The Forgotten Legacy Chronicles Book 1: The Rejected Providence by TS Wolf
I gave the bird no attention as it continued to fly in wide circles above me. I was far too preoccupied with wiping sweat out of my eyes for what felt to be the hundredth time and focusing on putting one heavy foot in front of the other.
The kuki made a swoop at me, each of its four wings beating the air with incredible speed. With a swipe of my hand, it increased its altitude and continued to circle me from high above, its golden eyes gleaming in the sunlight like topaz.
I had long given up hope that it would leave me in peace. The kuki had been following me ever since I crossed the desert two days ago. It was obviously hopeful that I would drop at any moment and it would be free to eat the flesh off my bones.
Tired and hungry, I sat in the shelter of a tree off to the side of the road, appreciating the shade it offered. The bird landed on the branch directly above me. I looked up to see it staring at me quite avidly, clearly annoyed at my fierce determination to live. Hunger and irritation allowed me to overlook its beautiful plumage that flowed elegantly from blue to green to purple, and instead glare at it petulantly.
“Can’t you find a dying horse to feed on?” I asked the damnable creature. You would think when being faced with an animal that possessed talons as long as my index finger and had the size and strength to carry away livestock, that I wouldn’t talk to it in such a manner. Then again, you might be more concerned that I was speaking to an animal at all.
The kuki spread its four wings, displaying its size, let out a loud “Takai,” as if in response, then folded them in and continued to stare at me. Its five individual tail feathers were so long that they almost touched the ground from its perch in the branches above; they hung like five golden snakes beside me.
Shaking my head, I opened my black pack that I had carried ever since setting out on my journey, eager to eat some much needed food. Upon opening the bag, however, I found it was almost completely empty with the exception of a bottle made from bleached horse hide and a few bread crumbs. Thinking back as I pulled out the water, my supply bag had been feeling rather light for the last few days.
“I guess supplies were lower than I thought,” I scratched the back of my head, feeling oddly embarrassed. The kuki was still perched on the branch behind me, the look in its tawny eyes giving me the impression it was mocking me for my lack of forethought. “Well, how was I supposed to know?” I demanded of my admirer. The creature answered by rubbing its beak on one of its wings before continuing to watch me in the hopes that I would pass out at any moment.
I felt irritated in spite of myself. Why should I care about the opinion of an animal that scavenged off the leftovers of carcasses? “I hope there’s someplace nearby where I can get a bite to eat; it’s been a long trip.” The bird offered no advice.
Taking a small sip of water, I surveyed my surroundings, relishing the fact I could sit on cool grass and not hot sand. The sky was a clear, radiant blue, and the grass around me whispered as a gentle breeze passed by, making the leaves shiver overhead. I took in deep breaths of the smell of rich, earthy soil. I had almost forgotten its aroma during all my time traveling in the desert.
No time to loaf around and enjoy this, though. I need to make sure I’m in the city by sundown or there could be problems.
I finished off the water, which was gritty and tasted of sand then, after a brief rest, started walking down the dirt road once more—my steps more uneven than they had been earlier. I had been traveling for nearly three days without stopping for sleep, let alone food. Naturally, I was starting to falter.
I don’t care how much of a hurry I am to get to the city, I should at least be allowed to stop and get something to eat. I didn’t travel four-hundred leagues to pass out and get eaten by a bird just because I don’t want to spend another night outside.
Just after sunrise I spotted the pub “Cheslaver.” It was the last rest stop before the mighty city Orthrium, the first of the four great cities of Peragus. The prospect of reaching the city was worrying, but also exciting. Despite my many years of traveling, I had never gotten a chance to visit the great stronghold city.
“Ouch!” I swatted at the creature as it landed on my shoulder armour and pecked me on the forehead. Before I could strike it, the agile bird flew out of arm’s reach and, using its tail feathers as ropes, it pinned my right arm against my body so it could continue to savagely scratch me while shrieking: “Takai! Takai!”
The crest of one of the many half-buried rocks scattered along the road made me stumble as the bird continued its onslaught. I guarded my face with my left arm and did all I could to free my right. I was just considering drawing my weapon when, after realizing I had more fight in me than it had anticipated, the kuki released my arm and took to the sky—its eyes gleaming and the constant cry of “Takai! Takai!” echoing all around.
“Go bother someone else!” I shouted, brushing away a few feathers caught on the short spikes set into the solid black plate covering my shoulder, the only piece of armor I owned. While none of its attacks had drawn blood, it was still rather embarrassing to have been so successfully ambushed by a bird. I hurled a final curse at it then proceeded to the pub.
Several horses were tethered by the entrance, many of them letting out a whinny as I passed; my shrouded, hooded figure no doubt frightening them. It had been some time since I had last cleaned my cloak, and it was so torn at the hem that I no doubt looked like a tormented spirit. It would certainly explain why that kuki had labeled me as such an ideal target.
Smoke and laughter drifted from inside, despite it being only a little after quarter-sun; the sun had just barely risen above the horizon. I hesitated for a moment, weighing the consequences of being recognized against getting a drink and some food in the pub. I wasn’t afraid of being hurt; I merely wanted to avoid being noticed.
Shrugging away my hesitation, I walked inside. There was information I had to acquire if I was to continue and the water I had drunk earlier had done little to quench my thirst and had left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth.
The entire pub fell silent at the sight of a man dressed in a black cloak that hid both body and face. A quick scan of the area told me I had arrived at a bad time. All of the men in the pub wore similar garbs of orange and white; each had a picture of a dragon with a spear through its throat on their backs.
Great … mercenaries.
Their eyes followed me as I maneuvered past broken tables and chairs and to the bar. The bartender was a plump lady wearing a white apron over a brown dress. Both apron and dress were frayed and stained.
“What can I get ya, sir?” Her brown eyes raked over my cloaked figure with a hard stare that could subdue a mule.
“Tsai,” I replied, my voice barely a whisper in the hopes of drawing no more attention. I decided that staying long enough to get something to eat would be unwise.
She considered me for a long moment but, finally, she walked away and began to crush the green tsai leaves. She kept her eyes on me as she poured the drink into a roughly cut stone cup.
The pub had remained silent. I could feel the piercing stares of all the men on me. Unintentionally, my hand found the base of the black rod held on my back by a brown leather sling, my only visible form of defense.
“Here ya are,” the woman spilled some of the contents of the glass on my hand as she slammed it onto the counter. I frowned at her. “That’ll be—”
Before she could demand the proper amount my hand drew out a lipra of silver and slid it in her direction. The woman considered this considerable token of generosity for a moment or two, then quickly swiped the coin off the counter and stowed it in the hard leather purse at her hip.
“Sorry about the mess,” her tone improved by a hint of respect as she wiped the glass and the counter under it.
“No harm done.” I used the cloth to dry off my black, leather gloves, which I stripped off to keep them from coming to further harm. I slid another lipra of silver onto the table, but kept my fingers on it.
“I wanted to ask you the quickest route to Orthrium, preferably without having to pass any outposts,” I kept my voice as low as possible.
“Orthrium?” the woman repeated, giving my hand her full attention. “That be about five leagues north of here. Fastest route would be to stick to the road; it leads straight to the city gates. Any reason ya want to avoid the Dragoons?”
I could feel her stare on me, but I kept my head bowed and my voice calm. “Let’s just say the Dragoons and I … don’t have the best of relationships.” I lifted my fingers and watched the silver disappear the moment it was loose. “So if I take this route there won’t be any need for me to be inspected?”
The woman didn’t immediately respond. She was too busy patting her purse with a greedy smile on her face. “Aye, as long as ya don’t attract their interest. Most posts are abandoned anyways. The Dragoons think it’s a waste of their precious time.”
Most of the time it probably is, I reasoned.
“What business do ya have in Orthrium, stranger?” came a gruff voice from behind me.
I kept my eyes down but tightened my grip on my staff as I heard some of the men approach behind me. The bartender took one look over my shoulder then quickly escaped into the kitchen in the back.
“I’m merely seeking a job if such a thing is available,” I took a sip of tea. “I hear Orthrium has a healthy economy thanks to its elite mercenary guilds. It’s because of that I have come.”
“Be that as it may, I see not why a stranger from the south would travel so far just for the chance of getting a job.” The man talking was standing directly behind me. “Most wouldn’t risk the fury of the Crimson Sands Desert with nothing but a hope to depend on. Awfully suspicious if ya ask me.”
I could sense the conversation was quickly turning to rot so I decided to switch to a different tactic. “What would Dragoons have to fear from a lonely traveler?” I smiled darkly. “Surely a youth with nothing but the cloak on his back and a steel rod couldn’t harm even the simplest of men.”
