed the excitement as much as he could, and calmly asked, “How old were these records?  And you said ‘had’ when talking about them, do they still exist?”

    “… Maybe…”  Artorias stopped to think.  This subject started to overlap with things he wasn’t quite ready to talk about, so he was silent for a moment.  “What I can say is that our oldest record, a letter written by an old Thunder King to one of his sons, was estimated to be almost ten thousand years old.  As for whether those records still exist, I don’t know.  I never went to the vaults to check.”

    With that, Artorias started walking again.  Leon followed him, and though he couldn’t see Artorias’ face, he knew that he started to push into things his father didn’t want to speak of.  Although he wanted to push a bit more, he decided to stop there.

    “What about this ‘soul realm’?  Can you tell me anything about that?”  asked Leon, deciding to change the subject.

    Artorias didn’t stop again, but he answered readily enough.  “Sure.  Advancing through the tiers of magic is adapting your body to its use.  But first, how about you tell me what the third and fourth tiers are?”

    “Changing bones and bone marrow is the third, then comes internal organs and the brain.”

    “And the fifth?”

    “Learning to change mana type.”

    “Does the fifth-tier sound like a bodily change to you?”

    Leon took a moment to think, before hesitantly answering “No.”

    “It sort of is, but it’s the last change that happens to the body for a long time.  Advancing to the fourth-tier involves adapting inner organs to use magic.  This usually triples human lifespan at the very least, but longevity is not the point of it.  The best part comes when the brain adapts, that is when one becomes a fourth-tier mage.  This allows for far greater control of magic, and even allows you to control your adaptations, to a degree.  Advancing to the fifth-tier, changing your mana type, would be impossible otherwise.”

    “What does changing mana type even mean, though?”

    “What kind of magic do I use?”

    “Lightning, mostly.”

    “Adapting mana type is something that happens in bone marrow.  We change the type of mana we produce to better use our own magic.  Some people practice fire magic, so they can change the mana they produce into fire mana, to better use fire magic.  In my case, I can create a kind of ‘lightning mana’, which greatly increases my strength.”

    “But changing mana type isn’t permanent, right?  Otherwise that would mean sacrificing compatibility with more utilitarian magic, like powering runes and certain enchantments.”

    “With the control added when our brains adapt, We can more or less change at will.  In fact, once we can change back and forth at will is the mark of a true fifth-tier mage. 

    “Unfortunately, getting to that point means allowing magic to enter our bone marrow in more… extreme locations.  A fire mage would train in a volcano, where the magic in the surroundings has more fire energy in it.  Likewise, an earth mage would train underground, a water mage would train underwater, and wind mages might go to a canyon or a beach, where wind speeds pick up.  Lightning mages like us have great power, as lightning magic is incredibly potent, but this also means that we have to train primarily during storms, and allow lightning to strike our bodies and sink into our bones.”

    Artorias looked back at Leon, and seeing the slightly fearful look on his face, gave a light chuckle. 

    “Don’t worry, little lion, you won’t have to worry about that for a while yet.  Now, what’s the sixth-tier?”

    “…Soul refinement?”  Leon said with uncertainty.

    “Even if you think you’re wrong, say it with confidence.”

    “Soul Refinement!”

    “Good.  You’re not wrong in this case.  The heart stores magic, but have you ever asked yourself where this magic goes?”

    “I haven’t, actually.  That was something I never really questioned.”

    “The heart is the very core of our bodies.  It is where magic condenses within our body, and this condensed magic will form an entire world within us!  Thus, it is through the heart that we access our soul realm, our inner world.  The amount of magic we can store in our bodies is directly proportional to the size of our soul realm.  As we advance through the tiers, our soul realm naturally grows bigger, and when we reach the soul refinement stage, we start training to access it.

    “But things are a little different for us, being scions of an inherited bloodline.  That vision we all have when we undergo the awakening ritual wakes more than just our dormant power.  It also awakens our ancestor.  I’ve heard it theorized down south that we all have a shard of our ancestor’s soul within us, and that is what we see in our soul realms.  Because we have multiple souls within us, our soul realms are slightly bigger than others’.”

    Leon looked quite intrigued at this, asking “Does this mean that we can store more power than other people, since the soul realm is where our stored magic goes?”

    “Not really.  The differences in our soul realms compared to those of others is negligible in a practical sense.  That extra space you have was what, a one-hundred-foot-wide island?  A soul realm, by the time of the seventh-tier, is ten miles in every direction, and continues to grow.  It wasn’t hyperbole to say that it is an entire world within us, though not one that we can physically enter.

    “With that said, let’s get back to soul refinement.  This is the process of constructing a magical body, and learning to transfer your consciousness into it.  This body used to be thought of as our soul, and were even mistaken for ghosts, but nowadays, is simply called our ‘magic body’.  This magic body is refined within your physical body, but you can also manifest it outside of your physical body at will.  Initially, it’s unable to affect the world around it, but it can observe things a great distance from you.  As it grows and develops, that restriction can even be lifted.  The mark of becoming a sixth-tier mage, however, is when your magical body develops to the point that it can manifest within your soul realm.

    “But the biggest, and arguably most important thing a magic body is capable of, is saving a person from death.  Once a physical body is destroyed, a magic body might live on, if the dying person was strong enough.  With the death of the physical body, the mage can transfer their consciousness over to the magic body.  Unfortunately, this means that any hope of continuing to grow in power is all but gone, as the soul realm dies with the physical body.”

    Artorias looked over his shoulder at Leon, and slowed his pace a little.  He then asked, “Do you think you’re ready to learn what makes a seventh-tier mage?”

    Leon looked at his father, his golden eyes shining, and positively beaming in excitement.  He immediately answered “Of course!”

    “A sixth-tier mage has refined their soul, and can thus actively enter their soul realm.  There have been a few records of people entering the soul realm while sleeping, and we enter during our rituals, but it takes a refined soul, a magic body, to consciously enter the soul realm.  When they first enter, the soul realm looks quite similar to what you saw; an island floating in mist, with little else around.  This mist is called the Mists of Chaos, and can be used to build something called a mind palace.  It is a palace in the very center of the soul realm, and it’s where your magic body resides.

    “To become a seventh-tier mage, you have to construct your mind palace.  Just like your physical body, your magic body will also continue growing as you gain strength, and completing your mind palace indicates that you have reached a point that you can even bring physical objects into your soul realm!  Never forget, little lion, just because it’s called a ‘soul’ realm, and it’s the place where your magical body, resides, doesn’t mean that it’s intangible or imaginary.  I meant it when I said it’s like a small magical world deep within you.”

    Leon was blown away by this sudden onslaught of information.  To an extent, he expected this once he underwent the ritual, but now he was buzzing with excitement about the future.  But he still had questions for his father.

    “How would I know when my mind palace is complete?”

    “It resonates with your soul realm.  To a degree, since it’s your soul realm, it will be complete once you’re satisfied with it.  It’s a difficult feeling to put into words, but trust me when I say that you’ll know it when you’re finished.”

    The two continued on like this for some time, with Leon asking many questions and Artorias doing his best to answer.  But Artorias wasn’t all knowing, and he wasn’t trained as a teacher, so many of the more detailed and nuanced questions Leon asked only left the younger man with more questions, and few answers.

    But, they kept walking.  They arrived back at the Troll’s Bridge, paid the toll, and continued across.  The sun went down, and Artorias put up the standard defenses.  They woke the next morning after a relatively peaceful night’s rest, and set off again not much later.  They made good time, and made it home before dark.  Despite the sky still being fairly bright, once Leon made it back to his own bed, he immediately collapsed upon it and passed out.

  • Chapter 11:  Mana Glyph


    Leon spent the next week resting.  He did train a bit, but Artorias mostly insisted on it as a way to keep Leon active and limber. 

    Leon’s training mostly consisted of getting used to his new strength.  With his newly adapted muscles, he was now far stronger than he was before the ritual.  He estimated that he had more than doubled the amount of weight he could carry, and he wasn’t even finished recovering yet.

    But this light exercise wasn’t the only thing Leon focused on.  There were his meditations, lessons with Artorias on runes and enchantments, and he finally got around to skinning that stag the two of them had been ignoring. 

    He left the meat in the food shack, but hung up the fur in the shack next door.  The next time they were to trade furs with the tribesman was coming up, it having originally been planned for not long after the ritual, but Leon needed more time to recover than Artorias had initially thought.  So, the journey was postponed, and Leon spent a good twelve to thirteen hours a day sleeping or meditating, to fill his soul realm with as much magic as he could.

    After filling it up with magic, he would then pull it out and allow it to course through his body, through his extremities, and back out into the world.  This process of filling up and then draining his soul realm was critical, said Artorias, so Leon could get used to the feeling of being drained as well as full of power.  Most other mages wouldn’t need to get used to it, as such dramatic increases in power were so rare.

    This also counted as a form of training, as Leon was getting faster at filling his soul realm than before.  He was learning to consciously prevent magic from being fused with his blood into mana, and instead channel it into his soul realm.  He was also getting faster at calling upon that power, fusing it into his blood as fast as he could.

    The following week, Leon went back to weapons training.  Leon had been learning from Artorias for over a decade now, and there was little Artorias had left to teach, so the training was mostly just sparring so the two of them wouldn’t let their skills get rusty.  But there was another reason, to fix a problem that the hunt had made Artorias keenly aware of.

    When Leon was about to shoot the snow lion, it had sensed his killing intent.  No real mage would ever allow their killing aura to be so obvious, but Artorias had realized then that he had never taught his son how to restrain it properly.  If he had, Leon might have succeeded in killing the lion with that first shot, and would not have been left severely injured after the lion’s counterattack.

    But, this was easier said than done.  Killing intent is exactly what it sounds like, just the intent and willingness to kill.  However, for mages, this intent can manifest as an aura, and be extremely overwhelming to the unprepared.  Unfortunately, if the mage’s opponent is prepared, far stronger, or possesses a more potent killing intent, then the mage’s own killing intent will be far less effective.

    Artorias had raised Leon in a dangerous environment, where they had to hunt and kill to survive, all to instill in his son a powerful killing intent.  But, he had neglected to teach Leon exactly how to control it and unleash it only at the best possible moment.  This mostly comes down to keeping a tight hold over the magic that courses through the body and preventing it from leaking out.

    Keeping a lid on killing intent isn’t too difficult, even first-tier mages are taught how, but it still isn’t a skill that is learned in a day.  Artorias showed Leon a few techniques and exercises to help him restrain his killing intent, and moved on, trusting his son to practice and improve on his own.

    Artorias also tested Leon’s knowledge of runes and the glyphs they form when arranged in magical formations.  Upon seeing Leon’s results, he knew that his son was ready to start thinking about his own Mana Glyph.

    A Mana Glyph is something that a mage creates after they reach the fifth-tier.  Before then, a mage can only use magic by relying on enchantments or written spells.  After reaching the fifth-tier, they are strong enough to use their magic without specific enchantments or spells, although those still have a place in any mage’s arsenal.

    Every mage has their own Mana Glyph.  They create it themselves, and it ends up inscribed at the very center of their mind palace.  It is a mark that comes to represent the mage, and their impact on the world.  If inscribed on a weapon, it can help the weapon become more in sync with the mage, strengthening its enchantments.  If a mage grows strong enough, then their Mana Glyph can even exert pressure down upon someone nearby, or allow the mage to control spells and enchantments remotely.

    A mage can use another’s Mana Glyph, if they acquire something inscribed with it and they are at least of the third-tier, allowing them to tap into some of the other mage’s power.  High nobles who are strong enough will often give their third and fourth-tier family members weapons and spells with their Mana Glyph upon them to allow them to use magic without enchantments.

    The uses of a Mana Glyph are many, given that they represent their mage, and are typically only limited to the mage’s imagination.

    A mage needs to be at least of the fifth-tier to write their Mana Glyph, but those with inherited bloodlines are exceptions to that rule, as they so often are.  The rules of magic for humans often don’t quite apply to descendants of ascended beasts, as they are not entirely human themselves.

    An ordinary mage creates their Mana Glyph to start work on their mind palace.  A mage with an inherited bloodline can make their Glyph as soon as their blood awakens, though they still can’t begin work on their mind palace until the fifth-tier.

    Leon was still too weak to use a Mana Glyph in battle, even if he did make his own, but Artorias still wanted the former to start thinking about what he wanted the Glyph to be. 

    Mana Glyphs were usually runic symbols arranged into large circles, but could even be self-made symbols, and they often said quite a bit about the mage who made it.

    For example, Artorias’ Glyph was the end of a long story about a mortal who sought eternal youth.  He journeyed all across the world, seeking the greatest mages and wise men, consulting the most renowned sages, and the most isolated hermits.  Eventually, he found what he sought; a golden apple, said to bestow eternal life upon the one who ate it.  The mortal raised the apple to his lips, only to have it stolen from his hand by an eagle just as he was about to take a bite.

    Artorias loved that story, as it reminded him that sometimes, no matter how certain your victory might be, it can always be taken from you at any time, so one should always prepare for every eventuality.

    Life in the compound went on like normal for several more weeks before the two started to prepare to travel out of the Forest of Black and White, and head for the neighboring vale.  They intended to trade their furs for more food and a few items Artorias wanted.

    Leon spent these few weeks’ meditations thinking about his Mana Glyph, though he hadn’t a clue as what it should be.  Artorias told him to take his time, as it would accompany him throughout his entire life.

    Neither of them had any idea that very soon, their relatively peaceful lives would come to an end.

    ---

    The palace in the capital city of the Bull Kingdom had always impressed Roland Magnus.  From its shining towers of white stone to its marble halls filled with gold and silver, he never failed to marvel at the great estate.

    He smiled as he crossed the long bridge across the lake towards the palace.  It had taken no small amount of time and effort, but he had finally managed to be appointed as the sixth paladin of the Kingdom.  Typically, paladins weren’t appointed unless they achieved the seventh-tier of magic, but he was only a sixth-tier mage.  Roland was only in his late twenties, so Prince August, who had arranged for his appointment, was able to use his great potential as justification.

    Roland had been summoned by Prince August, and was now on his way to meet him.  This was to be his first mission as a paladin, and he was determined to live up to his new rank.

    He calmly rode his horse up to the gate, while the guards there watched his approach.  Roland was dressed in white formal wear, a short-sleeved silk shirt that was covered in silver runes, and cloth pants tucked into his dress shoes.  His dark brown hair was cropped short, and his face was closely shorn.  But all the guards saw was the sash across his chest, deep red with the golden paladin sigil, and his sword, a long blade in an ornate silver sheathe.

    The guard captain made a gesture, and the large iron gate began to move.  It took a while for it to open, and a bit more time to lower the wards and defensive enchantments for Roland to enter, but he finally rode his steed past the six-foot-thick doors and into the royal estate.  Behind the walls lay dozens of acres of forest and riding grounds.  These were there for the pleasure of the king and his family, though they were rather devoid of human life at the moment.

    Roland still felt pride as he rode along the royal road towards the guest stables.  Here, even the road was worthy of being noticed.  A pair of brilliant earth and fire mages had designed most of the roads in the royal capital, laying down bricks of enchanted stone, and melting them down until the seams disappeared.  The road was smooth and without flaw, flanked by large trees, marble statues, and ivory archways carved into depictions of great victories by the kingdom’s legions.

    Roland arrived at the stable and gave them his steed.  They led the horse into its designated building about a hundred feet away, and Roland began walking towards the main palace.

    The palace complex was actually over a dozen different buildings, from the opulent royal apartments, to the more humble guest house, to the secluded royal harem, it sprawled out over the island in the middle of the lake.

    Roland walked for several minutes before arriving at the main palace complex, an enormous building containing the throne room, the Assembly rooms, three courtrooms, innumerable offices, and a number of waiting rooms for visitors.

    Roland walked through the large archway of polished granite and stepped into the courtyard.  The floor was shiny black and white marble, with a fountain built around a large statue.  The painted statue depicted a charging bull, the very same Sacred Bull that had reached the eighth-tier of magic and transformed its shape into that of a human, the progenitor of the kingdom’s royal family.

    The paladin walked past this fountain, and into the palace itself.  The building was made of perfectly uniform white stones with a roof of red ceramic tiles.  It looked like a large villa, with little defensive value, but Roland could feel the magic flowing through the walls.  It would take an incredible amount of power to even scratch the surface of those white stones.

    The guards at the entrance recognized him, and let him through.  There, an adjutant to the fourth prince saw him, and led him to Prince August’s office.  Upon arrival, Roland was immediately led into a richly decorated room with red carpets and walls lined with filled bookshelves. 

    Behind a large desk of dark oak sat the young prince.  He wasn’t conventionally handsome, a young man barely twenty, with a thin body and scholarly disposition, but he carried with him a dignity that only came from royalty.  His pale face looked fresh and energetic, but the slight bags under his dark brown eyes betrayed his fatigue.  He absentmindedly brushed his long dirty-blonde hair away from his eyes while he finished reading the paper in front of him.

    A few seconds after he heard the door close, the prince looked up from his paperwork, and smiled when he saw his guest.  He rose from his desk, and after Roland made a respectful bow, he went over and embraced his friend.  “Roland!  It’s good to see you, my friend!  How has the capital been treating you?”

    “Good, Your Highness.  My family has settled in well, and are enjoying the warmer climate, to be sure.”

    “Wonderful.  If they need anything, you only need to ask, and I’ll have it taken care of.”

    “Your Highness is too kind.  We want for nothing after you made me a paladin.”

    “Good, good.  Can I get you anything?”  The prince gestured at a servant in the corner who stepped forward, waiting for Roland’s response.

    Roland looked at the servant, and merely said, “Some water will do.”

    “Are you sure, we may be here a while.”  said the Prince.

    “I’m sure, Your Highness.”

    “Well, I won’t be so reserved.  Bring me some apple soda and some of those orange crackers.  The ones made of baked cheese.”

    The servant bowed, and left.

    “Come now, my friend, have a seat.”  August and Roland took a seat in fancy mahogany chairs covered in red velvet, with a small table in between and a fireplace in front of them.  They made more small talk while waiting for the servant to return.  When he did, the prince dismissed him after placing a tray with what they ordered on the table.

    “Now then, let’s get to business.”

    Roland listened intently, ready to perform his duty.

    “I need you to assemble a team of knights and their retainers, go north past the Frozen Mountains, and into the Northern Vales.”

  • Chapter 12:  The Mission


    Roland stared at the prince for moment, stunned.  “The Northern Vales?  What could the king possibly need there that he needs to send a paladin?”

    August sighed, then took a sip of his drink.  He looked Roland in the eyes before saying, “The king isn’t sending you.  I am.”

    This left Roland almost speechless.  The prince certainly had the power to make a paladin, but the paladins only took orders from the king.  The prince had no authority to give him any assignments, so why was he ordering Roland to go north?

    “Your Highness, I…”

    “I understand.  You’re uncomfortable with this mission since is doesn’t come directly from my Royal Father.  But let me ask you something, where is the king now?”

    “He’s entered secluded training, leaving the kingdom in the hands of Your Highness and the Second Prince.  I had thought there was some emergency when I received your summons, for the king to issue a mission to a paladin, and I came here in all haste.  I even had to leave my squire behind.”

    August looked out the windows for a moment, before looking back at Roland with a bitter smile.  “The king isn’t in secluded training.”

    There was a brief pause, while Roland rapidly thought through the possibilities.  ‘Prince August seems a little reluctant to part with this information, so clearly the king isn’t ruling from behind the scenes.  But if he isn’t training, then where is he?  Is he retired in all but name?  Is he allowing his sons to rule as co-regents to see who ought to be his successor?’

    August watched Roland’s face rapidly shift, from worried to contemplative, to slight anger, then back to worried.  “There’s no need to speculate, my friend, I’ll tell you the truth.  You do have a right to know, as a paladin.  However, you must make a blood oath not to speak a word of this to anyone without my explicit approval.”

    It didn’t Roland long to agree.  In fact, Prince August was surprised that he agreed so fast.  He brought out a contract he’d had drawn up not too long ago, and placed it before the paladin.  Roland read the short contract, and satisfied that there were no hidden clauses, he drew a knife and made a small cut on his hand.  He then dipped a nearby quill in his blood, wrote his name down on the paper, and wrapped his hand in a handkerchief that August passed to him.

    “Good, I’ll have this taken to the priests at Lineage Hall.  I’m glad you were able to trust me, Roland.  Finding good men like you is quite difficult these days.”  August rose from his seat at the table, and walked over to his desk. 

    Roland rose as well, as it wouldn’t do for him to continue to sit while a member of royalty had risen. 

    August picked up a small bell and gave it a quick ring.  The servant from before entered at the sound, and bowed to the prince.  August carefully folded the contract before placing it in a thin metal box.  This box was sealed with Augusts’ personal Mana Glyph, so he’d know if anyone opened it.

    “Take this to my Eldest Brother at Lineage Hall.  It is for his eyes only, on the pain of execution for treason.”  The servant grew a little pale after hearing that, and seeing the prince’s stern look, but accepted the box and made for the door.  He gave one more bow, then left.

    The prince took a deep breathe, before returning to his seat.  Roland joined him back at the table, and waited for the prince to speak.

    It took several moments, but August finally began.  “My Royal Father went into secluded meditation to attempt to finish breaking into the eighth-tier.”

    Roland didn’t speak a word, but he understood the king’s decision.  Entering the eighth-tier was a long and complex process, involving greatly expanding the soul realm, so it’s no surprise that many mages choose to enter private long-term training to accomplish it.

    The prince continued.  “That was six years ago.  I was barely fifteen, yet my Royal Father left the kingdom in the hands of myself and my Second Brother.  This worked fine for a while, but an accident occurred about four years ago.  The servant tasked with bringing my Royal Father his meals found him unconscious on the ground.  He wasn’t able to be woken, and the healers were called.”

    Roland listened with rapt attention.  He hadn’t a faintest clue this had happened.  He was also quite concerned, as it meant a great deal for the kingdom if the king died now, when there was no clear heir.

    “My Royal Father has been in that coma ever since.  There have been no changes to his condition, but the Royal Physician has told me that every day he lingers in that coma, the chances of him waking lessen.”  August’s face grew solemn, before quickly changing into anger.  “Making the situation worse is my Second Brother all but abandoning the capital last year.  Even now, he’s travelling all over the kingdom, supposedly placating the high lords and keeping the nobles in check, but I know better.”

    This talk started making Roland very nervous.  King Julius Taurus had six children, four of them sons, but only his second son was by his wife, the rest by concubines.  The eldest, a powerful sixth-tier mage in his sixties, had renounced the title of Crown Prince, and ran off to join the priests in Lineage Hall.  The Third Prince, a rather weak and timid man, more prone to burying himself in books and legends, also renounced his claim to the throne.  This left the Fourth Prince, August, the thin and erudite man that he was, and the Second Prince, Octavius, a tall, muscular, handsome and energetic man who seemed every bit the heir to the Sacred Bull that August didn’t.

    But despite the Second Prince expecting be named heir, King Julius never did clarify the issue.  Then, when going into secluded training, he left the kingdom to be ruled by both the thirty-year-old Second Prince and the Fourth Prince, the then fifteen-year-old August.  The Second Prince was left angry and humiliated.  Many nobles had supported his claim, and had spoken of their support for him publicly, but the king refused to name him Crown Prince, and made him share the position of regent with his younger brother!  It would have been one thing if August had been the child of a noble concubine, but instead he was the child of the king’s favorite mistress, a woman of common birth.

    Now, with the king indisposed, it made sense that August was feeling the pressure, and went so far as to name Roland, a commoner by birth but longtime friend, as the Sixth Paladin of the Bull Kingdom.  He needed to shore up his own power base, and find, or make, reliable allies.

    August had paused here, waiting for Roland’s response.

    “Your Highness… This is an issue of monumental importance, but as a paladin, I’m sworn to no one but the king.  I’m not too sure what your purpose is in sending me north.  Are you trying to gain the support of our tribal allies?  They couldn’t even contribute a single legion’s worth of warriors.  They’d be cut down by our soldiers in no time flat.”

    “I’m not sending you north for warriors, though you will have to make contact with our tribal allies.  No, what I’m sending you north for would hopefully avert civil war, rather than feed the fire.

    “Not too long ago, I managed to persuade a healer from the court of the Sacred Golden Empress to come north and examine the king.  He told me that the king suffered a backlash from trying to forcibly grow his soul realm, rather than letting it grow naturally.  The chances are abysmally low for the king to wake on his own, but fortunately he knows a potion that could heal him.  The bad news is that he doesn’t have all the ingredients.

    “What I’m sending you north for is something called Heartwood Amber.  Heartwood trees secrete a resin that hardens into amber over many millennia.  Unfortunately, all the heartwood trees south of the frozen mountains are regularly harvested to build ships before they’re old enough to produce the amber, making it prohibitively scarce.  There are still old heartwood trees in the Northern Vales, however, so I need you to find some of this amber.”

    Roland still looked fairly conflicted.  He didn’t expect his first mission would be in such a remote and uncivilized place.  Maybe dealing with a rebellious lord, or hunting a troublesome monster, but not dealing with northern barbarians.

    At least, he hoped it would only require dealing with a few barbarians.  There are more than a few nightmarish stories about some of the less inhabited vales, stories about wraiths ripping souls out of people to use in profane rituals, creatures made of darkness that seep into a person’s body during the night and consume them from the inside, forest creatures that ensnare men with their otherworldly beauty, before turning them to stone, or worse.  Roland wasn’t too keen on finding how accurate these stories were.

    But, if what the prince had told him was true, then he was receiving an order from as close to royalty as he was going to see for a long time.  So, he finally, reluctantly, gave his answer.  “I’ll go, Your Highness.  I’ll find this Heartwood Amber, and bring it back for the king.”

    August warmly smiled in relief.  “Wonderful, wonderful.”

    Roland opened his mouth to speak once more, but seemed to think better of it, deciding to keep silent, but August noticed.

    “What’s on your mind, my friend?”

    “It’s… nothing.  Forgive me, Your Highness, it isn’t my place to question orders.  I’ve already been insolent enough by hesitating.”

    “I give you permission to speak freely.  No one else is here, only the two of us.  Besides, who would dare to suggest that a paladin cannot ask a question of a prince, especially when receiving a mission?  So fret not, all words spoken here are said in confidence.”

    Roland seemed to struggle a bit more, but eventually gave voice to what was on his mind.  “I must ask Your Highness, why send me?  There are five other paladins in the kingdom, all of whom would gladly undertake this mission for the well-being of the king.”

    August’s smile turned bitter again.  “The Penitent Paladin and Bronze Paladin don’t move unless personally ordered by the king.  They already know of my Royal Father’s condition and have taken it upon themselves to guard his chambers.  There’s no way they’ll ever accept a mission from me, no matter how necessary.

    “The Sapphire Paladin grew up with my Second Brother, much like how you grew up with me.  She would see me as a pretender to the throne and would never undertake a mission under my orders, let alone one that made her leave the kingdom.

    “The Earthshaker Paladin is the younger brother of my Second Brother’s mother.  He won’t listen to me, either.

    “I’ve been making headway in bringing the Brimstone Paladin over to my side, but I doubt he’d go so far on my orders, especially as he’s out exterminating a vampire nest right now.

    “This leaves you.  We’ve known each other for over ten years, you’re as close a friend as I have.  This is a well-known fact, and I’ve caught no small amount of heat for appointing you to the position of paladin.  The other five are all seventh-tier mages, but you are only of the sixth-tier.  I know my Royal Father would never have approved of my decision to give you that title, not until you completed your mind palace, at least.  I believe that accomplishing this task will not only bring me the Heartwood Amber I need to heal my Royal Father, but will also prove definitively that you deserve your new position.”

    All this rather blew Roland away.  He’d barely considered what the nobles might think of his appointment, as he’d thought he had the approval of the king.  August waited for Roland’s reaction, and didn’t have to wait long.

    “Your Highness, I’ll go and find that Heartwood Amber.  I’ll assemble a small team, and head north after acquiring provisions.  I’ll find the amber, and return as soon as possible.  I won’t let you down.”

    August felt relief and joy.  He knew he could count on his friend, but he had still felt some apprehension when calling Roland to the palace.  He wasn’t the king or the crown prince, so Roland was well within his rights to refuse.

    But he didn’t.  His friend agreed.

    The two stayed in the prince’s office for another half hour, going over a few more logistical details and doing what they could to make Roland’s journey north easier.

    Eventually, Roland departed from the palace.  On his way out, he saw his squire, a boy of nineteen.  He’d been so worried at being given his first mission that he’d left his home without a moment’s pause.  The last order he gave to his servants was to inform his squire that he was heading towards the palace, and to wait for him at the entrance.

    And sure enough, there he was.  This boy was of average height, with neutral brown hair, and average build.  Looking at him on the street, Roland would have described him as being ‘the embodiment of average in appearance’.  His naturally fair skin tone had darkened considerably from the amount of time he had to spend outdoors when training, and almost matched his leather armor.

    But he was a solid fighter.  Roland had been assigned him almost a year ago, from before he had been made a paladin, and had come to know just how good this boy was with a sword from encounters with bandits, smugglers, and wandering monsters.

    Roland stepped out of the palace’s door, walked out of the peristyle, and waved to the squire.  “Luke!  I’m glad they let you past the gate on the bridge.”

    “They almost didn’t, Sir.  I had to show them all of my identification papers before they allowed me to enter the island.  I still had to wait for you here, though, they wouldn’t let me come find you in the palace.”  Luke gestured at the royal guards by the palace doors.

    Roland shrugged.  “That’s understandable, but I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”

    “No, Sir.  I just got here about fifteen minutes ago.  Is it time to leave?”

    “It is indeed.”

    “Then I shall fetch the horses.”

    Roland smiled.  Luke was a diligent squire, and if a two-year squireship wasn’t required to graduate from the Knight Academy, then he would have already knighted the boy.

    It didn’t take long for Luke to return with two horses.  One was the stallion that Roland had rode in on, a magnificent courser with a deep black coat.  Luke had to make due with a cheaper, less impressive horse, a small mare with a significantly less shiny brown coat.  The stallion was lean and muscular, but the mare just looked rather thin, and didn’t respond to Luke’s hold nearly as quickly as the stallion did for Roland.

    The two men climbed onto their horses, and began riding towards the bridge, with Roland taking a slight lead.  They rode away with neither speaking a word.

    After a few moments, after they had put some distance between them and the palace, Roland finally broke the silence.  “Best get some good rest tonight, Luke.  We’ve a long couple of months ahead of us.”
  • Chapter 13:  The Team


    “What sort of mission have we received, Sir?” asked Luke.

    “We’re going north, past the Frozen Mountains, and into the Northern Vales.  We are looking for an alchemical ingredient called ‘Heartwood Amber’.”

    Luke frowned.  He had a casual hobby of alchemy, but had never heard of Heartwood Amber before.

    Roland continued, “We’re also going to need a small team.  Maybe four or five, plus their men-at-arms.  I already have a few in mind, we’ll go over it when we get back to my place.”

    It took them half an hour to get back to Roland’s villa.  It had a similar aesthetic to the royal palace, as did most other villas in the area, all white stone, red roof tiles, marble floors, and granite columns, and was built on a large estate of about four acres.  The place was also quite magically advanced, with enchantments regulating temperature, even in the open-air sections of the villa, and enchantments that lock doors, purify water, preserve food, maintain the gardens, and even enchantments that repelled the rain and brought running water to the villa.

    Roland and Luke rode in through the gate into the entrance garden.  There was a small stable off to the side, with space for four horses.  Roland left Luke to unsaddle the horses, and walked inside to greet his wife.

