Laughter trailed in the wind.
Delias eyes creaked open. Shops and houses flew by, their lights leaving nothing more than a fleeting yellow blur. His hands dangled down, his waist arched, held tightly by a single, strong arm as he was carried hundreds of feet in the air. Whipping winds tousled his hair- a biting chill penetrating through his cloak easily with the oncoming current. But the cold was minor compared to how he felt. Every move, every jostle brought him excruciating pain as if his body was constantly being shattered, like being the thinnest piece of glass in the midst of a storm, only to reform again and repeat the same destruction.
Laughter continued to ring out. The words inaudible in the wind; sounds he found hollow.
Delias’s eyes shut. His vision swarmed, and everything went back as it once was… dark.
Fifteen Years Ago.
Her smile was the sun, a mere glance brightening up the day. A simple kiss upon her lips would blot out the darkness of any man’s heart.
She made me a better man.
My thoughts; my actions. It was not my experience or the lack of being fully corrupted by temptation. The greed and the lust. No. It was that smile she gave me that made me want to be worthy of her. To make sure that no one could ever doubt our love.
Morning. A cool summer breeze kept the flowers a sway. The trees rustled above as I laid in the thick green grass with a girl in my arms. Her long, dark hair tickled as she nestled deeper in my chest for warmth. This was the life. A life filled with love and without a care for the evils and horrors that now seemed so far away. But such a life was always fleeting. And to me, that notion, that knowledge, was ever daunting.
The earth rumbled as hoofs beat against the ground as a rider approached. A young woman reined in, blonde hair blowing back. Her deep blue eyes seemed to drink in all the problems of the world, and was something that always put me on edge. As if those problems had suddenly been given a solution. And to her, he was one of those problems.
“Alissa. Have you come to disturb us?” I asked the rider.
She sneered. “Delias! How could you bring the lady here for so long? I was worried sick. The family was worried sick!” The young woman turned to the one sleeping in my arms, hopped down from her horse, and shook her gently. “My lady. We must go. I know you are not sleeping. The patriarch is not happy. We must go. Now!”
“We must go. We must go.” I taunted, giving her one of my famously charming smiles.
Alissa put on a quick scowl before she kept trying to get her lady up. Finally, the girl in my arms moved. She pried her head up with a small grumble and got up. Her blouse and pants that were once a clean white were now stained by the grass, showcasing streaks of green and a tinge of yellow. But the girl looked to not have minded at all.
I had worn all black that day so as I got up along with her, any stains were hardly noticeable.
“Time to go already?” The girl looked at Alissa with a frown. “It feels as if I just got here.”
The horrid scowl that plagued Alissa’s face before as she glared towards me were now gone, replaced with a slight smile. She said ever so sweetly, “My lady, Delias had detained you for far longer than you should have been again. For the other times, it was not that bad, but this time we must hurry. The representatives of the Martial House has come and the hour is nigh. Soon they would want to see the young bloods that want to join them. If you’re late, they won’t take you!”
The girl sighed, taking the news all in stride. “Alright. Let us go.”
Alissa put her foot in the stirrup, pushed off, and stretched her leg over, sitting comfortable on the horse’s saddle. She stretched out a hand and the girl of my dreams took it. Following Alissa, she sat on the horse right behind her, and they both rode off. I was not disturbed by the sight of it, her leaving I mean. Nor did it cross my mind that she had left without a word of goodbye. She hated goodbyes. She said she found them… final.
A minute later another rider came from the opposite direction. He wore black leather armor with a diagram of a red and golden dagger sewn into the chest and arms. His dark hair was short, and his contour was slim. He was a bit taller than me, but even though I hated those who were taller and better looking, this guy was my best friend.
“You’re early.” I stated.
“Clearly I am just in time. The lady has been taken, I presume.”
“Let’s go.” I walked a ways away and climbed onto the horse I had stationed there, not really into the mood for much talking. I guess I was not entirely not disturbed.