I could tell immediately that drawing attention to my staff had been a very bad idea. I had never had much of a gift for getting myself out of sticky situations.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man turn to his friends and smirk, drawing out their laughter. “A simple traveler, eh? How that pole sits on your back says it be used for more than just walking. Steel wouldn’t dent and scratch just from making contact with the road.”
This, unfortunately for me at the moment, was quite true. My staff had come into contact with many things over the years, but none of them had been rock and dirt; rock and dirt still fastened on the ground anyway.
This is getting me nowhere. I’ll run if I can, but if I need to fight I should be able to take advantage of the state this place is in. The holes in the walls and roof will give me access to plenty of Ios and wind.
I managed to remain still as the man behind me deftly drew his sword and pointed it between my shoulder blades.
“Just who are you?” I could see the others in his group lay hands on their weapons. “Take off that hood and show me your face.”
My hand eased off the cool surface of my staff and rested on the counter, hopefully showing them I meant no harm. The instant I put both of my hands on the counter to stand up, the man’s sword swung high into the air. I drew my staff and blocked the oncoming attack while keeping my seat.
“I knew it!” The man yelled as I held his sword back effortlessly. “That ring on your finger!”
I pushed the man’s sword away, but the damage had already been done. All of them could now see the silver ring on my right hand; the one thing that marked me as a most favorable bounty.
“Try to take him in alive!” The other mercenaries drew their weapons. “I hear ya get paid extra if ya do!”
Letting out an audible sigh, I got to my feet and let my hood fall back to reveal my coldly observing red eyes and long black hair, as dark as the staff that now spun at my side. “I don’t want to hurt you. If you recognize this ring you know who I am and just how dangerous it is to cross me. Turn and leave now and I can, at the very least, guarantee your lives. Stay and your lives will all be forfeit.”
They considered me for a moment or two, but then looked at their captain and laughed. I shifted my foot back, waiting.
“You’re in no position to be saying that, demon! Take him!”
As five men rushed toward me, swinging their swords. I parried the five blades away simultaneously, my movements automatic from the countless battles I had fought before. Catching the bottom of a chair with my foot, I threw it at a sixth attacker coming from behind just before pivoting and aiming a strike at their captain following through on the motion of my staff.
The man collapsed to the ground as my attack caught him in the side of the head, a gaping expression fixed on his face. The others drew back a few steps as I spun my staff a few times above my head and caught it, a bored expression on my face.
“I warned you,” I muttered.
“How dare you!” the mercenary behind me yelled. “Ya’re not going to get away with this!”
He charged, circling his blade above his head before he brought it crashing down. Feeling some brittle boards that had suffered damage, I brought the heel of my foot down with shattering force, throwing splinters into the man’s face. While his hands were raised to fend them off, I swung my staff into his face with all of my might. The force of the blow knocked him into a table which quickly collapsed under the weight of the armored man. I sent another attacker flying through a window with a right legged kick.
I parried four blades and blocked two others, but another closed in from behind. This one I wouldn’t be able to catch in time.
He swung his sword into the back of my neck, the metal of his weapon shattering like glass upon making contact with my skin. I looked over my shoulder just as the man dropped what was left of his sword – the handle and six inches of sword—all that was left of his five-foot long blade. The rest of his comrades frantically backed away with looks of terror. The man screamed in agony, trying to cradle his hands, both of which were covered with numerous cuts and bleeding profusely.
My staff flashed through the air, instantly silencing his screams as the end caught him in the side of the head. A good portion of his sleeves had been ripped apart as well, revealing gashes that ran the length of both arms.
I turned my attention to the rest of the mercenaries. All of them were shocked as they saw three of their best lying unconscious on the ground.
“I trust there’ll be no further need for violence,” I slid my staff into the sheath on my back as I spoke. “Nor will there be a need for you to report me to the Dragoons. If you do, no number of warriors will be able to protect you from my wrath. Now, be gone.”
All the men looked from me, to their collapsed comrades, and then back to the evil smile playing on my lips.
“De … de … demon!”
“Leave us be!”
The group swarmed out of the pub, many jumping through windows in their haste to leave. I could hear the whinnying of horses and the sound of their hooves crashing into the ground as they took off at a full gallop. Their destination was somewhere south, opposite the direction I was heading.
The bartender was staring at me with a look of pure horror, but I paid her no attention and walked out of the pub. While I had caused her some damage, the two pieces of silver I had left her would cover most of the expenses.
I turned to see a man sitting on top of a cart being pulled by two horses, both of which looked to weigh nearly ten times as much as myself. He had the look of a seasoned rider, wearing brown leather faded to match the color of the dirt coating every inch of his sunburned skin.
A shadow sliding across the ground caught my eye. I looked up to see the same kuki that had been tormenting me earlier hovering high in the sky above. I looked from it to the cart and made my decision.
“Greetings,” I called back, “which way might you be heading?”
“Be heading northward,” the cart driver flashed a toothless grin. “Have to get these supplies delivered to—”
“Would you mind giving a traveler a ride?” I felt no need to hear the man’s long winded story and I needed to be long gone before the Basilik Demoro, one of the main branches of the Dragoon’s army, made a round. “I seek the front gates of Orthrium and would greatly appreciate being able to rest my feet.”
The man considered me for a moment, his eyes flickering to the staff on my back, but finally let out a hefty laugh.
“Certainly, why not,” the man jerked his thumb towards the cart behind him. “Go ahead and climb aboard.”
“My thanks.” I climbed on top of wrapped packages that smelled of bread, spices, and liquor.
With a mighty call, the horses resumed their trot northward. I watched with glee as my stalker grew smaller and smaller in the sky until he vanished from sight all together.
There was nothing and I was nothing. My surroundings and I were naught but an infinite, all consuming darkness that shift and pulsed like it was a living thing. I thought, yet didn’t exist; I was, but had no substance; I was here and yet wasn’t. All that defined me was patience and waiting; a presence pondering what form and purpose it would receive, given time.
Hundreds of years felt like a mere instant ,then I was given a soul and definition. While mine was an existence so insignificant that it scarcely burned brighter than a candle’s flame, the power and essence of my will glowed stronger than the light of a thousand suns. I had waited for this chance since the start of time itself and, no matter my form, I was determined to be born and live my life to its full potential.
The strength of my spirit fueled by my resolution acted like a catalyst; making the tiny flicker of my existence flare and blaze strong enough to dimly illuminate the darkness around me. I still had no physical form, but the soul which now acted as my core, pulsated with energy as my consciousness erased its previous memories and experiences and filled in the voids. As I grew closer and closer to completion, I felt questions begin to emerge.
What would I become?
Who would I become?
What would be my purpose for being born?
“You are … yes … your name will be … Scyian.”
These words seemed to flow out of the darkness around me and seep into my being. The flame of my existence burned brighter than ever at the discovery of my identity.
My name was Scyian.
“Scyian Ryuuku … that is a perfect name for you.”
I felt a shiver of delight. I had a full name now … Scyian Ryuuku.
“My precious son,” the darkness continued, “I fear I must send you into a world that will soon be consumed in evil and chaos. My foe, our foe, will try to assimilate you into his ranks; but you must not join his cause. If you or your twin brother,” at the mention of a brother, my soul burned so brightly it momentarily lit up the void I was suspended in, “should fall into his hands, it will spell the end of all life.”
My excitement vanished like someone blowing out a candle’s flame. My birth was going to be so important it could very well shape the future? I wanted to ask the voice to explain, but lacked the body to form words. All I could do was accept that this would be my fate.
“But I have delayed you the joys of life long enough. Now, step forward and embrace the time I have granted you, Scyian Ryuuku. Always remember who you are.”
My eyes eased open just as the driver pulled the reins to bring his horses to a halt. My spine felt like it had been twisted into a knot thanks to the stone jar I had been lying on top of for the duration of my nap. My throat was parched and my stomach growled angrily.
Looking west, I could see a set of doors at the end of a long stone road that had to be the entrance to the city. They were made of a heavy looking, dirt-brown metal that glistened in the sun, which was directly overhead. Both they and the walls surrounding them looked to have been built almost a mile high.
Even more impressive than its walls was the city itself. From this distance, Orthrium appeared to blend in with the mountain chains behind it, except for the streets and buildings instead of rock and snow. Indeed, the top of the city looked as if it was shy only a mile of touching the white scattered clouds overhead. There were a small number of houses built on the outside of the main wall.
“Would that be Orthrium?” I rolled off the cart and stretched until my back popped.
“Ay, that be the great western city.” The driver was looking at the towering gates as well. “I don’t know your business there, but ya’d best be on your guard. The guild leaders have been in a bit of an uproar lately because the Dragoon’s interference has cut down on the number of missions they’re receiving. Also, I understand Fidi, a rebellion that’s rumored to be housed in Orthrium, assassinated two Dragoonian commanders a few days ago, so security has been increased as a result.”