    Melissa was a common-born girl, of slightly less than average height, light brown hair, and warm, gentle features.  She was certainly a beauty, but of a more cute and earthly quality than more dazzling and gorgeous highborn ladies, who often invested heavily in magic that preserved or amplified their beauty.

    When Roland walked in, she was giving orders to the servants who maintained the villa and operated her side business.  Roland was quite well-paid as a paladin, and as a knight before that, so she’d taken some of that money to start a small masonry business, cutting and polishing some of the white stone that the nobles of the kingdom seemed to build everything out of.  Next to her was a middle-aged woman holding an infant boy. 

    She turned to see who had walked in and saw her husband in his bright formal suit.  She’d had a stern, stoic business face on before, but that broke into a warm and loving smile.  Roland walked over, and gave her a gentle hug, making sure not to squeeze too hard, given that she was only a second-tier mage and he was of the sixth-tier, and smiled down at his son in the arms of the servant.

    Melissa gave her husband an inquisitive look, wordlessly asking what had been asked of him at the palace, but he just gave her a kiss and told her that they would talk about it later, and for now he would be in his study with Luke and a few others.

    So, Roland settled into his study, with ink and paper, making a list of essential supplies and starting to map out the route to take.  When Luke returned, the squire diligently began making a list of needed provisions, and two started discussing who to bring on the journey north.  Paladins always had a good number of subordinate knights and men-at-arms assigned to them as personal retinues, and there were a few in Roland’s service that he wanted on this mission.

    Soon, couriers departed, summoning those he had chosen to his villa.

    The first to arrive was Sir Andrew Clement.  He was a great bear of a man, easily six and a half feet of solid muscle.  His long dark brown beard barely fit under a helmet, though he rarely bothered with one, preferring instead to armor himself in light leather so he wouldn’t be weighed down while wielding his heavy double-bladed battle-axe.

    Then, there was Dame Sheira Evensen.  She too was quite tall, pushing six feet, but far leaner than Sir Andrew.  She had fine, noble features, long blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes.  She had a calm temperament, and was an artist with a cavalry lance.

    The last person invited was Sir Roger Stanley.  He was fearless, almost to the point of recklessness.  Roland had seen him charge into a werewolf nest without armor, wielding only a morningstar.  He was a thin and wiry man with short red hair and a fair amount of unshaven stubble.

    These three were the knights that Roland had decided on having with him as he went north.  All three were fifth-tier mages, and battle-hardened warriors.  What’s more, they had all been serving as his subordinate knights for several years now, and their loyalties were without question.

    Naturally, they were curious as to why they had been summoned to meet Roland so quickly, as meetings would usually be scheduled days in advance, but Roland wouldn’t say until everyone was present.

    When Roger finally arrived, Roland clapped his hands and got down to business.  “I have been tasked with a mission that concerns the fate of the kingdom.  I must go north in search of a material called Heartwood Amber, and I have decided that you all shall accompany me.

    “We’ll be going north via the Julian Road, all the way to Clear Ice Fortress.  It should take about two weeks to go that far, so we’ll stop off for a few days’ rest at the fortress, then continue north past the Frozen Mountains.  We’ll make contact with the chief of the locals, the Brown Bear Tribe, and proceed from there.  If all goes well, we’ll be back in the capital within two months.

    “Any questions?” Roland looked at each the knights in turn.  Roger simply smiled in anticipation.  He had no qualms about going to the less civilized parts of the world.  Sheira, too, didn’t question Roland’s plan.  They had been with Roland through thick and thin, and would follow him wherever they were needed.  Only Andrew spoke up.

    “Sir, wouldn’t it be easier to simply ask the Heaven’s Eye Merchant Guild?  I’m sure they would be able to find some of this Heartwood Amber without us risking our lives that far from home.”

    Heaven’s Eye Merchant Guild was a multinational financial organization from the central empires.  It specialized in all things gold, from trade to banking.  It was so trusted, in fact, that it handled the banking needs of just about every state in Aeterna.  They almost completely controlled the entire plane’s economy, but in return they had made many blood oaths that they would separate themselves from politics, and never take sides in national conflicts, whether internal or external.  This wasn’t always feasible, especially in civil wars, but the Guild was the single most trusted organization in existence, and it had earned that trust.

    “His Highness Prince August has already met with their representatives.  They indicated that it would be several years before any amber might become available, and even then, it might clear out a huge chunk of the kingdom’s reserves.”

    Andrew was almost dumbstruck.  “It’s that expensive?  How the hell would we even find some, then?”

    “That very question is why a paladin has been dispatched, rather than sending diplomats to recruit the tribesmen, or sending a foraging party.”

    While Andrew sat there, attempting to process just how valuable Heartwood Amber was, Sheira finally decided to ask something.  “Sir, I get the idea that this mission is somewhat time sensitive?”

    “You’re not wrong.  The sooner we can accomplish this task, the better.”

    “Why then are we taking the Julian Road?  If we take a barge up the Naga River, we’d be at the Duchy of Morena, and from there it would be only be a quick journey through the Grandison March, and we’d be at the Clear Ice Fortress.  It could cut days off the travel time.”

    Roland made a bitter expression.  “We’re not going that way.  We’ll stick within the Royal Demesne as much as possible.  Nobles don’t take kindly to me, a common-born knight, being named as the sixth paladin.  A sixth-tier common-born knight.  The Duke and Marquis would undoubtedly get in our way.”

    Since his talk with the prince, Roland understood that the higher nobles didn’t take too kindly to his appointment, so he wanted to avoid entering their lands as much as possible.  Fortunately, over forty percent of the kingdom was ruled directly by the royal family or an appointed governor, so it was easy enough for him to get to where he needed to go.

    “There is one more thing.  We are the only knights who will be going.  I want you to pick three men-at-arms each.  Your own squires can come as well.  We’ll be travelling light, and we’ll have to leave our horses at Clear Ice, so no heavy armor.”

    The knights all nodded, though with some trepidation.  It was true that passing the Frozen Mountains with horses would be almost impossible due to the roughness of the terrain, but it was still hard to hear.  Roland and his knights had made their names in a heavy cavalry unit, and their horses were symbols of their status.

    But they still knew that as much as they might want to, the horses couldn’t come with.

    So, the five continued to talk for another hour, hammering out the details of the mission, where they would go, the specifics of the route, the supplies they would bring, and who they would speak to.  When they were finished, the three knights left to make their preparations.

    Luke wasn’t too far behind, as he too had to make arrangements for himself and Roland.

    When Roland left the study, he made for the meeting room off the entrance hall.  Melissa was there, sitting behind a large table with a table covered in papers.  She was examining one of them, quill in hand, pretty face scrunched up into her ‘concentrating face’.

    The servants at her side bowed once they noticed he had come in.  Melissa then looked up, and her face brightened into a dazzling smile when she him.  Roland nodded to his servants, and they bowed once more before exiting the room.

    Roland crossed the hall and took his wife into his arms.  She was bit surprised, but lovingly returned the hug.  They stayed that way for several minutes, neither quite willing to separate from the other.

    But, finally, Roland had to say something, so he moved his head to whisper into Melissa’s ear.  “I have to go away for a while.  A few months at the least.  I’m going to have to leave tomorrow.”

    Her face was buried in his chest, but he felt her tremble, before looking up into his eyes.  “This is what you were called to the palace for?  The King wants to take my husband from my arms and send him off to ancestors knows where.”  Her radiant smile was still there, but it had faltered somewhat.  She removed herself from Roland’s arms after a sigh of dejection.  “Gracchus!” she shouted.

    An elderly man came in from another room, wearing a plain gray robe, and what little hair remained on his head was cut short.  He was almost seventy years old, and he was only a first-tier mage so his lifespan was no longer than a regular mortal.  He was an accountant, hired by Roland to assist his wife and her other employees in keeping the books at her business.

    He bowed as he came in, first to Roland, then again to Melissa.  “How may I assist you, my lady?”

    Melissa waved her hand at the table.  “Go over these documents.  They all should pertain to transportation permits and import taxes, but you can brief me on them tomorrow regardless.”  She then gave Roland a sultry look, and started walking further into the villa.  Roland, of course, followed, and Gracchus bowed as they left the room.

    Once through the door to their bedroom, Melissa threw herself at her husband.  It took them a while to undress, as their lips almost seemed glued together, but eventually they made it to the large bed, leaving their clothing in small piles on the way.

    Melissa had jumped into Roland’s arms, and he carried her the last few steps before throwing her down onto the bed.  He lowered himself over her, going for one last kiss before continuing, but she wrapped her legs around his waist, preventing him from moving.  Roland gave her a look that was both surprised and aroused, and she twisted her hips, throwing him down beside her.  She quickly pushed herself up, getting on top of him.

    She sat on his waist completely without any shame, letting her husband see and touch everything.  She brought her face closer to his, and he moved to kiss her again.  She stopped him by placing her finger on his lips, and pushed his head back down while giving him an impish smile.  She brought her lips in close to his ear, whispering, “When you leave tomorrow, you are the Bull Kingdom’s Sixth Paladin, but until then, you’re mine.”
  • Chapter 14:  Two Journeys


    It took an enormous effort for Roland to get out of bed the next morning.  He lay there with his sleeping wife in his arms for almost an hour before he could muster the willpower to get up.

    Melissa, for her part, didn’t make it easy.  He had woken her as he got up, and began to dress, but she just lay there, without a stitch of clothing on.  Needless to say, Roland’s willpower wavered, and it took the couple another hour before they managed to leave the bedroom.

    By now, the sun was high in the sky, and servants were scuttling around the estate preparing for the departure of Roland and his retinue.  Roland himself spent the rest of the morning having a late breakfast with Melissa and their son.

    But, inevitably, it came time for Roland to leave, so he had to head for his dressing room just off the armory, where Luke helped him into his silver runic armor.  Roland had told his knights not to bring their own armor, as it would slow them down when crossing the Frozen Mountains, but he was a paladin, and it was expected that he would wear his gleaming silver armor and blood red cape, emblazoned with the paladin sigil. 

    Once suited up, Roland made for the entrance of the villa, where several more servants were waiting, with his three knights, their men-at-arms, squires, and the horses.  Luke hurried forward to take the reins of his and Roland’s horses, while Roland gave one last goodbye kiss to Melissa and their boy.

    “Everyone ready?”  Roland asked, as he mounted his horse.  Everyone nodded, mounted their own horses, and the group set off.

    Melissa watched them go as calmly as she could, but as soon as they had ridden past view, she could no longer suppress her tears.  It took her a few minutes to compose herself, but when she realized that the servants were waiting on her next orders, she immediately straightened up, handed her son to the nanny, and began instructing the servants.

    “Get the stables clean!  There won’t be any horses in there for a while, and I want it spotless when my husband returns.  And bring me Gracchus.  I want an update on that paperwork, and on how well our latest foundry has been operating.”

    There were three young ladies at Melissa’s side.  They were common-born women, but had been trained as scribes.  Roland had hired them to act as her assistants, and when they heard her commands, they immediately relayed them to the servants as required.

    Melissa sighed wistfully, took one last look in the direction Roland had ridden off in, and went back into the house.  She now planned to throw herself into her work until he returned.

    As for Roland, he felt the same pain of separation, but he was in front of his knights.  He could be affectionate with his family at home, but now he was Roland the Paladin, and had to be their cool and calm leader.  He maintained a stoic expression, and led his knights out of the city.

    The capital was an enormous city, with a population of several million.  It took almost the entire day of riding before they had left the suburbs, and almost a dozen more before they finally made it to the Great Plateau, the last region they had to cross before entering the Frozen Mountains.

    It was fairly boring the entire way, but they made good time.  There wasn’t much conversation, as Roland pushed them hard, but there was no trouble on the royal highway.  Roland’s instinct was to stay at the cheapest inns on the way north, but he was now a paladin, and had several nobles in his party, so he compromised and allowed them all to stay at much nicer places.

    Dame Sheira, for her part, was quite grateful.  She knew that Roland had little desire for the luxurious trappings of nobility, but she had grown up as the second-born child of a marquis, and was used to a standard of living far above that of a cheap inn. 

    Victoria, her squire, a young girl of seventeen, was also noble-born, and appreciated the finer things much more than Sheira, however.  The lady knight had to reprimand her squire several times on the road for complaining about lodgings. 

    No one else made a sound about it, though, which was fairly surprising, as there was one more noble in the group, one of Sir Andrew’s men-at-arms.  This man was quiet and rarely stood out, in stark contrast to how most nobility acted.  Any other high-born would have demanded a knighthood by now, but he still served as a man-at-arms, even though he was a fourth-tier mage.

    What was even more odd about him was his background.  He had come from a city that had been recently granted to a noble family that had moved to the kingdom less than a decade ago, known as the Isynians.  Twelve years ago, when the king had appointed the head of their house as governor of a large and prosperous city, there had been some pushback from older families, but the king hadn’t budged on the issue.  Fortunately, Lord Justin, the head of House Isynos, was a private man who rarely made public appearances, and his family was only marginally more social.  Eventually, the clamor around his appointment died down, and most simply forgot about him.

    There wasn’t much known about this new house, not even where they had come from.  All anyone knew was that had come from ‘south’.  And now there was a man from that house serving one of Roland’s knights.

    There were some knights in Roland’s retinue that openly distrusted this ‘Adrianos Isynos’ when Sir Andrew introduced him, but in the year and a half since he arrived, he more than proved himself in battle, eventually achieving acceptance among the other knights and men-at-arms.

    This group made their way further north, passing the city of Teira, the seat of the old Thunder Kings.  Roland had always wanted to visit this city, walk its streets, and see the grand palace where the Archdukes of House Raime lived.  Apparently, their palace was so majestic that it made the palace in the capital look like a beggar’s hovel.  It had been an enormous structure, with gigantic halls seemingly built for giants, baths so large they could fit an entire battalion, and luxurious apartments that left House Raime’s guests so pampered that many almost burst into tears when it came time to leave.

    But now, all that remained of this once jaw-droppingly gorgeous palace were a few broken walls, lonely columns, and shattered stone.  The last Archduke that ruled the Great Plateau was Kyros Raime, who, alongside his eldest son, had been assassinated almost fifteen years ago, not even a year after his only other son had disappeared after an attack on his villa in the capital.  King Julius had loved Archduke Kyros like a brother, and openly wept when he heard the news.  He decreed that no one was to ever build upon the old palace grounds again, and that its remains would be a memorial to House Raime.

    But there was more to the city than just the palace.  There were the immense lightning rods, that collected the lightning from the frequent storms in the area and channeled it into a training holy ground for lightning mages.

    There was Konstantine’s Dome, a staggeringly large arena built into a crater that could seat over two hundred thousand people.  All kinds of sports and magic competitions were held under the massive painted dome, which depicted a great bird of prey surrounded by rain and lightning pulling a horned sea serpent out of the raging ocean.

    And then there was the plateau itself, which was regarded as a paradise for just about everyone.  Green grass, trees with leaves of every color, clear and gentle rivers, and stunning flowers, both medicinal and decorative.

    But as much as Roland wanted to see the sights, he and his party could only stay one night in the city.  In the morning, he sighed in dejection as they rode past the last building of this great city.  ‘Maybe on our way back, we can stop for a few days.’, he thought to himself.

    A few days later, the group arrived at Clear Ice Fortress.  It was a giant castle of black stone, guarding a large wall of clear enchanted ice on the northern side.  The wall was almost a hundred feet tall, and stretched the entire half mile gap between mountains that the fortress guarded.  The mountains at the two ends of the wall were similarly fortified, being covered in small forts.  Any northern barbarian stupid enough to attack Clear Ice Fortress would be surrounded on three sides once they came down into the valley.

    The knights were exhausted as they brought their horses in past the fortress’ southern wall and prepared themselves for the last good night of sleep they would have before the march north.

    But unbeknownst to them, two men in the vale to the east of their destination had set off on a journey of their own at the same time.  They were Artorias and Leon, and their destination was the same as the knights, the Brown Bear Tribe, the Bull Kingdom’s primary ally north of the Frozen Mountains.

    It had taken Leon a month to get used to his new strength and begin training in earnest again, and Artorias had decided that they had enough furs to justify the journey west to the Brown Bears for trade.  The two gathered up the furs they intended to take with and packed them onto an enchanted sleigh.  This sleigh had rudimentary wind enchantments carved onto its bottom that allowed it to float about a foot off the ground, making it good for transporting cargo.  The two would barely have to pull to get their furs to the tribe’s market.

    This was a journey that the two had made many times before, about once every six months for the past decade.  It would typically take three to four days of travel to arrive at the city, even though it was only around eighty miles away.  Of course, Artorias could make it in less than an hour, but Leon was much slower.  Now that he made it to the second-tier, however, Artorias fully expected to be able to shave half a day or more off their travel time.

    They set off the same morning as Roland and his team, heading for a mountain pass in the west.  First, though, they had to head north, as there was an enormous canyon running north-south not too far to the west of the purple grass clearing.  It had incredibly smooth sides, though it was starting to crumble in places.  Artorias had theorized that a mage of at least the ninth or tenth-tier had carved the canyon with a sword strike, and so he had taken to calling it the ‘Divine Scar”.

    It was well over five hundred feet deep, where the last rays of light vanished into darkness, so going around was always the best option.  Leon and Artorias went north for about a dozen miles before turning west, towards the mountain pass.

    It took a few more hours to reach it, and they settled in for a late lunch.  There wasn’t too much to chat about, so Artorias mainly focused on reinforcing Leon’s understanding for basic enchantments.  From simple runes to complex runic glyphs, Artorias did the best he could to explain the concepts behind their carving.

    Leon soaked it all up, but Artorias was no master.  He could tell that Leon had both a passion and talent for enchantments just based on the practice ones he drew on spell paper and the questions he asked about their underlying theories, but he wouldn’t get very far just asking him.  All Artorias knew were a few first-aid spells and practical enchantments he was taught as part of his knight’s training twenty years ago, such as some defensive wards and sanitation enchantments for use in setting up a fortified camp, and a few to apply to weapons.

    But he had done a bit of research into his family’s enchantments.  Most were lightning related, of course, and he didn’t have very much material to research in the first place, but what little he had learned had been used when he carved the obelisk in the center of their compound.

    Those few days passed quickly, but they eventually left the mountain pass and proceeded through the neighboring Vale towards one of only two cities that exceeded twenty thousand inhabitants north of the Frozen Mountains.

    This particular Vale was much less colorful than the Forest of Black and White.  All the trees here only had regular brown bark and green leaves, as opposed to the black and white tree trunks and multicolored leaves of Leon and Artorias’ home.  There were fewer flowers, as most of the flora were bushes and grass, with neither being the wide gradient of colors seen further to the east, either.

    Whenever they went west to trade, Leon was always reminded that the Forest of Black and White was something special.  It wasn’t just the vibrant plant life either, as no other Vale was so infested with dark and powerful creatures.  The rivers in the west were not filled with river nymphs, one didn’t have to constantly be on the lookout for tree sprites when in the forests, and wraiths were almost unheard-of west of the mountain pass.

    All in all, the vale the Brown Bear Tribe lived in had little difference to the forests seen in the south.  It just surrounded a large plain, roughly sixty miles in diameter.  This plain was mostly filled with small villages and equally small farms, but the tribesmen had built a city in the very center of the vale.  Most of the buildings were made of wood, and rarely exceeded a single story tall, but at almost twenty thousand townspeople, it was the largest settlement in the Northern Vales.

    The father-son pair finally arrived at the city before noon on the third day, almost a full day before they would have before Leon’s ritual.  They weren’t particularly tired, but Artorias decided to look for a place to stay before anything else.  He was a good friend of the Brown Bear clan chief, Torfinn Ice-Eyes, and had stayed with him before, so the chief’s hall was their destination.

  • Chapter 15:  Vale Town


    The chief’s hall was a large longhouse near the center of the city, at the top of a hill.  Artorias and Leon could see it from this distance, and never lost sight of it even after entering the city proper.  They made their way directly there.  There weren’t many crowds in this part of the city, as most people went to the market district at this time of day.

    The buildings were all made of heavy timber wood, and the streets weren’t paved.  The city layout was chaotic and haphazard, with no semblance of order.  There were no city planners around to keep the roads and buildings orderly, unlike down south, and there were no masons or bricklayers to pave the streets.  Every southerner managing to come this far north would almost always feel a sense of disappointment when arriving here.

    Down south, the stories of the Valemen are all about huge hulking brutes with large axes, who worship the mountains and sky, and even sometimes practice human sacrifice.  If they come south, they’d steal everything that wasn’t locked down, and kill everything that gave them a sideways look. 

    The stories never mention the state of their villages or their construction techniques, so those who come north usually do so without leaving their own preconceptions behind.  When they hear of the northern city, most often called Vale Town, they imagine a town with well-ordered blocks, paved streets, magic lanterns at night, and a city guardsman on every street corner.  That’s what they have in the south, so why should the north be any different?

    But then they see it, the fabled Vale Town, center of the faith for sky worship, and home of the most powerful of the Valemen, and they feel abject disappointment.  Crude, wooden huts are in the majority, with dirt roads, and not a single lantern in sight, magical or otherwise.

    And the people are even worse!  They imagine unwashed barbarians, with long beards, longer hair, and always ready for a good fight whether man or woman.  They imagine them having sex in public, human and animal sacrifices in every marketplace, large shrines dedicated to the sky covered in the harsh, angular northern script, and fights breaking out every ten feet.

    What they find are relatively normal people, quietly going about their business as best they can.  Not many exotic shrines, few bloody sacrifices, and even less public sex, unless they were in a brothel.

    But for Leon, this place was perhaps the most inhabited and civilized place he had ever spent significant time in.  The market was loud, and there were people everywhere!  Leon was a quiet and reserved person, not used to the hustle and bustle of civilization, so even this backwater town was enough for him to need preparation before entering.

    But whenever he was starting to feel overwhelmed, he would think about the great southern cities and the places his father had told him about, places like the great capital of the Bull Kingdom, the old city of Teira, the merchant cities of the south, the massive ore refineries in the east that would light up the entire night sky.  He wanted to see it all, but if he couldn’t handle this, then he never would.

    Leon took a deep breath before following Artorias down the muddy streets.  They were a famous pair, and there wasn’t a single person who had thoughts about trying to steal from the sleigh they pulled behind them.  In fact, they were given a rather wide berth as they walked towards the center of Vale Town.

    As they approached the chief’s longhouse, they saw the only stonework’s around, with parts of the longhouse being reinforced with stone, and a large circular stone table surrounded by archways that served as the primary shrine.

    Within the longhouse, the chief was simply having some fun with his friends.  They were drinking, telling embellished stories of personal glory, and casually sparring.  It was a grand old time, until a man quickly ran into the hall.  He was one of the warriors sworn to Torfinn, the chief, and he had seen Artorias walking towards Vale Town.  He then immediately ran to Torfinn to alert him.

    This man went over to a large man with thick brown hair and a magnificent beard.  This man’s hair was so full that his face could barely be seen, but his bright grey eyes couldn’t be hidden.  The young warrior barely had to lower his head to whisper into Torfinn’s ear, despite the chief being seated.

    When the warrior had said his piece, he immediately left the longhouse; it was no place for someone as young as him.  Torfinn laughed uproariously, so loud, in fact, that the jokes and stories resounding through the hall quickly ended.  Everyone there wanted to know what had made the chief so happy.

    Torfinn’s laughter didn’t last long, but his smile remained.  He looked around at his most trusted companions, before saying, “The Wraith Killer and the Little Lion just strolled into town.”  He began to laugh again, and most of the other warriors joined him in celebration.

    When Leon and Artorias walked in through the longhouse’s doors and into the main hall, they found that the partying had ended.  The warriors were waiting for them, and Torfinn came forward to pull Artorias into a joyful hug, which Artorias happily returned.

    “It’s been a while, Wraith Killer.  I thought you would’ve came into town almost a month ago.”

    “That was the plan, but we got caught up in a little extra training.”  Artorias smiled and patted Leon on the shoulder.

    Torfinn looked over to the young man, before bringing him into hug as well.  “Ahhh, Little Lion, you’ve broken through into the second-tier!  Congratulations!”  All the other warriors in the hall joined their chief by raising their mead horns in celebrating Leon’s accomplishment.

    “Yeahh!”

    “Well done, boy!”

    “That’s the way!”

    Torfinn had lifted Leon completely off his feet with the hug, and when he let Leon back down, Torfinn examined him a bit closer.  “By the Mountain Bones, you have an incredibly stable aura!  You southerners really know how to train, don’t you?”

    Artorias only smiled in response, while Leon looked embarrassed and a little uncomfortable at the attention.

    “Well, you’re a step closer to being a great warrior, just like me!  Ha ha, welcome!  Welcome! I assume you’re both here to trade the furs you get in that cursed Vale to the east?”  Torfinn glanced at the sleigh hovering on air by the door.

    Artorias nodded.  “That we are, and if it’s not too much trouble, we were also looking for a place to stay for a few days.”

    “Well then look no further!  You will stay here, as my guests.  I welcome you to sleep beneath my roof, eat my food, and sit by my fire.  You there!”  Torfinn glanced at one of the servants off to the side.  “Prepare two rooms for my friends!”  The young servant quickly scurried off.  The longhouse wasn’t large, but it was certainly big enough for Torfinn to show two guests the proper hospitality.

    “Come on in, we were just regaling each other with tales of our first battles!  I’m sure yours was far grander, however.”  Torfinn clasped Artorias’ shoulder, and was about to lead him further into the hall, when Artorias calmly declined.

    “I would, my friend, but I just came here first to greet you.  You know me, I have to get these furs to the markets or they’ll be on my mind all day.”

    “Ah, of course, of course.  Well, come back here when you’re done, I’ll have a feast prepared tonight to celebrate the Little Lion entering the second-tier!”

    Artorias and Leon then grabbed the sleigh that was left by the door and made for the markets.  Torfinn watched them go with a little bit of regret, but knowing that they would return put the spring back into his step.  Artorias was quite famous in the Brown Bear’s Vale, as he was the only known person strong enough to live out in the Forest of Black and White without being torn apart by ice wraiths, and Torfinn valued his friendship.

    Artorias had met Torfinn when he had come north, when Leon was barely old enough to walk.  Torfinn wasn’t the chief of the tribe back then, but the two had struck up a quick bond after Artorias had seen Torfinn defend a small farming village from raiders that had come from their rivals, the Red Crow Tribe.  Artorias had then stayed with Torfinn for almost an entire year and watched as the man rose to become chief of the Brown Bears, then as he united the entire vale under the tribe.

    Artorias destination now was a particular tailor out in the markets.  He usually sold his furs there, as he got a good price for them, but this tailor was also one of the best in the entire Vale.  Most of the businesses run in the city were done in stalls out in market squares, but this tailor was well off enough to be able to afford a proper building for her craft.

    When Artorias and Leon walked in dragging their sleigh, the middle-aged shopkeeper barely looked up from her work.  Currently, she was sewing together some of the grass fibers the Vale was known for into a small shirt.  A young boy that Artorias recognized as one of the tailor’s assistants, came forward.

    “Hey, Leon, why don’t you wander around the market a bit?”  Artorias tossed his son a small pouch of the copper coins used in the Vale.  Leon deftly caught the pouch, jingled it a bit, and left the shop smiling.

    The assistant was used to seeing Artorias here, so he began to go through the furs, cataloguing them and preparing to give Artorias an offer.  While he was busy doing that, the tailor finished up her own work, and finally came out to speak with Artorias.

    “Got something special this time?”

    “How did you know that?”

    “You don’t usually send the boy away when doing business.”

    The tailor was quite sharp, and had been paying close attention even when appearing not to.  Artorias had always kept Leon close when selling the furs, as he wanted Leon to get used to doing business with other people.  As it was, he was lucky if Leon even bothered to speak to anyone on a given trip to Vale Town.  As they approached anything that even slightly resembled civilization, the younger man would grow quieter and quieter, and the happy and energetic young man he was in the Forest of Black and White would give way to a silent and far more subdued person.

    Artorias could sympathize, as he had even begun to feel himself closing up around other people too.  Living so far away from other people has its advantages, but there are drawbacks as well.

    “Indeed, I do have something a bit more today.”  Coincidentally, as Artorias said this, the assistant boy found something well hidden beneath all the other furs.  It was a brilliant white lion’s pelt, the skin of the very lion that Leon had killed for his ritual.  “I want you to make a coat using this.  Use the regular skin for the coat itself, and trim it with mane.  Oh, and I’ll also want any that’s left over, so don’t get any ideas about it.”

    There was plenty of fur for Artorias’ purpose, so the tailor asked, “Are you sure?  I can give you a good price for it.”

    Artorias shrugged.  “I still want the leftovers.”

    The tailor went over to inspect the fur.  It was truly of high quality, the mane was thick and full, while the rest of the fur was thin and soft.  It was perfect for making an unobtrusive fur coat.  But it seemed there was a bit of a problem when she examined it closer, as she began to frown.

    “This was a Snow Lion, probably of the late-third or early-fourth tier.  I might not be able to properly cut and sew it up.”

    Artorias smiled when she said this.  He knew exactly what she was doing, so he simply said, “I have confidence in your abilities.  Don’t go getting greedy now by pretending it will be more work than it is.”

    The tailor made a small grimace at that, he had seen right through her.

    “And I know that the other furs I brought today are worth far more than the job I just gave you, so how about let’s get around to talking money?”

    The tailor glared at Artorias.  She was a respected member of the community, and a third-tier mage!  If anyone else had spoken to her like that, she would have them thrown out.  But this was the Wraith Killer, a man who possessed enough power to live in the Forest of Black and White.

    She finally broke down when faced with his smug smile.  She gestured to him, and they went over to the counter where the assistant had arranged the other furs, and began to make their deal.

  • Chapter 16:  Guests


    Artorias left the tailor with a bag full of coppers and began walking through the market.  Just browsing through the stalls, he picked up a few things he needed, like some spell paper, ink, and a new hunting knife. 

    There were a few more things he was on the lookout for, but the paper and ink lightened his copper bag considerably given their relative scarcity this far north, so he eventually decided to just make for the food markets.

    He hadn’t seen Leon since he left the tailor, but Artorias wasn’t too worried.  When he was only ten years old, Leon had been harassed by tribesman who noticed his coin pouch, and Leon left him with a broken nose, a shattered cheekbone, and a blind eye.  This only contributed to his reputation, which was already quite widespread given where he lived and who his father was.

    Artorias spent the majority of his remaining profits on filling the sleigh with provisions, like dried fish from a local river, fruits, and a few sacks of flour for bread.  There were a few Greenhand tribesmen in the markets, so Artorias also grabbed some of their potatoes as well.

    When he was done, the sleigh was as laden with food as it had been with fur, and Artorias started making his way back to the Torfinn’s longhouse.

    On the way, he managed to spot Leon.  The sixteen-year-old boy had stopped at a booth in the food district and was now happily chowing down on a delicious smelling stew.  When they had arrived, Leon had barely made any facial expressions, being rather uncomfortable around other people, but now, there was a smile as large as the Divine Scar on his face as he ate his meal.

    Artorias noticed a few young ladies giving Leon some interested looks, but alas, the little lion was far too into his meal to notice.  Not that he would otherwise, given his relative lack of knowledge about people, especially those of the female persuasion.

    The older man decided not to interrupt his son, and proceeded towards the longhouse.  Leon would come find him when he was ready, and he felt that it was good for the young man to be out and about without his father.

    Torfinn was waiting for Artorias to finish in the market, and rose from his seat at the long table to greet his friend. 

    “Ah, Wraith-Killer!  Welcome back!”  He looked around, but didn’t see Leon.  “Where’s the Little Lion?”

