“So, then. This Dawson fellow. How dangerous is he?”
Damien let loose a deep frown, which looked many folds deeper as the weak light from a lone oil-lit lamp flickered about.
“Very. He’s not to be underestimated.”
Derrick’s reply was bitter yet cautious, low and soft, as he tried not to rouse Kain, sleeping on a bed next to them.
It was nighttime in the city of Lafayette. Inside a room in a mid-class inn, where the traveling group decided to spend the night in, only the two Lomaxes were awake, and discussing the matter of one Special Bureau agent. It wasn’t the most luxurious accommodation out there, but it sure was affordable. Situated next to the Adventurer’s Association building, the place was favored by the Adventurers and the like.
Most importantly though, its security was top notch, only because of all the heavily armed folks staying here.
“Wait, could he be the one who got Hurst arrested for murder?”
Recalling a fairly ugly story from a couple of years ago, Damien asked.
“Yes. I’ve no clear evidence, but hearsay indicates it was indeed him. My contacts have said Dawson was seen on the move during the investigation.”
Derrick’s face was grim as he chewed the words out slowly.
Hurst von Himmelmann was a middle-aged well-to-do merchant who single-handedly formed the support base of Derrick’s attempt at taking the position of the Septima branch head. With his backing, plus some timely introductions to many other influential individuals, the position was as good as Derrick’s.
But overnight, Hurst was charged with the murder of a common prostitute, a songstress walking the night alley. There were witnesses, there were physical evidences. It was the so-called slam dunk, open-and-shut case.
But the day in question when the deed was supposed to be committed, Hurst was with his secret lover, a man many years his junior. In other words, he batted for the other team. Yet, the supposed victim was a woman. No one knew of his sexual preferences until then – after all, Hurst was married with children, and was a respected member of the community.
Now normally, the discrepancy of the mismatched date could be explained away. And the lover would have made a perfect counter witness. Alas, this young man disappeared into the thin air, with nary a trace left behind.
And thus, Hurst was gone. With that, the formidable backing Derrick amassed as well.
The end result was, he was forced out by his younger, and infinitely more ambitious brother, Duncan Septima Lomax. losing the battle for the position of the Septima branch patriarch.
After that, all Derrick could do was to flee the capital with his daughter in tow. Duncan may have been his younger brother, but their mothers were different, and they rarely spent any time together. They might as well be complete strangers, sharing only the family names.
On top of that, Duncan had this streak of paranoia running in him. At this stage, it was a minute, weak strand of ill thoughts. However, since he was willing to not only have an innocent man incarcerated, but to have someone totally unrelated murdered just to complete a set up, Derrick couldn’t afford to put his child in potential harm’s way. Thus, they fled as far away as they could.
Evidently though, it maybe wasn’t far enough.
“Dawson is just an agent. There must be someone higher up behind him, giving him instructions.”
Damien said, as he gazed into his cousin’s dark, hooded eyes. It was difficult to see the type of emotion rolling around in them, but he could take a guess.
“It’s all a conjecture. There is a minister in the Imperial Court, and he always had a cordial relation with Duncan in the past. That person has a family member sitting on the board of trustees overseeing the Bureau. As I said, just a conjecture.”
“Damn.” Damien sighed. “What’s done is done, I guess. Now the question is, what does Dawson want? He better not be here for my family. Otherwise, I won’t stay my hands. I mean, my hand.”
“Rest assured, Damien. I’ve given you my word, no harm will befall your family. I’ll clean up any mess. But…. I do not believe Dawson was here for you. He is an agent of the Bureau, after all. He should be in the middle of other assignments, unrelated with me. With us.”
Damien wasn’t convinced, but decided to trust his cousin for his judgment. There was only one more issue left to discuss.
“So, right. That’s that. Now…. whew. So we better head back home tomorrow, yes?”
Derrick nodded, rather sheepishly, as he suddenly remembered Lizbeth’s face.
“Indeed. If we don’t consult your wife on what to do with Kain, then heaven help us, we won’t survive her wrath.”
Damien could only agree. He had many, many first-hand encounter of her fury before. It was wise thing to get her…. opinions before even thinking of doing anything else.
Turning his gaze at his peacefully sleeping son, he felt another frown forming on his face.
Oh well. Whatever happens, I’ll deal with it. I’m stronger than I was before. And Derrick’s here too. Nothing’ll go wrong.
It had been raining incessantly for the last five days. To say it was depressing, that’d been the understatement of the year.
Kain woke up with a start, when the caravan he was riding in went over a bump on the uneven road. Momentarily, he couldn’t quite figure out where he was. In his dream, he was home, dry, comfy, eating a sweet cake baked by Delilah and idly watching the clouds roll by overhead, while underneath, Kaleena and Katrina were doing their rivalry thing, which always amused him to no end.
But now, he was sitting on the rough surface, inside a moving caravan, surrounded by strangers and cargo of unknown identity. Not to mention, a waft of moldy scent reminding him of the bitterly falling rain seeping in through cracks on the wooden frame. This damnable rain had arrived far too early for the beginning of the Monsoon season. He wondered if it was an aftereffect of Global Warming. Even though this was a fantasy world he was in, pollution was indeed everywhere.
Looking down on a little girl even younger than him, fitfully turning over, he remembered. She was resting her pretty but unkempt and sticky red hair on his lap, which he couldn’t remember giving out a permission to do so.