“Dissildia’s rage, that’s just what I needed,” I mumbled before I said more loudly, “Your concern is noted and appreciated.”
The man gave me a nod and another toothless smile. “I’d best be going,” he gave me a wide wave. “I wish ya the best of luck!”
With a loud call and a flick of the reins, his horses set off at a canter, continuing their journey northward.
I waited until he and his horses were out of sight and then opened my rations bag. I drew out a loaf of bread made from some kind of black grain, most likely oura from the western mountain of Skylos. Along with the bread I had two bottles of spiced cider and three bags of tsai leaves.
“Sorry about this old man,” I took a huge bite out of the bread and a swig of the cider. With luck the driver wouldn’t find anything missing until he reached his destination.
After finishing off my meager rations, which at least took the edge off my hunger and thirst, I started walking towards the gates. My tired feet appreciated the level, sandy road after hiking over so much unstable terrain for months on end. The grass on either side of the path swayed and whispered while kuki flew gracefully on powerful currents of air flowing between and down the mountains. I resisted the temptation to stop and throw a rock at them as they called down at me.
Several people shouted greetings as I walked past the houses outside of the wall on my way to the gates. They looked to be in good condition and must have been built only a few years back; long after the time the Dragoons took control of the nation and ceased all the fighting. The fact there were no Dragoons living out here didn’t surprise me. No doubt, they wanted to live in the city proper where it would be easier to exert their control.
The sun had moved a considerable distance towards the opposite horizon by the time I finally came level with the city gates. I had thought the gates were enormous when viewed a mile or so back; I wasn’t disappointed. I craned my neck upward but the top of the gates couldn’t be seen. Before I could get close enough to even try and find a way to open them a voice from the top of the archway called down:
“State your business, stranger!”
Shielding my eyes with my hand, I could just make out a figure standing directly on top of the stone archway. He appeared to have a bow in hand, an arrow notched and ready to fire.
“I’m a traveler from the southern lands!” I smirked as more archers appeared, each pointing an arrow at me. “I’ve come to your fair city to request a job working for one of your guilds!”
Even though they were so high above me, I could hear them whispering to one another urgently.
“Stay where you are,” called down one of the archers, their bows lowered and their arrows replaced, “and stand away from the gates!”
“My thanks!” I walked backwards until I was outside of the disturbed soil marks.
With a loud clank and the rattling of chains, the gates slowly began to open outward. I couldn’t help but marvel at such tall behemoths opening as smoothly as a front door.
I caught a brief glimpse of a figure approaching as the gates were opening. I blinked and he vanished from sight.
“Refrain from moving if you know what’s best for you.”
Although I had plenty of time to react, I made sure not to move in the slightest as a tall winged figure materialized out of thin air in front of me. I had to lean back to prevent the edge of his sword from cutting my throat.
The Dragoon before me had shockingly bright green eyes with brown hair cut well above his ears. His white armor bore the symbol of a dragon in mid-flight surrounded by a web of lightning, which symbolized he was one of the Astrapes, a Dragoon who could freely control the power of lightning.
Without pretense, the Dragoon jerked my hood back so he could get a look at my face. Though my hand longed for my staff, I remained still and made sure I kept my eyes fixed to his.
His bright blue wings gave off a little gust of wind as he backed away, sheathing his sword in a white scabbard positioned at an angle on his back, his expression of suspicion now replaced with a wide, smug smile.
“You can go.” Even while mocking me, the Dragoon’s tone was light and strangely feminine. “I doubt you could cause too much trouble in town.”
“I appreciate the notion,” I replaced my hood so he wouldn’t see the smirk on my face. “I’ll be sure to keep myself well behaved.”
As I walked past him, the Dragoon, still smiling smugly, spat on my boots. I passed by as though nothing had happened.
Although it was one of the four most powerful cities in the land of Peragus, Orthrium didn’t have a very glamorous look to it. The street was narrow and the walls on either side of me were black with grime, dust, and mold. While I could tell it was stone by its texture, the street was hidden underneath a layer of waste.
Sensing the Dragoon’s eyes still on me, I continued into the city, making sure to avoid the many people sitting on the doorsteps of the buildings. Like the buildings themselves, the people were covered in filth. Their appearance made me feel clean despite the dust on my cloak and skin. Perhaps the worst thing was the smell; I couldn’t even identify it because it was so overpowering. The sound of dogs barking and people moaning made me almost crave the mocking cries of the kuki outside … almost.
“Please, sir,” following these words a particularly bold beggar grabbed the hem of my cloak, “Can you spare me a few coins? I haven’t eaten in weeks and my children are starving! Please, I beg you!”
I glanced down at the woman as she started to cry. Her hair was long and ragged and her skin was covered by a thick layer of dirt. She had a large, stained bandage over her left eye.
“Get away from me!” I snapped in revulsion, yanking my cloak out of her slackened grip. “I have enough filth on me without your help.”
Before I could take another step, the woman grabbed my cloak once more, sobbing harder than ever.
“Please!” she cried as if I had just sentenced her to death, “Please, I beg of you, even just a few coins of copper would be enough to to last us a few days!”
I paused, but only long enough to say coldly, “Remove your hand or I’ll make sure you never touch anything with those fingers ever again.”
The woman relinquished my cloak at once and I continued up the street, glaring with contempt at all the beggars I passed.
The lower sanctums must be for the poor and destitute. The guilds are probably near the top, located far away from this stink hole.
Upon taking a left turn and starting uphill, the street became much wider and a good deal cleaner. Here, very few people milled about on the street, and the houses and buildings were in much better condition. The uneven paving had been vastly improved as well. Unlike the first street, the combined smell of rot, people, and unwashed animals was not so overpowering.
Noticing the sheathed knife of the person less than a stone’s throw away from me, I returned to the center of the street despite the looming prospect of horse drawn carts. The driver’s words were still fresh in my mind, and I preferred not to dare a fight in one of the capitals. There were sure to be Dragoons from the Basilik Demoro here, maybe even someone higher ranked than that. The thought chilled my blood.
It makes sense if you consider the fact that Orthrium’s greatest attribute is a surplus of soldiers. They would be sure to keep an eye on such a large force.
Making a hairpin turn right, I continued to climb uphill, getting a decent view of the two streets I had already passed through. It looked as if my first impulse, about the lower streets being reserved for the poor and destitute, had been correct. The buildings below all looked neglected, while the houses I could view higher up had an air of glamour and prosperity. As I continued to climb higher up, the level of filth slowly began to vanish.
Taking a another sharp turn brought me onto a street different from the others so far. This one was completely devoid of houses. Instead there were gigantic gold statues set on top of marble pedestals. My curiosity got the better of me and I stopped to look at the plaque of the first statue on the right side of the street. The towering statue bore the image of a beautiful woman with long hair. I took a knee in front of it and read:
Illiac was the first female ever to be brought into the Guild of Knives. Her skill alone brought the downfall of nearly a hundred men in her lifetime, one of which was the well known and feared Stridifer. Her battles and glory were sadly ended at the age of forty-seven when she was killed by an arrow through the throat that came from the bow of Typhorous, who was slain later in the Battle of the Red Rivers.
I soon discovered a pattern to the statues. All that were situated to the right of the street bore the names and stories of mercenaries who had died in the line of duty, while the statues to the left were of mercenaries that had performed great feats and were all still alive. I couldn’t help but read through some the plaques until, about three streets higher than where I had started, I stopped abruptly in front of a statue that was of great interest. Upon this pedestal was a statue nearly twice as large as the others. The figure of a man held a broad blade as tall as himself, his left hand rested on the handle and his right hung at his side.
Koden Ayuma has always been known, and is still known to this day, as the greatest mercenary that has ever been. His greatest feat to date is the defeat of the Prophets of Death, killing thirty and bringing forty-five back alive. The leader of the Guild of the Twelve Swords, Koden has led in the capture or death of nearly a thousand men in his fifteen years of work.
I stopped reading. I had no particular interest about who he had defeated; at least not nearly as much as I had in the numbers he had defeated.
“Someone with that much strength and capability would surely be a great asset for my cause,” I muttered to myself, as I continued uphill. “Someone of his caliber must be hard to hire though. Will he be willing to help me?”
Sweating and completely out of breath, I finally reached the top of the hill. There I got my first look at the true Orthrium.
There were no longer small houses. Instead, I could see mansions off in the distance that looked to be nearly as large as some of the shops in the lower part of the city. Fruit, meat, water, and other produce, all on wooden carts, covered both sides of the stone-paved street.