We rode long and hard across the grassland, quickly coming over a hill and upon an outpost by a river delta. It was a highly fortified outpost. As large as twenty acres. The Makilone kingdom was a small one, but it was at constant war over its resources. Though finally, after twenty years, that war was coming to an end. A nation called the Yitiis that had raised their banner and pointed their swords at us for so long were now being pushed back. A young and rising general slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their warriors in a surprise battle in the north.
News of such a victory raised the morale of every soldier that heard of it. And the news had traveled fast, even to them. The men here were on pins and needles. This outpost was a key one, though it was far away from any major faction or city, and it was the only thing at the moment that was all that stood between the Yittis from invading from the north east and travelling up the river and into the heartland of kingdom. No soldier wanted to be attacked. They had no backup, and also had the knowledge that if they were to fall, the blood of their entire kingdom and their families would be on their hands.
Together the two of us went through the large wooden gate, the entrance of the outpost, and traveled down the roads. The outpost was not like other outposts. It was built like a forte, but it also had common folk. The kingdom needed these folk to work near this river delta, and they had done and continued to do so for fifty years, leading this place to be built up as a miniature city of its own. Some of the soldiers stationed here had family of their own in the outpost. That just made things even more nerve racking. Who would want war to be come and them to see their family die?
Though the atmosphere had been tense around the soldiers who understood the details of the war effort and a lot of its intricacies, the place seemed joyful. There were children and women. Hardworking farmers. Various communities which each held a good leader. It was society at its best for one with an army camped on one half of their mini city. But the people were used to it.
I and my best friend came into camp. There were many tents and few shacks. We steered our horses, and they trotted through to the center, which lead to a large tent. The tent had a red and golden dagger sewn on its flaps.
The two of us dismounted, leaving our horses to the servants at the side and walked in.
Standing around a large table, were a dozen men. More than half were passed middle aged, and the others were around late twenties, making me the youngest in the room as my best friend was a year older than me.
“You’re late Delias. I can’t believe Chafer here had to go and get you. We are fighting a war here! What do you think we are doing?”
I bowed. I was not nervous at all, nor did I feel shamed. I had, of course, been with my woman. The light of my life. If I was going to die in battle, at least I would die remembering her face. But for all intents and purposes, I still had to give face to his highness the crown prince. “My apologies, your highness. I have no excuses.”
“Hmph. I do not know why you were promoted to commander by the minister. Sure you have done great work on the battlefield, but you have proven yourself too young for your position. But you are a commander still. We have orders to travel north. You will stay here with the civilians and guard here.”
“Is that wise your highness? Forgive me, but if you leave all I have is a thousand men. The Yittimen would undoubtedly attack here for one finally strike-”
“Damn it, Delias!” The crown prince slammed his fist into the table. The map on top crumbled under his power. His eyes grew cold. “Those are your orders.” The crown prince, as if he knew his action was unbecoming of someone of his station, straightened out his coat and said dismissively, “You may leave.”
I was confused. Never had I seen the crown prince get so riled up over a simple question. Even though it was a bit out of place for me to question him, let alone orders that probably came from the his majesty or the top generals at his side, that anger seemed entirely misplaced. But orders were orders and I left. I was much calmer then. Whatever came my way, I just went with the flow of things.
Chafer turned to follow me out. “Not you Chafer.” His highness called out from behind.
I turned and looked at my best friend, only seeing his back as the tent flaps closed, shielding my view. That was the last time ever saw him. Or any of those men.
Delias awoke. He felt sick. Nauseous even. Pain attacked him at all sides. He tried to move, but it was too much. He could only look around with his half lidded eyes.
“When will the boy wake?”
“I don’t know. He is injured, but those injuries can heal in a month’s time. While they do we will be heading south to recruit. We have done our duty. Let’s not stay here and waste too much of our resource, allowing the Head’s son to reap all my hard work.”
Delias did not recognize the first voice, but he did the second. Elder Lu?
“It’s been two months. By now I am sure he would have swept the places clean of good students.”