    “He’s in the market eating as much as he possibly can.” Artorias said with a smile.

    Torfinn laughed, knowing full well the appetites of the two.  He gestured to a servant, and the servant came forward to take the sleigh from Artorias’ hands.

    “I can have your food put into my pantry, those ice runes you carved are still working great, so it should all be quite well preserved for when you head back home.  In the meantime, you told me Leon had found some food, but how about you?”

    Artorias let the servant take the sleigh, and joined Torfinn for a drink.  The chief brought out some good mead and fresh chicken for Artorias, and they didn’t speak much while they ate.

    As Artorias ate, he noticed that Torfinn seemed a bit agitated.  He was a normally happy and boisterous man, but now he couldn’t sit still, and his face was abnormally serious.  He was tapping his foot, and he kept shifting his weight around in his seat.  Artorias thought to himself, ‘It seems he has something he wants to talk to me about.’

    He quickly finished his food, and asked “So what’s up?”

    Torfinn just laughed and said “Oh, you know, same old same old.  The Vale has been peaceful, and the harvests are up.  Everything is looking alright.”

    Artorias just stared at his friend.  He didn’t respond, and what followed was an awkward silence.  Torfinn didn’t last long before he broke.

    “Oh alright!  Things are fine now, but there are some dark things on the horizon.  Rumors in the west say that old Hakon Fire-Beard has been making moves in the west, and we’ve had a sudden surge of immigrants from the western paths.”

    Torfinn’s jolly face had been flush from the mead and his general jovial demeanor, but he grew serious as he continued to speak.  “We aren’t afraid of Hakon, not this far east, but I’ve had to send quite a few warriors out to the west to keep the peace among all the new arrivals. 

    “There are also some southerners who found a new footpath through the Frozen Mountains, and they’ve been trading some smuggled weapons with us for silkgrass.  Recently, though, they’ve greatly expanded and fortified their camp on this side of the mountain range.  I’d estimate a hundred or more smugglers in the camp, and their numbers keep growing.  If things keep up, they might decide that they want to keep their steel, and just take the grass.”

    Artorias wasn’t too surprised by this.  New chiefs were frequently rising in the Vales, and this Hakon wasn’t the first.  These smugglers also weren’t unique, as clothes made from silkgrass were luxury items in the south.  Silkgrass only grew in the Vales, and trade with the tribes was hard and infrequent, so smugglers wanting to make a quick silver would often brave unexplored mountain paths.

    Artorias sighed.  “This doesn’t look like too big of an issue.  Smugglers are invariably commoners.  They don’t fight very well, and they’re rarely more than a first-tier mage, if that.”

    Torfinn was an early fifth-tier mage, considered a magical prodigy for the tribesmen, and easily the strongest man out of the all the Brown Bears.  It would be the easiest thing for him to take care of a hundred first-tier smugglers.

    “I had one of my thanes, Harald Golden-Hair, keep an eye on them.  He’s a fourth-tier mage, and he noticed some finely dressed people in the camp whose power he couldn’t see through.  I’m the only fifth-tier mage in the Vale, and if they have even one more than us, then they could walk right over us.”

    Artorias frowned.  Usually, a higher-tiered mage could see a lower-tier mage’s relative power by observing their aura.  The same could not be said for the opposite.  These ‘finely dressed people’ could be masking their aura, but that was something which was an enormous pain to do, so in all likelihood they were stronger than the fourth-tier Harald Golden-Hair.

    Torfinn didn’t continue talking, and just sat there looking dejected.  Artorias sighed, before asking, “And what do you want me to do?”

    Torfinn brightened up, but said, “I couldn’t ask anything of you, my friend.  I know you’re only going to be here for several days.”

    “Just get out with it, don’t play at being modest and humble.”

    “Very well then.  I would like you to come with me and my warriors to destroy that smuggler’s camp.”

    Artorias first instinct was to immediately refuse, and was right about to do so, when something occurred to him.  He smiled at Torfinn, and said, “Sure, I’d love to go with, but under one condition.”

    Torfinn only hesitated for a brief moment before answering yes.

    Artorias’ smile took a slightly sinister turn.  “I want my son to come with.”

    That really threw Torfinn for a loop.  He did a double take, then asked just to confirm, “You want to bring the Little Lion with us to kill everyone in that camp?  Are you sure?  He’s not a blooded warrior yet, perhaps this might be a bit much for him.”

    “He’ll go, or I won’t.  I’ve taught him how to kill, but I want him to show me that he can.  All he’s killed so far are rather weak forest creatures, but last month he single-handedly brought down a full-grown Snow Lion.  He’s ready, and he needs to be there with us.”

    Torfinn couldn’t really fault Artorias for this, as it was a cruel and vicious world.  Parents might try and shield their children from this fact, but once they were gone those children would be torn apart by vultures.  The best thing Artorias can do when teaching Leon how to survive is to give him a ruthless and unerring killing intent, so that he would never falter in the face of his enemies and could sweep aside all in his way.

    “…Very well.  I’m gathering some of my people, but it will take a few weeks to get them all here.  Feel free to stay here as long as you like until then.”

    And with that, Torfinn and Artorias went back to drinking and small talk.  Leon eventually came back, and Artorias let him know that they’d be staying in Vale Town for about a month, and the younger man had some mixed opinions about that.  On the one hand, he wanted to go back home where it was quiet and there weren’t so many people, but on the other hand, he quite enjoyed browsing in the market.

    And so, the two got settled in the longhouse.

    ---

    About two and a half weeks after they had set off from the capital, Roland and his team finally emerged on the north side of the Frozen Mountains.  It had been a rough trek over icy cliffs and narrow, rocky paths.  Much of their path had been obstructed by old primeval forests that had been there since the plane had taken form out of the chaos, though much of the organic material had long since rotted away.  There were still a few petrified chunks of the larger trees, but for the most part these ‘forests’ were made up of the ice that formed on the outside of the trees and still retained their shape, even long after the tree had disappeared.

    The knights were exhausted, and their followers even more so.  They made camp on the first bit of dry ground they could find.  Not even Victoria, the young noble lady from the warm and verdant west, complained about sleeping in the dirt, because at least it wasn’t a freezing cave.

    Despite their exhaustion, it only took them another two days to come into sight of Vale Town.  The very same warrior who had seen Artorias and Leon was on watch again, and again took off running towards the longhouse.

    It wasn’t hard for him to identify that these were knights, rather than tribal warriors.  Their weapons were too fancy, their leather armor was ornate and made with techniques unknown to the tribesmen, and they carried themselves with far more pride and dignity than any tribesman ever would.

    Torfinn heard of their arrival before they’d even set foot in the city, and had a decidedly different reaction to it than when Artorias had come.  The warrior informed his chief, then left, and Torfinn barely even glanced up from the turkey he was eating his way through.

    When Roland and his team entered the city, they noticed that a large number of warriors had gathered, and watched their every move.  Roland was a sixth-tier mage, and his three knights were all of the fifth-tier, but despite their power they felt extremely nervous.  The way the warriors would watch them made them feel terribly tense and unwelcome.

    Roland spread his magic senses out over the city, and noticed that there were even more warriors waiting in the adjacent blocks to the main road, and seemed to be just waiting for them to make a hostile move.  Even more, he saw in what he assumed was the market quarter, a large number of blacksmiths working hard at making and refining weapons, and most of the tailors in the city were stitching together crude leather armor.

    He whispered to his knights, “They seem to be arming themselves for something, and I think that might be why they’re a little jumpy right now.  No one make any moves against them, and let’s just make for the longhouse at the top of the hill.”  He nodded towards the hill and Torfinn’s house at the top, and the group slowly walked towards it.

    The warriors watching them followed along as they walked, and the normal tribesmen throughout the city cleared out of the road as they approached.

    Roland frowned, as he finally got a good count of the warriors watching them, and it seemed to be over one hundred with another hundred waiting nearby.

    It was a very tense walk to the center of the city, but the knights finally arrived before the door of Torfinn’s longhouse, and made to open it.  It was an imposing thing, almost ten feet tall, and quite thick, but Roland had zero trouble pushing it open as he led his people inside.

  • Chapter 17:  A Meeting


    A roaring fire in the center of the great hall greeted the knights upon entering the longhouse.  Two rows of columns ran the length of the hall, separating it into thirds.  There were a number of long wooden tables arranged around the bonfire, enough to seat about seventy or eighty people.

    There were only around thirty people in the hall at that time, however, but none who could be said to resemble a chief.  There was no high seat, no one dressed particularly differently than the others, and certainly none wearing a crown.

    Roland was at a loss, as he wasn’t able to identify the chief.  Luke stepped forward, intending to announce the party to the entire hall, but Roland stopped him with a quick gesture.  He had an idea that these tribesmen wouldn’t take him seriously if he was to be announced by a boy a decade his junior.  So, Roland took a few more steps into the hall, and asked, “Good day to you all.  I am Roland Magnus, a paladin in the service of the Bull King.  I would like to arrange a meeting with the chief of our northern allies, the Brown Bear Tribe.”

    It was a simple greeting, introducing himself while also stating his purpose and reminding the tribe that they are allies.  Many a tribesman gave a brief chuckle at that, and one leaning on one of the columns even spoke out.  “Allies?  You southerners haven’t come this far north in almost twenty-five years, how are we still allies?”

    Roland narrowed his eyes.  He had always heard that the kingdom had tribal allies, and Prince August had even confirmed this with him.  Copies of the signed agreement were held in the capital, Clear Ice Fortress, and the Grand Library in Teira.  However, Roland had never seen any of these copies, and he had no idea what the terms of the alliance were, but if there had been no official contact with the Brown Bears in a quarter decade, then how could they be considered allies?

    Regardless, Roland had his mission and he needed the support of the locals.  “Our kingdom still sees you as friends, and considers our alliance ongoing.  If there are any concerns about it, then I will speak with the tribe’s chief about how to rectify them.”

    The warriors in the hall stared at the knights, creating an oppressive atmosphere.  It doesn’t matter how powerful one becomes, they still want to feel like they belong in a community, and if they go somewhere that was so blatantly unwelcoming, it could even make gods and immortals nervous.

    The warrior who spoke out before kept his quiet, but a tall woman with long fair hair and a scar over her right eye took it as her turn to speak.  “Of course we have concerns!  If we’re allies, then where were all of you when the Red Crow Tribe invaded?  We called for your help then, and you were nowhere to be found!

    “Where were you when our villages were sacked and our people murdered, or worse?  The Red Crows butchered and defiled them in their own homes!  We called upon you, our supposed ally, and not a single knight marched north, not a single mage arrived to fulfill the terms of our alliance.

    “You say that your king still wants to be allies, but it sounds to me like he just wants us to get on our knees and- “

    “That’s enough, Freyja.”  A large, muscular, heavily bearded man interrupted the woman’s tirade, and stood up from his seat near the fire.  He waved the knights over, saying, “These are our guests, we ought to show them the proper courtesies.  Come over here, knight, and sit by the fire.  I’m the chief of the Brown Bears, Torfinn Ice-Eyes is my name.”

    Roland had been quite taken aback by Freyja’s verbal assault, but Torfinn’s interruption allowed him to recover.  His stunned expression was quickly replaced with a jovial smile, and he gratefully nodded towards Torfinn, and began moving towards the fire.  The other members of his party followed suit, but Torfinn stopped them when he continued to speak.

    “You all must be very tired from your journey this far north.  Asbjorn!”  Torfinn looked to a nearby warrior, “Your barn is empty now, right?”  The warrior nodded, and Torfinn turned back to Roland’s party.  “Good.  Sir Roland, your people can stay there.  I’m sure that they could use the rest.  If you have the spare coppers, feel free the browse the markets, but I must warn you not make a scene.

    “As for you, Sir Roland, you must have much to talk about.  Come, sit and let’s talk.”  Torfinn gestured to an empty seat next to his, and the warrior named Asbjorn walked forward, ready to lead the others to where they would be sleeping.

    Most of Roland’s party had looks of shock and disbelief on their faces, none more so than Sir Andrew.

    “You want us to sleep in a barn?  We’re knights of the Bull Kingdom!  We are in service to a paladin, one of the six greatest knights in all the kingdom, and you want to put us up like swine?!”

    Torfinn narrowed his eyes and smiled viciously.  “I want to tell you all to fuck off.  I want you to sleep in the dirt and mud.  I want you to go back south, and never look back…”  Torfinn’s smile faded, and he sighed.  “…But we don’t always get what we want.  You wouldn’t come all this way for no reason, and you won’t leave just because I tell you to, so why don’t we talk about it, hmm?”  He looked to Roland, and waited for a response.

    Roland was born a commoner, the son of a palace guard.  He didn’t possess a noble’s pride, and was more than willing to compromise.  He was, after all, one of the paladins, and as such represented the Bull Kingdom.  “Chief Torfinn, we’ve come a long way, we’re very tired and the road has tested our patience.  I apologize if we seem irritable or have caused you offense.”  Roland gave Sir Andrew an icy glare, and the knight shut his mouth.

    Fortunately, Dame Sheira and Sir Roger hadn’t said anything, and wisely decided to keep their silence.  Their squires and men-at-arms were in no position to speak, either, so Roland turned back to Torfinn.

    “We have, however, travelled a long way, and need a good rest.  To that end, could I ask if there are any better places to stay than a barn, like an inn?  Even a cheap one would be fine.”

    This question elicited more chuckles from the watching warriors, and even from Torfinn himself.  “Where do you think you are, knight?  There are no inns around that could take in such a large party.

    “Besides, I want to keep you separated from my people as much as possible.  Chief Freyja had a point, you were our allies but abandoned us when our hated rivals, the Red Crows crossed into our Vale to subjugate the tribes living here.  That’s left a lot of bad sentiments towards the south in the Vale.

    “Other than that, I would offer the knights at least, if not the followers, use of my guest rooms, but sadly, they’re all taken at the moment.”

    Roland desperately tried to keep up his smile, and took a moment to keep his cool.  He took a deep breath, and said, “Thank you for your hospitality.”  His party behind him didn’t bother keeping a smile, especially those who had no smiles to begin with.  They all looked like they had just been asked to actually sleep with animals, rather than in an empty barn.

    Asbjorn walked to the longhouse door, and began leading the party outside.  Roland was about to follow when Torfinn stopped him.

    “I would like to speak with you for a moment, knight.  I’ll have someone lead you to your comrades when we’re done.”

    Roland didn’t particularly want to stay, after all, the tribesmen had made it perfectly clear they didn’t want the knights here, so he wanted everyone to cool down a bit.

    “If it would be alright with you, Chief Torfinn, I would like to accompany my people to where we will be staying.  As I said, we are all tired and need rest.  I would still like to talk with you, but perhaps it could be tomorrow, when we all might have a bit more patience.”

    “You might want to leave, but I want you to stay and tell me why you’re here.  Now, then, let’s have a seat.  I’ll have some food brought to you, and we can chat.”  Torfinn’s tone left no room for argument.  Roland knew that trying to do so would be futile, as he had heard the same tone coming from Prince August on several occasions.  So, he sighed, and followed Torfinn back his table.

    On the way, he took the opportunity to observe the other warriors in the longhouse.  Most were of the third-tier, probably some of the best warriors that the tribesmen could produce.  There were five that had reached the fourth-tier, including the warrior that had spoken first and that Freyja woman, but Torfinn was the only fifth-tier mage among them.

    But Roland had a nasty surprise awaiting him.  He noticed in the corner, a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, well-built and tall, with black hair and brown eyes.  This man was the only man among the warriors who was clean shaven, and he had an easy-going smile.

    He was dressed in thin furs and silkgrass, with a sword at his belt.  This was odd, as the tribesmen didn’t usually use swords, good steel to make them with was too rare in the Vales, so they typically stuck to axes and spears.  But the thing that really set Roland off about this man was that Roland couldn’t see through his power.  If that was the case, then he was either suppressing his aura, he was of a higher tier than Roland, or he was a simple mortal.

    The knight couldn’t believe any of the possibilities, as suppressing an aura required access to techniques unknown to the tribesmen, the fifth-tier was largely considered their upper limit, and there was no way he would be present in the longhouse if he were a common mortal.

    This was a man to watch out for.

    Roland saw all of this in the time it took to take a few steps towards Torfinn’s table.  He sat down, and a few young servants brought out a plate of chicken and bread.  Roland was given a horn of mead, and Torfinn told him to dig in.

    Most of the warriors continued to watch Roland, so his unease never abated, but Torfinn had already returned to his own meal, so Roland decided to at least sample the food.  The chicken was good and filling, but lacking much of the spices and flavoring he was used to down south.  Once he started eating, though, Roland found that he was too hungry to stop.

    The entire longhouse was silent but for the two men eating, just the clinking of copper utensils and the sound of chewing.  These were two physically active, full-grown men, so the food disappeared very quickly, but when he pushed his empty plate away, Roland didn’t feel any more at ease.  In fact, he felt even more awkward after the oppressive silence.

    “Now then, knight, I have invited you to eat at my table, share my mead, and arranged a place for you to stay.  I have met all obligations required of me in the name of hospitality.  What brings you so far?”

    Roland glanced around.  All the warriors had been staring at him, except for that mysterious man in the corner who was staring into space like he didn’t have a care in the world, but their attention had wavered in the ten minutes the two were eating.  Now that Torfinn spoke, however, every eye was back on Roland with rapt interest.

    “I have been sent from the capital seeking a specific item.  It is exceptionally rare south of the Frozen Mountains, and it is somewhat urgent that I acquire it.”

    “And this item is…?”

    “A substance called Heartwood Amber.”

    Torfinn looked a little confused, but the man in the corner subtly started paying attention, glancing over at Roland, though he went back to staring out of a nearby window quite quickly.

    “I’m afraid I’ve never even heard of amber coming from heartwood trees before.  How much of it do you need?”

    “A chunk about the size of my fist, but the more I can get my hands on, the better.”

    “Well, there aren’t that many heartwood trees in this particular Vale…”  Torfinn appeared to lean back in his chair and think, but he was really taking a quick glance over at Artorias in the corner.  Artorias simply smiled and nodded.  They were good enough friends that they didn’t even need to speak verbally to understand each other.

    “…But I know where you can find them.  I can even arrange a guide for you.”

    Torfinn gave Roland a crafty smile, and Roland knew it wasn’t going to be so easy.

    “And what would I need to do?”

    “Let’s be honest, here.  Our alliance is dead.  It’s been dead for well over a decade, even if you claim otherwise.  But I’m interested in renewing it.  Of course, it won’t happen right this second, you’re no diplomat, after all.  But I want your word that you will arrange for diplomats to be sent back here after you return south.”

    Roland’s uncomfortable look lessened slightly at that request.  ‘Is that all?  I was going to do that anyway.  The prince needs to know that the kingdom’s lost an ally, even if it’s only the Valemen.’

    “You have my word, I will have the proper people come north again to renew our alliance.”

    Torfinn’s smile grew wider.  “Good!  Good.  I was hoping that you would be receptive to my offer.  With that in mind, I trust that you won’t turn down a providing a symbol of your sincerity?”

    Roland’s heart almost stopped.  “What kind of symbol?”

    Roland locked eyes with Torfinn, and in that instant, knew that this man had planned everything.  The hostility, the uncomfortable atmosphere, sending away his party, all for this moment.  He wanted Roland to be uncomfortable, because he knew Roland wasn’t a diplomat.  He wanted Roland to be more willing to agree in order to get out of this longhouse.

    “You must have noticed that my people and I are getting ready to deal with pests.  Specifically, smugglers.  Smugglers from your kingdom.  They have built a fortified compound in this Vale, and have been getting less and less controllable.  I don’t trust these people in the Vale, and I will kill them before they start raiding our villages near to them.”

    Torfinn leaned in closer to Roland.

    “And I want you to join me.”
  • Chapter 18:  Friction I


    “And I want you to join me.”

    Roland could still hear those words as he made his way to the barn where his party would be staying.  He had to admit a certain amount of grudging respect for Torfinn Ice-Eyes, the chief had played his hand perfectly.

    Roland sighed.  If this was what it took to get Heartwood Amber, then he and his party would help deal with these smugglers.

    The barn he was led to wasn’t that far from the longhouse, just down the hill it was built on and a few streets over.  It was rather small, like all the other buildings, but big enough for Roland’s party to sleep in.  It was also quite solidly built, to Roland’s surprise, with thick wooden walls and a heavy main door.

    The inside of the barn wasn’t what he expected, either, with one large room about fifteen feet high, and a few smaller rooms off to the side.  ‘Looks more like a storehouse than a barn.’, Roland thought.  He figured it was probably just a storehouse, given how far inside the city it was, but he was sure Torfinn had deliberately called it a barn just to rile them up.

    He found Dame Sheira just inside, watching over her men-at-arms take inventory of their remaining supplies.  Sir Roger was further in, checking through the smaller rooms, and planning out the sleeping arrangements.

    Dame Sheira greeted him as he came in.  “Sir Roland!  Good to see the barbarians didn’t keep you too long.”

    “Careful now, don’t go underestimating them.  Their chief, at least, knows what he’s doing, and some of the people with him…”  Roland thought of the man in the corner, and his mysterious atmosphere.  He didn’t look like the tribesmen, with their thick beards and aggressive attitudes.  In fact, when the longhouse was filled with the killing intent of the warriors, that man had looked barely even interested.

    Roland had been invited back to the longhouse for a small feast at sundown and wanted to talk to that man if he could.

    “I doubt that there’s anything we need to worry about here.  These people fumble about with magic, not knowing the first thing about how to properly train.  Their strongest warrior is only a fifth-tier mage, for the ancestor’s sake!”  Dame Sheira chuckled, completely disregarding Roland’s warning.

    Roland gave her a disapproving look, but she didn’t seem to notice.

    “By the way, where are the others?”  Roland asked.

    “Oh!  We didn’t know how long you were going to be held up in the longhouse, so we sent the squires into the market with a few silvers to buy something more edible than our travel rations.  Sir Andrew and his men-at-arms went with, saying they wanted to check out what the market had.  As for us, we’re just getting settled in here.  We don’t know how long this search will be, so we might as well get as comfortable as we can.”

    By this time, Sir Roger had finished inspecting the storehouse, and come over to join them.

    “How’s the place look?” asked Roland.

    “It’ll do.  Any idea how long we’ll stay?”  replied Sir Roger.

    Roland frowned.  “We can go over that when the others return.”

    ---

    “Tori, slow down!  We have to get food first, shopping can come later!”

    Luke ran after Victoria, Dame Sheira’s noble squire.  The young seventeen-year-old girl had been disdainful of the tribal market at first, but then she caught sight of all the raw silkgrass on sale.  And like that, she was gone, with all the silver they have been given.

    Silkgrass was a luxury material in the south, commanding such high prices as to be all but unaffordable to anyone but rich merchants and high lords.

    But here, where silkgrass grew in abundance, large bundles of the stuff could be seen almost everywhere.

    Victoria’s eyes had nearly jumped out of their sockets when she saw the first tailor, a small stall near a side road in the market district.  She had been disappointed that the entire offering was rather crudely made work clothes, feeling that it was a waste of such a fine material.  She then immediately took off in search of a larger shop where she could find finer clothes.

    Luke had run after her, wanting to simply get the food they were sent to buy and return to the storehouse.  It wasn’t quite as blatant as in the longhouse, but he could feel the hostile stares and even some concealed killing intent from the people around them, and knew that it would be a bad idea to stay out on the streets.

    But, Victoria wasn’t listening.  She was after a tailor, and she wasn’t going to stop until she found one.

    Victoria sped along the road, looking at each stall for only a moment before moving on.  It took several minutes, but Luke finally caught up with her, and stopped her by grabbing onto her shoulder.

    “Ah!  What are you doing?”

    “Don’t just run off like that, we’ve already lost Sir Andrew!  Besides, we can do this later, right?  We need to find some food for the others first.”

    “This won’t take too long, I’m only looking for a good tailor.  There has to be one around here somewhere…”  Victoria barely even looked at Luke as her head was practically on a swivel, constantly looking this way and that way, on the hunt for silkgrass.

    She was about to take off again when a very large tribesman suddenly stepped in the way.  Luckily, Luke was still holding her shoulder, so she didn’t crash into him, but he just stared at them, and started walking closer, while a smile broke out on his face.

    “Well, well, well, looks like two lost little lambs separated from the flock.”

    Luke and Victoria were stepping back a bit, as he just kept coming closer, intruding into their personal space.

    “Pardon me, my good man, we were just leaving.”  Luke tried to steer Victoria away from this man, but he reached out and grabbed her arm.  Victoria tried to shake him off, not too difficult, she thought, as she was a second-tier mage, but he didn’t lose his grip.

    “Where do you think you two are goin’?  I wanna talk a bit.”  The other tribesmen in the street had rapidly cleared out after seeing this man.  As they got away as quick as they could, a few more tribesmen crept forward, blocking off the two squires as they tried to leave.

    “What do you think you’re doing, you oaf?  Let go of me and get out of our way!”  Victoria began shouting at the thug, but his smile only grew wider.  The other four approaching tribesmen had closed the distance, and now the squires were firmly caught between them.  Only then did the first thug finally release Victoria.

    She and Luke quickly stood back-to-back with each other.  They didn’t have their weapons with them, as they had planned to be in the market with Sir Andrew and his men-at-arms, but that plan was derailed when Victoria had taken off in search of silkgrass.  That being said, they were trained in hand-to-hand fighting, and were second-tier mages, so they were confident that they could fight their way out if needed.

    “You lot are from the south, right?  That means you must have a whole bunch of silvers on ya’.  How ‘bout you hand ‘em over and we won’t take the girl for a ride?”  The thug blatantly started staring at Victoria’s tight and attractive body with a disgusting look on his face.

    “Damn pig.”  Victoria and Luke began channeling their magic into their muscles, preparing for a fight.  The five tribesmen simply smiled and did likewise, while closing in.  Then, unexpectedly, the first one froze, and then the others quickly followed suit.

    The squires had been concentrating almost exclusively on the thugs when they had surrounded them and hadn’t noticed the young man who had approached.  The thugs had, however, and were now looking at him with fear and dread in their eyes.

    It was tall black-haired youth, with shining gold eyes.  He was staring at the lead thug like a bird of prey would at a field mouse.  The thugs backed away from the squires, in order to present a united front against this young man.  The squires took this opportunity to scramble out from between them, moved off to one side.

    The youth only said two words to the thugs: “Piss off.”, and they took off running as fast as their legs could take them.

    The squires stared as the thugs who had been so confidant just a second ago vanished into the distance.  It took them a moment for their shock to wear off, and by then the youth had already walked past them.

    Victoria immediately ran after him.  Luke sighed, and ran after her.

    “Good sir!  If it’s not too much trouble, would you allow me to offer you my thanks?  You did my friend and I a great kindne…”

    The youth had stopped and looked over his shoulder.  As soon as his eyes met Victoria’s, she knew instantly why those thugs had ran away, even though he too was only a second-tier mage.  She felt his unbridled killing intent, an overwhelming pressure hammered into her, and for a moment, she stopped breathing and felt her heart speed up in terror.  But she soon began channeling her own magic, causing her aura to erupt and resist the killing intent.

    Luke had been frozen by the sudden killing intent behind her but reacted just as quickly.  His aura joined hers in combatting this youth’s, and finally, the pressure abated. 

    The youth turned his head back around and kept walking.  The squires didn’t follow this time.

    Victoria turned to Luke.  “What the hell was that?  It felt like I was staring at some primordial beast!”  She shivered, and moved a little closer to Luke.

    “I know.  Who the hell was that guy?”  Luke moved a little closer to Victoria.  It wasn’t until their arms brushed against each other’s that they jerked away, and came to their senses.

    “We, uh, we need to get that food.  We should get on that.”  Luke said, a little nervously.

    “Yeah, we ought to get on that.”  Victoria said with embarrassment.

    “Hey!  There you are!”  A voice rang out from the empty street behind them.  The squires turned around and were surprised to see Adrianos Isynos, one of Sir Andrew’s men-at-arms.

    “Adrianos!  What are you doing here?”  asked Luke.

    “Sir Andrew sent me after you two when you took off in the crowd.  I’m glad I found you, too, this seems like a shady place.”  Adrianos took a look around at the empty street.

    “Yeah, we just ran into a few shady people…”  said Victoria, looking in the direction the youth had disappeared into.

    “Oh?  Are they still around?”  asked Adrianos, his hand moving to the hilt of the sword at his belt.

    “No, they were chased away.”  Luke replied.

    Adrianos slowly took his hand off the sword, then smiled.  “Good.  I’d hate to have to kill a few tribesmen for harassing you.  Anyway, let’s get back to Sir Andrew.  We are here for a purpose, after all.”

    “Right!”  Luke and Victoria answered in unison.  The three then made their way back to Sir Andrew, and no one else got in their way.  The squires didn’t forget that youth, however.  The amount of killing intent focused within his gaze exceeded even battle-hardened fourth-tier mages!

    But they put him out of their mind once they got back to work.  As much of an impression as he had made on them, they still had a job to do.

  • Chapter 19:  Friction II


    It was only a few minutes later that the squires rejoined Sir Andrew, and after a few harsh words about running off in a strange place, they went back to looking for good food.

    The food vendors in the market were surprisingly varied, with plenty of meat and fruit available, along with fresh cooked bread that gave off a heavenly scent.  Every time the group passed a baker, they had to fight the urge to buy the whole stall.

    Of course, they couldn’t really tell if that was simply because they had been eating travel rations for a week and were quite tired, but the smell was tantalizing nonetheless.

    Luke, Victoria, and the other two squires, Kevin and John, examined every food stall, but never bought anything.  They were just browsing and intended to come back to the stalls that made the best impression.

    Sir Andrew and the men-at-arms were walking with them, but they were watching the crowd rather than the stalls.  They had been very wary of the locals already, given the dirty looks and vague killing aura the tribesmen would have when they saw the southerners.  Now, after Victoria and Luke’s near-fight with those thugs, the older men made sure to keep the squires between them and returned every dirty look they received.

    Of course, all the warriors who could fight evenly with the third and fourth-tier men-at-arms and the fifth-tier Sir Andrew, were all in the longhouse or not in the city, so the auras of Sir Andrew’s group were enough to dissuade any bold or reckless tribesmen.

    “Lu!  Look at that!  What kind of fruit is that?”  Victoria pointed to a basket full of dark blue round fruits.  They looked somewhat like an apple, only about fifty percent larger.

    “Not a clue…”  Luke waved over to the stall vendor, who was a watching them from the other side of the large stall.  “Excuse me, but could I trouble you to tell me what this is?”

    The vendor had been glaring at them from the moment they stopped in front of his stall, and when Luke asked his question, he rolled his eyes, not even bothering to conceal his contempt.

    “It’s food.”

    Luke had a polite smile on his face but looked slightly taken aback at the reply.  “Yes… I’m sure it’s perfectly edible, but could you tell us anything more about it?  My friend is interested- “

    “Are you going to buy it or not?  Ten coppers if you are, if not, then fuck off.”

    “…No, I don’t think we will.  Good day, sir.”  Luke grabbed Victoria’s hand, and steered her away from the stall.  She had been so stunned by the vendor’s hostility that she couldn’t even think of anything to say.

    Sir Andrew had noticed the exchange and gave the vendor a look that could freeze water before following the squires.

    “What the hell was his problem!?  Isn’t he trying to sell things!?  Why would he treat customers that way!?”  When Victoria finally recovered her tongue, she was incensed.  Luke and John almost had to hold her back from running back to the vendor and smashing his teeth in.