I continued walking, staying close to the side of the road to avoid the many carriages going both ways. There was also the lure of shade under the palm trees growing evenly on each side of the road. Almost everyone here was wearing beautiful, flowing, stately clothing of bright colors, but I could spot a few people amongst the crowd who had definitely come from the lower sanctums. They no doubt hoped to receive charity from their richer counterparts. I couldn’t help but hear the self-absorbed chatter of commerce as I walked along, searching for a building that wasn’t set on selling clothes, jewelry, or weapons.
“A lipra of silver per pound! That’s ridiculous!”
“Spare some silver for a poor fellow and his kids?”
I noticed that all of the men who were not from the lower sanctum carried a weapon of some kind. Most wore lavishly ornate, jewel encrusted short swords or knives about a foot in length. Apparently, in Orthrium, weapons were considered a status symbol instead of a tool.
I caught the attention of several people who began whispering as I passed, silent as a shadow. It could have been the fact that I kept myself completely hidden beneath my black, grimy cloak, or it could have been because I carried a weapon that held no blade. Whatever it was, I seemed to draw everyone’s eye.
“He’s definitely an outsider.”
“Probably a traveler from the south.”
“What’s with the pole?”
I momentarily froze, but relaxed when I saw that the accuser was pointing at four men who were charging down the street in my direction.
“Someone stop them!”
I dodged out of the way as the men ran within arm’s reach of me, all of them carrying rattling, bulging sacks in both hands. Fire leapt from the leader’s fingertips, forcing people out of their way.
They managed only a few more steps before a Dragoon descended in front of them and barred their path, kicking up a suffocating cloud of dust and cracking the street with the force of his landing. His red armor and fiery wings identified him as one of the Fotia Dragoons. The man at the front of the group swore loudly as he and the rest of his gang slid to a halt.
“Going somewhere, gentlemen?” the Dragoon’s brown eyes were narrowed and a smile was playing at his lips as he rose from his knee onto his feet. “I would demand your surrender, but,” his smile broadened, “you should already know that the outcome wouldn’t change.”
People on both sides of the street screamed as the Dragoon was engulfed in a funnel of fire that stretched towards the heavens, making me squint against the wave of heat that followed. All four men lowered their arms and ran back the way they had come, nearly crashing headlong into me a second time.
I sidestepped, both to dodge them and to avoid being rammed by what looked like a red blur. Following the shriek of wind, there were four concussive impacts, several screams of pain, and then silence.
I glanced over. The Fotia Dragoon bent down and snatched the bags out of the criminals hands, while they lay on the street, moaning. Unscratched and unharmed, he walked back to the man who had shouted.
“I believe these are yours.” He handed over all the bags. “I’ll call and have you escorted by two others in my battalion, after I take care of them.” He jerked his head towards the thieves who were now regaining their feet.
The merchant bowed deeply and a couple of people actually started to clap. The Dragoon looked slightly flustered by all the attention, but amused as well. He gave a small bow.
Pulling the hood of my cloak forward so it covered more of my face, I turned and continued down the street. Even after rounding three corners, I still felt the heat of the Dragoon’s attack and heard all four men give a final scream before the fire of their captor incinerated them. The crowd didn’t just stop at clapping now, they were cheering as well. I shook my head in disgust and continued my search.
I finally located a low-roofed, black building with a sign out front bearing the words “Guild of the Ruby Handled Daggers.” I quickly pushed my way through the suffocating crowd and went inside, coughing as I walked into a wall of smoke that came out of the doorway.
For the home of a guild, the place certainly wasn’t in spectacular condition. It was very dark and much shabbier than it looked from the outside, which was saying quite a bit. Planks were missing from the floor and roof and I could see several broken chairs and tables heaped together in the corner furthest from the door. All the seats were filled with men, all of them wearing the same red and black uniform.
The conversations in the room stopped as the door slammed shut. After they had appraised me to their satisfaction, the noise returned and no one even glanced at me once as I worked my way past the tables in the direction of the bar.
“What can I get for ya, stranger?” The bartender appeared in front of me the moment I sat down. “Got a great lineup of drinks of all kinds and the food is second to none.”
I looked the man over and tried to hold back a look of disgust. The apron he was wearing had green, black, yellow, and red stains, newer stains simply layered over the old. His black beard held remnants of some foreign substance that I didn’t even want to identify.
The “second to none” claim must have been made for any restaurant within an inch of his bar… Slob.
“Nothing really,” I chose not to mention how I thought it amazing anyone ordered food in such a dump “I’m more interested in a cup you could offer and information if you have it.”
“Information?” The bartender scratched his chin. “Not sure if I can supply ya that, but a cup I have.”
Without further ado, he turned and produced a stone cup from a pantry that was just visible behind his back. Running my finger over the inside of it produced nearly an inch of dust and grime. I couldn’t help but frown at the man, who at least seemed to be honestly embarrassed by the obvious lack of cleanliness.
“Ya … ya said ya wanted information.” The bartender seemed eager to change the subject and I, in no way, wanted to press
“I was hoping you could point me in the direction of the Guild of the Twelve Swords,” I hastily dropped my voice as a few people glanced our way. “I wish to become a client of one of their mercenaries.”
Not surprisingly, the man appeared to be quite offended by my statement. “What possessed ya to ask that?!” While he spluttered, I wiped the inside of the cup and drew out a cedar box that held some older tsai leaves. “Ya saying that they be any better than the men here?!”
“I said nothing of the sort and meant no offense,” I kept my tone cool as I began to crush leaves into the cup. “It’s just that their guild has a very unique individual I want to hire – purely based on his potential. I’m sure your, er, men are quite capable for most any task, but this is no small feat and it may well end in their death.”
“You will not find a coward in this building, sir!” I lifted the cup off the bar as the man brought his fist down. “There’s no man oathed into this guild that has any fear of death. Ain’t that right, fellas?!”
This statement received a very enthusiastic cheer that set the walls rattling. Not impressed, I simply shrugged.
“As I’ve already said, you may recall, I have no doubt that your men are quite capable in most anything,” I held out the cup and waited for him to take it. “This mission, however, is one of dire importance and is not strictly legal. I need men who aren’t just fearless but … well …”
I decided to cut my words off before I said something I might later regret. After glaring at me for a while, the greasy man snatched the cup out of my hand and filled it with water from a keg behind him.
“Ya will find the Guild of the Twelve Swords near the end of the road.” I had to react quickly to catch the cup as he slid it across the counter toward me. “I’ll tell ya now, ya’ll be lucky to get their services. They’re a private guild and are almost always in the service of the Dragoons.”
“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” I took a sip and had to suppress a shudder. “Don’t you have hot water?”
“Not for free, no.”
I frowned despairingly at the bartender for a few moments before taking another small sip. There was no way I was about to waste good tsai leaves, even if they did taste like overripe lemons.
“Eh, just wondering,” the bartender muttered as I took two big gulps of tea, nearly throwing it back up, “how do ya plan on paying for their services? Ya do know that their prices are some of the highest, right? How much do ya have?”
I coughed as I drank down the rest of the tea.
“Enough,” I rose to my feet before he could pry further, dropping a lipra of silver on the table. “Thank you for the information.”
I was already on my feet and navigating through the random placement of chairs and tables by the time the bartender picked up the silver. Looking back as I left, I saw the bartender was speaking to two others while looking my way.
The streets were still crowded, but not nearly as much as they had been when I first entered the bar. Judging by the sun, I knew I had only a little sunlight left. If I was to talk to Koden today, I had to hurry.
I was only a few streets away from the bar, however, when I noticed three figures from the corner of my eye. They had all come out of the same door and started to walk quickly in my direction. Each was armed and there was no doubting their destination and objective.
Idiots. Is their leader really stupid enough to send three of his men to rob someone when he hasn’t had time to gauge their talents and abilities? He’s lucky I’m purposely avoiding trouble or I’d kill them all.
Thinking fast, I took a turn into the nearest alley. I knew that if a fight was unavoidable, I had to avoid being seen. I needed to evade attention, lest I be caught by the Basilik Demoro or even the Basilik Stratos, the lowest division of the Dragoon’s army.
Once inside the alley I found only a dead end. The distance between the walls made turning difficult. Fighting in such a confined space didn’t seem wise, and I had already promised I wouldn’t cause trouble.
Taking in a deep breath and holding it, I shut my eyes and did my best to visualize heat waves rising off of the ground on a summer’s day. As the image in my head became clearer, I felt the air around me start to shift and solidify.
“Strange, where is he?”
Exhaling quietly, I opened my eyes to see the air between me and the three armed thugs shifting like ocean tides. To them, the alleyway looked empty; they couldn’t see through the optical illusion. I prayed that they ignored the whistling of the wind.
“I thought I saw him run in here.”
“He can’t have gotten far, come on.”