Elder Lu laughed. “Manager Ki, I may have to provide my route to the bureau, but that does not mean I am that forthcoming. There are places near my route that even if the Head’s son sent out a wide net to attract talents, he would not get all the ones I have scouted out. I have found some very good ones in very remote areas. Areas that not many easily get news.”
Manager Ki sighed. “Let’s go then. We must hurry. One month to get there, recruit, and then get back to the academy on time would be hard. Best not take the kids.”
“Yes. Best not. We will send them on a carriage train to the nearest portal to the academy. I will place you in charge and have another manager accompany you. I will be back in time with the rest. Do not go to the academy until the last day. I don’t want those busy bodies asking too many questions.”
The voices became a mess after that. A tiredness swept over Delias, drawing him into another deep sleep.
The camp was in flames.
Thousands of tents spewed billows of smoke, their lush green color now marred by fire or stained black by soot. The blaze licked at the wooden walls surrounding the outpost. Fire spread from southwest, travelling down the river, spreading across the delta. The small harbor that was built at the edge of the outpost was up in flames. The sky was filled with grey clouds, a drizzling rain fell, but the tiny droplets were eclipsed by the natural yellow disaster that infected the land.
Screams filled the air, but the clamor of battle was not lost. Swords drawn, soldiers bustled to the walls or the harbor, not trying to put the fire out, but to flee.
“I don’t understand. The walls were coated. How could they burn so easily?” A soldier wailed in despair.
I was at a lost. The enemy came too quickly. I had scouts on the outside, but had heard nothing of an army. In fact no news had come in in the last two hours as if they just disappeared like food in the midst of the starving. It had been a week since his highness had left, carrying over fifty thousand soldiers away to the north, and it had rained ever since. Only today skies dropped only a few tears, leaving the flames to go rampant and the earth wet and difficult to grasp a proper footing on.
I sank to my knees, the mud cold against them. I stared at my hands. They were covered in blood. I did not know whose. They were definitely not mine. Unlike the thousands around me, I had not a single wound. I knew my men needed me. The whole outpost needed me, and if I stayed there listless, the everyone would die. But this was way beyond anything that I had ever known. There were at least two hundred thousand civilians. But they were being slaughtered. The enemy had come from all sides. Thousands of them swarmed the walls. We had held them off for an hour before some started getting over. Soon it was more than a few. Hundreds even. Then thousands. Like a broken damn, the enemy came at us in waves. I had long since called as many of the men I could find to back up. We had a smaller wall that we went behind. Had the common folk group together behind the wall, armed with tools and knives, ready to fight to our dying breath.
That was until he came.
The sounds of explosions came everywhere. Everyone was scattered. Everyone was screaming; running to find a place to escape, but there was no escape. Anyone that passed by a soldier was slaughtered with ease.
Despair crept up on me. I tried hard to grasp at a plan, but one did not come. I called out, trying to regroup the men, the civilians, but no one was listening. I did not know what to do. No. I knew what I had to do. I needed to save every soldier that I could. Every man that I could. But after seeing that man, I was scared. So scared that I could not move. The screams echoed in my mind.
“Get a hold of yourself.” I shouted. “Get up, Delias. Get up! You can’t die here!”
“Hello There.” A voice came from behind. I stumbled back.
The man was tall and handsome. He wore dark blue leather armored coat and black pants, with symbols shimmering at the sides. He glared down on me with his cold light pale eyes.
That was the first time he spoke to me. That was the first time I truly met that man. The man that ruined me. Ruined my body; my future.
Delias had come to. He tried to get up, but the pain in his chest flamed up. His body tensed, every nerve screaming inside of him. His jaw clenched and he tried to breathe.
“Shh. Hush. Don’t get up.” A boyish voice prickled at his ear. An arm held him by the back of his neck and lifted him up. A canteen was put to his lips and tipped. Water pooled into his mouth and trickled down his raw and parched throat.
Delias drank as best as he could till he choked.
“That’s enough. No more. You need to rest. Go back to sleep.”
And Delias did.