Massaging his forehead a little, he thought about going back to sleep. Because of the stupid rain, he couldn’t even open the flap on the tarpaulin-like toughened leather covering the caravan to gaze outside, lest the water gets in. He already got reprimanded for doing that, and once was enough for him. Unless it was for an emergency, he wasn’t going to try his luck again.
Instead, he made sure no one was awake around him, and decided to work on his Invocation. There was nothing to do anyways, might as well kill time more efficiently, or so he thought with a sigh.
Truthfully, he was not in contact with any exposed soil, nor he could see one. Rather, what he was concentrating on was other Elements, more specifically Fire, Water and Wind.
Having Earth Element was nice and all, but ultimately, it lacked a certain bite, a certain something. He quickly told himself it was not about looking cool, but all about living longer and safely.
Since he knew he had no Affinity with any of them, all he could do was to forcibly Invoke them into life. He had some confidence at the size of his own Aeterna Pool so, the thought process was, he’d be at least able to cast the rudimentary spells more than once without keeling over like falling bricks.
Kain decided to do this training way before his trip to Somerset was set in stone. He still didn’t agree with the reasoning of him going so far to get his Affinity tested, but there was nothing he could do to oppose his rather determined parents.
After the group returned from Lafayette, the adults converged and had a lengthy meeting. They proposed two options.
One, wait a few weeks and return to the city, then find another Invoker to do the test.
Or, alternatively, head to Somerset and deal with Ahres directly.
Any sane, practical person would’ve chosen the first option, because it was the most sensible, obvious one to choose. Somerset was at least five days of hard travel away, so Kain couldn’t see the reason why he should go, when there was already a huge branch of SOIR right next door.
Damien and Lizbeth, however, expressed their concerns. They said it was all to do with the issue of trust, with familiarity. The couple trusted Ahres, as an Invoker and a person, so they reasoned it’d be difficult to build another relationship akin to the one they already had with the burly bearded dude.
It was an impasse of sorts; Kain didn’t want to go, but his parents were leaning toward the trip. Since he was still a snot-nosed five year old brat, no one paid him too big an attention to his opinion and that frustrated him to no end.
So out of desperation, he shouted out that his little butt ain’t going nowhere other than to Lafayette, and if his parents kept insisting on Somerset, he’d rather they send a letter of invitation or something instead, asking Ahres to come over.
Reluctantly, the parents agreed, seeing that the tenacity displayed by their son wasn’t going to wilt any time soon. Immediately a hand written letter was dispatched to Lafayette in order to utilize the message delivery service offered by young and lowly ranked Adventurers.
There were regular postal service going by mercantile caravans, colloquially known as Trains, but that would take forever to get to its destination, so even though it cost more, Adventurers were hired for their prompt delivery. Damien wasn’t happy but he swallowed the expense nonetheless.
While waiting for the answer, Kain tried to ask his father about his family situation. Initially, he asked his mother, but she was also rather unwilling to speak about the Lomax situation. She was happy to talk about her own family, however.
When he finally cornered Damien successfully one morning in his office, something unbelievable occurred. Damien actually made his escape by jumping through the open window, shouting: “I’ll tell you later, when you grow a bit older!!”
Flabbergasted at this unexpected reaction, Kain just watched disappearing silhouette of his father getting further away.
And it got worse. The reply from Ahres came in, less than two weeks. The content was bad.
Because of his assignment, he couldn’t leave the town of Somerset for more than a few hours at most. Apparently, he was there to witness and record a rare phenomena in the night sky called the Starflood, which was only visible in select places around the world, the town being one such location.
As he was supervising a team of researchers, he simply couldn’t vacate his position no matter what, fearing that it’d be a black mark on his record. He didn’t state that implicitly, of course.
The time frame also proved to be an issue, as the Starflood would continue to brighten the evening sky on and off for the next five years or so.
There were many words of apology on the letter, and a suggestion by Ahres, saying that he could recommend another Invoker just as capable and trustworthy as himself situated in Lafayette.
Kain liked the idea. It was sensible. It was cost effective. It saved on time.
But still, he ended up in the Train, heading toward Somerset. If Sky Arks went to this town, at least he’d be happy to ride that. Unfortunately, the flying vessels only went to the provincial capitals so smaller towns and villages missed out. He had to endure the torture of traveling on unpaved roads, rutted and damaged by the falling rain and non-existing maintenance using primitive horse drawn carriages with no suspension whatsoever.
This blows. Kain grimaced, and grumbled non-stop. How the hell did I end up doing this?!
To console the heartburn caused by his dissatisfaction, Kain practiced Invocation, or more correctly, Aeterna manipulation. He figured that, since he could see it like flowing water, and control it to a degree, he might as well try to experiment various things with it, knowing his Pool would be able to support him.
He had to be mindful, though. Outside the caravan he was riding in, dozens of well armed guards plus Derrick rode on horseback, bravely fending off the crappy weather and the muddy, broken roads. Naturally, he didn’t want anyone seeing him do something no other five year old was capable of doing. That’d be troublesome.
Damien didn’t come on this trip. Actually, he couldn’t come even if he wanted to, due to his commitments as the lord of Riverfield. He just received the aid from Lafayette’ lord, and had to be on hand to organize it all. Plus, the annual Monsoon was around the corner. He had to get ready for that as well.