I let out a heavy breath as they continued past the alley. After making sure no one was watching, I dispelled the air I had been distorting and slipped back onto the street. I did my best to ignore the pounding in my head and the sweat running down my neck despite how cool the evening was.
The sun had nearly set and I still had not made any progress in discovering the guild’s whereabouts. Apparently my “friend” back in the bar had given me bad directions.
Tired, I stopped to consider my surroundings. The street was vacant of shops and completely deserted. Judging by the archer stations on the wall facing west, I was near the outer wall of the city.
I might as well turn in at this point. There is no way Koden will see me this late in the day.
As I turned to head back in the opposite direction, my thoughts on the inn I had passed not long ago, the sight of two glowing figures froze me in place.
“Most peculiar indeed.”
It was the Fotia Dragoon I had seen earlier today. The other I recognized as the young Astrapes Dragoon that I had briefly met at the front gates.
To my left, there was a piece of lumber sticking out of the wall at an angle. With no time to think, I dashed up the vertical surface and swung myself on top of it. I crouched so my knuckles were resting on the wood, praying my black cloak would shroud me sufficiently. My illusionary technique wouldn’t work with these two.
“My dear Agiaso, I think you’re creating a catastrophe out of nothing,” the Fotia was speaking to the Astrapes Dragoon in a firm voice. An orb of fire hung in the air above his left palm, lighting their way.
“I don’t think so, Master Zigkler. While using Shinkin, his eyes continued to follow me and when I drew my blade I sensed his hand long for the weapon on his back. It seems he knew I was coming and yet kept himself from responding, so as not to draw attention.”
I held my breath as they stopped right beneath me. Indeed, the top of the Fotia Dragoon’s wings were only a foot or so away from the post I was kneeling on, the heat causing the wood to darken and crack.
“You think this foreigner might be a threat?” the Fotia Dragoon sounded a good deal more serious than just a moment ago.
“It’s my belief that he may be. There is no telling what his purpose is for having come so far. His accent hints that he comes from the south, possibly from Kita or one of the dwellings in the Crimson Sands Desert. One wouldn’t travel such a great distance unless they had something that they wanted to accomplish.”
Another crack shivered through the wood, this one running almost the entire length of the post. It wouldn’t support my weight for much longer. I quietly turned, my intent was to sprint up the wall and hide in one of the many turrets above me.
The wooden post was blown to splinters by a fiery bolt of light, sending chips of wood and rock everywhere. In one swift motion I leapt off and completed my flip just in time to land and slide to a halt, gaining me some distance from my attackers. Agiaso’s mocking smile was back in place.
“It appears I’m not so easily overlooked.” I rose to my feet.
“I would have assumed not,” the Fotia Dragoon’s voice was not mocking or threatening, but strangely curios. “One with your strength and skill could hardly pass through any city without attracting attention. You should already be aware of this.”
“Hmph, maybe,” I grimaced.
“I’m surprised you were able to…”
Agiaso’s voice seemed to flicker and die as I directed my attention away from my attackers and instead on my surroundings.
… An insect was chirping on the branch of a tree at the base of the city…
Two guards were whispering about politics on the south wall…
A beggar sneezed several streets away….
“Perfect,” I said aloud, opening my eyes. Both of my oponents were staring at me apprehensively. “No one is near enough to hear our battle or your screams should you decide to disgrace yourselves. This makes things easier.”
Agiaso went for his sword but hadn’t started to draw when the Fotia Dragoon placed his hand on Agiaso’s elbow.
“Stand back, Agiaso,” he sounded lazy, bored.
“You have not even begun your third tier of training, young one, and I’m the master here.” He switched his gaze to my face. “This one’s words trouble me. Such speech is only heard by the weak feebly hoping to intimidate or else the powerful giving unintentional warnings. Regardless of which he is,” the Dragoon smiled, “I should be able to handle him with no difficulty.”
Fire enveloped both of the Dragoon’s arms, burning away the sleeves of his tunic. The stones at his feet grew red and soft as he approached.
“Are you not going to ready yourself, stranger?”
“No, you may begin,” I replied coolly, shrugging off my travel pack and stowing my gloves in my cloak. “Your first strike will determine whether you live or die, I need not prepare.”
As if in slow motion, the Dragoon drew his fists backwards, concentrating all of his energy for a single attack. I waited until he was releasing the fire collected on his arms before dashing forward, covering the distance between us in the blink of an eye. His eyes opened in horror as his fire glanced off my body without leaving a mark.
Placing my palm on his chest, there was a blinding flash of green light and a deafening shriek. The light faded just as the Dragoon collapsed, on his armor were hundreds of cut marks as if it had been pierced by knives
My other hand closed over the edge of Agiaso’s sword just as it was about to strike me in the chest. “That was the wrong thing to do,” I held the astonished youth’s sword with my bare hand. “Having seen how quickly I dispatched your master, you should have taken your chance to flee. Now, his death will have been
I watched Agiaso’s eyes widen in shock as I passed my hand down the edge of his blade before relinquishing it. He stumble backwards looking from the razor-sharp edge to my unmarked hand.
“Th-that’s im-impossible.” He took several hesitant steps backwards. “Y-you to-to-touched the e-edge of m-my sword ba-ba-bare handed!”
“Of course I can do that. A battle between those who weild Kamora isn’t a test of physical strength or weaponry. It’s a battle between the strength of our Celsis. Because my energy is greater and stronger than yours, there’s no way you could possibly do me harm regardless of what you attack with. To me, that sword of yours doesn’t even have an edge to it. You would have learned that had our paths not crossed.”
Agiaso recoiled as I began to approach him. “I can’t have you telling the Teroslio I’m here. If the Elders find out I’m alive, they’re sure to send one of their own after me. I can’t have that happen.”
“Don’t worry,” I drew my hand backwards. “I’ll be sure to make this as quick and painless as possible.”
Both he and I moved simultaneously. He turned to run but I was at his back in an instant, my hand resting between his shoulders.
Another flash of light, another screech, and Agiaso collapsed to the ground. His back was covered with the same marks his master bore on his chest. His eyes were fixed open in a permanent stare of shock and pain.
I kneeled down to wipe his blood off my arm onto what remained of his tunic and caught one of the many feathers now falling from his wings. Rising to my feet, I walked over to the corpse of the Fotia Dragoon and took one of his smoldering feathers as well. It was still warm to the touch. I wrapped each feather in a thin layer of Celsis, picked up my pack, and dropped both feathers inside before walking away.
I took only two steps before I had to lean against the wall next to me. My body felt very weak and I was shivering. My vision was beginning to blur and there was a horrible ringing in my ears; punishment for my overexertion. Finally managing to catch my breath, and using my staff for support, I made my way down the empty street away from the battlefield.
Zigkler … I had heard that name many times before. It was the last name of one of the Dragoonian Elders. I knew for a fact that the Dragoon I had just killed hadn’t been the actual Elder of Fire, though. The Teroslio rarely left the city of Draton, the supreme capital of Peragus as well as the home of the White Tower, the structure where some of the biggest and most important decisions for Peragus were discussed. Also, the Elder of Fire was female. More than likely he borrowed the name Zigkler so as to better intimidate those around him.
I smiled as I recalled what he had told his apprentice. Master indeed. Masters were few in Peragus and much more powerful. He was nothing more than a common foot-soldier.
Finally spotting an inn that still had its lights on, I managed to drag myself to the front door and enter.
My vision blurring worse than ever, I could barely make out the desk where a foggy figure stood.
“Welcome to the Stable Inn.” The voice was male and judging by the lack of concern cared nothing about my less than favorable condition. “To stay a night is a lipra of silver and—”
Not bothering to hear the rest, I set down the required funds and began to make my way down the hall, searching for an open door. There was one halfway between the lobby and the back of the hall, I entered and threw myself on top of the bed that held nothing more than a quilt and a coverlet underneath. Compared to sleeping out in the street or in the shade of a tree, however, it felt nothing short of Ouranos.
When I tried to open my eyelids, the light coming through the window above me was enough to make my eyes scream in pain and protest. Everything from my neck to my feet groaned like an old wooden wheel. My throat felt as parched as the desert ground I had been traveling over and my stomach felt just as empty. After what seemed like an eternity, my eyes adjusted.
The room, with a single narrow window looking out onto the street, held a bed, wardrobe, and a candle in a sconce beside the bed. As I rose, I found out why my back was so stiff. I had fallen asleep without removing my staff, and I had been lying on top of for the entire night. Thankfully, it hadn’t been bent during the night, but I couldn’t say the same for my spine.
I couldn’t stop myself from going to the window and looking as far as I could in both directions. The remains of the Dragoons I defeated the night before must have been discovered. The sun had been up for quite a while. Was the Basilik Demoro already taking action to try and find the culprit?