    “It’s fine, Tori, we can just buy food elsewhere.  I’m sure someone will be more willing to take our money, it’s not worth it to get so worked up over one street vendor.”  Luke did manage to keep her from flying off the handle and attacking the tribesman, but Victoria’s mood drastically worsened.  It was already rather terrible from the thugs and that youth, but now she was quiet, but positively seething.

    The group visited a meat vendor and tried buying some pork.  The stall vendor barely even looked at them before chasing them off.

    They went to a baker to buy some bread, and the baker wanted a whole silver coin for a single biscuit.  Naturally, the squires weren’t having any of that, and moved on again.

    Things went on like this for several more hours, with every vendor they visited either being a complete ass or trying to severely overcharge them.  Eventually, the group had to admit defeat and moved to leave the market quarter.

    As they were leaving, Luke took one last look back, and noticed the first vendor they visited.  A tribesman had just picked up on of those dark blue fruits and tossed the vendor a single copper coin in return.  The vendor only smiled and nodded, and the tribesman walked off.

    Luke shook his head and sighed.  It seemed they were truly hated up here.

    It was a short walk back to the storehouse, but it was still incredibly tense.  Every tribesman they ran into on the way would avoid them like a plague, though at least they weren’t being followed by tribal warriors like they were when they arrived.

    Roland sensed their return and came out to greet them.

    Dame Sheira glared at the returning group.  “What happened?  I thought you all left to grab some food.”

    Luke sighed.  “Doing business with these people is impossible.”

    Victoria backed him up.  “They were either extremely rude or tried to overcharge us by a wide margin.  One baker wanted almost ten silvers for a single loaf of bread!”  While she said this, she returned the money Dame Sheira had given them for food.

    Dame Sheira couldn’t hide her disappointment, and neither could anyone else.  Roland, at least, had a good lunch, but everyone else was starving.  But, they had to suck it up, and eat what they had.  Travel rations again.

    Once everyone had choked down their ‘food’ and gotten settled in, Roland called the three other knights and their squires together.

    “We’ve been invited to a small feast tonight.  Get some rest, because all eight of us are going.”

    None of them were particularly thrilled, especially Luke and Victoria.  The tribesmen had made it perfectly clear that Roland and his party were not welcome, and they were starting to think that maybe they should just leave.  But, Roland wasn’t done talking yet, and what he said next left them outright angry.

    “They’re also sending a war party out in a few days, and we will be joining them.”

    What?!”  The knights cried out in unison.

    Luke wasn’t too happy about it, either, and made his opinion known.  “Sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but why are we doing this?  The Brown Bears are all but hostile to us, why are we going to help them?  If they want someone dead, let them do it themselves.”

    “I agree, Sir, let them deal with their own problems.  We have our mission, so let’s just go look elsewhere for this Heartwood Amber.  I’m sure there are people in markets who would tell us the location of some groves, though we’ll probably have to pay quite a few silvers for the information…”  Sir Andrew said.

    Roland looked at his upset team, and they quieted down.  “This isn’t just their problem.  The bandits the tribesmen want dead are getting ready to raid the Brown Bear villages, and they come from somewhere in the Kingdom.  This is our problem as well, given that it involves our countrymen.  Besides, I’ve already agreed, and I won’t go back on my word.  Once we return, Torfinn has even promised a guide to take us to a large Heartwood Tree grove.”

    Sir Roger met Roland’s gaze.  “Sir, I’ve fought alongside you for almost a decade now.  I trust you as much as I can trust anyone.  If you say this is the way we do it, then this is the way we do it.”

    Luke grit his teeth and nodded in agreement.  Dame Sheira was about to say something but decided against it.  She too, trusted Roland, and put her faith in his judgement.  The others fell in line as well.  They had voiced their concerns, made their displeasure known, but ultimately, Roland was still their commander.

    “Good.  Now leave your obvious weapons with your men-at-arms or put them in your soul realms, and let’s go see what qualifies as a feast for the Brown Bear Tribe.”  Of course, the knights couldn’t take their big weapons, but they would never fully disarm themselves.  They still had a few knives and daggers on them, not to mention their magic.

    The longhouse was far more packed than it was when they had arrived.  Instead of only about thirty warriors filling the hall, now there were over a hundred.

    Hmmm.  Torfinn must have invited some prominent tribesmen in the city, they can’t be warriors.’  Roland thought to himself.  He had already seen through the power of all the new people in the longhouse, and barely any were even of the first-tier, and less than five had broken through into the second.

    The tribesmen at the entrance noticed their arrival, and immediately quieted down and made way, staring at the knights.  Torfinn was drinking and laughing with Artorias and Freyja but looked up once he saw the motion at the door.

    “Ah!  The southern knights are here!”  Now that Torfinn drew attention to them, every conversation in the hall died down, and all the tribesmen’s eyes were now firmly locked on the knights.

    “Yes, we were quite happy at the invitation, Chief Torfinn, and couldn’t refuse.”  Torfinn’s big smile could be seen even through his majestic beard, and Roland replied with an equally friendly and jovial smile.

    “Good!  Good.  Come, sit over here, Sir Knight, let us talk some.”  Freyja moved from Torfinn’s side over to sit next to Artorias, making room for Roland.  Roland obliged Torfinn, walking across the hall to sit next to the chief.  The knights all sat down next to Roland, across from Artorias and Freyja.  The squires then sat at the other end of the table.

    “So, how’s the barn?  You lot comfortable?”  Torfinn asked.

    “Yes, it’s a nice place, perfectly suited to our needs.  I must thank you for your generosity in arranging it for us.”  Roland replied.

    “Think nothing of it!  We Valemen take great pride in our hospitality, I couldn’t let you go off and sleep in the street!  What would my people say of me then?”

    While the two spoke, the rest of the hall went back to talking amongst themselves, and the knights breathed a sigh of relief.  This wasn’t going to be like earlier, where all the tribesmen would be watching their every move with an intense gaze.

    Roland also noticed that everyone was already eating, so he quickly nodded to his knights.  They then nodded at their squires, waiting until their subordinates had taken some food before reaching for any themselves.

    Roland’s group ate with as much dignity as they could, but it began to crumble as they finally tasted food that wasn’t their rations.  Torfinn laughed as he saw them dig in, and he turned back to Roland.

    “How do you like my city?  Have you seen the market, or been to any of the shrines?  Bought some of the silkgrass that you southerners go crazy for?”

    “We did browse your market and were quite impressed.  It was busy, and the wares were varied and of fine quality.  You truly have a rich and prosperous city.”

    Torfinn’s eyes narrowed.  His smile thinned somewhat, and he looked intently into Roland’s eyes.  “You don’t have to flatter here, knight.  We’re not so arrogant as to demand a favorable answer when asking a question.”

    Roland was a little taken aback.  It was fairly customary to flatter your host, even if both sides knew it was a lie.  It was simply to express some gratitude for the hosts hospitality.  But, it seemed that Torfinn didn’t appreciate it.

    Torfinn continued.  “I was told that there were a few problems today.  Problems involving your people.  I just want to hear your side.”

    Roland’s smile had disappeared, but he wasn’t going to take any slander against his party, even if it was just an insinuation.  “If there were any problems, then it was your people’s fault.  Two of my squires were almost assaulted in the streets today, and your market vendors inflated their prices so much that we couldn’t bring ourselves to buy anything.”

    Roland and Torfinn stared at each other, Torfinn with his smile still firmly in place, with Roland stoic and serious.

    Torfinn suddenly burst out laughing.  “Ha ha ha ha!  Good, I had almost thought you were just an empty-headed yes-man.  I can’t do anything about those merchants, they charge what they like, but the safety and security of guests in my city is my responsibility.  I’ve already had the thugs who bothered your people brought in.  They were known ruffians, and I had two fingers taken from each.”

    That stunned Roland and his party.  Those thugs had already been arrested and punished?  Roland sighed, this truly was barbaric place.  There are no trials, and punishments are carried out immediately so there were no prisons, either.  Of course, that was assuming Torfinn was telling the truth.

    It only took Roland a moment to recover.  “…Thank you, for your… swift justice.”

    Torfinn saw that Roland didn’t really approve but decided not to press him on it.  He knew from Artorias that the people in the south do things differently when it comes to punishing criminals.

    At this time, another person arrived in the longhouse.  No one really noticed him, but those who did made way.  Victoria and Luke almost froze when he appeared at the table, taking a seat right next to Freyja.  This was the youth who scared off the thugs!

    When he took his seat, Freyja immediately threw her arms around him.  “Ah, Little Lion, I missed you!” 

    Leon didn’t return the hug, his body just stiffened, and didn’t relax until she withdrew her arms.  “Look at you, you’re getting to be not-so-Little anymore, aren’t you?”

    Freyja beamed at him, and scooted a little closer, pressing herself up against his arm.  “Hey, why don’t we go somewhere more private after the feast is over?  You’ve never been with a woman, have you?  Why don’t I show you a few things?”

    “Freyja, you shouldn’t get so close to him, look how uncomfortable he is.”  Artorias playfully chided the tribeswoman.  Indeed, Leon’s face was red, and his mouth was twitching, like it couldn’t settle on an expression.  He clearly had no idea how to respond to the older woman.

    “Oh?  And why are you such a killjoy?  I’m just teasing him, but maybe it’s you who needs to let off a little steam.”  Freyja then leaned over, throwing her other arms around Artorias and giving him a bewitching smile and leaning over to give the older man a better view.  “I’m game for relieving your tension if you are, we don’t have to sit here and listen to the chief talk with these ones, now do we?”

    Artorias chuckled and pushed her off him.  “I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline.”  Leon tried to regain his composure as he slid away from Freyja, but his face was still bright red and stiff as if carved from wood.

    Victoria slowly looked to Luke sitting next to her.  They both knew what each other was thinking.  ‘Is this really the guy who froze us with his killing intent earlier?’

    Sir Andrew, who was sitting next to Luke, noticed their odd behavior, and gave them a curious look.  Luke leaned in to whisper to him, and it was only then that Leon glanced over.  But a glance was all it was, no killing intent, no wild aura, Leon just looked away and didn’t look back.

    “Well then, knight, since you’ll be coming with the war party, I’ll have some supplies sent over to you.  As it’s looking now, we’ll be setting off in three days.  Meet us at the south city entrance on that morning, and we’ll go deal with those smugglers.  You’ll have your guide after we return to the city.”  With that, Torfinn basically ended the conversation with Roland.  The knight didn’t have time to respond before Torfinn turned to talk with Artorias, so Roland simply sighed and focused on the food in front of him.

    Sir Andrew, for his part, was occasionally looking at Leon, while Luke and Victoria simply tried to pretend he wasn’t there, just as Leon was doing to them.

    Once Roland and his party finished eating, there was nothing else for them to do, so they immediately left.  The atmosphere was still rather awkward for them, and they didn’t want to linger.  They returned to the storehouse to rest and prepare for heading back out in three days.


  • Chapter 20:  The Village


    On the way back to the storehouse, Sir Andrew briefly looked back at the longhouse, then turned to Luke.  “Are you sure that was the guy?”

    “Yes, Sir.  Absolutely.”  Replied Luke.

    “It was him.  No doubt.”  Victoria added.

    “What are you lot talking about back there?”  asked Roland.

    Sir Andrew immediately answered.  “That boy who joined us at the table, it seems the squires ran into him earlier.”

    “Oh?  That was him?”  Luke had told Roland about the encounter with the thugs and Leon after coming back from the failed shopping trip, so Roland knew about Leon.

    Roland then frowned.  It seemed that this boy was the son of that mysterious man who was also at the table.  Roland had wanted to try and speak with him alone, but he was engrossed in conversation with Torfinn, talking about the various fighting styles of the tribesmen and which tribe or village would beat which in a battle.

    Suffice it to say, Roland never got a chance to strike up a conversation.  Freyja just kept teasing the boy, this ‘Little Lion’, and didn’t pay any attention to them, so the knights had eaten in peace.  With nothing else to do once they finished eating, they simply left.

    “Well, we’ll see if we can talk to them on the march to this bandit camp.  Given the attitudes of the tribesmen, I’d also prefer if no one went far from the storehouse until it’s time to leave.”

    The knights nodded in acknowledgement of Roland’s order, and they continued down the road back to the storehouse.

    True to his word, Torfinn had food and water delivered, enough to keep the party from having to eat travel rations for about a week, which they were quite grateful for.

    Roland and his party barely left the storehouse during the next three days.  They just laid around getting as much rest as they possibly could.  Victoria had wanted to go back out and look for silkgrass, but Luke managed to convince her not to, given how the last shopping trip went.

    But, the time came, and they rose early in the morning to meet with Torfinn and his warriors.  They went to the southern gate and found that a large number of the warriors had gathered already.  There were two wagons hitched to oxen, and about two hundred warriors ready for battle.  There were almost one hundred first and second-tier warriors among them, with only a handful of the third.  Asbjorn and Freyja were the only fourth-tier warriors present, and Torfinn was the only one of the fifth-tier.

    Then there was Artorias and Leon, standing a good distance away from the war party, Roland paid extra attention to them.  Leon was clearly of the second-tier, but his aura had a stability and thickness to it that Roland had only seen from the children of high nobles down south.  Artorias was also just as imperceptible as before, which the other knights finally noticed.  They hadn’t been paying attention very much during the feast, as their stomachs were too empty, but now they were thinking rationally, and grew wary of these two.

    “Ah, finally here!”  Torfinn called out to the knights upon their arrival.

    Roland smiled at the chief, waving his hand as he approached.  “My people are ready, Chief Torfinn.  These bandits will soon be dealt with and won’t trouble you anymore.”

    Torfinn’s smile grew wider, and he shouted to the crowd of warriors.  “Of course they won’t!  We’ll kill them all or drive them out!”  The warriors all shouted in response, raising their weapons and banging their wooden shields.  It was a loud display, but over quite quickly.

    Torfinn turned back to Roland.  “We still have a few stragglers coming in, but otherwise, we were just waiting on you knights before setting off.  Now that you’re here, we can get this march underway.  Let’s move out!”

    And with that, the war party began marching down the road.

    Roland and the knights just stared.  The warriors moved completely without formations, without discipline.  There were a few boasting about how many of the bandits they would kill, and what kind of loot they’d bring home, which just cemented the fact that they were all just a horde of barbarians in the minds of the knights.

    Roland sighed.  “Well, let’s go.”  He gestured after Torfinn, and his party quickly caught up with the Chief.

    It was a boring march.  They weren’t going far, barely more than eighty miles.  The war party would reach their destination in less than three days, so long as they kept to the road.

    The leaders all marched in front, with Torfinn, Freyja, and Asbjorn leading the way.  Roland and the knights marched a little bit behind them, and the warrior horde followed them.

    The knights were initially dismayed at what the warriors were showing off, as the lack of marching formation wasn’t the only problem they had with the Valemen.  Their weapons left much to be desired, first off, as the quality of metalworking in the Vales was quite poor.  Consequently, most warriors had terrible-looking iron axes, which any second-tier mage could snap with ease.  There wasn’t even a single enchanted weapon among them!  A few of the stronger warriors had better steel, probably obtained from the trade with the very smugglers they were going to kill, but that accounted for barely even one in thirty.

    The next problem the knights had was the armor, or rather, the lack of it.  The knights had to leave their horses down south, which meant they had to leave their heavy enchanted steel armor with them, but they at least had thick lightly enchanted leather armor.  The tribesmen, on the other hand, were barely even dressed properly, with many not even wearing shirts, let alone armor.

    “Lucky they’re only fighting bandits.”, muttered Sir Roger.

    It seemed Sir Andrew agreed, because he said, “Indeed.  They’d be torn apart by any professional army worth its salt.”

    Roland quickly silenced them with a look.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem that any of the tribesmen heard them.  The knights weren’t participating just for their own personal mission, but also to heal the broken alliance between the Bull Kingdom and the Brown Bear Tribe.

    Artorias and Leon were nowhere to be found, which Roland noted.  They had started the journey with the warriors, but seemed to disappear once no one was paying attention to them.  This disappointed Roland, as his desire to speak with Artorias had grown after hearing him speak with Chief Torfinn at the feast, and Roland had noticed that Artorias spoke with a different accent than Torfinn.  In fact, Artorias’ accent was closer to that of the people who lived on the Northern Plateau.

    Roland increased his walking speed a little, catching up to Torfinn.

    “Chief Torfinn, I would like to talk with you if it’s not too much trouble.”

    “Go ahead, knight.”

    “I know your name, as well as the names of your thanes, Asbjorn and Freyja, but I have yet to properly introduce myself to that man who sat next to you at the feast the other day.  I noticed him the first day we arrived in Vale Town, and have been eager to speak with him, but I haven’t had the opportunity.  I’d hoped to talk with him on the march, but he seems to have disappeared…”

    “Ah!  That man isn’t one of my thanes, rather, he’s my closest friend in the world.  Wraith-Killer, we call him.”

    “Wraith-Killer?  No other name than that?”

    “None to share with you.  He lives to the east, in a neighboring vale.  No one lives there, except for him and his son.  The place is infested with ice wraiths.  No one else would be able to live there, except for the Wraith-Killer.”

    “Do you, perhaps, know where he comes from?  If that eastern vale has no human life, then he can’t come from there, can he?”

    “...Why are you so curious about him?”

    Roland paused.  There wasn’t any compelling reason, he just couldn’t see through the power of this ‘Wraith-Killer’, and that piqued his interest.

    “Is there a problem with my curiosity?”

    “Not really, but my friend is a very private man.  He wouldn’t live so far away from even our little scrap of civilization if he weren’t.  If someone like you, someone I don’t know, starts asking questions, of course I would want to know why.”

    Roland smiled.  “This Wraith-Killer is lucky to have a friend like you.  Not everyone would be so protective.”

    Torfinn smiled back at Roland.  “I don’t know how it works down south, but life is hard here.  There aren’t many people around, and enemy raids are frequent.  We need to watch out for each other, while we still have each other.”

    Roland nodded and ‘hmm’-ed in approval. 

    “I like that mentality.  There’s far too many arrogant people born into power in the Kingdom, people who would do anything to retain their power, even throw their friends to the wolves.  Well, anyway, do you know when Wraith-Killer might be around again?  I’d like to speak with him face-to-face, if possible.”

    “Not sure.  I said that those two are private, but that doesn’t really do it justice.  They actively avoid crowds as much as they can.  They may have set off with us, but I doubt they’ll show themselves until we make camp for the night.”

    “Very good, I shall look for him then.”

    And with that, Roland drifted back and rejoined his knights.

    There wasn’t too much to be said about most of the journey that for the next two days, just walking seventy miles down a dirt road, occasionally passing a farming hamlet, and camping by the side of the road, heading for a small village about twelve miles away from the bandit fort.  By Torfinn’s estimation, they were to reach it just before dinner time of the second day.

    But, about five miles away, as the village was coming into view across the plains and farmland, Torfinn called a stop to the march.  The village was covered in thick black smoke, and even from their distance, most of the warriors second-tier and higher could see that most of the buildings were burned.

    “Spread out!” shouted Torfinn.  He then turned to Asbjorn, and said, “Grab ten first and two second-tier warriors and protect the wagons.

    It took less than a minute for the warriors to arrange themselves in a rough battle line about four men deep and wait for Torfinn’s signal.  Once he saw that everyone was ready, and that Asbjorn was with the supply wagons, he began running towards the village.

    The warriors followed, with Roland and his party just behind Torfinn and Freyja.

    There weren’t any sounds coming from the village apart from a few wooden beams that were still smoldering.  No cries for help, no clashing of blades, no sounds of life.

    The warriors were all very fit, and even the slowest could reach the village in less than half an hour, but Torfinn and the stronger warriors grew impatient, and took off. 

    The chief and his warriors of the third-tier and above reached the village in five minutes.  They scoured the village, something that didn’t take very long as the village was quite small, but found no living villager.  There were a few bodies, either charred or cut down with blades, but not enough to fill the village.

    “What the hell happened here!?”  Torfinn shouted in rage.

    Freyja ran over after the warriors had almost finished searching the houses.  “We found about two dozen bodies, not nearly everyone.  The food and silkgrass stores are completely empty.”

    “Two dozen?  This village had almost ten times that many.” Torfinn growled, clearly infuriated.

    Suddenly, the two heard a shout coming from nearby.  “Over here!”

    They responded with lightning speed, and when they arrived, they found Leon waving from a hovel near the edge of the village.  He directed them inside, and they saw Artorias crouching over a man covered in blood and pinned by a collapsed wall.

    “He’s still alive.”  Artorias said, not even needing to look up.

    Torfinn hurried forward.  “Is he conscious?”

    “No.”  Artorias had a few healing spells out, pressing the paper against the man’s injuries.  The wounds were slowly closing up, but he showed no signs of stirring.  “He might not wake.  He’s already lost a lot of blood.”

    Roland and Sir Roger had heard the shout as well, and arrived in the small house.  The two knight’s eyes widened when they saw the healing spells, but they kept quiet.

    Once the healing spells had been applied, Artorias easily lifted the entire wall up off the man, and Leon grabbed him and pulled him out of the house, laying him down on the ground just outside.

    Torfinn looked towards his friend with a somber look.  “Wraith-Killer, thank you.  Even if that man doesn’t live, thank you for trying.”

    “Don’t mention it, my friend.  This is only what a person ought to do, and needs no gratitude.”

    Torfinn called out to a few of the lower-tiered warriors who had finally arrived in the village, and they came and picked up the man, taking him towards the center of the village.  The plan was to stay in the village for the night, and proceed towards Harald Golden-Hair’s scout camp the following day, and the village in ruins wasn’t going to change that.  Even now, the warriors were clearing out the bodies, and cleaning up a few of the houses.

    “I have a suspicion that the smugglers have finally, truly, turned to banditry.  This was their doing, I’d bet my life on it.”  Torfinn said.  He looked around at the burned houses, then at the bodies in the center of the village.  “I’m going to kill them all for this.”

  • Chapter 21:  Recon


    “Freyja!”  Torfinn called out from the center of the village.  The woman looked up, she had been supervising a few of the warriors as they cleared a house of rubble to set up camp.

    “Torfinn?  Need something?”

    “Harald’s scout camp isn’t too far, maybe ten miles.  It would only take ten minutes or so to cover that at a full sprint, right?”  Freyja nodded in response.  “Good.  Get out there, grab Harald, bring him back here immediately.”

    “Sure thing!”  Freyja gave Torfinn a glowing smile, and then she took off.  The lower ranked warriors watched in awe as the fourth-tier woman really began to exert herself for the first time since the march began.  It showed them that the higher tiered warriors were greatly slowing themselves down for the sake of the rest of the war party.

    Asbjorn then walked up to Torfinn with a grim look.

    “We’ve got the final count of the dead.  Forty-nine.  All male, as far as we could tell.  No children, either.  This village held about one hundred and fifty, or so, as I recall, maybe a bit more, but everyone else is gone.”

    Torfinn sighed.  It was obvious who it was that did this.  There was no one else around except for the smugglers, and with their increasingly infrequent contact, fortifications, and expansions in the vale, it was clear that they were planning on staying a while.

    He glanced at the bodies.  They had been arranged around a large metal pyre in the center of the village.  Bodies were burned in the vales, and many villages had even gone to the extraordinary expense of building metal pyres that they would fill with wood when it needed to be used.  As with Valetown, the houses in the village were made of wood, so most of the rubble that the warriors were cleaning up was being used to fill the pyre.  The warriors were getting ready to send the dead villagers to the Sky Mother.

    Torfinn turned back to Asbjorn.  “There are a few other small villages in the area, but none that cultivate silkgrass.  I doubt they were hit, as they wouldn’t have anything the bandits would particularly want, but just in case, send a few third-tier warriors to check on them.”

    Asbjorn nodded and walked off.

    Next, Torfinn went to a neighboring house, where the survivor had been brought.  Artorias came outside just as Torfinn arrived, with Leon close behind.

    “He’s dead.”  Artorias wasn’t one to sugarcoat bad news.

    Torfinn clenched his fists in rage.  He was barely able to choke out a “How?”

    “My healing spells closed his wounds, but there was still too much blood loss, not to mention other internal injuries I’m sure were present.  It was a miracle he lived as long as he did.”

    Torfinn was almost shaking with anger.  Years ago, the rivals of the Brown Bear tribe, the Red Crows, had invaded their vale.  They raided villages, burning them to the ground, killing the men, and enslaving everyone else.  They stole everything not nailed down, and then moved on to the next village.  The Red Crows weren’t defeated until all the tribes of the vale had united behind the Brown Bears, behind Torfinn Ice-Eyes,

    But Torfinn’s own father and brother had been killed in the fighting, many of his people had been slaughtered and their homes destroyed.  And now, he had to see it again.  He would never forgive the ones who had inflicted such pain on his people, not even after he used his axe to split their skulls in half.

    Freyja really beat feet, because it took barely more than half an hour for her to return, with a short golden-haired man accompanying her.  This man had a stocky frame, and a smooth youthful face.  If anyone were to guess, they’d say he looked barely twenty years old by mortal standards, but he was already in his thirty-fifth year.

    Roland and his party had occupied a ruined house not far from Torfinn’s, but he didn’t notice Freyja’s return.  Ever since he saw Artorias’ healing spells, Roland had been lost in contemplation.  He increasingly felt that something was familiar about the man, but he just couldn’t place it.  Those spells were clearly first-aid spells from the Bull Kingdom, not the sort of things that tribesmen could easily get their hands on, and they would never use something so rare on a random farmer they didn’t know.  This ‘Wraith-Killer’ was probably from south of the Frozen Mountains, Roland was sure of it.

    “Harald!”  Torfinn called out as soon as he and Artorias saw his thane across the village square.

    “Chief!”

    Those shouts finally brought Roland back to reality, and he stepped outside to see what was going on.

    Torfinn and Artorias met Harald and Freyja in the center of the village and clasped each other’s wrists in a warrior’s handshake.  Torfinn, however, wasn’t looking very happy.  Not surprising, given that not even thirty feet away, a dozen bodies were burning in the pyre.

    “Tell me, Harald, was happened here?  Who did this?”

    “I think you know who did it, Chief.  Three days ago, those smugglers left their fort and came here to sack the village.  This was the village they had been buying silkgrass from, for the most part, so they knew where to find what they were looking for.  Fortunately, the rest of the villages around are Greenhand villages, growing potatoes and wheat, so they ought to be fine.”

    “Why didn’t you stop them?”  Torfinn demanded.

    “With just me and my six scouts?  They left their fort with over a hundred!  We would have been massacred, and the raid would still have happened.”

    Torfinn’s face grew red in anger, but he shut his mouth for a moment and suppressed it.  “…I know.  It’s good you’re still alive, at least.  Did you get a good count of the enemy?”

    “I got one hundred and nineteen, plus about fifty or sixty more that stayed behind their walls.  They’ve gotten quite comfy here, I even saw a guy whose power I couldn’t see through do something to the gate of their fort.  This definitely wasn’t the last raid they had planned, they’re busy fortifying their position even further.”

    Torfinn nodded, raising his hand to his chin, and stroked his beard as he thought.

    “What about the rest of the villagers?  Do you know where they are?”

    “They were rounded up by the southerners and brought back to their fort after they grabbed all the silkgrass.”  Harald’s tone

    “Hmmm…  Why would they do that?  They already had the silkgrass, why bother taking the villagers?”  Torfinn thought out loud.

    To that, Artorias stepped forward.  “They probably want to bring them back south as slaves.  I’m sure they intend to force the villagers to try and grow more silkgrass in the south.  That would prove to be a very lucrative business, assuming they can even get the stuff to grow.”

    For some reason, silkgrass doesn’t grow in the south.  There have always been a few merchants or nobles who give it a try every generation, but no one had ever been successful.

    Torfinn clenched his fists, grit his teeth, and had to fight off the urge to smash something in his anger.  But then, a thought occurred to him, and he very quickly calmed down.  He turned to Freyja, and smiled.

    “You’re in charge for now.  I’m going to the southerner’s fort, I want to see this place for myself.  Harald, you come with me.  Freyja, let Asbjorn know what’s going on when he comes back, I sent him to check on the other villages in the area.”  Out of the corner of his eye, Torfinn noticed Roland nearby, listening to the exchange, and called out to him.  “You’d better come with too, knight.”

    Roland nodded, and turned to Sir Roger, letting him know that he’d be in command for now.

    “I’ll come too.  I’m somewhat curious about this fort they’ve built.”  Artorias couldn’t resist.  His hand was on the hilt of his sword, and he was feeling restless.  For the past few weeks, he’d been lounging in Valetown, not doing much of anything.  Now that there was finally something to do, there was no way he’d be left behind.

    Leon frowned behind him.  He wasn’t too far away and could hear every word, and he was just as restless as Artorias.  Their life involved near constant movement, whether training or hunting, so he wasn’t doing too well from all the relaxing in Torfinn’s longhouse.  But, Artorias shook his head back at him.  This was going to just be a scout mission, and Leon was too weak to accompany them.

    The four men set off at a brisk pace.  Harald was the lowest-tiered mage among them, at the fourth-tier, so the others adjusted themselves to match him.  They caught sight of the bandit fort in slightly less than an hour, though.

    The square fort had been built into the side of a sheer cliff at the very edge of the vale.  There were three wooden walls, and a pair of watchtowers at the outside corners.  A large gate was set into one side, at the end of the only path up the mountain.  From the outside, the fort didn’t look all that big, so the scout group climbed quickly climbed another nearby mountain, and managed to get high enough to see down into the fort itself.

    Indeed, the inside of the fort wasn’t big enough for two hundred bandits and over a hundred prisoners, but the four saw a cave on the mountainside of the fort.  None could see too far into it, however.

    “This doesn’t look too bad.  We can definitely take them tomorrow.  Have the war party move up the mountain, bust down that flimsy-looking gate before they know what’s what, and then put down all the bandits we see.”  Harald smiled in anticipation, but Roland shook his head and Artorias merely gave a bitter smile.

    Artorias was the one who spoke up.  “It won’t be so easy.  That gate has been warded, I doubt even bringing a good strong battering ram would open it.  We’ll have to open it from the inside.”

    Harald looked back at Artorias, while his smile vanished.  “…Shit.”

    Torfinn looked thoughtful, but quickly decided on a course of action.

    “Look, their sentries aren’t all that attentive.  I doubt they even send out scouts, so we can probably get the war party to the base of the mountain and hide them in the tree line without them noticing.  Then, we have a few people climb those watchtowers, kill the sentries, and open the gate.  The war party will be able to enter without the alarm going off, and kill the bandits in their sleep.”

    Artorias approved of that plan.  “That should work, assuming no one makes too much noise.  They haven’t set up alarm wards at the top of the wall, so getting over won’t be a problem.  In fact, they seem to be rather lax in setting up defenses, the only other place above ground that has any is the mouth of the cave.  It only seems to be warded to scatter magic senses, though, so entering the cave ought to be ok.”

    “My knights and I can take one of those towers.  The rest of my party can accompany your warriors as they charge after we get the gates open.”  Roland finally spoke up.

    Torfinn looked at Harald, the only one who hadn’t said anything about his plan.  The thane simply smiled and nodded, so Torfinn nodded back.

    “Good.  Let’s head back to the village, make sure everyone knows the plan.”

    And with that, the group left, making their way back to the village, with Harald making a detour to grab his scouts and follow the next morning.  Excitement over the coming battle ran through them, and they picked up the pace on their way back.

    Asbjorn had returned before them.  Luckily, Harald was right and none of the other villages nearby had been raided.