As for Lizbeth, she really want to come, but then the issue of taking care of Kaleena and Katrina came about. Even with Delilah and Rosy looking after the girls, it was always going to be better to have a mother figure around. Derrick also argued that he preferred to have one less person to worry about when things go south. So, that was that.
Rolf had come along as well. He was quite upset at the rain for wetting his fur and showed his acute disdain more openly than compared to when he was roaming the Lafayette’s smelly streets.
Another village guardsman named Jones rounded up the traveling party. Kain haven’t really spoken to this man before the trip, so he knew very little about him other than he had two young kids and worked in the local vineyard. When times were lean, he’d take on guarding duties to supplement the income.
The four of them first went to Lafayette, and found a Train of merchants heading to Somerset after making an inquiry at the local Tradesmen Coalition.
Hitching a ride was quite easy, as long as a suitable fee was paid. The Trains allowed non-merchants to board on almost all occasions unless it carried a sensitive cargo. After all, as many skilled guards and Adventurers acted as shields and aids on the journey, there were no safer way to traverse the land than in a well organized Train.
Foolhardy bandits did chance their luck on such parties now and then, but the odds were always going to be higher with a stronger group. And Kain’s party were in one such Train, as there were eight caravans each being pulled by a quartet of horses. And then, there were the guards. Total of twenty five strong, comprised of archers, scouts, vanguards and even a Journeyman-ranked Invoker. Regular bandits stood no chance.
Kain had been in this Train for the past five days. The rain began to fall about half of the way through, and then it proceeded to pelt the earth with enough water to cause a mini flood. It only let up a few hours a day, and the already pathetic road conditions became even more treacherous, slippery, muddy, full of naturally created traps that could wreck the wheels of the caravans.
Even if the wheels were fine, caravans continuously got stuck. The visibility was poor at the best of times when it rained. And during the nightfall, they had to set up camp in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense, foreboding forests and hounded by unyielding deluge. To say it was hell, was saying it lightly.
To top it off, only this morning, the Train encountered a fallen tree the size of a tank blocking the road. Some of the guards thought it was the handiwork of some bandits. Staying vigilant, guards took turns clearing the blockage, while the others guarded the cargo and the passengers.
The merchant leading the Train, a man named Olivier, said that the smoking chimneys of Somerset should be within the sight before the noon ‘morrow. To Kain, that sounded like music to his ears. Unable to help in any shape or form, Kain was with other passengers, listening on Olivier regaling the first time visitors to his home town of Somerset, telling them the specialties of the region, its famous landmarks and past heroic warriors that had left indelible marks in the Empire’s history.
Kain could only shrug his shoulders and listen.
Clearing the road wasted further half a day. No bandits showed up, thankfully. Since the speculation turned out to be false, people wondered whether it was a stray lightening that caused the untimely fall of this ages-old tree. Kain couldn’t care either way – he just wanted this damnable trip to be over as soon as possible.
Finished recalling his misery-ridden trip so far, Kain sighed resignedly. He felt so fatigued, sitting inside and doing nothing but waiting. He missed riding on a real train; he’d be by his destination already if he was on one.
Looking down once more on the red haired girl on his lap, he felt conflicted about the situation. He was naturally grouped with other children on the Train, but there were only the two of them here. The girl’s name was Sandra. He didn’t quite catch her last name, but that also didn’t matter much.
She was traveling with her heavily pregnant mother, Laurel. They were heading to Somerset where her parents lived. Funnily, no father figure was around. Kain just knew there were one of those Kleenex-worthy tragedy-cum-sob stories behind them, but because of the crappy traveling conditions he was in no mood to hear it and add someone else’s misery on top of his.
Besides the pair, Kain was bundled with other passengers. An old couple going to a village or a town near Somerset where their son had set up a farm cultivating potatoes.
Another, a chandler who just about graduated from being an apprentice and now, wanting to spread his wings and make a name for himself. As a chandler, obviously. Kain thought that was going to a long road fraught with many, many perils.
A young bard heading to the Eastern-most territory, hoping to find new inspirations for her songs.
A farmer and his wife looking for a new patch of dirt to sow his dreams on.
A carpenter heading east after hearing of a supposed construction boom somewhere there.
And finally, an aging priest who kept on mumbling stuff about redemption.
Other caravans had passengers too, but Kain never really got close to any one of them. He knew there were two other merchants in this Train, however. The cargo belonged to all three of them. As to their contents, Kain didn’t know, nor did he care.
Kain was glad that they weren’t attacked so far on the journey. Physically, and mentally he was too worn out. He was almost at his limit and urgently needed a long, good rest soon.
To think, he had to go back using the same roads later on, he felt like crying his eyes out.
Actually, he had no room to cry anyways – Sandra cried all his share too. No amount of soothing could appease her and she cried almost constantly. Since she was even younger than him, she was badly affected by the rubbish traveling conditions, never mind her pregnant mother. Of course, everyone here were dead tired. Still, gradually, the girl stopped bawling, and started clinging onto him for some reason.
This was where the conflicted feeling originated from. He didn’t mind the way the little girl was holding onto him. But it sure was cumbersome. Once, he needed to go use the john, and she tried to tag along. So, Kain told her to stay put but she threw a fit, and cried. Adults gave up, not wanting to add stress on top of what was proving to be an already taxing journey by trying to pacify an unreasonable child.
Kain was left to his own devices.