I took a seat, cross-legged, on the bed. I let my feelings and senses stretch outside of the room and past the walls of the inn itself. I could sense no one with even a trace of Kamora talent. It looked like I had somehow managed to commit an unforgiveable act in one of the most heavily guarded cities in the nation.
“Finally, some good news.” I breathed a little easier as I took off my cloak for the first time in days. “Now, I’ve got to find The Guild of Twelve Blades today. If I can’t or Koden already has a client, I need to start searching for other people I can hire. I can’t spend any more than a couple of days here.”
My hand ran over the surface of my travel pack. With the exception of my water skin and the box of tsai leaves, I was completely out of supplies.
I suppose I can get those in town, but I couldn’t afford to do that today. If I delay seeing Koden, my chances of hiring him will drop.
I rose to my feet, but as I reached down to put on my cloak I realized I had a more immediate concern. My cloak was covered with so much dirt and dust that you couldn’t tell if it was black or brown. My boots, I realized, were in an even more pathetic condition. Fearing the worst, I opened the wardrobe so I could see myself in the mirror attached to the inside of the door.
I almost laughed. My hair stuck up at odd angles on all sides. My usually tan skin was hardly visible under a coat of dust and dirt nearly as thick as that on my cloak. My black sleeveless vest and leggings, both made of leather, were brown with dirt. What was worse was the smell of dust, sand, sweat, and even blood.
It might be odd to request help from a guild when I look like a beggar. I should clean myself up a little so I actually look like I can afford to hire him.
As it turned out, however, they had no place where I could wash my clothes or myself. The most I could do was to use the wash basin left on a little night table next to the bed. Though it was normally used to cleanse your hands, I washed my face, hair, and much of the dust from my cloak.
I looked up and inspected my face again. High cheek bones and angled features cursed me with a permanent frown which, combined with my slanted eyebrows, made me look like I was always deep in thought or in a foul mood. My black hair hung down my neck, almost to my shoulders, but never lay entirely flat on my head. Small patches of hair stood upright, giving me a ruffled appearance. Hair still dripping, I threw on my damp cloak, slid my staff back into its sheath and left. I made sure the door was slightly ajar, to show that the room was vacant.
The hall had rich, red carpeting and many windows; a cheap alternative to using lanterns or candles. No one was behind the front desk when I came into the lobby but I didn’t need, or want, anyone to show me out. The fewer people who noticed me in Orthrium, the better.
I had barely stepped outside when my stomach growled like a caged beast. Since I hadn’t eaten anything but the loaf of bread I had stolen yesterday, it seemed I had good reason to feel hungry. With no knowledge of where to look for Koden, I simply allowed myself to be carried by the crowd in the direction I hoped would lead to the market square. There was no point searching for him on an empty stomach.
I was poked, nudged, and jolted from side to side more times than I could count until the sound of voices increased. A moment later, I found myself right in the middle of the market.
The square was nothing more than a huge, stone-paved clearing with many stands. A large, circular fountain was bubbling in its center and was currently being overrun by a flock of kuki, each looking more like an enormous bird of paradise rather than a scavenger. It could have been paranoia, but I swore that all six of them looked in my direction as I walked past in search of someone trustworthy to barter with. While most of the merchants had an honest look about them, I had long ago learned the consequences of trusting without good reason. Finally spotting a meat seller whose words seemed to be the most honest of the lot, not to mention the most modest, I approached.
“Good day, sir!” The merchant’s smile could hardly be seen through his shaggy brown beard, mud brown, like his eyes. “What can I help ya with; and I thank ya for choosing my stand. I’ve got the best meat in the whole square!”
So much for modesty…
“I would like to have a huge order of your finest meat and bread,” I told him while glancing around the square. I scrutinized the faces of everyone nearby but didn’t detect any signs of worry or unease in them. Was it possible that the two Dragoons I killed last night had gone undiscovered, or were the Dragoons keeping their efforts to find me a secret for the time being?
A loud “ahem” ripped me from my thoughts. I reached into my travel pack for money to pay the merchant.
“Someone, help me!”
I turned around, my hand inside of my bag. Four men were chasing after a solitary figure dressed in a black cloak. The hood fell back to reveal a thin female face with light brown eyes and red hair drawn back into a ponytail. The way she had her right arm positioned suggested that she was injured. Her pursuers appeared to be full of dark intent.
The vendor’s outburst could barely be heard as I took off running after the five figures. Desperate as I was to avoid trouble, I wasn’t about to let anyone take advantage of a woman in broad daylight. Also, I didn’t want to pay the merchant for the greasy second rate food I swiped off the table before taking flight.
I was soon out of breath and lagging behind. I was, by no means, a fast runner; that and the fact I hadn’t eaten in almost a day made it hard for me to exert myself. The four men had almost caught up with their prey.
I paused and gathered myself. If I missed there wouldn’t be a chance of catching up to them. Taking a deep breath, I slammed my right fist into the ground as hard as I could.
The street shook and the windows of the mansions on either side of me rattled. The four men and the woman sprawled on their faces as the rocks underfoot quaked when the current I sent underground pushed up against their feet, tripping them.
I drew my staff and calmly approached the fallen figures. Predictably, since everyone on the street saw my attack, they all stopped to watch, but I didn’t care. There was a furious pounding in my ears and my whole body shook with rage. As I drew level with them, the four men struggled to their feet, confused by what had just transpired.
“What was that just now?” one of them demanded as he brushed himself off with the hand that wasn’t carrying a club. “Felt like someone tripped me just—”
The four men all noticed me at the same time. They drew back a few steps so that we were a few feet apart.
“Who are ya supposed to be?” the man’s voice and chest were both deep. “Ya responsible for what just happened?”
I gave him no answer. Instead, I gripped my staff in the center and began rotating my wrist, spinning the staff from one side to the next.
“Four armed men, all ganging up on one woman,” my voice was trembling with rage and the staff spun faster and faster as my anger continued to mount. “You disgusting cowardly monsters; don’t think that you will be able to get out of this without a severe thrashing!”
Before they had a chance to attack, I caught my staff and aimed first one strike at one man’s chest and then another at another man’s face. Both of them collapsed.
The remaining attackers stumbled out of my reach. “Ho-ho-hold on a moment!” stammered one, nearly tripping in his efforts to get further away from me, “You misunderstand; she was caught stealing from our private stores!”
“Like I’d believe that!” I shouted for the whole street to hear as I grabbed my staff with both hands and charged them. My swing caught both men in their heads, knocking them to the ground. I allowed my staff to do one rotation around my neck before I caught it and replaced it into the leather sheath on my back.
I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. For the amount of people who lived in this town there didn’t seem to be any good fighters, which was good news to me.
When I heard the whispering of people behind me I remembered that I was surrounded by spectators. I hurried over to the woman who hadn’t moved since she fell.
“Are you alright?” I sincerely hoped my face expressed concern instead of the usual scowl. “Get up, follow my lead,” I said quietly. As soon as I was within arm’s reach, I grabbed her arm and pulled her onto her feet more roughly than I intended to.
Keeping a firm, but not painful, grip on her arm, I dragged her down the street for a few blocks before steering her into the nearest alley and out of sight. I looked up and down the street and let out a sigh of relief.
“Sorry about that,” I said, immediately relinquishing her arm. I scarcely had to look down to meet her eyes.
“Are you hurt?” My attention was focused on an area her hand was covering. “If you want I think I can—”
To my astonishment, the woman gave me a hard shove in the stomach, her eyes ablaze with anger.
“I didn’t need your help; I could have taken care of them myself,” she had an unexpectedly strong voice that snapped at me like a whip. “I had some friends set up to ambush them up the road before you – oh no!”
There were several loud clangs as ten broad swords fell out of the folds of her cloak onto the ground. How she had been able to run while carrying them with just one arm was beyond my
“So, you are a thief,” I observed as she started picking up the blades and stowing them under her cloak, suddenly feeling an unwanted rush of sympathy for the four men I had left lying unconscious in the street. “Well, I can certainly see why they wanted to stop you. Those look like good quality swords.”
“I-if you report me . . .” She dropped three swords as she tried to pick one up. “I swear I’ll …”
Shaking my head, I picked up the three fallen swords and held them out for her hilt first. She looked surprised and wary.
“Reporting you would be bad for the both of us,” I was starting to wish I had simply just let the men continue chasing her in peace. “You don’t report me, I don’t report you, fair?”
She looked from the swords to me as if expecting me to draw them away. Finally, she nodded and grabbed the swords, hiding them with the rest.
“What’s your name?”
I was already turning to leave, but I stopped and glanced at her. “My name is Lathe,” I said over my shoulder before backtracking toward the square. She watched me for a moment and then sped off in the opposite direction as quickly as she could.