    When Torfinn, Artorias, and Roland returned, Roland called his knights together while Asbjorn, Freyja, and the third-tier warriors gathered around them, waiting to hear the news.  Leon didn’t join the group, but remained where he could hear what was said.  Many of the other warriors also crowded around, listening to their chief.

    Torfinn cleared his throat and began to explain the plan.  “Alright, here’s what’s going to happen!  Asbjorn and Harald will lead you all tomorrow.  You will sneak up on the fort tomorrow night, while a select group goes over the walls.  That will be myself, Freyja, the knights, and Wraith-Killer,” Torfinn nodded to each one in turn.

    “After we take the bandit’s watchtowers, we’ll open the gate, everyone will charge into the fort, and KILL EVERY ONE OF THOSE BASTARDS!

    All of the surrounding warriors gave a great cry, raising their weapons into the air.   “YYEEEAAAAHHHH!!!!!”


  • Chapter 22:  The Raid I


    Few could sleep that night.  Torfinn had gotten the warriors worked up, and it took several hours for them to calm down.  But, they did eventually get some rest, and the war party set off early the next morning.

    It took until afternoon for the warriors to approach the bandit’s mountain, their progress slowed only when they entered the forest in the south of the vale.  Harald and his scouts met up with the warriors on the way, and the war party didn’t stop again until they were only about a mile down the mountain slope from the bandit fort.

    Now, they simply had to rest and wait.  The warriors caught up on the sleep they missed the night before and watched the sun sink towards the horizon.

    After the sun went down, the war party began to stir and limber up for the battle to come.  They waited until night had truly fallen before setting out.  Hiding two hundred undisciplined warriors is a tall order, but Torfinn, his thanes, and the third-tier warriors managed to keep the noise to a minimum.

    Fortunately, Torfinn had been right when he observed that the sentries the bandits posted weren’t attentive, because the war party made it all the way to where they were to wait several hundred feet from the tree line without the bandits getting so much as a glimpse of them.  Before them lay the rocky slope of the mountain, steadily getting steeper as it rose towards the peak.  The fort wasn’t too far up, only a couple hundred feet or so, an easy climb for the stronger mages.

    The leaders all met one last time at the center of the war party’s line to confirm details of the plan.  It was decided that Artorias, Torfinn, Freyja, and Leon would attack the tower on the left, while Roland, his three knights, and their squires would attack the other.  Asbjorn and Harald waited with the war party, preparing to take a few dozen men and charge the only path up the slope when the forts gate opened.

    Right before the groups separated, Artorias looked to his son.  “Are you ready, little lion?  Feeling nervous at all?”

    Leon didn’t say anything back, he only smiled and sent out some of his killing intent.

    Artorias smiled.  “Good.”

    It wasn’t a hard climb up the slope.  At first, they simply had to stay low and walk over the rocks.  They didn’t have to be too careful, as the sentries in the tower were more concerned with staying awake than keeping watch.  As the slope grew steeper, however, they had to begin crawling on all fours, but this allowed them to stay even closer to the ground.

    Artorias was the first to reach the walls.  There was a thin strip of flat land between the wall and the top of the slope, maybe five or six feet wide, which Artorias noted was too smooth to be natural.  He frowned, as the land the fort was built on had probably been flattened by an earth mage, as the expense of having magical engineers do the same would not be worth it this far outside of civilization.  The earth mage who did it must be strong.

    Roland reached the walls next, on the other side of the fort, closely followed by the rest of the group.  He and his knights silently drew their weapons, a sword for Roland, a spear for Dame Sheira, Sir Andrew had his battle-axe, and Sir Roger had a pair of daggers.  Normally, Sir Roger would use a mace, but he was trying to be quiet, so he went for smaller weapons, though he still carried his mace in a sling on his back.  The squires each had one-handed swords, but they stayed in their sheathes for now.  They were here largely to watch and learn from the knights.

    Torfinn’s group also drew their weapons.  Artorias had his longsword, Leon had his bow, Freyja had a short sword and a shield, and Torfinn himself carried a hatchet and a dagger, with a longer axe strapped to his back.

    Leon watched the three others in his group make their final quick preparations.  His role was essentially the same as the squires, to watch and learn.

    One of the sentries in the tower yawned, and began walking around in the tower, while the other four no longer bothered to pretend to be alert, and broke out a pack of cards.  The restless sentry had felt a slight chill run down his spine, and decided to glance down the slope.  He was greeted with the sight of Torfinn’s group staring back at him.

    The sentry’s eyes widened in alarm and his heart skipped a beat, but he still groped for the sword at his belt and he sucked in a breath to shout to the others.  Leon reacted fast, and loosed an arrow.  The other four sentries in the tower only saw the other man stiffen, before falling forward over the wall.  As they all stared in shock, Artorias, Torfinn, and Freyja had leaped up the twenty-foot-high wall with ease, and in less than a heartbeat, made each sentry shorter by a head.

    This was all done in silence.  Artorias glanced at the other tower and saw that Roland and the knights had already seized it, and were helping the squires up the wall.  Artorias walked back to wall, and extended a hand down to Leon.  Leon, like the squires, was still only a second-tier mage, so while he could jump just high enough to climb into the tower, it wouldn’t be so smooth and silent as the others.  He quickly jumped, grabbing his father’s hand, and was pulled into the tower.

    Artorias smiled at Leon in approval.  His son had gotten the first kill of the night!  The knights and Valemen dropped down from the towers, but Artorias took the time to relieve one of the dead bandits of his sword, and handed it to Leon.  The younger man had never owned a proper sword before, and though the blade was made of poor-quality steel, it was still a far sight better than anything they would find in the vale market.

    Leon’s eyes widened, and a huge smile broke out onto his face.  Artorias patted his son on the shoulder, but then turned and rejoined Torfinn on the ground.  Leon quickly collected himself and followed suit.

    The two groups began making their way towards the gate.  The interior of the fort had half a dozen buildings, each big enough to house thirty or forty people.  The knights and tribesmen were tempted to spread their magic senses out over the fort, but the stronger mages among the bandits might be able to notice it if they weren’t careful, so they had decided to rely on their physical senses until the rest of the war party was through the gates.

    Unlike the towers, which had five men apiece, the gate was guarded by only three men, and they were about as attentive as the tower sentries.  They didn’t notice the trespassers jumping down from the tower, or regrouping behind the closest building to the gate.

    Once the two groups linked up, Torfinn, Freyja, and Roland surged out from behind the building, crossed the open area in a flash, and killed the gate guards before they even knew what was happening.

    The gate itself was the only part of the wall that the bandits had bothered to ward against attacks, so Artorias and Sir Andrew immediately went about removing them so the gate could be opened.  It wasn’t too difficult, as the wards were fairly minor, but they still locked the gate too tightly to open without alerting the entire fort.

    While those two were working, everyone else spread out around the open area surrounding the gate.  They sidled up to the buildings, keeping an eye on the gaps and doors, and nearby entrance to the cave.  Only Leon and Kevin, Sir Andrew’s squire, stayed with the two opening the gate.

    The glyphs making up the wards were each made of several connected runes, so to destroy the ward, each rune had to be scratched out or otherwise destroyed, something Artorias estimated to only need a minute or two.

    While Artorias and Sir Andrew were busy taking a knife to the runes, one of the doors of the buildings opened, and a sleepy bandit half walked and half stumbled out, with a pipe in one hand and a pouch of leaves in the other.  He stepped out into the fort’s open area, and was greeted by the sight of the infiltration team. 

    The bandit froze, and looked around.  He was completely surrounded, and all eyes were on him.  Freyja made to sneak up on him and cut his throat, but she didn’t move fast enough.  The pipe dropped from his hand, and he was about to shout and raise the alarm, but seeing Freyja was too far away from him, Leon immediately silenced him with an arrow to the throat.  The man made a few gurgling noises, then collapsed.

    Unfortunately, someone inside the building heard him fall, and the door opened again.

    “Hey Damien, are you alr- shit!”  Another man had poked his head out of the door, and seeing the dead bandit, he swore and ducked back inside.  Then, he began to shout.

    “EVERBODY, GET UP!  WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!  EVERYBODY UP!”

    There was some confusion at first, but in seconds there came more shouting from the buildings, along with the sounds of a large number of bandits rising and arming themselves.

    Artorias and Sir Andrew were only about halfway through breaking the wards by this point.  They simply looked at each other, then began channeling their magic.  The others regrouped nearer to the gate, and prepared themselves to hold the gate.

    Artorias then sent much of his power into his arms, and threw himself against the gate.  The wood splintered, and the planks bent and cracked, but the gate just barely held.  The remaining wards glowed bright as they struggled to hold the gate together, but Sir Andrew then did the same as Artorias, and threw himself against the gate with a loud thud.  Again, the gate shook and cracked, but it held.

    The light of the glowing wards grew a bit dimmer, and Artorias attacked the gate again.  The hinges of the door were torn from the wall, and the gate came crashing down, hitting the ground with a huge crash that could wake sleeping mountain giants.

    The war party in the tree line several hundred feet down the mountain saw the gate come down, and began charging up the mountain, with Asbjorn, Harald, and the men-at-arms front and center.

    By now, the bandits were pouring out of their barracks buildings, and the infiltration party found themselves surrounded on three sides, with their backs against the now open gate.

    Leon was firing his arrows into the crowd, while the rest of the team hurled themselves into the bandits.  They abandoned all subtlety and began using their magic in earnest.  Freyja and the squires weren’t strong enough mages to call upon anything more than body enhancement magic, but Torfinn and the knights began unleashing their own power.

    Torfinn and Sir Andrew were earth mages, and their skin hardened into stone while the ground shook beneath them.  Their strength was raised a great deal in that state, and they barreled into the bandits like rolling boulders over grass.

    Dame Sheira was an ice mage, and she conjured three large ice spikes that thrust out alongside her spear, impaling any unfortunate bandit she saw. 

    Sir Roger put away his daggers and drew his mace.  He was a fire mage, and the head of the mace became wreathed in flame.  There was a small fiery explosion every time he slammed the mace into one of the bandits, and they would erupt into a pillar of fire, while screaming and flailing.

    Sir Roland was a light mage, and with every swing of his sword, he would emit a bright beam that would slice clean through several bandits before dissipating.

    Artorias was the only one strong enough to use his magic who didn’t call upon it.  He simply used his vastly superior speed and strength to cleave through handfuls of bandits at a time.

    This was a horrifying sight for the bandits.  They were being cut down, burned alive, impaled on ice, and crushed in droves, and as if to compound their terror, the rest of the war party had reached the fort.  The warriors and men-at-arms poured through the open gates and filled in the gaps between the infiltration team.  Even more warriors had taken to climbing over the walls rather than bunch up at the gate, and though they were comparatively few, the bandits found themselves being surrounded.

    “What the hell is going on out here?!”  A booming voice was heard from the cave at the back of the fort.  Eight more men ran outside from the cave, but these were no ordinary bandits.  These were clearly the leaders, as they had significantly more expensive looking clothes, while one man was even wearing a pair of ornate golden rings, each set with a large ruby that gently pulsed with a magical light.  All but three of these men were fourth-tier mages, while the man with the ruby rings and the two at his side were of the fifth-tier.

    Seeing the chaos, they immediately drew their swords and jumped into the fray.  They were closely followed by a seemingly endless flood of more bandits rushing out of the cave to reinforce their comrades.

    Three of the fourth-tier bandits charged at the three thanes, tying them down and preventing them from continuing their slaughter.  The other two challenged Sir Andrew, while two of the fifth-tier bandits went after Dame Sheira and Sir Roger.  This left the bandit leader, the man with the ruby rings.  He didn’t attack anyone specific, he simply threw himself into the melee and began hacking away at the Valemen.

    With a few swings of his sword, the bandit leader caused large rock spikes to erupt from the ground, impaling many of the warriors.  He then caught sight of two of the men-at-arms, fighting side-by-side against the bandits.  He smiled, and crossed the thirty feet between them with a single leap.  He swung his sword once more, and nearly split both in half, killing them instantly.

    Suddenly, he quickly side-stepped, just as Torfinn’s axe was about to come down on his head.  Torfinn smashed into the ground, and glared at the bandit leader.  The leader smiled at him, and swung his sword, causing more rock spikes to shoot up from the ground, but they shattered once they hit Torfinn’s hardened skin.

    With all the leaders engaged in battle, the warriors and bandits did their best to keep their distance, but the battle still raged between the barracks buildings.  The battle lines blurred, and the fort became a chaotic melee of whirling blades and spilt blood.  The bandits had numbers on their side, as more just kept coming from the cave, but the warriors still had Artorias, Roland, Leon, and the squires.


  • Chapter 23:  The Raid II


    Artorias smiled, surrounded by corpses.  The bandits had made a ring around him, with none willing to attack.  It didn’t take long for them to realize that he was far beyond any of them, and to engage him in battle would be tantamount to suicide.

    One bandit, a little slower in the head than the rest, rushed out from behind Artorias.  The mage turned into a blur, and returned to his previous position before any of the others could react, and the attacking bandit hardly even realized he was dead as his severed head fell to the ground.

    The squires were fighting side-by-side, trying to maintain something akin to battle lines even as the warriors charged into the mass of bandits that had only just now finished spewing out of the cave.  A group of bandits threw themselves at the squires, but quick sword work forced them back and even left two dead.

    One bandit, a second-tier mage, ran forward.  He swung his sword at Victoria, aiming for her throat, but Victoria was saved by her quick reflexes as she just barely managed to block.  She rotated her wrist, spinning the bandit’s blade away from her, while Luke took advantage of the opening and thrust his own sword deep into the bandit’s stomach.  The man fell, but the rest of the bandits attacked again.

    Kevin and John were holding their own, and Luke and Victoria worked together flawlessly, covering each other and watching each other’s back.  But, as the bandits pushed, the two pairs began to be separated, and the bandits moved to surround them.  Luke deflected a spear thrust towards his chest, but a bandit to his side hacked at his exposed arm.

    Luke grit his teeth and braced for the pain.  He didn’t think this bandit would be able to completely chop off his arm, since the bandit didn’t seem to be stronger than a first-tier mage, but he would most definitely do some heavy damage.  Luke heard a whistling sound for a split second, and an arrow buried itself in the bandit’s chest, piercing clean through to the heart.  The bandit’s sword strike never landed, and he fell, dead before he hit the ground.

    Luke couldn’t turn to see who had fired the arrow, there were too many bandits around for him to divert his attention, but he thought he knew who fired it.  His suspicions were confirmed as Leon ran over, sword in hand, and hurled himself against the bandits between the squires.

    Killing that bandit had taken Leon’s last arrow, so he had slung his bow and ran over to fill the widening gap between Luke on the right and John on the left.  Artorias had taught Leon to never hold back, so Leon swung his sword with all the force he could muster.  The bandit on the receiving end of the blow tried to block, but his own sword was knocked out of his hand and Leon’s blade fell down upon him.  The blade sunk into his shoulder and nearly came all the way down to his heart.

    “Yeah!”  Luke shouted as he saw Leon’s first strike.  “Thanks for that!”

    But Leon just smiled and continued attacking the bandits.  With him closing the gap and providing some support, the squires regained their footing and stopped being forced back, and held against the tide of bandits crashing down upon them.

    Not far away, Dame Sheira and Sir Roger were fighting side-by-side against their opponents.  They were fighting with the two fifth-tier bandits who had come from the cave, and both proved to be tricky opponents.

    Dame Sheira was unable to continue launching her ice spikes, as the warriors were mixing together with the bandits as they fought, and any miss of hers could hit an ally.  Her opponent took advantage of this, along with the vastly increased speed that came with being a wind mage, and danced circles around her.  She was unable to do much of anything, except block against his vicious attacks.

    Sir Roger was faring a little better, even getting in a few hits, but his bandit was a fire mage just like he was, so his fiery mace had little effect.  As the two continuously exchanged blows, their only thoughts were ‘this is going to be an endurance match, the one who runs low on magic first will lose’.

    But this wasn’t going to be an endurance match.  The bandit threw a small fire ball at Sir Roger, trying to distract him enough to inflict a little damage with his sword.  Sir Roger blocked the fire ball with a swing of his mace, following through and hitting the ground, creating a small explosion that threw the bandit back.  As the bandit tried to recover his footing, he saw a blinding flash of light in the corner of his eye, and everything went dark.

    Roland had turned his attention away from the mass of bandits and fired a beam of light from his sword at the bandit, piercing straight through his eye and vaporizing the bandit’s brain.  Sir Roger was briefly stunned, as he had been about to take advantage of the bandit’s loss of footing, but quickly recovered.  He turned and nodded to Roland, as the paladin sliced through three more bandits and ran over.

    Together, the two joined Dame Sheira.  Just before this, the lady knight had thrust her spear into the ground, a foolish move that would all but disarm anyone else, but Dame Sheira knew what she was doing.  The wind mage she was fighting was too fast, and he was starting to get a read on her movements, as she felt the air was starting to vibrate and throw off her defense.  Her only option now was to use her magic in a different way.

    The bandit saw her thrusting the spear into the ground, and lunged forward, aiming for Dame Sheira’s throat.  Just as he got within range, he felt his foot slip when it hit the ground, and he ended up sliding forward and falling flat onto a layer of ice emanating from the spear tip.  Dame Sheira smiled at him, and raised her spear, not wasting a second before thrusting into the bandit’s chest.

    “Good work!  Now go help the others!”  shouted Roland.

    The knights nodded, and Sir Roger moved to assist Sir Andrew, while Dame Sheira left to support the thanes.  The two fourth-tier mages were just barely enough to tie down Sir Andrew, but with Sir Roger reinforcing him, the bandits were quickly overpowered and killed.  Likewise, the three other fourth-tier bandits were a match for the three fourth-tier thanes, but as Dame Sheira arrived, the balance quickly tipped in favor of the warriors.

    “You damn barbarians!”  shouted the bandit leader.  He swung his sword in a vertical slash, and when it hit the ground, a row of rock spikes began erupting from the ground.  Torfinn easily dodged them, but the warriors behind him were not so lucky.  Three warriors were killed, while five more were injured.

    Torfinn grit his teeth in rage and held his axe so tight that his stony knuckles turned white.  He roared, and charged at the bandit leader.  He swung his axe with as much force as he could muster, but the bandit leader ducked and weaved around them, striking at Torfinn’s exposed stomach as he did so.  Fortunately, Torfinn’s rock armor was barely even scratched, and he kept swinging.

    Most of the benefits of earth magic were greatly increased strength, at the cost of speed, but the bandit leader seemed to buck this trend.  Torfinn swung again and again, but he hit nothing but air.  The bandit leader, for his part, took every opportunity to hit Torfinn.  The calves, shoulders, an exposed elbow when Torfinn overswung, he missed none of them.  But every time, he would only chip off a little bit of rock, and Torfinn would keep swinging.

    Torfinn’s fighting style left few true openings for the bandit leader to exploit, with only his rocky armor exposed, which left the bandit increasingly frustrated.  He could also see his allies being cut down one by one, which had him feeling desperate to finish off Torfinn quickly.

    “I’ll kill you!”  Torfinn shouted, his killing intent soaring, even to the point of making many of the weaker bandits in his vicinity queasy.  The warriors didn’t miss a beat, cutting down the bandits in their moment of weakness, but the bandit leader was unaffected. 

    Torfinn raised his axe, and swung downwards at him, putting every ounce of his prodigious strength behind it.  The bandit leader wasn’t stupid enough to take that hit, and jumped back as fast as he could.  The axe passed by his face so close it shaved off a few of his hairs, but the bandit leader had just barely made it.  The axe hit the ground, and large cracks spread out like a spider web.

    He took a few more steps back, then made a risky move.  He dropped down low, placing his free hand on the ground.  Torfinn, in his rage, continued moving forward, intent on pressing the bandit leader, when small rock spikes suddenly shot out from the ground, aimed at Torfinn’s leg.  They weren’t meant to do any real damage to the tribal chief, and their sharp points even shattered when trying to impale Torfinn’s leg, but they trapped his foot just as Torfinn was taking a step.  The chief fell, just barely catching himself before his face hit the ground.

    The bandit leader wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, and kicked Torfinn down just as he was trying to rise.  He raised his sword above Torfinn, preparing to put all of his weight behind it, and drive it into the back of Torfinn’s skull, when a bright light illuminated everything behind him.

    This light was Roland’s sword, shining like a hundred magic street lanterns.  The paladin had moved to assist Torfinn just as the chief ran into trouble, and arrived just in time.  The bandit leader didn’t even have time to bring his sword down before Roland’s bright blade removed both of his arms, only leaving a pair of slightly smoking stumps.

    The bandit leader fell, screaming in pain.  Torfinn immediately wrenched his foot free of the rock spikes holding it down, and grabbed his axe.  He raised it above him, and brought it down upon the bandit leader’s head so hard that the ground beneath it shattered.

    By now, the bandits were thoroughly demoralized, and with their strongest fighter’s dead, they were quickly finished off.  It took a few minutes of clean-up, but the entire open-air portion of the fort was completely secured.

    There wasn’t a single warrior without a bloodied weapon, and many were already thinking about how to describe their glorious victory.

    Leon and the squire’s performance during the battle was equally glorious.  They had killed half a dozen bandits apiece, and were surrounded by the proof.  The knights and thanes had cut clean through the bandits after the leaders were killed, and the warriors had wrapped things up from there, surrounding and pushing the bandits into a tight group that they dispatched quite quickly.

    But none were as astonishing as Artorias.  He was standing amid a pile of about two to three dozen dead bandits, with not a single hair out of place, smiling serenely like he was out on a stroll through a summer meadow.

    But despite the fighting dying down, the job wasn’t done.  Two of Dame Sheira’s men-at-arms went and secured the entrance to the cave, while Roland examined the runes carved into it.  After determining that they only scattered magic senses and didn’t have any dangerous function, Roland ordered the men-at-arms to follow him in taking the cave.  They were followed by Torfinn, his thanes, and half a dozen third-tier warriors.

    Everyone was on high alert, they didn’t know what was in the cave and weren’t too keen on being ambushed.  Fortunately, nothing jumped out at them, and after a short walk, they found themselves in a large well-lit and furnished cavern.  There were couches, tables, chairs, dressers, carpets on the floor, and a multitude of magic lanterns illuminating the place. 

    The group quickly determined that there weren’t any more bandits hiding in there, and moved on to the doors.  There were three on one side, and three more on the opposite.  The three on the right side were just the bedrooms for the bandit leaders, with little of not within.  The other three, however, were a much different story.

    One opened into another large cavern, filled with food and large crates packed full of raw silkgrass.  This was presumably the loot that had been taken from the raided village.  Another opened onto the largest cavern yet, with the space and furniture to fit over three hundred bandits, though it was clear that all the bunks weren’t being used.  The last door led to a long flight of stairs, descending further into the mountain.  While the third-tier warriors secured the living quarters, Roland, Torfinn, and the thanes followed the stairs.

    At the end, they found twenty large prison cells, full of frightened tribesmen.  They had been kept in near perpetual darkness for several days now, so they recoiled back when the door opened, and squinted as light from the stairway flooded into the prison.

    The knights and warriors stared in shock for a moment, before immediately rushing to open the cell doors.  When the doors were opened, the tribesmen continued to shrink back in fear, until one older man’s eyes finally grew accustomed to the light, and he could see the warriors.

    “Chief Torfinn?  Is that you?”

    “Yes, yes it is.”  Torfinn didn’t know the man’s name, but he quickly came forward to help him to his feet.

    As the old man got a better look at Torfinn, he allowed himself to believe his eyes, and started crying in joy. 

    “Everyone!  The Brown Bear warriors came for us!”

    With that, the frightened tribesmen relaxed, and allowed the warriors to lead them out of their cells.  As the knowledge that they were now safe sank in, they too began to cry, some in joy at being rescued, and some in sorrow at remembering everyone killed when the bandits attacked their village.

    Torfinn walked up to Roland, who was helping the last of the villagers out of the cells.  He had a serious look in his eye, and what he said shocked Roland.

    “I’d like to apologize to you, knight.  When you arrived in Valetown, I was quite rude to you, as were my people.  If it weren’t for you, not only would I probably not have rescued my people, but those fifth-tier warriors the bandits had would have killed the entire war party.”  Torfinn pulled Roland into a brief hug, but didn’t release Roland’s shoulders after it was over.

    “You saved my life during the battle.  You have proven yourself to be a friend to the Brown Bear Tribe.”  Torfinn pulled Roland into another brief hug before finally releasing the paladin.  “We’re going to escort these villagers back to their homes, then the war party will return to Vale Town.  When we return, I’ll fulfill my side of the bargain, and provide you with a guide to the Heartwood Trees you seek.”

  • Chapter 24:  The Guide


    Torfinn’s abject gratitude left Roland feeling awkward and searching for words.

    “Thank you… I only did what anyone would have done… There’s no need for apologies…”  Roland just rattled off a series of humble words, until Torfinn waved his hand and cut him off.

    “Come!  Let’s go see what can be looted from the bandits!”  Torfinn decided to just cut things off there, letting Roland relax a little.

    Back in the main living space of the bandit cave, Roland found an anxious Luke.

    “Sir Roland!  Dame Sheira found a noble insignia among the things of those fifth-tier bandits!”

    What?  Where is she?”

    Luke led Roland and Torfinn, who had just come up the stairs with Roland, into the bandit leader’s room, where Dame Sheira was waiting.  There were no words that needed to be said, she simply gestured at a nearby table, where a number of things like shirts, tabards, a decorative shield, and a small banner could be seen. 

    Roland rushed over to examine them.  They all followed the same color scheme, dark red with a prominent design of an orange four petaled flower.  Roland knew who this sigil signified.  He carefully looked over each item to be sure, then muttered, “Marquis Grandison…”

    “Who’s that?”  asked Torfinn from behind him.

    “A landed noble just on the other side of the Frozen Mountains.  If these bandits had their hands on his sigil, then that means they were likely knights in his service.”  Roland frowned.

    Fortunately, Torfinn didn’t seem particularly angry.  The bandits were dead, and that was what counted, for now at least. 

    “I won’t make that big a deal out of this, knight, on one condition.”

    “Name it.”

    “When you return south, you bring justice to this ‘Grandison’.”

    “Of course.  I will report his activities to those with the power to sanction him.  My kingdom considers your tribe to be a friend, and his hostile actions against the king’s friends will not be tolerated.”

    “… I suppose that’s the best I’m going to get, isn’t it?”  Torfinn sighed.  Well, the bandits were gone, and the pass they used to come north would be easily sealed by a few mountain scouts causing some avalanches.  There were more immediate problems in the west of the vale, so it was best to just leave it at that.

    Torfinn and the knights left the cave.  The warriors were relaxing and celebrating their victory, but the villagers weren’t so happy.  It was true that they had been saved, but almost every adult man had been killed when the bandits raided their village, so things were going to be hard for a while.

    Roland and the knights went to relax, but were pulled into the modest victory celebrations with the warriors, joining the men-at-arms who had already been dragged over.  Sir Roger was the only exception, as he was busy tending to the bodies of the two fallen men-at-arms, as both had been his.  He made a crude sleigh, like what Artorias and Leon used to carry their furs, and lifted the two bodies onto it.

    Torfinn, meanwhile, spoke to the village elder, promising that all the food and silkgrass that the bandits had looted would be returned.  A brief inventory taken by Harald indicated that there would plenty of loot left over afterwards, so Torfinn wasn’t worried about feeding his war party after the few supplies they brought with had been used.

    “Freyja!”  The warriors had collected the bodies, and a few were busy burning them.  Freyja was supervising them, but when she heard Torfinn’s call, she quickly ran over.

    Torfinn watched as the fire slowly spread over the bodies of his warriors for a moment, before turning to Freyja.  “How many did we lose?”

    “Seventy-two.  But the Thunderbirds now lead them to the Sky Mother atop three hundred and ninety-five slain bandits.”

     “They feast with their ancestors tonight.  As for us, let’s rest a little for the rest of the night, and get going by morning.  I want to bring the villagers home by midday, and then we hurry back to Vale Town.  I doubt Hakon Fire-Beard has made a move in the three days we’ve been gone, but we still ought to return as soon as possible.”

    “Right.  We’ll get to it.”

    By now, the moon had reached its zenith and was beginning its descent.  The warriors were quite tired, having stayed awake for so long, so the victory celebrations died down after less than an hour, as everyone fell asleep.

    Roland was one of the last to close his eyes, as he was looking for Artorias, but it seemed that the man and his son had disappeared after the battle.  Even the squires didn’t even notice when Leon had left, and he had been right next to them during the battle.

    Roland simply sighed, and decided to give up trying to talk with Artorias, as the man clearly didn’t want to talk to anyone else.  The paladin lay down next to his knights, and allowed himself to drift off into sleep.

    But Artorias and Leon weren’t too far away.  They had left the fort, and were now in the nearby forest, resting among the trees.  If anyone wanted to look for them, it wouldn’t have been too difficult, as they even had a small fire burning, to stave off the nighttime chill that descends upon the Northern Vales.

    “You fought admirably, little lion.  I couldn’t be more proud.”  Artorias beamed at his son, while Leon grew bright red from embarrassment, as he had never been able to take compliments very well.

    “Thanks, Dad.”

    “How do you feel about it?  Your first battle, I mean.”

    Leon calmed down, and his face shifted from pure embarrassment to a more subdued smile.

    “… It was exhilarating.  I was scared the whole time, and my heart nearly leapt out my chest from how fast it was beating, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so… I don’t know, it’s hard to describe.”

    “I understand.  After my first battle, I was so amped up that I could hardly sit still for the next week.  It wasn’t even that large a thing, either, just a few of my father’s knights and myself, facing down two dozen highwaymen.  I think you even killed more bandits today than I did back then.”

    “Oh?  How long ago was that?”

    “About seventeen or eighteen years ago, I think.  I wasn’t too much older than you, at the time.  In fact, after it was over, the man I was squiring for knighted me, and I left the Great Plateau not too long after that…  Anyways, you did a fantastic job.  You even fought alongside those squires!  You’ve definitely earned that sword.”  Artorias glanced at the sword that Leon still held, and the younger man held it a little closer with a proud smile on his face.

    The two settled in for the rest of the night, and left late in the morning.  They woke up when the war party marched down the path alongside the villagers, but didn’t start along the journey until after they had some good breakfast.  It would take the war party three more days or so before they would return to Vale Town, but the two of them could move much faster without the first-tier and below warriors that Torfinn had with him, so they weren’t going to rush.

    When they did finally start moving, they left at a brisk pace, reaching the village not long after the war party, but they didn’t stay.  Instead, they continued onward, and arrived at a large hill a few miles away from Vale Town by the end of the day.  They waited there for two days, spending those days training and meditating, until they could see the war party on the horizon.

    Artorias nodded his head towards the returning warriors, and once Leon was ready, they left the hill without saying a word.

    The warriors returned to Vale Town, and the entire city succumbed to the celebratory attitude and was partying by the evening.  Even the priests came out of their temples to celebrate with the chief.

    Torfinn had organized a small feast for the best of his warriors, and had begun giving out rewards for the warriors who distinguished themselves in the battle.  Of course, Artorias and Leon were nowhere to be seen, as parties weren’t their thing, but Torfinn didn’t mind, he’d already spoken to Artorias for a few minutes after arriving at his longhouse.  Roland’s party was present, however, and were even drinking with the warriors, a far cry from just a week ago when everything had been done to make them feel unwelcome.

    In a rare moment, Torfinn had decided to break out his big chair, and sat in a small raised alcove that was usually blocked from view by a thin curtain.  He didn’t much like sitting so far from his warriors, as celebrating with them couldn’t be done when he separated himself, but doling out rewards demands a certain etiquette that he didn’t want to break.