Seeing this clingy kid, even Rolf broke out a toothy grin, having a good chuckle at the boy’s expense. “Heh, our little master Kain already found a girlfriend!! How envious. It’s good to be young, isn’t it. ehehehe.”
Kain ignored him. The girl and he’d go their separate ways once they arrive at Somerset anyway. Since he was an adult inside, he had more than enough patience to deal with a persistent child.
But he had to ask Sandra why she hung around him all the time. The answer was quite unexpected.
“Cuz you, sparkle!! Like stars!”
He had no idea what she meant by that. He didn’t believe someone accidentally spilled a jar of glitter all over his face when he wasn’t looking so that possibility was out. What could she mean? He couldn’t just dismiss the girl out of hand, as it didn’t feel like she was saying random things popping out of her head.
Because, he could sense quite a prodigious amount of Aeterna flowing around the girl. If she grew up in a good environment, Sandra might become an accomplished Invoker herself. That was in a far off distant future though.
Maybe, she can see something, like I see Aeterna. I’m unsure whether these eyes of mine are unique only to me. I should assume there will be others with abilities like mine. Sandra could possess one too.
Leaning forward while carefully moving the girl’s head off his aching lap, Kain slowly stood up and stretched his cramped arms. Feeling the blood flow into his muscles once more, Kain began his Invocation training.
First, creating a flame. This was one of the most rudimentary spell in the entire sphere of Invocation system. Even those without Fire Affinity should be able to this.
Kain did fail back then, but that was in the past. Before their departure to Somerset, Kain actually had succeeded in creating a small spark, no bigger than the size of a chickpea. Now, he was working on making it bigger, while making it last longer. More importantly, doing without a chant.
He was sick and tired of chanting lame Requisite Words just to bring forth a flame no bigger than a snot so, he consciously tried to cast this spell without the aid of any Words whatsoever. That meant no shortening either.
Easier said than done, really.
Still, he was at a stage where a small flame would remain flickering for a minute or more. The trick was maintaining the constant Aeterna flow, as it was fairly heavy.
Next, was Wind. He was casting simple Breeze spell. He got the inspiration from the woman at the Adventurer’s Association – the one who continued to cast Wind type spell just to ventilate the thick and pervading body odor that had accumulated inside the building. She didn’t need to chant it continuously once it was activated. All she had to do, was to supply more Aeterna the moment the spell was about to end.
Taking this into account, Kain also tried to cast Breeze without chanting. Once the first spell was set in motion, he’d try to regulate Aeterna flow at the right moments to extend the spell’s effects. Casting Wind type Invocation proved to be far easier, which was a good news for him and his Pool.
Finally, Water Element. But he couldn’t practice this openly during this trip, since he was with other people. He had plenty enough material to work with, thanks to all the rain, but since there would be a definite aftermaths if he tried to cast any form of Water Invocations, it was a no-no, at least for now.
Finally, Body Enhancement. But he was still nowhere with it. Not that he’d given up on that yet, no.
He diligently worked on casting Fire Invocation without chanting for a while, pouring his concentration on it. It was a hard work, but he felt that he was making some progress. A slow, but tangible improvement. Which made him quite chuffed at his own brilliance.
After exhausting his Aeterna Pool somewhat, he felt a slight hunger creep in. There was a pot of Grey Meateater stew left over on the corner, but he’d have to wake one or two people up if he wanted to get to that. So he gave up.
A Grey Meateater was a low-level Fiend that sort of looked like a wild hare, except that it had a mouthful of serrated teeth straight out of Jaws, and was as big as a healthy German Shepherd.
Obviously, it was not a nice day for the creature as it had the misfortune of running headlong into Derrick’s massive sword. The end result was a single dinner not entirely consisting of dried meat and hard bread.
It was a bit anti-climatic for Kain though. There he was, hoping to see a real Fiend at least once on this trip, only to see a rabbit getting chopped in half by his burly uncle. It wasn’t much fun. He didn’t expect to find a fire-breathing wyvern or something but still, it was a letdown regardless.
As he gazed longingly at the iron pot sitting on the corner, he heard Sandra cough a little. Kain noticed that the temperature did drop somewhat even though it was supposed to be an early Summer.
He too felt a bit of chill creeping up, and promptly hugged himself. He went back to his seat and sat down, only to catch a whiff of someone letting loose gas.
Gimme a freakin’ break already!!
Gritting his teeth, Kain reluctantly lifted up the flap near him. This qualified as an emergency, at least in his mind, so this violation of unspoken rule was justified.
To his relief, he noticed the rain had eased quite a bit. The sky remained overcast but encouragingly, slender rays of sunlight broke through the thick clouds and were touching the world below.
Those rays illuminated an enormous mountain range that suspiciously looked like some kind of a meteor crater. Kain was startled at the sheer scale of the jagged peaks and the tall, imposing walls of rocks. He knew that if it was indeed a wayward asteroid causing that scenery, the destruction it probably wrought would have been cataclysmic. Apocalyptic, even.
And among all the tall peaks, somewhere around the middle of this crater-like mountain range, a sharp protrusion stood erect, literally piercing the heavens with its incredible height. So tall it was, in fact, the rain clouds actually managed to surround the top half and Kain couldn’t even see just how far it extended upwards. To his eyes, it even looked taller than Mount Everest. Probably.
Then just now, he thought he saw something. A hint of a shadow, coiling, and moving, hidden among the clouds of the summit.