It wasn’t until I had stopped to eat inside one of the inns that I found myself wondering why I had helped her at all. Even if those men had planned to take advantage of her, what would have been the purpose of intervening except to run the risk of being exposed? Noble actions like that could get me into a world of trouble.
Remember why you’re here. You’re not here to cause an uprising or save the world … You gave up that dream a long time ago.
After eating, I felt a fresh wave of confidence that now I would, finally, be able to locate the Guild of the Twelve Swords. A patron of the inn had assured me that, while they werent’ sure of the exact location, it was nearby and I would find it if I simply walked around.
So I walked, ignoring as best I could the constant stares and whispers that followed me. Mid-sun came and went, however, without so much as a hint of the guild’s location. When I ended up all the way on the west side of the city, at the place where I had fought the Dragoons last night, I realized I was lost. I had walked in a circle around the town and hadn’t found a thing.
Heaving a heavy sigh, thinking wearily of spending the night in a tree, I took a step without paying attention and walked right into a man on the street .
“Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s my fault,” I answered automatically, looking over my shoulder.
I came to such an abrupt halt I nearly fell on my face. The man walking away from me was broad and tall, only about an inch or so short of matching my height. The cloak he had draped over his shoulders was a dark brown and looked brand new. His hair was closely trimmed with the exception of his long ponytail, which fell all the way to his neck. However, none of these things made me freeze and stare.
The sword angled across his back looked to be as tall as he was, its sterling blade almost the width of his body. The handle was nearly a foot long in itself and was wrapped in black leather. The fact he was able to stand up straight and bear its weight was proof enough of his great physical strength.
He had to be Koden Ayuma.
As if to confirm my suspicion, I was jolted sideways as someone ran into me in their haste to get down the street. I barely even noticed the impact.
“Ayuma, over here!” The man didn’t stop to so much as offer an apology to me. “Man, even by expert standards, that was incredible. You took the target out no problem and you didn’t cause any alarm or nothing!”
“It was no problem. I could have easily handled someone with twice his skill.”
I quickly took shelter in the shadow of a building as the men stared down the street in my direction. From a distance, his face didn’t quite match that of the statue I had looked at the day before. His oval black eyes, high cheek bones, and slightly thin lips were identical, but there was something else about his face that seemed off; it looked less lined and younger somehow. This bothered me for a moment but I quickly shook it off.
“We should probably hurry back,” Ayuma jerked his head in my direction and the two of them started walking towards me.
“Aw, come on, what’s the rush?” the other man slapped him on the back. “Come on, let me treat you to some food for a job well done.”
Ayuma laughed. “Why not, the night’s young.”
I held my breath as the two men got closer to where I was standing, but neither looked at me as they walked past. I hesitated for a moment and then started to follow them at a distance.
They slowly made our way towards the south part of the city. As they walked, the two men would stop to talk to a passerby or to buy some food from a street vendor.
I followed them patiently, making sure to stay close enough to keep them in sight at all times but far enough away not to draw any attention. Approaching him with a proposition in the street would be disgracefully unprofessional on my part. I would have to wait for him to return to his guild house and ask him then.
As the evening lanterns were being lit, Ayuma and his companion hastened through the city without delay. More than once I almost lost them along the winding streets and still doing my best not to be noticed.
As we headed further south, the number of lanterns decreased, making it easier for me to hide in plain view. We no longer strolled past mansions and the paving was suddenly rougher and less uniformed. I also noticed a familiar odor in the air. It was the smell of filth.
The street opened up to reveal the city’s landfill. Illuminated by the moonlight were several towering heaps of waste and trash. The smell was nauseating.
My curiosity was triggered. What business would Ayuma, the leader of a guild and one of the most decorated mercenaries alive, have at the city landfill? I put my hand on my staff, but I didn’t approach either of the men. After lighting a lamp, they led the way into the endless mountains of garbage.
The enormous mounds of rubbish were pushed to either side of a kind of walkway that led deeper and deeper into the landfill. In the dim light I could only make out the shadows of objects, making it next to impossible to move without kicking or tripping over something. From what I could tell, people in Orthrium threw everything away after they were finished with it. Each mountain held its own unique shape and had its own original stench. Though I couldn’t be quite sure, I thought I saw the body of a horse as we continued our journey forward.
I walked down the center of the path, about half a bowshot away from the other two. Even if they turned around, their lantern wouldn’t have been able to illuminate me. Besides, there were plenty of places where I could hide.
After a fair amount of walking, and stumbling, I became aware of a tall structure about a quarter of a mile ahead of us. In the dull moonlight overhead, my first impression was a giant gray colored box. As we got closer, however, I could make out a few broken windows along the side of what was a building. The whole thing looked gloomy and depressing. Ayuma and his companion led the way inside with me right behind them.
The inside was no better than the outside. The floor was so cluttered with discarded weapons, pieces of broken wood, glass, and the occasional mouse that we couldn’t move in a straight line. We had to climb over one pile of rubble, walk clear around another and perform many other complicated maneuvers just to move forward. If the other two hadn’t been making so much noise on their own, they would surely have heard me as I tried to keep up.
The three of us didn’t stop walking until we reached the opposite wall. Immediately, the two of them began to dig through the rubble at their feet. I stood in the shadows and watched.
“The switch has to be here someplace,” I heard Ayuma mumble as they continued to sift through the waste. “It’s a sword handle we’re looking for, right?”
“Yeah, and it’s supposed to be right next to the wall. It’s got … here it is.”
Ayuma stood up and moved closer to the lantern. There was a loud scraping noise and then a deafening clunk.
I leapt backwards, partly out of alarm and partly because the back end of a cart nearly fell on top of me. As the sound died away, a huge crevice appeared in the center of the concrete wall. I watched in silent amazement as the two sides of the wall slid apart, causing the muck on the floor to vibrate as it moved. In no time I was staring at a gaping entrance that led, it seemed, into a wall of darkness.
“Better hurry before it closes, Ida.”
“After you, Ayuma.”
Reluctantly, I hastened my steps, never taking my eyes off the doors posing as walls. I passed through and looked back to see that even though the wall had appeared to be made of solid stone several feet thick, there was actually only six inches of stone that protected a number of gears and yards of rope. I stopped at the entrance, a little shiver runing the length of my spine. There was nothing but blackness beyond.
I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I was one of the rare few that had never held any fear of darkness no matter what form it took. What made me nervous was the thought of going into a dark place that might restrict my movements. I didn’t fare well in tight places.
After a brief delay, the gears and rope flared back into life and the doors began to ease shut, forcing me forward.
The doors slammed, causing dust and rock to fall from the ceiling. The lantern, several feet ahead, was the only source of light. I increased my pace, but made sure to avoid detection.
The cavern (for that’s what it looked like) widened and seemed to have no roof or walls. We were merely a ship of light floating through a sea of darkness so thick that it seemed to not just merely blind you, but suffocate you. The floor rose and dipped unpredictably, forcing me to slide my feet across the ground. The occasional puddle of water would ripple as drops of moisture fell from the tips of stalactites hidden in the shadows above.
“You hear anything, Ida?” Ayuma’s gruff voice was wary.
“Not yet,” Ida sounded anxious as well. “We need to be careful. Why they insist on having such dangerous animals guard the entrance is beyond me. What would happen if they got out and attacked people?”
I now drew my staff and held it reassuringly. The more I heard, the more it seemed that this wasn’t the man I was looking for. Thinking back, I had never heard the man named Ida say the name Koden once. Sure, he had said the name Ayuma, but it wasn’t against any laws for one to create and use an alias. From the sound of it, we were heading to something much more secretive than a guild, but I had already come this far. I might as well see who these two belonged to.
We continued to walk through the cavern. With each turn I hoped to find a way of escape or at least another source of light besides the lantern I was following.
Nothing came. The cavern appeared to be infinite.
I stumbled slightly and quietly took a few steps back. Ayuma and Ida had abruptly ceased moving and were standing perfectly still. The lantern was slowly lowered to the ground.
“Sounds like there may be two or three,” Ida’s voice was scarcely above a whisper. “Get ready, and remember they’ll only attack from behind.”
Before I could even begin to feel curiosity at what they were talking about, I heard something that made my blood chill: a low growl.
In one swift motion I spun around and brought my staff down on the head of the creature that had been sneaking up behind me. The thing let out a yelp and collapsed at my feet. Because of the poor light, I couldn’t make out the fallen form, but I didn’t care. Even without light I could tell that there were more, a lot more. The sound of growling filled the cavern.
A resounding crack from behind made me spin around. The person calling himself Ayuma had finally drawn his colossal sword and had split one of the animals in half. He lifted his sword and balanced it on his shoulder using only one hand.