    “Niklas!  Come forward!”  Torfinn’s booming voice was heard even over the drunk merchants and rowdy warriors.  In response, one of the drunkest and rowdiest of the warriors came forward, stopping before Torfinn.

    “You killed over fifteen of those bandits, this merits a great reward!”  The watching warriors shouted and roared in approval, while the merchants and priests clapped and stamped their feet. 

    Torfinn reached into a box right beside his chair, and pulled out a metal band.  “I give you this, an enchanted iron arm ring I found in the bandit cave.  I had those knights take a look at it, and it seems that this thing can slightly amplify the magic flowing through your arm, strengthening the effect of that magic.”  Torfinn held out the arm ring, and Niklas gratefully accepted it, to the applause of the rest of the crowd.  He quickly rejoined his fellows after thanking the chief.

    Torfinn looked directly at Roland, and waved him over.  “Now, then, Sir Knight, you come forward.”

    Roland looked a little hesitant, but came forward anyway.

    “I must give you a reward for your assistance in dealing with those bandits.  Tell me, what can I do for you?”

    Roland gave the chief a smile, and a curt reply.  “Your friendship, and that guide you promised is all the reward necessary.”

    “Nonsense!  I must give you something, or what would my warriors think of me?”  Torfinn smiled down at Roland, and the warriors around the hall began stomping their feet and making noise, supporting Torfinn rewarding Roland and his party.

    Roland looked back at his knights, and they all smiled and nodded at him.  “Very well, Chief Torfinn, if you insist, then perhaps a couple bundles of silkgrass?”

    Torfinn laughed uproariously, as did most of the hall.  “A couple?  I’ll give each of your people three large bundles, how about that?”

    Roland sighed.  He truly didn’t want a reward, he only wanted to find some Heartwood amber. 

    “You’re too kind.”

    “As for your guide, I’ve already spoken to him.  He’ll be heading east tomorrow morning, so wait at the temple on the largest hill in that direction, and he’ll meet you there a couple hours after dawn.  I wouldn’t delay too long in getting there, either, as this man won’t wait too long for you.”

    Only now did Roland feel some joy.  A relieved expression broke out on his face, and he stepped back from Torfinn.  The entire rest of the hall had gone silent when Torfinn brought up their guide and where he would be taking them, however Roland didn’t seem to notice.

    After Roland rejoined his party at their table, Torfinn continued handing out rewards.

    “Freyja!  Asbjorn!  Come forward!  I give each of you one of these ruby rings from the bandit leader.  They supposedly store magic, supplementing your own magic reserves in battle…”

    ---

    Roland and his party rose at dawn.  Torfinn graciously accepted their request to have someone watch over the bodies of their two comrades who fell during the battle, so there were a few warriors around the storehouse as they left.

    “Sir, the chief didn’t ever tell you where this guide would be taking us, did he?”  Luke had taken note of the reactions of the tribesmen the previous night.  He noticed their tightening faces and their slightly fearful looks.

    “Nothing specific, he only said ‘east’.”

    “Hmmm.  Those tribesmen were acting odd when he told you where to meet the guide.  I’ve just got a bad feeling about this…”

    Roland frowned, and looked pensive for a moment.

    “Hey, this guy isn’t losing his nerve, is he?”  Adrianos, the noble man-at-arms, asked from behind with a playful tone.

    “What?  No, I’m just a little put off by their behavior.”  Luke hurriedly defended himself.

    “Don’t worry, boy.  We’ll get this done and be back south in proper civilization in no time.”  Adrianos threw his arm around Luke’s shoulders, and pulled back with the other men-at-arms.

    Luke’s words weren’t easily dismissed from Roland’s mind, though.  He didn’t pay much attention to the other warriors in the hall, but Luke was quite perceptive, and he wouldn’t exaggerate these things.  If he felt the need to speak up, then he must really be feeling apprehensive.

    But, Roland was a paladin, and he had a job to do.  He would trust that Torfinn was above board for now, and if anything too shady happened, they would return to Vale Town and have words with the chief.

    There was a cluster of hills just to the east of Vale Town, and on the largest the tribesmen had built a small temple of stone.  It had a roof open to the sky, and was filled with various carved statues, most of legendary warriors, but there was one in the back of the temple, directly next to the sacrificial altar.  This statue wasn’t as large as the others, but it was far more intricately carved.  It was of a large bird taking flight with a horned serpent in its talons.  Every scale and feather was visible, and Roland couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of detail put into this statue.  Nothing else in the temple was particularly noteworthy to the party, as they had all seen so much more in the south, but this statue was almost lifelike, and it captivated Roland.

    The temple was empty when they arrived.  Roland surmised that the promised guide simply hadn’t arrived yet, so he spent his time admiring this bird statue.  It wasn’t obvious to him what the bird was, but it was clearly of importance to the tribesmen given its workmanship and place of prominence.

    “That is the Thunderbird, a holy symbol to the Valemen.”  A voice rang out through the temple from behind Roland.  He spun to see who the speaker was, and found Artorias and Leon staring back at him from the temple entrance.


  • Chapter 25:  Going East


    Artorias’ sudden appearance made Roland do a quick double-take.

    “What?”

    “That statue you’re looking at, it’s of a Thunderbird.”

    Roland quickly collected himself.  He was so transfixed at the quality of the statue, that he had been nearly startled out of his skin.

    “Oh…  It is a truly spectacular piece of art.  And, come to think of it, there are similar depictions of Thunderbirds in the cities of the Great Plateau, just south of the Frozen Mountains.”

    Artorias smiled at Roland.  “Indeed, they come from similar legends.  It’s probable that the people of the Plateau and the Valemen share ancestors, who passed their stories on to their children.”

    “…Makes sense.”  Roland tore his eyes away from the statue.  The rest of his knights had been meditating or resting while waiting for their guide, and now they were getting up and preparing to move out.  It was clear that they had the same assumption that Roland now found himself making.

    “You two are our guides, I take it?”

    “Indeed.  We’ll be taking you east, through a pass in the Frozen Mountains, into the neighboring vale, and then on to a Heartwood Glade.  The trees there are incredibly ancient, and I all but guarantee that you’ll find some amber there.”

    Roland was ecstatic, but he clamped down on his excitement, as he preferred to indulge in those emotions only when the job was done.

    “Good.  Then we’ll be in your capable hands.”

    It didn’t take the party long to ready themselves, as they were waiting when Artorias and Leon arrived.  They set off in good time, due east.

    Artorias and Leon led the way, moving quickly, but not so much that Roland and his party were annoyed.  The squires were second-tier mages, as was Leon, so it was at their pace that the group travelled.

    The first few hours passed in silence.  The initial happiness at getting underway with their real mission had died down, with none of the party willing to let their guard down in front of their guides.  No one knew where they were from, or even their real names.  The squires had fought alongside Leon during the raid on the bandit fort, so there were some good sentiments there, but Artorias was another story.  There had been no real introductions to break the ice, either, as Artorias had insisted that they leave as soon as everyone looked ready, so everyone still only knew the two as Wraith Killer and Little Lion.

    So, the silence continued.

    Roland was the one who finally broke the silence.  The two guides had an aloof air to them, preferring to stay separate from the party, but Roland couldn’t stand awkward silences, so he sped up a bit, and caught up with Artorias.

    “So… I heard the tribesmen call you ‘Wraith Killer’.  Do you have a nickname, or anything shorter we can call you?”

    Artorias glanced over at Roland, and thought for a while.

    “Hmm…”  His face began to curve into a frown, and Roland could sense Artorias’ aura begin to roil and churn.

    “I-It’s no problem if you don’t!  We can call you Wraith Killer if you want.”

    “No… No, it’s fine.  I suppose you can call me Artorias.”

    “Ah!  Artorias, that’s a good name.”  Roland smiled, and continued to converse, but he didn’t notice that behind him, Adrianos had overheard Artorias state his name, and suddenly started looking their way and paying attention to the conversation.

    “So, where do you come from?  You don’t have the same accent as the tribesmen, and you certainly don’t look much like them, either.”  One of the first things that Roland noticed about Artorias that didn’t quite seem right was the lack of facial hair.  Almost every tribesman had some kind of facial hair, but Artorias was completely clean shaven.

    “Why are you so curious, Sir Roland?  Who I am and where I come from ought to be of no concern to a paladin.”

    “You’re clearly very strong, and you don’t come from the vales, so I’m just curious about why you would come so far north.”

    Artorias wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  He didn’t want them to know who he was, but he was a naturally friendly person, even if his circumstances had forced him and his son out into the wilds for so long.

    “Training.  We came here to train.”

    “Can’t you train down south?  There are plenty of good mage guilds that would gladly take in and finance your training, I’m sure of it.  Why don’t you come with us when we go back south, I can- “

    “No!”  Artorias cut off Roland, and the paladin felt a wave of killing intent wash over him, and he felt like he had been submerged in a freezing lake.  But, the killing intent was gone as quickly as it had come, and Artorias looked a little embarrassed.

    “Ahem.  Sorry about that.  We’re not going back south.  That’s the end of it.”

    Roland was shocked at Artorias’ reaction.  He had been trying to offer the man a position back in the capital, and even the possibility of a knighthood.  In fact, Roland firmly believed that Artorias was much stronger than he was, so there was even a good chance that if he came south, he would be made a paladin.

    “… I should be apologizing, not you.  I perhaps overstepped the limits of our relationship, and I apologize for that.  Please, disregard my previous statement.”

    Artorias smiled back at Roland.  The group had stopped moving, and Leon was watching Artorias with an alarmed look on his face.  Artorias looked over at his son, and nodded to him, showing the younger man that he was all right.  Leon gave a slight nod in response, and slowly turned back around and continued onwards.

    “Listen, Sir Roland, we ought to speak of the dangers of where we’re going.  If all goes well, then we won’t encounter anything of note, but we should still plan for what may happen if all doesn’t go well.”

    “I’m all ears, Artorias.  Any advice you can give us would be most appreciated.”

    “Good.  First off, we’re only going to travel during the daytime.  We’ll arrive at the pass before the day’s over at this pace, and that’s where we’ll spend the night.  We could proceed further into the eastern vale, but there are a number of creatures we’ll want to avoid that come out at night.  Ice wraiths and banshees are the two big ones, but there are also packs of wind wolves and tree sprites to watch out for.”

    Roland frowned.  “How would we avoid these creatures at night, then, or will we be able to reach this glade then leave the vale in a single day?”

    “We’ll make for my home.  My son and I live there, and we warded our small fort to repel those nocturnal creatures.  I know a few temporary wards that could be used if we are caught away from the fort during the night, but they won’t cover up the presence of so many people.  We’ll make for our fort, then the glade, then back to the fort, and finally the mountain pass.  All told, it shouldn’t take more than three more days.”

    “Then I thank you in advance for allowing us to stay at your place.”

    The two men continued chatting about the eastern vale, with Adrianos listening in the whole time.  Leon continued to lead the group east, while the others in Roland’s party talked amongst themselves.

    They kept walking east and reached the pass in good time.  The group pressed on, as Artorias wanted them to camp near the eastern end of the pass, not quite close enough to provoke any of the beasts in the Forest of Black and White, but he didn’t want to waste time tomorrow either.

    Fortunately, this mountain pass was nowhere near as harsh as what the knights had experienced coming north.  There were no frozen forests, no fields of sharp jagged stone they had to climb through, and no sheer cliffs they had to scale.  It was just a thin rocky path, just wide enough for two of them to walk side-by-side.

    The place they decided to camp was a slightly wider part of the pass, and they all settled in for a peaceful night.

    The following day saw the group arrive in the Forest of Black and White.  Roland and his group were struck at the beauty of the place, with so many colorful trees and plants.  But, Roland remembered Artorias’ warnings about the creatures in the forest, and the need to get to his fort as quickly as possible, so he kept the team moving.

    The forest was thinner near the edges, so it was quite the pleasant walk at first.  There was a gorgeous canopy of green, blue, and even the rare red or purple leaves, and the plants and flowers they saw around had equally diverse colors.  Even the nobles in the party were awed, as it would take an experienced gardener a long time to bring such vibrant colors out of an estate’s garden.

    But what truly struck the group was the Divine Scar.  It was near midday when they approached it, and the trees were still thin on the western side of the Scar, so they saw it from a good distance away.

    “What is that?”  One of the men-at-arms shouted in wonder.

    “I call this canyon the Divine Scar.  It’s very deep, and it gets wider as you go south.  It possesses a unique aura I couldn’t identify which made me think that an absurdly powerful mage made it with an attack.”

    Roland walked up to the edge and stared down towards the bottom.  He was a sixth-tier mage, and his eyesight was superhuman, but even he could only see a deep black abyss.  It gave him an eerie feeling, like even his light magic would hit that darkness and be completely swallowed.

    Artorias and Leon seemed a little impatient, but gave the rest of the group time to admire the immense canyon, but Adrianos seemed a little unimpressed.  In fact, he was looking around, completely bored and ready to continue.  But he saw something odd out of the corner of his eye, so he spun his head around to have a better look, and saw the branch of a nearby tree extending out like an arm, and reached for one of Sir Andrew’s men-at-arms, so quietly that the man didn’t seem to realize it.

    “Connor!  Get away from that tree!”  Adrianos shouted out, and drew his sword.

    The tree didn’t seem to like that shout, as it abandoned stealth and wrapped it’s ‘arm’ around Connor.  The man didn’t even have a chance to fight back as he was lifted off his feet, and held more than twenty feet in the air.

    The tree was a gnarled and ugly thing, leafless and rotten, but showed an unexpected resilience when Adrianos brought his sword down on the branch-arm and left nothing more than a slight scratch on the bark.

    The others drew their own weapons, but Sir Roger was the closest.  He brought his mace to bear, and slammed it into the trunk of the tree, allowing his fire magic to ignite the mace and scorch the bark.  Surprisingly, the fire had little effect.

    Connor began screaming, as the branch tightened around him.  He felt his arms begin to crack, followed by his ribs.

    The tree had three more branches and began to wave them exceptionally fast at the party, forcing them back and away from the trunk.

    “This damn thing!”  Sir Andrew’s pale skin darkened to a greyish hue, and hardened into stone.  He channeled all the magic he could into his arms, and lifted his battle-axe.  He charged forward, allowing the tree branches to fall on him, chipping off a few pieces of stone, but otherwise leaving him unharmed.  He swung his axe with all his might, and slammed it into the tree.

    The axe blade didn’t chop too far into the tree trunk, but a few more swings brought the blade almost halfway through the trunk.  The wild branches seized up, and immediately stopped moving.  Connor was dropped from the air, and hit the ground with a sickening crack.

    From the trunk of the tree, a brown bark-like head emerged.  It was wide and flat, with no facial features save for two black eyes the size of eagle’s eggs.  The head was followed by the upper half of a very tall but very thin body.  The entire creature seemed to be made of the same bark as the tree.

    Nothing more emerged from the tree.  It seemed that Sir Andrew had cut the creature in half when he struck it, as it was missing everything below the waist.

    “What in the name of the ancestors is that?”  Sir Roger exclaimed.

    “That, is a tree sprite.  Not very strong, but exceptionally skilled with nature magic, and deadly if they catch you off guard.”  Artorias replied, nodding towards Connor, who was now coughing up blood and struggling to rise.

    “Stay down, Connor.  Let me take a look.”  Sir Andrew had gone to the side of his man-at-arms, and was running his hands over the man’s body, looking for blood.

    “He’s going to die.  There’s nothing you can do.”  Leon bluntly stated.

    Sir Andrew glared at the young man.  “What?  There are only some broken bones.  A little bleeding in his lungs, but he’ll be fine once we get him to proper healers in the south.”

    “No, my son is correct.  Tree sprites like to poison their victims.  He’s going to die, and in great agony too.”  Artorias backed up Leon.  “Check the back of his head.”

    Sir Andrew gave the two a dirty look, but did as Artorias suggested.  When he tried to turn Connor’s head, he felt a wet sensation, and noticed his hands were covered in blood.  The back of the man’s head had numerous pin pricks that were oozing blood, and the skin around them was rapidly turning blue.

    “What is this?”  The knight recoiled, and wiped his hand off on a nearby fern.

    “That is a nasty neurotoxin.  It slowly breaks down the victim’s brain, and they are awake and aware the whole time.  It’s a bad way to go.”  Artorias looked over at Roland, who had come forward to examine the man himself.  “You need to decide what to do with him, and quickly.  We can’t delay too long, or we won’t make it to my fort before dark.”

    Roland simply answered, “I understand.”

  • Chapter 26:  Identity


    “We can’t just kill him!  We can bring him with us, we can get him help!”  Sir Andrew shouted at his comrades.  Connor was his man-at-arms, and they had fought alongside one another for years.  Killing him on the word of Artorias was out of the question in his mind.

    “Look at him, he’s obviously suffering!  We can’t help him now, and he’ll die before we get very far carrying him.”  Dame Sheira was for giving Connor a mercy kill.

    “Indeed.  Best to end it now.”  Sir Roger agreed.

    “He’s my friend!  I won’t just let him die like this, just because he says so!”  But Sir Andrew wasn’t having any of it, and even started directing his anger at Artorias.

    Leon and Artorias had given the knights some distance, and were now watching their argument, all while the subject of the discussion continued to writhe in agony and cough up more blood.  When Sir Andrew called out Artorias, Artorias didn’t even react.  He was waiting for Roland to make a decision, and was starting to get impatient.  Leon was more blatant about his desire to get moving, constantly checking the sun’s position and looking out into the forest.  It was almost midday, and they still had a good deal of ground to cover.

    Leon looked to his father, silently asking what to do.

    “Just wait, little lion.  Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”

    “Sir Andrew, he’s suffering.  It’s best to just get it over with.”  Adrianos stepped forward and gave his opinion.  He’d known Sir Andrew nearly as long as Connor had, and they were friends.  Adrianos couldn’t just sit back and watch his friend die horribly, so he spoke his mind.

    “No!  Sir Roland, please, we can still save him, I’m sure of it.”

    “Enough.  I’ve made my decision.”  Roland stepped forward, and drew his sword.  Sir Andrew had been standing in between Connor and the others, while Roland paced and tried to come to a decision, and now that he had, he wouldn’t hesitate.

    “Sir, please!”  but Sir Andrew still didn’t want to give up.

    “Out of the way, Andy.”  Roland stopped in front of the other knight, and waited for him to move.

    “Not going to happen.  I’ll carry Connor back home myself, if I have to.”

    Roland sighed.  “Look at him, Andy.  Really look at him.  Does he look like someone that can still be saved?”  Roland spoke with a slow and calm tone, trying to soothe Sir Andrew’s frayed nerves, and get him to comply.

    Sir Andrew looked back and saw Connor had stopped writhing and coughing.  Instead, he was just lying there, looking more like a corpse than a living person.  His ribs had been shattered by the tree sprite, and his chest was starting to cave in.  He was covered in blood, and his skin was so pale it was almost transparent.  The only thing that still showed he was still alive, was the sound of his rough and pained breathing.

    Roland placed his hand on Sir Andrew’s shoulder.  “He’s gone, my friend.  Even if his heart is still beating, he’s gone.  Let me end it.”

    Sir Andrew grit his teeth, and slowly, reluctantly, stepped aside.

    Roland gripped his sword tight, raised it above Connor, and drove it deep into what remained of the young man’s chest, killing him instantly.

    Roland’s party was silent, and solemn.  They didn’t move, and were just processing what had happened.  At one moment, everyone was fine, and admiring the Divine Scar, and the next, a comrade had been taken by a tree sprite so quickly he hadn’t even the time to resist.

    Artorias gave them a few minutes, and Leon grew still.  Eventually, they felt that the silence had gone on long enough, and Artorias walked up to Roland.

    “Losing a comrade is never easy, especially when they’re a friend.  I get that, I truly do, but we need to get moving.  Let’s grab his body, and get moving.  We can’t get caught out in the forest at night.”

    Roland nodded, and only took a few more seconds before jumping into action.  First, he swung his sword at the tree the tree sprite had been inhabiting.  With a burst of light, the tree was cut in half.  Roland swung a few more times, and he had a wooden board, long and wide enough to carry Connor.  He grabbed the young man’s body, and hauled it onto the board.  Sir Andrew and Adrianos then grabbed the ends, digging in to make handholds with their strong fingers, and lifted the board, with Connor on top.

    It didn’t take too long, but Artorias was already starting to get anxious.  Night falls quickly in the vales, and the sun wasn’t waiting around for them.  Once everyone was ready, the group set off again, with Leon taking the lead.

    Connor’s body wasn’t tied down, as they didn’t have anything to tie him down with, so the going was much slower than it was before.

    The group was more somber, and there wasn’t any talking.  Everyone just stayed quiet, and kept walking.

    They went north, walking around the Divine Scar, then turned south-east, towards the purple grass clearing, and the fortified compound.

    Artorias kept watch on the sky at all times, watching the sun slowly descend through the gaps in the trees.  The sky turned from blue to pink, then to red, and the sun finally fell behind the mountains.  The sky was still relatively bright, but the vale had been plunged into darkness, and the group was still in the forest.

    Artorias hurried them along the best he could, but after losing another of their own, Roland’s party had lost much of their motivation.  Normally, battle-hardened soldiers like them wouldn’t be so crushed by the loss of one man, but the forest weighed heavily upon them, and every step became a struggle.

    “Shit!  We need to go faster!”  Artorias was on edge, and very nervous now.  The sun was down, and the nocturnal creatures were beginning to stir.  He spread his magic senses out as far as he could, and kept alert for anything out of the ordinary.

    Finally, the sun completely set, and the sky grew as dark as the forest, lit only by the moon and the stars orbiting distant planes.

    Suddenly, Artorias spun around, drawing his sword, and staring into the depths of the forest.  The others all drew their own weapons in response, and took up a ready position.  Leon had been walking several dozen feet ahead, but fell back to the group.  Sir Andrew and Adrianos carefully set Connor down, and joined the others in forming a line facing the same direction as Artorias.

    They all stood there, waiting for whatever Artorias had seen, for thirty seconds.  Sir Roger was about to speak up, to ask what was out there, when they all felt a sharp drop in temperature.

    Roland’s eyes widened, as he saw an approaching fog surrounded by dark smoky shapes.  He stole a glance at Artorias.

    “Are those…”

    “Ice Wraiths, and their pet banshees.  A lot of them.”

    Once Roland asked his question, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that danger was approaching, so the knights began channeling their magic.

    “You there, the ice mage.”  Artorias looked at Dame Sheira.  “Your offensive magic will largely be useless; our opponents are beings of cold and dark.”

    Dame Sheira’s face tightened in apprehension, and she stiffly nodded back to Artorias.  She gripped her spear tighter, and ice spread out over arms, torso, and legs, forming armor.  Whereas Sir Andrew could turn his skin into stone, retaining most of his mobility, Dame Sheira couldn’t form icy armor on her joints, or it would severely slow her down in battle.

    Out of the darkness came an earsplitting shriek.  Roland’s party had to force themselves not to drop their weapons and cover their ears.  Leon and Artorias were more used to this, but Leon looked extremely uncomfortable, shaking and contorting his face in pain.

    Artorias broke from the line and charged out into the forest.  The others in the party watched in shock as he disappeared into the darkness, followed shortly be the sounds of steel colliding with hard surfaces, and more banshee screams.

    Banshee screams can really screw with an unprepared mage, deafening them and sending the magic within their blood into turmoil and completely out of the mage’s control.  However, if a mage is expecting it, they can send magic into their ears and safeguard against the terrible sound.  Thus, after the first few shrieks, the group was largely unaffected by them.

    Unfortunately, Artorias wasn’t able to hold off all of them, and those that slipped past him came flying out of the darkness and directly at the group.  They were grotesque creatures, made up more of a smoky darkness than actual matter, with empty eye sockets, rotten faces, and dark, skeletal limbs.  But, as terrifying and intimidating as they were, the knights were stronger.

    Sir Roland, Sir Andrew, Dame Sheira, and Sir Roger all charged at the banshees, cutting them down with every swing of their weapons.

    Leon edged closer to the squires, who were themselves now behind the men-at-arms.  The four squires looked at him, and Luke nodded to him.  Leon returned the nod, and they turned back to the action.

    Roland hacked through the banshees with no problem; he was a sixth-tier mage, after all.  The other three were having a bit more trouble, but the banshees still fell before their might.  Their dark fingers scratched at Dame Sheira’s ice armor and Sir Andrew’s stone skin, but didn’t so much as leave a mark.  Sir Roger swung his flaming mace around, catching one in a fiery explosion, causing the others to keep their distance from the crackling flame.

    Roland was easily the best suited of the four of them to kill the banshees.  They were beings of the dark, and he was a light mage, so his light beams would cut through them like a hot knife through butter.  The banshees pulled back towards the trees a little, but the knights gave chase.

    Suddenly, out of the darkness, came a light grey fog and another large group of banshees.  The fog emanated a cold aura, and the ground froze beneath it.  There was a vague shadow of a humanoid being within, and a pair of glowing blue eyes staring at the dumbfounded knights.  This being raised its hand, and all the dozens of banshees began flying around the knights, constantly blocking their view and harassing them, but rarely getting close enough for the knights to strike.  The squires and men-at-arms gradually began to lose track of the knights within the swirling mass of darkness, though a few brief flashes of light from Roland would occasionally pierce through.

    Three banshees peeled off from that group and made a beeline for the men-at-arms.  Adrianos was right in front, and he raised his sword high.  The first banshee rushed straight towards him, and Adrianos brought his blade down upon it with all the force and magic he could muster.  The banshee took the sword to the head and fell, dead before it hit the ground.  The darkness that made up most of its body dissipated, leaving only the tiny desiccated corpse of a young child lying at Adrianos’ feet.

    He wasn’t distracted, however, as the other two banshees tore past him.  The other men-at-arms managed to stop them, one with a spear to the gut followed by a sword to the throat, and the other ran straight into a shield, bouncing off it and right back at Adrianos.  The man-at-arms with the shield was thrown backwards into the squires by the impact, so he couldn’t take advantage of the banshee’s moment of weakness, but Adrianos wasn’t so unfortunate.  He swung his blade, and parted the banshees head from its neck.

    The ice wraith was watched the entire exchange.  It calmly began advancing, passing the knights still trapped by the banshee horde, and towards Adrianos.

    He could feel the cold, and his body began to stiffen.  The hands gripping his sword began to shake, and he almost dropped it.  But, Adrianos stood firm against the monster.  The ice on the ground spread to Adrianos’ feet, and fog slowly surrounded him.  He raised his sword, channeling all of the magic within him into the blade, and brought it down upon the shadowy figure within, only for the ice wraith to catch his blade with its hand.  Adrianos momentarily struggled, trying to free his weapon from the wraith’s frozen fingers, but it wouldn’t budge.  He unsentimentally let it go, then drew a dagger at his belt.  Before he could stab towards the ice wraith, however, the creature swung its fist into his chest like a hammer, throwing Adrianos almost twenty feet away, and most certainly breaking a few ribs.

    The wraith turned toward the other men-at-arms, its aura emitting a boundless killing intent that hit them like an avalanche.  One man’s knees buckled, and he collapsed, unconscious.  Another dropped his blade, and fell to his hands and knees, sobbing in fear.  The others still stood, but certainly not firm.  They shook in their boots, and none dared to move any closer.  In fact, the wraith began slowly walking towards them, and they backed up.

    Leon and the squires were all but paralyzed with fear.  The wraith’s aura was suffocating to them, and it took everything they had not to immediately pass out.  Kevin and John fell to their knees, while Luke and Victoria barely stayed standing by leaning on each other.  Leon was the best off of the lot, staying on his feet, but he swayed unsteadily like a drunk stumbling home and could barely lift his sword, let alone wield it with any kind of strength.

    The wraith reached out for the closest man-at-arms, with its inhumanely thin arm leaving the icy cold fog that surrounded it, and giving everyone a good look at it.  Its arm seemed to be made of ice, with a few blue veins glowing gently beneath the surface.  The freezing fingers closed around the man’s throat, and began to squeeze.  No one could move to stop it, and the man-at-arms thought his life was over.

    That is, until everyone heard the sound of thunder.  The dark forest lit up from brilliant flashes of lightning, and the shrieks of banshees died away.  A few sounds reminiscent of shattering glass followed, and a bolt of lightning blazed through the trees, tearing apart the banshees surrounding Roland and the three knights, and slammed into the ice wraith grasping the man-at-arms.  The fog was blasted away, revealing a body made up entirely of light blue ice covered in dark blue veins, a face that lacked a nose, and a sword sticking out of its chest.

    Of course, it was Artorias’ sword.  He hadn’t wanted to use his magic within sight of the knights, as it might lead to them figuring out who he was, but the ice wraith was starting to threaten his son.  All concerns about his identity vanished, and he summoned all the power his lightning could bring to bear.  The ice wraiths surrounding him were annihilated, and he returned to the group as quickly as his exceptional magic would allow.

    Now, with his sword in the final ice wraith, he used his magic one last time, sending prodigious amounts of lightning magic surging through its body.  It didn’t even have the time to scream, as the ice that made up its body cracked and crumbled.  All that was left of the wraith was a pile of ice shards at Artorias’ feet.

    With the defeat of the ice wraith, Leon, the squires, and the men-at-arms quickly regained control of themselves.  Artorias immediately went to Leon, only relaxing when he found his son unharmed.

    Unfortunately, with most of the banshees around Roland being taken care of by Artorias, the paladin saw Artorias’ magic.  Adrianos, picking himself up while clenching his teeth from the pain, also saw Artorias’ skill with lightning magic.  The same thought came to both.

    He’s Artorias Raime!’



  • Chapter 27:  The Glade


    Roland quickly mopped up the last of the banshees, and the knights rejoined the party.  Adrianos could still move, so he did the same.

    No one hesitated now, they all knew that they couldn’t stay outside for very long.  Even now, they could see the same wraith fog in the forest coming towards them.

    Sir Andrew picked up Connor’s body, not bothering with the board, and unceremoniously threw it over his shoulder.

    Leon took the lead, guiding everyone through the forest, while Artorias and Roland ran on either side of the group, keeping watch for any more monsters in the dark.

    Fortunately, after fighting off the group of ice wraiths and a whole lot of banshees, their journey was nerve-wracking, but largely uneventful.  Artorias and Roland did occasionally see the cold eyes of watching ice wraiths from between distant trees, however, so they never let their guard down.

    Finally, Leon led the group into the clearing filled with purple grass, and they saw the fort that was built in the middle of it.  The group ran to the tunnel entrance, Leon opened the door, and they quickly filed in.  Leon led the way, opening the inner door while Artorias closed the outer door.

    When everyone was behind the walls of the fort, they were able to breathe a little easier.  Artorias locked up the inner door, then went to the obelisk, checking to make sure that all the defensive wards were working properly.

    Roland’s party were physically and mentally exhausted, so they simply sat down on the ground and caught their breath.

    Leon could think of little else but his own bed, but after checking the obelisk, Artorias grabbed him and pulled him towards the supply shack.  They grabbed a few large sheets of cloth, and a few pieces of wood, and brought them outside.

    “You all can use these for tents, as you don’t look like you brought any.”  Artorias said.

    “Thank you.”  replied Roland.

    Roland’s party immediately went about setting up the tents, with Leon’s help.  They were all eager to get to sleep, so they weren’t wasting any time.

    Artorias glanced at Sir Andrew, who was still holding Connor.  “You can put him in here, for now.  We can throw together a decent litter to carry him out of here, but for now he’ll be ok in the ice shack.”  He led the knight into the food storage shack, where the sleigh that Artorias and Leon had taken to Vale Town was sitting, still full of food.  Artorias had felt a little awkward with having Torfinn store it, so he had brought it home himself a few days before the knights arrived in Vale Town.