Kain was too far away to make out the shape but, whatever it was, it was big. Massive. Humongous.
He naturally gulped, hoping he’d seen a mirage or something. Maybe a trick of light, reflecting against the storm clouds and causing mischief with him.
If not, just thinking about that huge thing coming over where he was caused a small heart attack. The whole mountain range/crater was separated from Kain’s group by the overflowing tributary of the River Anders, which snaked around just below the wide but high canyon roads, and the great verdant sea of trees beside the cliffs of the said crater.
If a normal person was to cross that, he’d need a day or two; but for a flying creature the size of a small town, that distance would mean absolutely jack-all.
Even though the rain had eased somewhat, the raging river in the valley below caused enough ruckus to drown out most noises. From where he was, Kain couldn’t see the torrent of muddy, dark water rushing past furiously. But hearing the accompanying roar, he could hazard a guess how much work Damien have to do soon – this particular tributary of the River Anders, affectionately nicknamed Anderlicht, snaked its way along the Riverfield’s east before joining with the main river body and journeying into the Great Southern Sea.
Ignoring the thunderous noise, he narrowed his eyes, hoping to see more of that shape, but no matter how hard he concentrated, there was nothing. As if it was all in his head, that he had imagined it.
Maybe it was my overactive imagination. Whew, that’s a relief. No wait, it could be a sign that I’m going crazy with a cabin fever. But I’m on the move now, so, uh, should it be a carriage fever, instead?
Shaking his head at yet another useless thought that had entered his head, Kain looked around to see where Derrick was. He was just behind the carriage, his eyes vigilant. Next to him, Rolf and that other dude, Jones.
Way up ahead of the Train, a wide stone bridge crossed the gap between the canyons, with the Anderlicht pulsing below it. The terrain leading up to there rose gradually until the bridge itself seemed to be suspended on the precipices of sharp, pointy cliffs.
The bridge itself signified that they were about to enter the territory of Somerset, although there was a guard post and a way station combined together, that were manned by the soldiers from the town a day’s travel back.
Kain thought that the whole cliff thing was bit precarious, at least to his eyes. It didn’t sound like a fun experience, that’s for sure, losing one’s footing and plummeting into the raging river below.
“That’s the Tetamus Range.”
Derrick goaded the horse he was riding on, and approached Kain, whose head was peeking out of the open flap. He pointed towards the crater-like mountain range.
“You mean, that one?” Kain asked, just to make sure they were talking about the same thing.
Derrick nodded solemnly, a thin white mist rising from his lips as he breathed.
Even the thick cloak he wore couldn’t stop the rain from soaking him head to toe. Summer or not, he was feeling the chills, and Kain could see a minute amount of Aeterna circulating over his uncle’s body, signaling that he cast a Body Enhancement spell on himself to keep the possibility of hypothermia away.
“Did you see something flying near the summit, right there by the tallest mountain, that one in the middle?”
Kain asked as he pointed at the distant summit hidden in the clouds. Although he figured Derrick might not have seen it, since he was conversing with Rolf and others, he felt it was worth asking just to make sure he wasn’t going crazy.
The older man narrowed his eyes as well, focusing on the spot his nephew was pointing at.
“That’s the center of Hell, the legendary Tetamus Mountain. Although I do not see anything, that mountain is rumored to be a home of a powerful and dangerous Fiend, most likely a dragon.”
Kain’s ears perked up at the mentioning of a dragon.
Noticing the reaction of the boy, Derrick did a rare smirk, and continued with his story.
“A long time ago, a rich but landless noble organized an expedition in order to investigate the land hidden behind the impenetrable walls of the Tetamus Range.”
Derrick then pointed at the southern side of the range.
“See there? There’s an opening. That’s the only way in or out of the range’s interior. One of the tributaries of the River Anders cuts across there.”
Kain nodded, getting more interested.
“The expedition apparently succeeded in entering the hidden wilderness beyond the cliffs, but…. none returned alive.”
“Why? What happened to them?”
“There was an Invoker among the Adventurers hired for the expedition. She possessed abilities to send messages over a long distance, and right before the expeditionary team went missing, she sent out a message.”
“What was the message?”
Suddenly, Derrick went quiet, and only sounds Kain could hear were the roaring rapids down below. Wondering if he missed something because of the noise, he leaned out even more. It was then, Derrick slowly opened his mouth, his voice low and coarse.
“…Do not enter this place, for it is cursed.”
Kain couldn’t help but grimace a little after seeing the less-than-stellar attempt by Derrick to pull a scary face. It was contorted uncomfortably, and looked more humorous than scary. Completely unintentional, of course.
However, Kain did appreciate the effort so he quickly acted like he was scared silly. He understood that all this was out of character for someone like Derrick, that the big man was doing it all for his benefit.
Rolf rode in closer and chuckled loudly after listening on the story. “What Lord Derrick speaks of, is true. It’s a story well known around these parts, young master.”
“Really? When did this expedition take place? Sounds like it was not too long ago.”
“It was a several generations ago,” Derrick replied as he wiped water off his face with a cloth. “But, you won’t find any evidence of such expedition taking place in the official history. The Emperor had all of the records expunged, and the noble who started it all was imprisoned for other crimes against the state.”
“Why was that, uncle?”