That blade must be lighter than I thought, or he possesses an even more unnatural physical strength than I imagined.
“Stick close, Ida,” Ayuma backed up so that he was standing right next to the lantern. “It looks like they have us surrounded.”
I looked from them to the darkness around me with dismay. Getting closer to the others and the light was clearly the best course of action. More weapons and more bodies meant that these things (whatever they were) wouldn’t single me out. The problem was that if Ayuma and his partner became aware of me there was no guarantee that they would fight with me. Even if they did, they would be sure to challenge me after we won.
So this was what my old teachers meant about being between a mozou and an ashlae.
As one of the creatures leapt forward, I kicked out with my left foot, breaking, its jaw. Finding a level space, I took up a stance and started beating back one animal after another. The shrieks coming from behind me were enough for me to know that the other two were doing quite well themselves. It looked like we had a chance of repelling our attackers.
Suddenly, three of the beasts jumped at me from all sides. There was no way I would be able to hit them all with my staff.
I released my staff and did a quick rotation, feeling heat race through my body and into my hands. A shriek ripped through the air and then all three creatures smashed into the walls with enough force to crack them. Using my foot, I brought my staff into my hands once more just in time to knock down another.
“What was that!?”
“Look out for the lantern!”
There was a loud crunch and we were plunged into total darkness. One of them had extinguished the only light we had.
“This is bad …”
“How are we supposed to fight them? We can’t even see them!”
I looked around but couldn’t see any better than they. I could hear the low crunching of gravel as the creatures slowly began to surround us.
“Alright,” I whispered, “no more games.”
I sheathed my weapon, dropped my hands to my sides, and closed my eyes. A dull, burning sensation began in both eyes just as I heard a loud snarl to my left.
My hand shot out and grabbed something that thrashed and snarled. I slowly turned my head and opened my eyes to face it.
The world had changed from a pitch black to a blazing red. I could now see the animal I held, glowing brightly like a miniature sun.
The greasy, leathery texture of its skin, whip-like tail, and dog-like body helped me recognize what I was holding as a shai. Its thrashing slowed, then ceased, as its eyes met mine. I couldn’t read its face, but its silence was enough to indicate it was terrified.
As soon as I let go, the shai ran past several others and out of sight. The rest still growled, but they too began slowly backing away as I looked from one to the next. One by one, they turned and ran away.
Relieved, I turned and easily spotted the two glowing figures that were Ayuma and Ida. The two of them were turning again and again even though the enemies had all fled. Gradually, they relaxed their posture.
“I don’t hear them growling anymore.” There was a small pause. “Maybe they’ve fled.”
“Or maybe they’re surrounding us.”
“Whatever the case is, we can’t stand here forever,” Ayuma swung the flat of his sword onto his shoulder. “We need to find the way out.”
“How do you propose we do that, short of using that sword of yours to start knocking down walls? I can’t even tell where you are, let alone find a way out!”
I looked from one to the other, thinking hard. I could easily find my own way, but leaving the two of them to be eaten seemed pointless. Besides, there was a chance of a reward. I quietly approached and waited until Ayuma was facing me before tapping him on the shoulder.
“What is it, Ida?” He snapped, glancing at me with unseeing eyes.
Ida looked at me instead of Ayuma. “I didn’t do anything.”
“He’s right, I did.”
My words sparked a predictable reaction. I took a step back and ducked to avoid the furious swipe of Ayuma and Ida’s blades. Ayuma’s attack was well aimed, but Ida nearly decapitated the wrong person.
“Who’s there?!” Ayuma was pointing his sword at me like he had suddenly acquired night vision. “Announce yourself!”
“I see no need for me to announce myself to you … yet,” I watched in amusement as Ida spun in circles for a moment. “Looks like you’re in need of some help. Can’t see very well in the dark?”
Because I could only see the two of them as glowing orange figures, I couldn’t tell what their expressions were. When Ayuma spoke, however, his deep voice was cool and indifferent.
“And you can, stranger?”
“Not really,” I shrugged, “but I can see Ios easily enough.”
“Dragon’s eyes, huh?” Ida tried to sound casual while still staring in the wrong direction. “Being able to see life-force is interesting, but completely useless here.”
I laughed and switched my gaze to the passageway ahead. It was faint, but by narrowing my eyes I was able to see a faint glow. As I followed the trail, the glow became brighter and easier to see.
“Fortunately, I have the ability to see even the smallest traces of Ios, including that from trees, even grass,” I switched my gaze back to them. “This means all I have to do is walk toward the largest amounts of Ios and I’ll find my way out.”
There was a brief silence. Ayuma kept his sword extended toward me for a moment or so, and then drew it back and deftly sheathed it.
“I’m guessing your services won’t come for free?” His voice was cold.
I gave a bark of laughter. “Seeing how both your lives are at stake, I would think that you wouldn’t care how much I asked.”
As if on cue, several low growls came from the depth of the tunnel behind me. Both Ayuma and Ida turned to faced the noises. I glanced over my shoulder.
“Sounds like your pets are coming back,” I smiled as I watched the two of them try to glance at one another, but miss. “I hope you guys have good enough instincts to fight a bunch of those things in the dark because I’m about to leave.”
“Fine, we’ll pay you whatever you ask!” Ida sounded like he was about to have a heart attack.
Chuckling, I began walking down the tunnel towards the brighter floating orbs of Ios. “It’s this way,” I called after a few feet. “Just follow my footsteps.”
Ayuma and Ida quickly caught up to me once I started walking again. The growls became fainter with every step and, eventually, disappeared altogether.
We walked forward in silence, the only sounds were our footsteps and breathing. Though I couldn’t see anything but the flecks of Ios in the air, I felt positive we were going in the right direction.
“How much longer till we get to the exit?” Ida asked as we stopped in front of a five way intersection.
I shut my eyes and concentrated on the air around me. The air flowing through the tunnel directly ahead of us seemed less stale than the other paths.
“I can’t say for certain … but judging by how much fresher the air is, I’d say we’re close.”
We continued forward, now accompanied by the sounds of crunching stone and dripping water. After what felt like half a mile, the air was a good deal fresher and actual orbs of Ios were now hanging in the air. “It looks like we’re almost outside.” My words brought sighs of relief.
I took one more turn and had to immediately shield my eyes, the level of Ios before me so great that it was blinding. I narrowed my eyes and the orbs slowly vanished as the world went from red to normal.
We were standing on the edge of a giant field. Grass stretched out as far as the eye could see without a tree in sight. Turning around, I could see that the cavern we had just walked out of had brought us to the other side of a mountain; one of many that stretched as far as I could see from east to west. The air was thick with the scent of earth and grass, which whispered in a gentle breeze.
I looked northward. It was hard to make out in the half-light of dawn, but I thought I could see a large structure in the distance.
It was fortunate that the wind had been blowing or I wouldn’t have heard the sound of Ayuma’s sword as he swung it through the air.
I ducked under his blade—feeling my hair pressed flat to my head as his sword barely missed scalping me—and rolled backward to avoid Ida’s thrust. I let my momentum carry me to my feet before I drew my staff.
“I knew this was going to happen,” I smiled grimly as they began to approach. “No appreciation for the one who saved your lives?”
Ayuma ran forward with his sword poised to split me in half. I sidestepped his blade and parried Ida’s broadsword, setting him up for a kick to the chest that made him double over. I brought my staff up.
“No you don’t!”
Ayuma materialized in front of me and knocked my staff clean out of my hands. It spun high in the air and out of sight. I leapt backwards and managed to bend my head far enough back to avoid being beheaded. I flipped and slid until I was well outside of Ayuma’s reach.
“Get up, Ida!” Ayuma never took his eyes off of me.
“Lay … off … ” Ida gasped as he used his sword to force himself back onto his feet. “That kick … almost broke my ribs. We should be careful … he’s not a normal human.”
Ayuma began shifting right as Ida shifted left, still holding his side and cursing. My eyes quickly jumped from one to the other. Little though I wanted to, it looked like I had no choice. I was going to have to kill them if they refused to back down.
“You would do best to flee,” I muttered coolly as I reached past the folds of my cloak for the handle of the knife concealed behind my back. “Provoke me and you will be lucky to be in enough pieces for a burial.”
Both of them seemed to fully appreciate the implications of these words for while they didn’t run away they continued to give me a wide berth, looking for an opening.
“So be it,” I murmured. “It’s your funeral.”
My hand grasped the handle of my knife just as the two of them closed in. The cool surface of the knife’s handle suddenly felt white hot.
A crushing pain ran up the length of my arm. I couldn’t move it.
“If any of you value your lives, you will stop fighting this instant.”
The Forgotten Legacy Chronicles: The Rejected Providence is available now at OlorisBookShop.com.