    Sir Andrew gently laid Connor down in the ice shack, then went back outside to continue helping out with the tents.

    It didn’t take long for Roland’s party to finish getting set up, and the knights immediately crawled into their tent and passed out, with Leon and the squires not that far behind. 

    The men-at-arms also fell fast asleep, except for Adrianos, who only laid down and pretended to sleep.  He was contemplating what he saw during the fight with the banshees, the lightning magic that Artorias used, his age, even Leon’s presence.  He was absolutely certain that Artorias and Leon were the two people he needed to find!

    Outside, he could hear Roland approaching Artorias, and asking to speak in private.  Privacy wasn’t too difficult to find, given that everyone had gone to bed, but they still gave the tents some space and went back behind Artorias’ hut.  Adrianos slowly looked around at the sleeping men-at-arms around him, and, certain that they were all asleep, began to channel some of his magic.  The light around him began to dim, quickly enveloping him in shadows.  He sank down deep into the shadows, and disappeared.

    Outside, Roland and Artorias had gone to the small garden that Artorias had planted behind his hut.  Roland glanced around at the colorful plants, admiring the strong and healthy look that each one had.

    “You have a lovely garden.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Are these Arran flowers?”  Roland gestured to a group of thorny flowers with short stems and five luminescent yellow petals each.

    “Indeed, they are.  You have a good eye, not many can distinguish Arran flowers from Yellow Kentars.”

    “Well, I have an interest in alchemy, and Arran flowers can be used to make a good low-grade healing salve.”

    Artorias smiled.  He wasn’t skilled in alchemy, most of what he could do was done by muddling around after reading some of his families’ books that he’d brought north fifteen years ago.

    “So, Sir Roland, what did you want to talk about?”

    Roland went silent for a moment, trying to choose a good way to ask his question.  But, he wasn’t the most eloquent person, so he decided to just be direct.

    “You’re Artorias Raime, aren’t you?  The second son of Archduke Kyros Raime.”

    Artorias was shocked for a moment, and even fought the urge to reach for his sword, which was still at his hip.  Then, he sighed.  He almost expected this, as he made the choice to tell the paladin his real name, and even showed off his magic when an ice wraith came close to attacking Leon. 

    He still didn’t quite know how to deal with this, though.  The impression he’d gotten from Roland was that he was a good, honorable man, a trustworthy man, but they hadn’t been acquainted for long.  Artorias felt that he couldn’t just kill Roland, so all he could do was sigh.

    “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”  Roland could see the struggle on Artorias’ face, and remembering the strength that he had shown during the fight, the strength that easily exceeded his own, he was quick to placate Artorias’ fears.

    “See that you don’t.”

    Roland started feeling a little nervous now.  Artorias was smiling at him, but the rest of him radiated hostility.

    “If it’s alright for me to ask, why are you all the way up here?  If you returned to the Kingdom, you would be made the Lord of the Great Plateau, and Archduke of the Northern Territories.”

    “You’re quite bold, aren’t you?  That’s a sensitive topic.”

    “I’m sorry!  I’m just curious as to what someone of your noble heritage is doing so far away from civilization, especially when King Julius thinks you’re dead, and is seeking a successor for the Lordship of the Great Plateau.”

    “My immediate family has been completely wiped out, knight.  The only reason my son and I yet breathe is because we ran away to the Vales.  If anyone threatens us, I will spare none of my power to make sure they are annihilated.”  With that said, Artorias gave Roland a look that could freeze a desert, and allowed his killing intent to crash upon the knight.

    Artorias had spent the last fifteen years stewing in his guilt and rage over the loss of his wife, then for the deaths of his father and brother.  This left him with an extremely potent killing intent.  Even Roland, a knight who had been fighting the enemies of the Kingdom and keeping the King’s Peace for his entire adult life, and had cultivated a strong killing intent of his own, couldn’t face it head-on, and was briefly left with weak knees and shortness of breath before he circulated his magic to combat the pressure he was under.

    “Y-You can consider… my lips sealed!”  The pressure coming from Artorias was intense, and Roland could barely get the sentence out.

    But, once he did, Artorias restrained his killing intent.  Roland gasped for breath and took a moment to compose himself.

    “Well, I suppose we can consider that conversation as having never happened…”  Roland said, as he finished straightening himself up.

    Artorias smiled at him, as if Roland had never said anything at all.

    “That would be for the best, knight.”

    “Then, I’ll be heading for bed.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

    Roland quickly returned to the tents.  It’s possible that if he had been paying attention, he might have noticed the shadow gliding across the ground, back to the tent with the men-at-arms.  Once inside, the shadow dissolved away, allowing Adrianos to be seen again.  The other five men-at-arms were still fast asleep, and Roland was still shaken from his brief conversation with Artorias, so Adrianos went completely unnoticed.

    He’d overheard the conversation between Roland and Artorias, he’d heard Artorias confirm his own identity.  Now, he couldn’t wait to return to the south.  He needed to inform Lord Justin that he’d found the last scions of House Raime.

    The following morning was rather awkward.  Artorias and Leon barely spoke to anyone, except for Artorias telling them the time they’d leave.  This behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary for Leon, but Artorias had been somewhat friendly to them, only to suddenly become colder now.

    The group ate their breakfast in relative silence.  Artorias didn’t seem to be doing it consciously, but he was radiating a slight killing aura.  It wasn’t putting pressure on any of them, not even the second-tier squires, but it did cause everyone to be cagey and on edge.

    Roland knew that he caused this shift in attitude, but he didn’t know how to make it right.  He decided to give Artorias the day to calm down, then try to apologize and reiterate that he wouldn’t leak their location.

    So, with a depressing start to the day, the group set off from the fort.  There were no ice wraiths waiting for them when they exited the tunnel, no banshee screams were heard, the forest was peaceful.  The animals gave the large group a wide berth.  Wind Wolf packs ran away on sight, birds scattered, and all the creatures of the forest got out of their way.  Consequently, they arrived at the Heartwood Glade by midday.

    The enormous glade was surrounded by a wall of huge boulders easily twenty or twenty-five feet tall, so they had to enter through a small gap on the south side.

    Roland’s party stopped and stared in awe as they finally got a good look at the majesty of the Heartwood trees.  These were ancient things, and stood incredibly tall, many over two hundred feet tall, and most others easily over one hundred and fifty, with the rest being comparatively tiny, only thirty or forty feet tall.  The entire glade was filled with a peaceful aura, that soothed and calmed all who entered.

    “This place is incredible!”  Victoria gasped.

    “Try to keep quiet, this is a sacred place.”  Artorias quickly rebuked her.

    Roland looked at Artorias quizzically, and Victoria shrank back in fear.

    “Why would we need to be quiet?  We are surrounded by nothing but trees.”  Dame Sheira didn’t want to pick a fight with Artorias, as she knew she would lose, but she couldn’t just stand there and let her squire be admonished by a relative stranger.

    “Have any of you heard the stories about the wars of the old gods?”  Artorias looked around.  Everyone looked back at him with blank stares, shook their head, or were too preoccupied admiring the trees.

    “Well, I would look into the Epic of Antares or Tantalus’ Divine War trilogy when you return to the south.  One of the details both legends go into are the gods’ burial rites.  Those who die in the service of the gods would be buried in circles of ten, while the gods themselves would be buried in circles of seven.  Their hearts would be removed beforehand, and replaced with a heartwood seed, which is where the tree got its name.  Now, take a look at how the glade is arranged.”

    The group examined the trees more closely, and saw that most of the trees closer to the boulder wall were arranged in circles of ten trees apiece, with only the smaller and youngest trees being the exceptions, while the trees closer to the center were arranged in circles of seven.

    “This place…”  Roland began, but when he stopped, Artorias finished for him.

    “…is a graveyard, and the taller trees are the graves.”  Artorias looked at each of Roland’s party in turn, making sure to have eye contact with each.  “There is a clearing in the very center of the glade.  That is where we will make camp.  Go ahead and search for your amber, but take as little as possible, disturb as little as possible, and everything will be alright.”

    Even the cynical Sir Andrew wasn’t going to contradict Artorias here.  Everything, from the heartwood trees themselves, to the gentle breeze, to the peaceful aura, made them believe that this was indeed a sacred place, and that they should be quiet and respectful while they were here.

    “Very well then.  Sir Roger, you take the squires and go with Artorias to set up camp.  Everyone else, spread out and look for that Heartwood Amber.”

  • edited March 21

    Chapter 28:  Return Journey


    Roland, the knights, and the men-at-arms all split off from the group, and began wandering around the glade, taking care to disturb the place as little as possible, while looking for any signs of the amber they were there for.

    Artorias, Leon, Sir Roger, and the squires all made for the clearing in the center of the glade, to begin setting up tents so they could stay the night.

    Those looking for the amber, despite only speaking in whispers, and restraining their auras as best as they could, were still far more comfortable than those setting up camp. Artorias was still in a bad mood, and the squires could feel it. Sir Andrew was able to shake off the slight discomfort that Artorias’ aura brought, but the squires didn’t have that kind of power.

    They began setting up the tents in silence.

    Artorias and Leon preferred to sleep under the sky, so they had little work to do. Artorias lay down and closed his eyes, while Leon, feeling somewhat restless, decided to go over to Victoria and Luke.

    “… Need any help?” Leon asked, with some hesitation and uncertainty.

    The two squires froze in shock. Victoria, the more outgoing one, recovered fast.

    “We’d love your help.” She smiled at Leon, and he joined them in their work.

    After that short exchange, the only sounds were of wooden poles being pounded into the dirt, and the shuffling of cloth as the tents were completed.

    By the time they were finished, Artorias had fallen asleep, and the killing aura he radiated faded.

    Leon went and took a seat next to his father, while Sir Roger and the squires sat down in the center of the small camp. With everyone feeling more relaxed without the constant killing intent, the squires began talking amongst themselves while Sir Roger sat and stared off into the glade.

    “What kind of shit is that? Not a chance that Flavius would beat Theodoro in a fair match! My boy Theo’s got some thick drake scale armor, and stoneskin earth magic that can stop attacks from fifth-tier mages! Flavius wouldn’t even penetrate Theodoro’s defenses, and would eat shit with a single hit from Theo’s maul.” Kevin said passionately.

    From the sounds of it, Leon guessed that the squires were talking about famous arena fighters. Artorias had told him of the enormous arena in the capital city, a stadium that can seat over a hundred thousand people. It was the only venue in the entire kingdom that could rival Konstantine’s Dome in Teira in size and spectacle.

    “Flavius may only be a fourth-tier mage, but he’s got stamina. His wind magic has a very low mana cost, so he can dance circles around the heavier Theodoro. He just has to make the big guy tired, stoneskin takes a lot of mana to maintain.” Luke responded.

    “Did you see Flavius’ last fight? He almost got turned inside out! And he was using that very strategy, but it didn’t work!” John added.

    “Yes, but he wasn’t fighting a defensive opponent, he was fighting Nikephoros, a water mage. Water mages have weak defense, so they tend to focus on offense, so of course Flavius couldn’t take his time and wear Nike down. But Theodoro isn’t that fast, he won’t be able to touch Flavius, and once he loses that stoneskin, Flavius will end things with a single swing of his blade!”

    “What about you, Victoria? Do you like light and speedy…” Kevin nodded at Luke. “…Or do like tough and strong?” He crossed his huge and muscular arms, subtly flexing to appear even bigger.

    “Hmmmmm…” Victoria sat and thought for a moment, before a dreamy look appeared in her eyes. “I actually like that Antonius guy.”

    The other three squires sighed in dejection.

    “Of course you do…” said Kevin

    “No surprise there.” Luke nodded in understanding.

    “Big shocker, that one.” John’s voice was dripping with sarcasm.

    “What’s wrong with that? He’s won more than thirty matches in a row!” Victoria responded indignantly.

    “Yeah, that’s because he’s too damned pretty for the arena.” Kevin said bitterly.

    “It should be a rule that nobles can’t participate.” John said, with a tone that could turn wine into vinegar.

    Victoria looked at the two of them quizzically. “What do you mean?”

    “His manager, and many other arena operators noticed how many ladies turn out to see him, so they generally just have him fight against opponents far inferior to him. Even though most of his matches are set against fourth-tier mages, just like him, they are typically far less experienced.” Luke replied.

    “Let me ask you something, Victoria. How many of his opponents can you name?” Kevin asked.

    “Well… there was… Right! There was Themistocles!”

    “Good, but that was like, twenty matches ago. Themistocles has come into his own since then, but he had no noteworthy fights before then. Can you name any others?”

    Victoria thought for a while, before finally answering no.

    “Exactly. He fights nobodies. Themistocles became someone afterwards, but he’s an exception. No one wants to take a risk that Antonius will actually lose, he makes everyone involved too much money.”

    “He’s a showman, not a fighter. He’s fights for the money, not for the sport.” John said.

    Luke’s face distorted in disgust. “Indeed. He’s always talking publicly about the Seventh Echelon gear he has, and wears their armor in the arena.”

    “And what’s wrong with that? Seventh Echelon has some good gear.” Victoria was starting to get worked up now, as her favorite athlete was Antonius, and he was getting dumped on now.

    “Seventh Echelon has some good enchanted gear, but if you want some good shit, then you’d be better served asking a Heaven’s Eye merchant, or going to the Blasted Furnace.” Luke smiled at everyone, then reaching into his leather chest armor, and pulled out a small dagger. “In fact, I got this at the Furnace. It’s got an enchantment that can keep it sharp enough to shave with from now till the plane crumbles into the Chaos. I could pierce armor fit for a third-tier mage with this.”

    Leon had been listening to their conversation this entire time, as he was extremely curious about the kingdom, but when the talk of enchanting started, his ears really perked up. While the other squires were admiring the shine of the blade, and the workmanship of the griffon bone hilt, Luke noticed that Leon had sat up, and was looking over at them.

    “Hey there, why don’t you come and join us?” Luke waved to Leon, and patted the ground next to him. Kevin and John smiled at him, while Victoria looked a bit conflicted for a moment, remembering their first encounter, but then thoughts of Leon helping during the fight with the bandits brought her beautiful smile back out.

    Despite some hesitation, Leon decided to accept their invitation. He sat down next to Luke, and the squire passed him the dagger to check out.

    “Interested in enchanting, are you?” Kevin asked.

    “A bit.” Leon tacitly responded. Leon finished examining the dagger, paying close attention to the runic glyph carved into the handle, and passed it back to Luke, who put it back in its sheathe. “Thank you.”

    “Yeah, no problem. In fact, I should be the one thanking you, after all you did help us hold out during that battle the other day.” Leon nodded to Luke in acknowledgement, but his face remained completely passive and expressionless.

    “You’re a damn good fighter. Your father teach you?” Victoria asked, leaning over and smiling at Leon.

    “Yes.” It seemed that that was all he intended to say, so after an awkward pause, Victoria continued.

    “Well it’s a very effective style.”

    “Hey, I have a question. Do you know what’s up with this vale? Ever since we got here, I’ve felt drained and weak, like I’m carrying two hundred pounds of armor.” John asked.

    Leon looked curiously at him. “I haven’t ever noticed anything. This place feels just like the Brown Bear’s vale, just like it always has.”

    “Huh… That’s weird.”

    “Hey, um ‘Little Lion’, was it? Do you have another, easier name we could call you?” Luke asked.

    “My name is Leon. Everyone just calls me little lion.”

    “Ah, that makes sense. Leon, you, um, you helped Victoria and myself back in the city too…”

    “Yes, I remember. Some of those thugs had messed with me before, and I broke some of their bones. That’s why they ran off.”

    “Ok, but I was wondering if we had somehow offended you, because you hit us with your killing intent when we tried to thank you. If we someh-“

    “I did?!” Leon looked shocked, and he glanced over at Victoria. She nodded, slightly confused over his reaction. Leon’s face grew red from embarrassment, and he looked down in shame.

    “I’m terribly sorry, I’m still learning how to control my aura. That was unintentional.” he said quickly, with some panic in his voice.

    Luke looked quite taken aback at that, as control over their aura is typically the first thing taught to a first-tier mage.

    “Uh… It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” He smiled at Leon, who was growing more embarrassed by the second, especially with the other squires looking at him. Victoria even giggled at him, finding his actions kind of cute.

    While everyone at the camp relaxed, the others were out scouring the glade, looking for any signs of Heartwood Amber.

    “Ugh, by the ancestors, this place sucks. Ever since we entered the vale, I’ve been feeling awful.” One of the men-at-arms complained.

    “Yeah, there’s something about it that almost feels like it’s weighing me down. The sooner we leave, the better.” Another responded.

    “Well than, maybe you should be looking rather than chatting!” Sir Andrew reprimanded. The two men-at-arms immediately returned to their objective, and Sir Andrew turned to Roland.

    “They’re not wrong, sir. This vale really does suck. And that Artorias isn’t making things any better. He seemed alright when we met up at that temple, but now he’s in a terrible mood.”

    Roland sighed. “I think that’s my fault. I spoke with him a little last night, and it seems I’ve put him on edge.”

    Maybe it’s a mistake, given how he reacted last time, but I’ll reassure him that I won’t tell anyone about him when returning south…’ Roland thought to himself.

    Roland, Sir Andrew, and two men-at-arms had decided to go west after entering the glade, while Dame Sheira took the other four men-at-arms and went east. They were all scanning the trees, looking for anything that might be the amber they need. And Roland was in luck.

    These were very old trees, and they had a long time to accumulate resin in small pockets and hollows. After about three hours, Roland finally spotted a large chunk of amber about thirty feet up the trunk of a tree. He’d hoped it would take less time, as his magic senses had been spread out over a large portion of the glade, but finding something small and inanimate was incredibly difficult with magical senses, not to mention the magic that surrounded these trees were obscuring any amber he might otherwise detect. So, it wasn’t until he actually began looking with his eyes that he spotted what he’d come for.

    Roland began making his way towards the tree with the amber, but he suddenly froze. He’d seen something walking around the base. As the group drew closer, they realized it was a small pack of wind wolves.

    Wind wolves are a dark grey wolf, with few distinguishing physical characteristics about them other than their brilliant green eyes, and that their fluffy fur was almost always moving like wind was blowing through it, even when there was no wind.

    The wolf pack froze as the group approached. Roland’s hand went to his sword by reflex, but he caught himself before drawing it. He could a subtle pressure being exerted by the trees, and their aura of peace was omnipresent throughout the glade, so he slowly let go of the sword, and stared back at the wolves. After a brief staring contest, the wolves walked away, vanishing into the glade.

    The group breathed a sigh of relief, and Roland quickly jumped up the trunk of the tree towards the amber. It was lodged in a small crevasse where two small branches sprang out from the trunk, but it didn’t take much jostling for Roland to get a hold of it, and pull most of the amber out. He swiftly jumped back to the ground with a chunk of gently glowing golden amber the size of his head in hand.

    He smiled at the rest of the group, and they began making their way to the camp. They now had their amber, and it was time to go home, a prospect they were all eager for. They could almost feel the hot food, baths, and proper beds they had back in the capital, and were it not for the calm and quiet aura emanating from the glade, they would’ve jumped and whooped for joy.

    After ten more minutes, they arrived at the camp. Roland sent one of the men-at-arms to grab Dame Sheira’s group, and the others all relaxed. The squires were ecstatic at the prospect of going back home, and in their exultation, no one noticed Leon slipping away to somewhere quieter and less filled with people.

    Dame Sheira’s group arrived not too long after, and Roland showed off the amber. Everyone finally relaxed, knowing that the mission was almost over, and was as good as done so long as they were careful on the way out of this vale.

    So, the rest of the day was spent with everyone mostly sitting around the camp, polishing up their weapons and eating some food. The knights and their squires did some training, but it wasn’t very strenuous, and when they woke the next morning, the squires weren’t even sore.

    Artorias, throughout all this, continued to sleep. He hadn’t gotten much sleep after Roland revealed that he knew who he was, and now he was catching up. Even when everyone was admiring the heartwood trees’ golden glow during the night, Artorias slumbered on.

    He was awake by morning, though. He wasn’t emitting his killing intent like he was the previous day, but he wasn’t any more talkative. Roland excitedly informed him that they were good to go, and Artorias simply nodded, and led them out of the glade.

    It was an uneventful journey back to Leon and Artorias’ fort, and the two all but locked themselves up in their houses while Roland’s group rested outside. Their jubilant mood was only dampened when Sir Andrew threw together a wooden litter for Connor, and carved a small air rune on the bottom, just big enough to get it off the ground by a foot or so, and make it easier to carry Connor back home.

    The next morning, they left early, leaving the tents they borrowed from Artorias behind, intending to reach the mountain pass as quickly as possible. With the memory of what happened when they dallied for too long still fresh in their minds, as well as seeing Sir Andrew pull the floating litter behind them, they didn’t screw around. They didn’t slow down to admire the colorful forest, and they didn’t stop to stare down into the Divine Scar, either. They just continued west, towards the mountain pass.

    The sun was going down when they arrived, so Artorias and Leon decided to stay the night with Roland’s group in the pass.

    Roland took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to keeping Artorias’ location under wraps, but when he brought up the topic, Artorias fixed him in a steely gaze that made Roland retreat back towards his bedroll again.

    When the morning came, the squires approached Leon.

    “Thank you again, Leon, for all that you’ve done for us on this mission.” Luke said warmly, clasping Leon’s shoulder. Leon wasn’t a fan of that, and jerked his shoulder away, prompting Luke to apologize.

    “Well, then, I hope we meet again, Leon. Stay safe out there!” Victoria gave a beaming smile to Leon, and the young man smiled in embarrassment.

    “… Yeah… You too…” He was barely able to speak and gave a shy wave to the squires. And with that, he and Artorias turned and vanished back into the forest. Artorias didn’t bother saying goodbye to anyone.

    Roland nodded to his people, gave a somber look at Connor, also remembering the other two men-at-arms in Vale Town, and led his group west through the mountain pass.

  • Chapter 29:  A Call


    The trek through the pass went faster than it did when Artorias had led them, as everyone was quite eager to get home.  They were through in several hours, and on their way back to Vale Town.

    They arrived back in the small city after an uneventful trek by sundown and made for the storehouse they’d been staying at.  The party got settled in, while Roland went to the longhouse to speak with Torfinn.

    The chief was busy mediating an argument between a pair of merchants when Roland arrived.  He’d gotten word of the knight’s return to the city beforehand, and had expected Roland to come.

    As the paladin walked in, Torfinn smiled, and silenced the bickering merchants with a wave of his hand, followed by a stern look when one raised his voice to complain.  “Ah!  Sir Roland!  Welcome back!  I assume this means you’ve found what you were looking for?”

    “Yes, I have, and I must thank you for the assistance of both you and your tribe.”

    “Nonsense!  This is what friends do for each other, no?”

    “Indeed.  Well, I also came to thank you for your hospitality, and to inform you that my party and I will be leaving tomorrow morning, and I’m hoping you can assist us with gathering a few days’ worth of supplies.  We can pay in silver, of course.”

    “Sure thing, no problem!  Just don’t forget…”

    “The diplomats?  I remember.  You have my word as a paladin of the Bull Kingdom, I’ll have a diplomatic party sent north as soon as I arrive back in the capital, you can expect it within the year.”

    Torfinn smiled joyously.  “Good!  Hopefully our alliance will last longer this time!”

    Roland returned Torfinn’s bright smile, and said, “I hope so, as well.”

    So, Roland returned to the storehouse, and Torfinn had a few warriors escort the squires around the marketplace, augmenting their severely depleted supplies for the journey back through the southern mountain pass.

    None of the party was looking forward to journeying through that pass, however much they wanted to go home.  They had little choice, though, as it was the only known path that would take them where they wanted to go.  The smuggler’s path was already blocked, and even if it wasn’t, Marquis Grandison wouldn’t simply let them walk through his territory after killing his men.  There had been maps of the Frozen Mountains that showed other routes through, but they had all been lost when House Raime’s palace in Teira was destroyed.

    There were a few distant cadet branches of House Raime still kicking around the Plateau, but none could access the private archives deep beneath the palace ruins in Teira, and all the other houses of the Great Plateau were relatively young, three hundred years old or younger, and didn’t have reliable maps of the Frozen Mountain Range.

    Thus, the passage protected by Clear Ice Fortress was their only option.

    The next morning, the party set off with their fallen comrades in tow.  Half of the day was spent just returning to the Frozen Mountains and the pass itself.  There were a few small villages in the area, but Roland decided to make camp at the foot of the mountains, just outside the pass.

    They all got as much rest as they could that night and began the arduous journey through the pass the next morning.

    They navigated sheer cliffs, rocky paths, and frozen forests, resting in freezing caves.  It was a hard and deeply uncomfortable trek, but they were all strong and healthy mages, so after three and half days, they emerged on the south side of the mountains, exhausted but otherwise fine.

    The knights on the walls of Clear Ice Fortress recognized them, and opened the gate, allowing them back into the Kingdom.  They only stayed at the fortress for a single day, as they were quite eager to return to civilization.  They had spent almost three weeks in the vales, and were beyond happy to be back on their horses and moving south.

    The first big city on the road home was Teira, near the center of the Great Plateau.  There were a few towns and villages along the road, but they just rode right on past, and arrived in Teira only two days after leaving Clear Ice.

    Roland was proud of what everyone had done and arranged for the best rooms he could find on such short notice.  The bright lights and city noise of Teira was barely on everyone’s mind as they made directly for the beds and passed out.  Roland, Sir Andrew, and Sir Roger were the only three who didn’t, as they brought the bodies of the fallen men-at-arms to the local royal garrison and arranged for them to be sent to their families.  Once that was done, they went back to the inn and joined the others in sleep.

    The following afternoon, Roland called everyone into his room.  He was staying in one of the nicest rooms in the hotel, which was saying something as the hotel was one of the nicest in the city.  It had marble floors, walls covered in painted murals, and a courtyard with a garden that was open to the sun.

    Once everyone was gathered in his entrance hall, Roland spoke.  “Alright, I’m going to give everyone three days of rest here in the city.  Go out, have some fun, and relax.  Just, be back here by noon on Tuesday, got it?”

    Everyone’s faces broke into smiles, and they had to contain their excitement.  Fortunately, they didn’t have to contain it that long, as once everyone nodded in acknowledgement of Roland’s order, he dismissed them all.

    Victoria sped off to find a tailor for the silkgrass she had brought back, and all but dragged Luke along with her.

    Kevin, John, and two of the men-at-arms made for the biggest merchant forum in Teira.

    Roland, Dame Sheira, and Sir Roger decided to wander this ancient city, visiting the major attractions like the Lightning Fields, Konstantine’s Dome, and the immense library on a hill near the southern edge of the city.

    “Hey, Adrianos, want to come with us?”  Sir Andrew called out.

    The man-at-arms glanced at Sir Andrew and the three other men-at-arms with him.  They all had rather lascivious looks about them, so he could guess where they intended to go.

    “Let me guess, you’re all off to the red-light district.”

    Sir Andrew and the men-at-arms grinned at him.  “Of course, we are.  We’re going to toast to our fallen brothers, and find some girls to warm our beds.  You should come with, you’ve earned some female attention.”

    Adrianos smiled apologetically.  “Nah.  I’m going to the Exarch’s office.”

    Sir Andrew raised an eyebrow in confusion.  “Do you have some business with the royal governor?”

    “No, but I need to use their comm stones.  My, uh, my sister was always frail, and she came down with a nasty illness before we left.  I’m sure she’s fine, but I’m still worried, so I’d like to call home and touch base.”

    “Alright, I understand.  Family’s important, you should take care of yours.  Anyway, I’ve heard some enticing things about the Red Lamp, so if you do decide to join us, that’s where we’ll be.”  Sir Andrew clasped Adrianos’ shoulder, and he and his group left.

    Adrianos smiled at them and began making his way to an imposing building in the center of the southern district.  This place was the Exarch’s Office, and was the only building for about five hundred feet, as all the others around it had been demolished.  It wasn’t very fancy, in contrast to the opulent palaces in the same district, just a large rectangular building about five stories high, the very picture of a dry, boring, bureaucratic building.

    The Exarch of Teira himself was just someone sent to keep the peace in the city after Archduke Kyros Raime had been assassinated, but he wasn’t a polarizing man.  He did his job well, and no one hated him.  He wasn't particularly beloved, either, but so long as the people weren’t taking advantage of the fall of House Raime to rebel against the Bull King, then all was well.

    Adrianos walked up the to large door, and pushed it open.  The interior of the building was far more decorated than the outside, with marble floors streaked with spiraling black patterns, thick red carpets, and walls adorned with paintings.  Adrianos didn’t even glance at any of the decorations as he walked through the large atrium, and approached the large granite desk, behind which sat a dozen receptionists.

    He asked the nearest available receptionist for directions to the comm stone room, and walked as swiftly as he could there.  His hands were starting to shake from excitement, and his heart beat far faster than it should at the speed he was walking.  This was to be a very important call, and could possibly mean going back to the home he hadn’t seen in over a decade, so it was natural that he was getting nervous.

    When Adrianos arrived at the communications room, he approached the manager’s desk.

    “Here for a call?” the manager asked disinterestedly.

    “Yeah.”

    “Papers.”

    Adrianos gave him his I.D. papers, and the manager closely scrutinized them, freezing for moment when he noticed that Adrianos was of House Isynos, but he recovered quickly.  When he was satisfied, he gave them back, and asked, “Where and who do you want to call?”

    “Lord Justin Isynos, Exarch of Calabria.”

    “Very well.  Follow me, please.”  He led Adrianos down a nearby hall, and into one of several rooms branching off from it.  The room was very dark, with heavy black curtains lining the room, and only a single magic lantern in the center of the ceiling.  The curtains had been enchanted to dampen noise, so unless Adrianos was shouting bloody murder, no one outside the room would be able to hear what was said inside.

    “Wait here, please.”  The manager gestured to a comfortable looking arm chair, which, apart from a low table in front of it, was the only piece of furniture in the room.

    The manager left the room, and Adrianos sat down in the chair.  About ten minutes passed before the manager returned, with a bright blue stone in one hand and a stand to set it on in the other.  He first placed the stand, then the stone upon it, and began activating a series of magic glyphs on the stand.

    The stand was a large black box, about the size of a suitcase, and was covered in barely visible runic symbols, forming an incredibly complex web of interconnected magic glyphs.  These glyphs controlled where the accompanying stone would seek a connection, and it required an extremely intricate knowledge of these particular enchantments to connect to the right stone in the right place.

    After a few more moments of poking the stand, the fist-sized stone began glowing brighter, and it began to gently hover about two feet off the stand.  The manager finished up, then glanced over at Adrianos.

    “When you’re done, simply activate this magic circle.”  He pointed to a small orange circle the size of fingernail on the front of the stand.  “If there are any problems, feel free to come get me.”  And with that, he left the room, giving Adrianos some privacy. 

    The stone pulsed several times over the next few seconds, before a gruff voice was heard coming from it.

    “Calabrian Exarch’s Office, how may I help you?”

    “This is Adrianos Isynos, I need to speak with Lord Justin.”  Given the way these stones worked, the man on the other end knew exactly where the call was coming from, and thus didn’t need Adrianos to confirm his identity.

    “Lord Justin isn’t in the building, currently.  Is this urgent?”

    “Yes, very.”

    “Ok, you can either leave a message or wait for us to inform Lord Justin of your call.”

    “I’ll wait.”

    “Very well.”