“The secrets died with those involved, so no one knows the truth now.” Derrick shook his head. After getting rid of bothersome rain away from his eyes, he glanced once more at the peak of the Tetamus Mountain. “It’s not inconceivable, that there is an absurdly frightening Fiend sleeping somewhere within the range. I’d venture to wager that there are numerous monstrosities hidden behind those solid walls of rock.”
Kain frowned a little, thinking of stories about vast, unexplored spaces containing unbelievable natural resources, simply waiting to be plundered by an enterprising soul.
Off-handedly, he asked. “Do you think someone else might try to enter there?”
Derrick scratched his chin, where a permanent five-o’clock shadow had made home for the last couple of days. “Hmm. It’s not certain. Besides the threats of hidden Fiends, there should be other unknown dangers. Entering the range itself is far too difficult for now. But since the Imperial Military wishes to treat the entirety of the mountain range as a Sacred Acre, sooner or later, there might be a full-scale operation to explore it.”
“But if the military uses a Sky Ark, wouldn’t that be easy? Surely, one of those ships should be able to fly over the walls.”
“A Sky Ark was never meant for combat duty. It’s only for civilian usages, Kain.”
“But, I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t military try to use an Ark? Doesn’t make sense to me. If I was the Emperor, I’d make sure there’s a fleet of heavily armed Sky Arks, ready for battle at any given moment.”
Kain humphed, and nodded.
This time it was Derrick’s turn to frown. He just couldn’t believe this was coming from a five year old child. The boy’s thought process sometimes mirrored that of an adult. He found it rather unpleasant, and somewhat spooky.
Thinking back, there was some rumbling on the corridors of the Capital, that the Imperial Institute was trying to retrofit a Sky Ark for a combat exercise. Derrick had left the city by then, before the rumored completion date, so he’d no idea if it was true or not. But as a military man himself, there was no denying how attractive it all sounded.
“Nah, little master Kain, using a Sky Ark for subjugating an Acre is a waste of money. I tell ya, all you need is a few strong men and spears. We’ll sweep away any terrible Fiends, big or small. You can count on men, not some strange machines making funny noises.”
Rolf pursed his lips, showing his determined face. He was rather proud of his growing skills, and couldn’t wait to show it off. Honestly speaking, even he was looking forward to encountering some foolish bandits during the journey, but alas, it looked like he’d remain disappointed.
“Well, anyways. Lord Derrick, master Kain. I’ll just go on up ahead, and check the conditions of the road. Excuse me.”
Watching the broad back of Rolf riding away on horseback, Kain thought that it was indeed quite reliable looking. Then he noticed the tip of his bushy tail peeking out from under the cloak. It contrasted the skin of the horse, making it easy to spot.
Kain wondered how it might feel like, having a tail. He’d never tried it before, partly because he thought it might be seen as a rude gesture, but what would happen if he grabbed the tails of any non-human humanoids unannounced?
Would they suddenly lose strength? Or go all mushy and blushy? Or would they become incensed, ready to choke him to death?
Hah, what a stupid idea. This is real life. Let’s not do anything that might get me killed. Kain silently chuckled to himself. Maybe I should find a girl who wouldn’t mind getting her tail fondled. Now that should be….
…Hmm? What is that? That thing, sticking out of Rolf’s back? It wasn’t there a second ago.
There was a thin, long stick protruding out of Rolf’s back that wasn’t there before. It was difficult to see well because of the still-falling rain, but a small, dark reddish blotch forming around the base of the stick was visible.
It looked like blood.
Kain was stunned into confusion.
A panicked voice rang out from the other side of the Train, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Damn it, Rolf!!” Derrick cursed out as he unsheathed the huge claymore from his back. He shouted at Kain as he rushed forward. “Stay within the carriage!! Do not come out!!”
Rolf toppled over from where he sat, an arrow piercing straight through his heart, an unbelievable display of accuracy.
Kain couldn’t figure out just where that arrow was shot from. His mind blanked.
Almost right away, he heard the metallic sounds of weapons clashing from the other side, followed by screams and shouts.
All the sleeping passengers woke up from the commotion. Sandra, who was nearest to Kain, tugged at the boy’s sleeve and asked with confused eyes. “What’s happening, Kain?”
Adults knew, just by seeing his expression. It was one of terror. Well, he did see someone he knew well die in front of him, so it was expected.
Color drained out of all the faces, panic quickly spreading like a viral infection. No one here were capable of defending themselves, so if the guards fell, then it’d be curtains for everyone.
The old couple rushed to place Laurel behind them. The young farmers looked lost, their eyes spinning around like headless chicken. The chandler bravely held a short dagger in front of him like a talisman, while the bard also pulled out a dagger that was substantially longer and sharper.
Only the old priest didn’t seem too perturbed, simply muttering that it’s fate, over and over.
Sandra wouldn’t let go of Kain no matter how much her mother called for her. Waking from his shocked daze, he quickly brought himself and the clingy girl over, ending up in a shivering huddle together.
The shouts and metallic clanging were getting louder and closer. The harsh noises reverberated, like a nail on a blackboard, almost tearing his eardrums out. The realness of it all made him think how much fake the sound effects of Hollywood movies were. It was incomparably harsher and sharper, each note containing cries and shrieks of death.
“It’s not safe here!!”
The carpenter was the first to lose it. He cried out in utter panic, holding his head like a nutcase. The old couple tried to calm him down, but were interrupted when a loud, blood-curdling scream came from right outside their carriage.
That helpless scream scared Kain almost out of his wits. He didn’t expect it to be this terrifying at all. At most, he expected it to be no more scary than watching a horror movie. But no – it was far, far worse. He couldn’t even swallow his saliva, it getting stuck on the dried, lumpy throat.
Then he heard a soud similar to a knife going through thick meat, and equally sickening splash of liquid across the canvas of the carriage. It was blood, painting the exterior anew.
A lightening struck, illuminating shadow puppets dancing on the blood stained screen. The guards were fighting right next to the carriage.
Kain saw the battle unfolding slowly, as if it were happening underwater. Every swish, every block, and every movement registered, right until the moment a sharp blade pierced the leather canvas, a silhouette of a man framing it from outside. A fresh bloodstain spread out from where the weapon had gone through.
Kain instinctively knew that it was not safe inside anymore. He had to something, otherwise people were going to get killed. But what could he do? Gritting his teeth, he tried to get up, thinking that whatever it was, he had to make a move now.
But Sandra held onto him, not letting go, her eyes squeezed shut tight. She was trembling in fear, not unlike everyone else. Kain glanced at her mother and she looked back at him with desperate eyes, one hand clutching her swollen belly, and the other holding her daughter.
Kain felt helpless. Under this situation, there was nothing he could do. He wanted to curse at his powerlessness, but knowing that he was too young, it meant he was just being obstinate. He needed to have faith in Derrick and Jones to come around, and save the day.
As if to ruin such a notion, the rear flap for the carriage flipped open, and he came face to face with a pair of unfamiliar, dirty, bloodied men wielding equally bloodied swords.
For a millisecond, Kain found it strange that the falling rain didn’t seem to wash away all that red. It was all so very strange indeed.
One of the men leered at Laurel. Kain recognized the look, and it was not a good one.
The other grunted and thrust his sword at the chest of the carpenter without warning. He happened to be the nearest to the bandit, that was all. But he was slain, just like that, not a quarter of thought given to his life’s worth.
People screamed in panic. The leering man stepped into the carriage, brandishing his sword like a club ready to strike. The bard then lungerd forward with her dagger, showing some agility.
With a snort, bandit lightly stepped aside, and cut. Blood flowed again like a river.
In that less than half a breath of time, Kain reacted. He saw the light flicker in the falling woman’s eyes and it pushed him into action involuntarily. Even to this day, Kain would never quite understand why he reacted so suddenly – it was like his consciousness was a passenger in a surreal and bloody ride, unable to change the course.
He fired off chantless, a small ball of flame he’d been practicing all this time directly at the eyeballs of the murderous, leering bandit. He didn’t even know he could do that, but somehow, he did it anyway.
The flame might be small, but it was still a flame. Thus, it was very hot. The bandit was struck on his eyes, and he fell off the back of the carriage, screaming his lungs out while covering his face.
The second bandit pulled the bloody sword loose from the corpse and tried to help his friend, but Kain wasn’t going to give them time.
He cast the second Invocation, again without any chanting, this time an Earth type. There were mud on the bottom of their boots, and by combining it with rain water, he could make it slicker and slippery. He had no idea how, but for some reason, he had confidence that he could do it.
He willed Aeterna to flow according to his imaginations, and commanded it to do his bidding.
It worked. The murdering second bandit lost his footing, and slipped, hard.
While falling, he hit his head on the sharp edge of the carriage.
He crumbled like a puppet with its strings cut, and didn’t stand back up again, only twitching occasionally on the muddy ground, his neck bent at a weird angle.
A surprised shout then came near the carriage.
“Hey!! There’s an Invoker among the passengers!! Archers!!”
Kain’s heart fell, hearing the shout. It was safe to assume that one of the bandits made that call.
Man, just how many of them are out there?!
Almost immediately, a volley of arrows flew in and ripped through the leather canvas as if it’s made out of paper. Kain ducked, dragging along Sandra with him. He tumbled out of the open flap and landed face first into the thick and foul-tasting mud.
It was bastard-cold. The sound of rain was much louder to his ears than before, blocking every other noise from registering.
He got up hastily, pulling the crying girl next to him as well. He reflexively turned his head towards the interior of the carriage.
He regretted his action right away.
It was a small miracle that he wasn’t hit. But almost everyone inside didn’t share his luck, not even Laurel. Not all died where they sat, however.
The priest was trying to cast some kind of healing Invocation on the still breathing victims, but instead of Requisite Words, only blood gurgled out of his mouth. The farmer and the elderly couples were holding onto their respective loved ones with eyes closed in defeat, perhaps offering a prayer. They weren’t moving. Arrows stuck out of them like spindles on a hedgehog.
And Laurel, she was barely clinging on, a couple of arrows piercing her belly, another against her breast. She was crying, a look of desperation on her face – and a subsequent relief of seeing her daughter unhurt from the arrows. As if the knowledge gave her peace, she stopped breathing shortly afterwards.
Kain stood there, getting drenched by the damnable, accursed rain. He somehow managed to keep Sandra from looking, but he was rooted to the spot, unable to tear his eyes away from the grisly scene.
A realization dawned on him. It was the first time he saw corpses. Not dead bodies lying in a casket, not from a movie, not from a Call of Duty MP match, but real, tangible, mangled corpses full of arrows sticking out. Corpses that were missing limbs lay all around the Train. He even saw a pair of familiar boots, laying on the ground near the carriage on the other side, a man still wearing them. It was Olivier. And he was missing his head.