    Calabria was over a thousand miles to the south of Teira, located on a large river that flowed from the western ranges of the Frozen Mountains, then running south through the capital and splitting off to several merchant cities on the coast of the southern gulf.  Trade goods would flow from these cities upriver, passing through Calabria where the river split, and entering the lake in the middle of the capital.  This flow of goods through the city had made Calabria rich, and there had been a lot of outrage among the nobility when King Julius had assigned a noble that no one had ever heard of before to administer it.

    Compared to the much larger cities of Teira and the capital, Calabria looked quite small, but it still had a respectable population of about one hundred thousand.  The largest building by far was the summer home of an exorbitantly wealthy merchant who lived in the capital, but the residence of the Exarch far outstripped it in terms of luxury and elegance.  It looked quite similar to the royal palace, with intricately carved and painted murals on the white stone walls, decorative marble columns and blind arcades, and red roof tiles.  The entire palace had been built around a central courtyard large enough to have both an expansive garden and a stone platform big enough to train upon in the martial and magical arts.

    Currently, this platform was occupied by a grizzled older man, a sixth-tier mage with short brown hair and enormous muscles, and a young woman about sixteen years old, a third-tier mage, with long silver hair loosely tied in a ponytail, a fit, attractive figure, and stunning blue eyes.  They were sparring with sword and shield, with the older man providing instruction.

    Above them, from a balcony on the third floor, another man was proudly watching his daughter train with the master-at-arms.  He, too, had silver hair that almost sparkled in the sunlight, and eyes like a crystal clear blue lake.  He carried himself with an air of authority, and despite his thin and unimpressive frame, an aura of strength and vitality emanated from him.

    This man was Lord Justin Isynos.

    “Yes!  Your aggressiveness is very good!  But you still leave yourself open!”  The master-at-arms deflected the young woman’s strike and kicked out, sweeping her feet out from under her.  She fell to the ground for perhaps the fiftieth time that day.

    “You’re focusing too much on your upper body, leaving your legs and feet open.  If you lose your footing in a real fight, your head will soon follow.  Again!”

    The young woman leapt back to her feet, and with a great roar, threw herself again at the master-at-arms.  Her assault was swift and unpredictable, every strike would be a killing blow had her opponent been mortal, but none penetrated the master-at-arms’ iron-clad defense.  Everywhere she struck, his shield would appear, and he easily deflected her attack again and bashed her with his shield, knocking her back to the ground.

    “Keep yourself lower to the ground.  A low center of gravity will help resist shield bashes and body slams.”  He demonstrated by spreading his feet slightly farther apart and keeping his knees bent.

    As Lord Justin watched, the door to the sitting room behind him opened, and Timotheos, one of the mages sworn to House Isynos walked in.  Timotheos bowed, then whispered a few words in Lord Justin’s ear, “We’ve received a call from Adrianos.  He says it’s urgent.”

    Lord Justin nodded, then turned back to the two training beneath him.

    “Valeria!  That’s enough.  The rest of the day is yours.”  He smiled down at his daughter who looked a bit aggrieved, but gave her father a slight bow and hopped down from the sparring platform, closely followed by the master-at-arms who was still talking about how she could improve.

    Lord Justin turned back to Timotheos.  “Well, let’s go see what Adrianos finds so urgent.”

    The two swiftly walked out of the palace, crossed an enormous garden, and arrived at the back entrance of the Exarch’s Office.  A few moments later, they had entered a room very similar to the one Adrianos was in, except Lord Justin’s was larger and far more richly decorated.  The curtains were gilded with gold, and the chair even resembled a throne.

    But, Lord Justin didn’t care about the decorations, and immediately sat down while looking to the hovering orb before him.

    “Adrianos!  How have you been?”

    “Very well, my lord.  In fact, I have discovered some information of monumental importance.”

    “Ah, that’s what I like about you, always getting straight to the point.  So, what have you found?”

    “The hiding place of Artorias Raime and his son.”

    That stunned Lord Justin.  His eyes widened in shock and his relaxed and easygoing expression froze upon his face.  He recovered just as quickly, however, and asked, “You’re sure?  If you’re right, then we might be able to go home very soon, so if you’re mistaken…”

    “A tall dark-haired man from a family known for its lightning magic.  He stated his name was ‘Artorias’, and he has a son about sixteen or seventeen.  Sir Roland, the paladin I was accompanying, came to the same conclusion I did, and privately asked the man if he was Artorias Raime, and the man himself confirmed it!”

    Lord Justin tried to maintain his calm look, but it started to slip, as inside he was a maelstrom of excitement.  He glanced back at Timotheos, then back at the stone.

    “I’m sending Timotheos and a few others on my fastest horses.  They’ll be in Teira by tomorrow, and you’ll lead them to Artorias and his son.  Get this done, and we can all leave this trash pile of a kingdom.”  He gestured to Timotheos to come forward and speak with Adrianos, hammering out the details of where to meet.

    As the two were leaving the Exarch’s Office to return to the palace, Lord Justin said, “Go grab three others of your choice, and take my Saternan horses.  Oh, and best take a vial of Souleater Venom as well, just to be sure.”  Souleater Venom was extremely rare, but Lord Justin had been given three vials when he was sent to the Bull Kingdom.

    “Yes, my lord.”  Timotheos ran off to gather his team, and Lord Justin calmed his exuberant heart, regaining his calm and serene attitude.

  • Chapter 30:  An Attack


    Timotheos grabbed his three best men and barely gave them time enough to pack a few days of food and a change of clothes before dragging them to the stables.  Lord Justin had sent word to get his four best horses ready, and when Timotheos and his team arrived the stablemen had just finished getting them saddled and ready.

    The Saternan horses were lean and muscular, not as large as a courser, but they could run at speeds of over one hundred miles per hour and sustain that pace for several days.

    The four men jumped on the horses and sped off, almost knocking over the stablemen who hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.  They were in quite the rush and pushed the horses hard.  Teira was a long way away, and they intended to get there by the next morning.  So, they rapidly rode west, towards the setting sun, until they were out of the city, then turned north.

    It was a long night, but the horses lived up to their reputation.  The group had made it to an enormous land bridge that led up to the Great Plateau by sunrise and was in Teira just in time for a late breakfast.  But none of them had any intention of stopping for food despite their fatigue, as their destination was the only thing on their mind.

    When the Isynians arrived in the Bull Kingdom fifteen years ago, they immediately began to create a spy network.  It wasn’t to spy on the kingdom, but rather to look for Artorias and Leon.  One such spy operated as a baker, and it was his house that Timotheos’ group rode to.

    After arriving in Teira, their pace slowed considerably as the baker’s house was far away from the white stone and marble of the richer districts, and as such, the roads were smaller and more cramped.  Fortunately for them, most of the people had left their houses to go to work, so despite the slower pace, the four men rode through the streets largely unhindered.

    The baker’s place was a small one-story house with dirty timber walls and a wooden roof.  It had a path leading to a private backyard with a tall wooden fence, and that’s where the group dismounted their horses.  The baker immediately opened his back door and came out to greet them, but Timotheos wasn’t interested in his greetings.  He only held out a pouch of coins.  The baker grabbed the heavy pouch, but Timotheos didn’t let go.  Instead, he pulled the baker in close, and said, “This money is so you can buy some good feed for the horses.  Some people in my lord’s employ will arrive in a day or two to pick them up, and if they haven’t eaten…”  He left the threat unstated, but the mortal baker was able to pick up on the implication.  His face paled, and he nodded furiously.

    “Good.  Now, my where is my associate?”

    “Indoors, good sir.”

    Timotheos pushed past the baker and walked into the house.  It was dark, filthy, and filled with the stench of mold.  Timotheos’ face scrunched up in disgust.

    “My Lord pays you too much for this place to be so abhorrent.  Get this house cleaned up!”  The baker nodded so fast that he had cracking sounds come from his neck.

    Adrianos heard Timotheos’ voice and poked his head out from around a corner.

    “Cousin!  It’s been too long!”  Timotheos pulled Adrianos into an affectionate headlock, then dragged him out of the house.

    “Argh!  Where are we going?!  Shouldn’t we talk inside?”  Adrianos sputtered.

    “We’re going north.  We can talk on the way.”  Timotheos released Adrianos, and the five men walked past the horses and back around to the front of the house.

    “What about the horses?  Wouldn’t it be faster to take them north?”  Adrianos asked curiously.

    “Lord Justin only lent them to us to get us to Teira as quickly as possible.  They’re very expensive, even for him, and he isn’t willing to risk them getting hurt or stolen, so we’re leaving them here.  He sent a collection team after us, and they’ll take those horses back to Calabria.”

    “What about us?  How will we return back south?”

    Timotheos looked at Adrianos mockingly, and said, “Oh?  Is the knight’s little errand boy worried about getting a few blisters from walking a bit?”

    “No, I just want to get this done fast.”

    “Well, we’re going on our own power from here.  How far away is our objective?”

    “About two hundred miles north, then another seventy or eighty miles east.”

    “Ok, we can do that before nightfall,” Timotheos said confidently.  He knew how rough the Frozen Mountains are, but his group wasn’t weighed down by weaker mages, so he didn’t think much of it.  Clear Ice Fortress wasn’t a concern, either, as the group was confident that they could sneak past it with no one the wiser.

    The group walked down the empty street, and the light around them began to twist and bend, while their shadows grew darker and thicker.  Their bodies began to emit a smoky darkness, and they sank down into their shadows.  The baker had made sure the horses were securely tied to his fence and came around the house to see off the group, but all he saw were a few lingering wisps of darkness.

    Five shadows sped across the streets, sticking to the shadows of buildings and crowds when possible.  No one saw any more than the baker, and soon enough, they had left Teira completely undetected.  Once out of the city, they went north, keeping the road in sight while staying about a hundred feet away from it, well into the dirt, bushes, and trees where no one would notice these moving shadows.

    In a couple hours, they spotted Clear Ice Fortress.  The commander of the fortress was a sixth-tier mage, and his immediate subordinates were fifth-tier mages, but none were attentive enough to spot Timotheos’ group.  The shadows shot over the ground, past the fortress, up and over the ice wall, and vanished into the Frozen Mountains.  None of the soldiers at Clear Ice saw a thing.

    The cold still affected them as shadows, and the rough terrain slowed them down a bit, but they lost little time.  In fact, even though they had grown tired passing through the mountains, they still emerged on the other side before the sun had set.

    Despite their mounting fatigue from the all-night ride and crossing the mountains, Timotheos pushed them onwards with Adrianos at his side guiding him.  They had no intention of going to Vale Town, going directly east instead, towards the passage to the Forest of Black and White.

    Adrianos whispered to Timotheos, “We should rest when we get to the pass.”

    “Why?” asked Timotheos.

    “It… wouldn’t be wise to enter that vale after dark.  It’s infested with ice wraiths and banshees.  We’re ill-suited to fighting them.”

    Timotheos thought for a moment, then nodded in agreement.  “Ok, we’ll get a good night’s sleep in the pass.”  That’s exactly what they did.  Artorias and Leon weren’t anywhere near the pass, and no tribesmen ever went anywhere close to the Forest of Black and White, so they rested without interruption.

    They were up bright and early and set off as soon as they wolfed down some breakfast.  They returned to their shadow forms and sped through the pass, emerging into the Forest of Black and White not long after.

    “Ugh, what the hell is that aura?!  This place feels awful!” one of the men said.

    “I don’t know, but it seems to get stronger the farther east we go…” replied Adrianos.

    “It doesn’t matter.  We have a job to do, and we’ll get it done, no matter what,” said Timotheos, pushing the group onwards.

    The sun was still rising, but the vale had grown bright enough that the banshees, ice wraiths, and other, less common night-time creatures had returned to their lairs, so the group proceeded without incident.  The only time they stopped was at the Divine Scar, as even these men were struck with awe at its sight and the residual aura of the titanic attack that made it.  But they didn’t stop long, just enough to get a good look, then off they were again.

    It wasn’t even noon when they arrived at the purple grass clearing, and laid eyes on the fort.  They were still very careful, however, and didn’t dispel their shadow forms.

    “This is the place?” asked Timotheos.

    “It is.  Not that there’s too much room for confusion, as there doesn’t appear to be any other man-made structure in the entire vale.” Adrianos responded.

    Timotheos very carefully spread his magic sense out over the fort but wasn’t able to see anything.  He could see many of the wards and enchantments carved into the walls blocking his sight, though.

    “Well, it seems that wall is very heavily warded.  If possible, I’d like to do this as quietly as possible, and there isn’t a good way over that wall without alerting the people inside.  How do they get in?”

    “A tunnel that goes under the wall, with a pair of doors.”  Adrianos pointed it out to Timotheos.

    “Ok.  We’ll wait here, in the shadows of the forest, for the night to fall.  We’ll get fully rested, then we’ll infiltrate through that tunnel.  I doubt the wards on the doors will be too difficult for us to undo.”

    Timotheos was disciplined and cautious, despite his pride and sense of superiority.  Even if he were tasked with killing a common mortal, he’d wait until night when they were fast asleep to strike.  For one, his shadow magic would be far more potent and useful in the dark to accommodate its lack of defensive strength, and for another, he never ruled out the possibility that he would make a mistake or that his enemy would have some means of defeating him that he didn’t know about.

    So, there they waited.  The sun slowly crawled up the sky, then begin to fall after reaching its zenith.  The vale was bright and warm during the day, but as the sun fell, it grew darker and colder.

    During the evening, the group heard the sounds of footsteps and the rustling of leaves.  They turned to the source of the sounds and saw Artorias and Leon carrying a pair of dead wind wolves back to the fort.

    “That’s them,” muttered Adrianos.

    The father-son pair were chatting, completely relaxed in the slowly growing darkness of the vale’s evening.  The five men spying on them were nothing more than shadows in the trees, so it was doubtful whether they would have been seen even if the two had been paying attention.

    “They certainly match their descriptions,” muttered Timotheos.

    “They’re out targets, for sure,” responded Adrianos.  

    “Should we attack now?  They certainly aren’t expecting it…” one of the other men asked.

    “No.  This supposed ‘Artorias’ is giving me a bad vibe.  I can’t quite make sense of his aura, I don’t know how strong he is…” responded Timotheos.  “We proceed with the original plan, wait until night, then infiltrate the compound and kill them in their sleep.”

    They watched Artorias and Leon walk to the entrance tunnel and disappear within. 

    Timotheos and his kill team stayed in those shadows for another six hours, watching the tunnel and waiting for the sun to finish setting, then watching the moon slowly rise.

    Timotheos was quietly impressed with the detail in the wards protecting the fort, as with his magic senses he could see the wraiths and banshees that wandered the forest, but none ever strayed too close to the clearing.  This place had been made very safe from the dangers of the forest.

    But it’s not safe from me…’ he thought, glancing up at the moon as it neared its peak.

    “Let’s do this,” he muttered, and the team shot out from their hiding place, and arrived at the entrance tunnel in seconds.

    Once there, they quickly shed their shadows, as they were terrible for interacting with the physical world, given the incorporeality of shadows.  For stealth, shadow magic was invaluable, but when they need to get past a magically sealed door, there was little they could do but step out from the shadows.

    As one of the men quickly undid the wards on the door, the rest quietly drew their weapons.  Adrianos had his sword, and Timotheos had one as well, but the rest all had shorter daggers, perfect for fighting in extremely tight spaces.

    The man working on the door smiled derisively.  These wards could barely even keep out a fourth-tier mage!  After a bit of magic applied to the proper places, the wards shattered, and he swung the door open.  Then, he too drew his dagger, and the team filed into the tunnel, immediately making for the inner door.

    Had they been a bit slower or a bit more attentive, they might have noticed a glyph on the back of the first door gently pulse, then vanish.

    As their door guy got to work examining the wards on the inner door, the outer door slammed closed, and the tunnel was plunged into darkness.  Timotheos and his team were startled, but they were professionals, and it took only a moment for them to pull out small magic lanterns about the size of a watch, illuminating the tunnel.

    Timotheos looked around, confused, trying to figure out why the door had slammed shut, but the lanterns had only been activated for a few seconds before the stone bricks on the walls cracked and splintered.  The team had a brief moment to silently curse, and then the walls imploded with an earthshaking blast.

    The tunnel was filled with broken and shattered stone fragments, and the team was right in the middle of it.  It felt like every inch of their body was hit with a piece of stone.

    They were left stunned and disorientated, but being powerful mages, they were left with little more than cuts and bruises.  Adrianos was the sole exception, as he was the weakest of the group.  He had a long sliver of stone about the length of his hand stuck in his chest, and he was bleeding from the ears.

    None of them had the time to recover after the implosions, however, as the destroyed walls revealed large water runes.  They immediately activated, and the tunnel was completely flooded in seconds.  This was followed by a deep bass sound, like the rumbling of huge stones reverberating throughout the forest for several miles.

    Now, the team began to panic.  The man working on the inner door found that it was far more heavily reinforced and warded, and he doubted he would be able to get through it even if he weren’t in danger of drowning, and the outer door had closed, locking them in the tunnel.

    Timotheos, being the strongest and most composed of the team, took a moment to assess his situation.  He figured that if he put all his power into one attack, he might be able to break through one of the doors.  Breaking through the inner door was out of the question, as it would leave them vulnerable as they exited the tunnel, so he quickly swam back to the outer door.

    New, stronger wards had appeared on the inside of the door, as if to mock the team’s previous attitude, but Timotheos paid it no mind.  At higher tiers, a mage isn’t restricted to one type of elemental magic, though they’ll usually stick with the type they’re most proficient at in combat.  Timotheos and his team could use shadow magic, but it was poorly suited to actual combat after their cover is blown, so if they had to fight, they’d use a variety of different powers. 

    In Timotheos’ case, he was able to use wind magic.  He concentrated his magic into his sword, and the water was repelled a few inches away from it.  He then swung his sword at the door, putting all his strength and power behind the strike.  An enormous blast of air hit the door and shook it violently.  The door held, but the wood it was made of began to splinter and bend.  Timotheos followed up with a second attack, and then a third.  He kept striking the door until finally, after half a dozen strikes, it burst free from its frame.

    The water surged through the opening, but the depression leading into the tunnel wasn’t very big, so it didn’t go far.  Timotheos and his team were still able to swim out of the tunnel and drag themselves back onto dry land, however.

    After taking a few moments to catch their breath, and Adrianos removing the stone sliver still lodged in his chest with a wince of pain, they looked back at the fort.

    “What’s the chances they didn’t hear any of that?” one of the men asked.

    “Non-existent,” replied Timotheos.  His eyes wandered over to the walls.  They had been warded to keep away the beasts of the forest, not repel humans.  There were alarm enchantments at the top, though stealth had been completely blown at this point.  “Fuck it.  We’re going over the walls.” Timotheos growled angrily.

    They all knew that they had lost the element of surprise, so no one argued with him.  They just gripped their weapons with renewed resolve and leaped over the fifteen-foot-high walls.

    There, they were greeted with the sight of Artorias standing by the central obelisk, sword in hand, and fury evident on his face.  His killing intent soared, hitting them like a brick wall, but they too had powerful killing auras, and they were left largely unaffected.  Timotheos and his three men quickly spread out to surround Artorias, while Adrianos looked around for Leon, who they couldn’t see.

    “You all have made a grave mistake in coming here…” spat Artorias as his body became wreathed in lightning.  He raised his sword and attacked.


  • Chapter 31:  The Fight


    When Artorias and Leon had returned home just a few hours before, they had no inkling that this night would change everything about their lives forever.  It was just a night like any other.

    They hung up the two wind wolves they hunted in the ice shack, while Artorias prepared some dinner and Leon meditated.  Almost a week had passed since Roland and his party had left, so life had largely returned to normal.  Leon went to bed relatively early, but Artorias stayed up for a while longer, as he wanted to take some time to look at the stars and think.

    We should leave this place since I’ve been identified.  But where should we go?  Going further east is too dangerous, and west is too populated…’  Artorias felt that Roland was worthy of trust, but it never hurt to be careful.  The only thing that gave him pause was what Leon would think about the move as he still hadn’t brought it up with his son, yet.

    He dozed off without deciding on anything not long after sundown, but he was awoken when he heard a loud explosion and felt the shockwave rush through the ground.  He jumped to his feet, took a moment to look around and shake off the last vestiges of sleep, then charged back to his house to grab his sword.

    He heard the torrential flooding of the tunnel and knew that the fort was under attack.  To confirm it, all the runes on the obelisk began flashing a dark red, and it gave a deep rumble that echoed throughout the forest.

    Leon, shocked and bleary-eyed, emerged half-dressed from his house.

    “Leon!  Get back inside, now!” Artorias shouted, and Leon blinked once in confusion before the reality of the situation sank in and he ducked back inside, slamming the door shut behind him.

    Artorias heard a few dull thumping sounds coming from the tunnel, and a few moments later, five men jumped over the walls, landing in the grass just off the stone courtyard.  He recognized Adrianos, and his blood began to boil from rage.  ‘Did that paladin betray me?!  He promised that he wouldn’t speak a word about our location!’ he thought, thinking for a moment that his impression of Roland was wrong and the paladin was to blame.  But, he put that out of his mind for now.  There would be time enough for placing blame when these intruders were dead at his feet.

    Artorias called forth his magic, becoming enveloped in lightning, and let his killing intent pour out of him.  Timotheos and his men did likewise.  Although their killing auras were slightly weaker than Artorias’, they still stood firm against him.

    Artorias glared at them.  “You all have made a grave mistake in coming here…” he said with obvious rage.  He raised his trusty sword, then lunged forward, crossing the distance between him and the closest intruder in a blink of an eye, bringing his blade down backed with all his might and fury.

    This man was an earth mage of the sixth-tier, but he barely had time to summon a rock pillar from the ground to block Artorias before the sword came crashing down upon it.  The rock blocked the sword, but the lightning the Artorias was wreathed in arced around the pillar and hit the man like a battering ram.  He flew backward, with Artorias’ lightning magic coursing through him, ravaging his body.

    Artorias turned to the next man, but this guy wasn’t going to be put on the defensive.  This man’s dagger wasn’t suited to defending against Artorias’ longsword, so he simply dropped it and a gout of flame burst out of his hands, directly in Artorias’ face.  A few singed hairs didn’t matter to Artorias, however, and he stabbed out with his sword, piercing straight through the attacker’s chest and skewering his heart.  Artorias then blasted his opponent with lightning, filling his entire body with it, tearing apart his magical body and shattering his soul realm.  The man breathed his last, and Artorias withdrew his sword, allowing him to fall lifelessly to the ground.

    Timotheos saw this as an opening and targeted Artorias’ exposed back.  He swung his sword, sending a sharp blade of wind slicing through the air towards Artorias.  Lightning magic was extremely weak on defense but made up for it with nearly unparalleled speed and explosive attack power.  Artorias put these traits on display as he seemingly turned into a lightning bolt for a split second and dodged Timotheos’ wind blade, which then tore through the wall behind him.  The solid and magically reinforced oak logs that made up the wall were sliced clean through, and almost twenty percent of the wall was cut in half.

    Light magic was perhaps the only type of elemental magic that could match Artorias’ lightning in sheer speed, but Timotheos used his wind magic to put that to the test as he closed the distance between himself and the lightning mage in a single step.  The two men became a blur of whirling swords that crashed against each other with earsplitting shrieks.  Artorias’ lightning surged against Timotheos and the wind mage countered with blades of wind.  The ground shook from the force behind every attack and the other mages couldn’t even get close to assist Timotheos.

    Adrianos decided to take this opportunity while Artorias was distracted to look for Leon, as the young man still hadn’t shown himself yet.  He darted towards Leon’s house and kicked the door.  Artorias had indulged his every paranoia when building this place and had even reinforced the two houses, so the door only bent inwards a little, and held against Adrianos’ attack.

    Meanwhile, the last of Timotheos’ men went to help his injured comrade.

    “This is bad, I think this guy is at least late seventh-tier, close to breaking through to the eighth,” the injured man said with pain as the other cauterized his wounds with fire magic, though he couldn’t do anything about the lightning burns.

    The fire mage frowned.  Timotheos was seventh-tier as well, but the soul realm grows throughout the entire seventh-tier.  A mage enters the eighth-tier once the soul realm grows to have a diameter of one hundred miles.  The bigger the soul realm, the more magic the mage has to draw upon.  Timotheos’ soul realm was only about seventy-five miles, which meant that Artorias probably outclassed all of them in raw power.

    “Then we’ll have to work together and beat him with numbers and skill.” the fire mage said to his injured companion.

    By now, Adrianos had realized that he wasn’t going to get through the door, not while he continued to limit himself.  Roland and his knights all thought that Adrianos was only a fourth-tier mage and Adrianos allowed them to continue thinking that way.  This allowed him to go wherever the paladin went and kept him out of the spotlight.  But now, he sighed, and ice began creeping over his skin.

    He completely unleashed his power, that of the fifth-tier, and began wailing on the door again.  This time, it only took three more kicks for the door to cave inwards, barely clinging to its hinges, and Adrianos was inside.

    He looked around, but since his magic senses hadn’t been able to penetrate the wards on the house, he didn’t know where Leon was, or if he was even still in it.  But he was and hiding just behind the opened door.  He had drawn his hunting knife, channeled all the magic he could into it, then lunged out at Adrianos.

    The blade stabbed towards Adrianos’ exposed neck, but Adrianos’ reflexes were sharp, and he was much stronger than Leon.  Icy armor quickly appeared, deflecting the blade and throwing Leon off balance.  The spy then twisted his upper body and slammed his fist into the side of Leon’s chest.  The younger man was thrown across the room, crashing into the wall with a sickening crunch, and fell to the ground.  He tried to rise, but the pain overcame him, and he collapsed again.

    Adrianos quickly approached, sword drawn, and prepared to stab downwards into the sixteen-year-old.  However, just as he brought the sword up, he heard a tremendous thunderclap that shook the entire house, and a scream of pain from Timotheos outside.

    In a flash of lightning, Artorias had appeared behind Adrianos, his face shrouded in shadow and his own furious killing aura.  In one swift motion, he brought his sword down upon the spy’s shoulder, cutting straight through the muscle and bone and all the way all the way through the waist.  Adrianos didn’t have time to even shout in surprise before his life ended.

    With the door busted open and the wards carved into the house’s walls disrupted, Timotheos was able to use his magic senses to see his cousin cut down.  His face twisted in grief, but he knew this wasn’t the time to lose his head.  He glanced at his remaining two men.

    “This guy’s soul realm probably exceeds ninety miles.  We’re not going to overpower him,” he said grimly.  “You and I will engage him, you’ll prepare the venom and strike when you get an opening.”  The fire mage nodded and moved to join him, while the injured man began fumbling around in a small pouch he had at his waist.

    Inside Leon’s house, Artorias took the brief respite to check on his son.  Leon was still alive, but Adrianos hadn’t just broken a number of ribs, he had also sent some of his power into Leon’s body.  It wasn’t enough to freeze him, but Leon had fallen unconscious from the pain and shock while his body naturally used its own magic power to fight back against Adrianos’.

    “Rest here, my boy.  Let me take care of this.” Artorias whispered, gently placing his hand on Leon’s shoulder and sending some of his own power to help drive out Adrianos’ ice magic from his son.  Then, he stood and calmly walked back outside.

    As he stepped back out into the moonlight, Timotheos and his fire mage were waiting for him.  Their quick fight had taken its toll on Artorias and Timotheos, as each saw that the other was bleeding from dozens of tiny cuts, and they were covered in bruises.  Timotheos even had a large gash on his stomach that he was desperately trying to ignore for now.

    Artorias spat out a mouthful of blood, then charged again with a flash of lightning, slashing his sword towards Timotheos.  Timotheos parried the attack with a well-practiced swish of his own sword, while the fire mage snapped his fingers and directed a fiery explosion towards Artorias.

    For a moment, their view of Artorias was blocked by the bright orange flame, but a blast of lightning cut through it and slammed into the fire mage, severing an arm.  The mage dropped to his knees in pain, and the fire dissipated.

    Artorias’ clothes were a little singed, and his fingers slightly blackened, but that didn’t stop him from following through with another lunge at Timotheos. 

    Timotheos successfully blocked but was forced back a step.  For a moment, he contemplated how such a common looking sword like the one Artorias was using was able to stand up to his ornate heavily enchanted black steel blade, but he forcibly stamped down on those thoughts.  Artorias’ fighting style was extremely aggressive, and it left him with little room for anything but concentrating on his defense.

    The fire mage had almost lost consciousness from the loss of his arm, but he clenched his teeth and raised his one remaining arm for another attack.  He used all the magic left to him and conjured a small flame in his palm.  It was only about the size of a butterfly, and it very gently roiled and seethed.  But when the mage pushed it out towards Artorias, it flew across the stone square with blinding speed.  It hit Artorias in the back and exploded with great fury.

    Artorias cried out in pain, before tearing off his burning shirt.  Timotheos swung his sword into the flames, hoping to catch Artorias while he was distracted, but the lightning mage had surged backward in a flash of lightning, stabbing his sword straight through the fire mage’s throat.

    The dead fire mage fell back while Artorias turned back to face Timotheos.  Both men were breathing very hard and had little magic power left in their blood, but their soul realms were recovering their reserves.  The two carefully circled each other, never allowing their attention to waver for a single moment, always keeping the other in sight.  And that was Artorias’ mistake.

    Timotheos had circled around Artorias in a direction that left his last man behind the lightning mage, and he had just finished applying a thick black liquid onto his dagger.  The injured man was the weakest of the three that Timotheos had picked, but he was still an earth mage of the sixth-tier.  And now, he saw his chance.  Artorias wasn’t paying any attention to him and had left his burnt back wide open.  The injured man struggled to his feet as quietly as he could and made very brief eye contact with Timotheos.  Timotheos began slowly inching towards Artorias, who narrowed his eyes and tensed up, preparing to lunge forward again.

    Unfortunately, the injured man made the first move.  He had crept up on Artorias, and when he was in range, stabbed forward with his knife.  Artorias realized what was happening, and twisted out of the way just in time, slicing the injured man in half at the hips in the same motion.

    Timotheos, too, took the chance to move.  While Artorias was turning back around to face him, Timotheos gathered all the mana he had left and channeled it into his legs.  He sprinted at the dagger, catching it as it fell from the injured man’s lifeless hand.  Artorias’ eyes widened as he realized he wouldn’t be fast enough to block this one, and he braced himself.  Timotheos drove the knife home, sinking it deep into Artorias’ chest.

    But, Timotheos bet it all on this one last attack and now he was in striking range of Artorias.  The lightning mage raised his sword and stabbed it through Timotheos’ shoulder.  The sword traveled down into Timotheos’ chest, impaling his heart and shattering his soul realm.  Artorias’ magic power flooded through him, ripping his magic body to shreds, and Timotheos knew that his life had come to an end. 

    He lamented that no one would be able to report back Lord Justin.  He lamented that he hadn’t been able to complete his mission, as even if Artorias died now, his son would still live on.  Perhaps most of all, he lamented that his cousin died so far away from home and that neither of them would ever see that home again.  All breath left his lungs, and his eyes closed, never to reopen.

    Artorias lasted slightly longer, standing amidst the broken and burning remnants of his home.  The storage shack had been cut in half from an errant wind blade, large parts of the wall had been cut to pieces, much of the grass was still on fire, and the tunnel was flooded.  But he wasn’t thinking about any of that right now.  He took a few staggering steps towards Leon’s house, but the venom that coated the knife in his chest was potent and was already coursing throughout his entire body.  The last of his strength left him and he collapsed, unable to move.

    “Dad!”

    For a moment, he thought he heard Leon’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure, as he felt his consciousness slip away.


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