Blood was spurting out from the gaping neck. No special effects there.
The acrid smell of iron caught up to his senses, the falling rain failing to wash it away. Kain felt breakfast rising back up rapidly. The girl beside him was bawling her eyes out.
A thousand emotions came crashing over, making him disoriented, dizzy, and sick to his stomach.
Gradually, he remembered where he was, that he was not out of the woods yet. He had to move from here, unless he wanted to get involved in fights that were still happening all around him. He pulled Sandra with him, trying to get away, only to bump into the blinded bandit.
The bastard was clutching his eyes, desperately howling in pain, shouting out “I can’t see, I can’t see!!” But there was a murderous streak in that crazed facial expression of his, reminding Kain of a cornered wild beast.
Sandra screamed even more when she saw the crazed bandit.
The ruckus alerted him, and he took a wild swing at the kids’ general direction. Kain managed to drag the screaming girl back just in time, and missed the sharp edge of the blade by a hair’s width.
His mind raced, trying to figure out what to do.
The only one who could help them right now was Derrick. Searching for him, Kain held onto the girl, and retreated. But the bandit persistently swung his sword around, getting closer and closer.
Out of the frenzied melee happening around him, Kain finally spotted Derrick. But he was far away, surrounded by three hooded men. Four more hooded figures lay dead on the mud, face down. These men didn’t look anything like the rest of the bandits. The aura they exuded weren’t normal. It was chillier, sharper, more lethal.
Derrick was bleeding from a cut above his left eye. His left arm was limp as well, and he was having trouble holding his claymore properly.
Kain’s initial joy at finding his uncle cooled rapidly, his shout of assistance dying on his throat well before materializing.
Again, the blinded bandit swung, forcing Kain back even more. Not knowing how he got there, but looking behind, he was right near the edge of the cliff.
Derrick called out, his voice shrill and urgent.
He willed his Aeterna to flow freely, trying to overcome the wounds he received from a sneak attack by these assassins. His only objective was to protect his nephew. Nothing else mattered.
He already felled four of them, but they were of lower skilled, so-called cannon fodders, used to tire him out. And now, the real threats had shown themselves, and things were not looking good. They were gunning for him, under the guise of a bandit raid.
Although he had most of his Aeterna reserve intact, he acutely felt a numbing sensation from his left arm. There was a fast acting paralysis toxin added to the dagger stuck on his shoulder. Using his Body Enhancement, he could block off the poison from crippling him, but it was a disadvantage he didn’t need at the moment.
“Who sent you?”
Derrick barked out. He had his suspicions but he still wanted to confirm it regardless.
The assassins sneered, but no one answered. The bloodied sabers rose, and simultaneously, three of them attacked.
Gritting his teeth, Derrick pushed his Aeterna flow onto his claymore to the max and swept in a rising arc, slicing the air and all that’s caught in it.
Meanwhile, Kain desperately looked for a way out, before he was further pushed towards the edge by the crazed bandit. His efforts were being hampered by Sandra’s persistent crying, which sort of directed the swings of the blinded bandit.
The overflowing, enraged River Anderlicht roared from below. If he didn’t know better, it was like it was beckoning him in, goading him into falling headfirst in the water.
Kain thought that would be such a cliché if he ended up that way.
“Please, please stop crying, for Pete’s sake!!”
Kain hurriedly shook Sandra, but that burst of anger had the exact opposite result to what he had intended. She cried even louder than before, and the blinded bandit zeroed in on the source of the sound.
Ahh, sh*t!! Am I going to die here? Just like this?
Kain grimaced, unable to figure out what to do. There was only one thing left to do, and that was to cast an Invocation. Without it, he’d die a dog’s death.
He raised his hand to aim at the bandit, only to have his body pulled back and his concentration interrupted by Sandra, who was pulling back on him hard. He wanted to curse out loudly.
All the time, the bandit came closer, his sword swings too close for comfort.
While trying to counteract her weight pulling down on him, Kain slipped on the mud and fell on his butt with a splash. Sandra fell along with him, toppling on top.
To make matters even worse, the blinded bandit was joined by one of his friend, brandishing an ax large enough to cleave a bull in half, a wide, murderous grin pasted on his bearded face.
They closed in swiftly, their thick and sharp killing aura giving Kain goosebumps.
It was now a do or die situation. Out of sheer desperation, Kain didn’t even concentrate, and simply cast an Earthen Wall. He thought that as long as it appeared before him and block their attacks, then he’d be happy.
As soon as the wall made up of mud rose up, the surrounding area gave in.
Along with the two confused and screaming bandits, Kain and Sandra fell into the river below.
The water’s surface was as hard as concrete, and it robbed him of all the air in his lungs. The horrible taste of muddy water invaded his mouth, his nose, his throat. In the water, all he could hear was his own heartbeat, pounding away madly.
He summoned all his strength to swim up to the surface, only to see the ax-wielding bandit closing in on him.
Kain was shocked at the tenacity displayed by this bastard, but before he fell into another crisis, the rushing water forced the bandit hard against a boulder, his head hitting the protruding sharp rock with a bone crunching thud.
One danger over, but he was still in another. He furiously swam up to the surface, breaking out of it to take in the air, only to get hit in the head by a falling rock.
He blacked out at that moment, his unmoving body carried away by the raging torrent.