Hero’s Journey Chapter One – Fifteen Years Later
Morning, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
A small village on the western coast of the Kingdom of Arcadia
The spring sunshine shone lightly on the small sheltered cove, filtering through the trees that spread out from the top of the cliffs bordering it on three sides and casting dappled shadows on the sandy beach. 15-year-old Toshiko Kiba lay on his back on the wooden dock, his bare feet dangling in the cool water, lazily watching the clouds pass overhead. High above, an airship soared between the puffy clouds. It was most likely a Galtaen ship carrying cargo, a few high-paying passengers and important diplomatic messages to the Arcadian capital of Comer some 100 miles to the north. Kiba watched its passage until it was hidden behind a bank of low clouds while absent-mindedly chewing on a blade of grass.
Corday was one of the few days that he got to relax. Most of the week was spent helping his father on their small farm except on the odd days that he fell asleep during class at the small village school. Most of the village would probably already be at church engrossed in their weekly ritual of morning prayer. Although it was only the ninth day of spring, it was an exceptionally fine day and he planned to enjoy every minute of it by doing absolutely nothing.
Kiba stood a little over 5’5” and had a strong build thanks to the many years of working the farm alongside his father. With bright orange eyes and forest green hair, he stood out from the others in the village and consequently had few friends his age. He was rather plainly dressed with a black sleeveless shirt and a pair of his fathers old brown work pants with the legs cut short. The legs had originally trailed on the floor when he first started wearing them several years ago. Now they resembled knee-length shorts more than pants thanks to his growth over the last couple of summers. They still needed to be held up by a leather belt however and he had a new hunting knife strapped to his thigh, a birthday gift from his father last month. A pair of boots and socks lay discarded next to a water canteen, a red bandanna and a pack beside him. Tucked under his shirt was a pendent made up of a blue crystal 3/4 of inch long on a steel chain. The pendant was the only thing the Kiba had that belonged to his birth parents. Kiba also had a black tattoo on his right arm just under his shoulder of a four-pointed star. It had been there for as long as he could remember and his father had told him that it had been there when he had been left on his doorstep as a baby 15 years ago.
He closed his eyes and let the light ocean breeze ruffle his hair as he listened to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore and the calls of the gulls overhead. Slowly, he dozed off.
The soldier, dressed in bandit clothes, slowly crept up to the edge of the cliff and peered down onto the cove below. He saw a boy, no older than his own son, sleeping on the wooden dock jutting out into the water. Readying his bow he hesitated, but only for a second, his orders were clear. The future of the Empire was at stake and all threats to the Empire must be eliminated even if that meant the complete annihilation of Arcadia. Taking a deep breath, he knocked an arrow and took aim. At least, he thought, I can make it a quick death.
Kiba awoke with a start. Shielding his eyes, and without getting up, he looked up at the sun. It was still not at its zenith so Kiba supposed that it was still morning. Realising that his throat felt dry he rolled onto his side and reached for the canteen. No sooner had he done so did he hear a sharp thud and feel the impact of something strike the wood behind him. Sitting up he turned to look at the source of the noise and saw an arrow sticking out of the wood. Kiba looked at the arrow dumbfounded, his brain refused to think of anything other than the thought that if he had rolled a moment later or if the arrow had arrived a moment earlier it would’ve struck him in the chest.
He was still staring at the arrow when a second streaked down from the top of the cliffs and sliced across the top of his left arm. Kiba hissed in pain and shock as he grabbed the wound and looked up at the cliffs. He saw a man stand up, ready another arrow and begin to take aim. Looking frantically left and right, and suddenly feeling very exposed, Kiba dived into the water and ducked under the dock. Arrows peppered the water where he entered but as soon as he was under the dock, he was safe under cover, for now at least.
Staying as still as possible under the dock, he heard the clatter of stones as the man scrambled down the cliff face. Soon Kiba could hear the clomp of footsteps on the wooden planks of the docks as the man began to walk slowly down its length. Kiba held his breath, shivering in the cold water. “Come on boy, let’s not make this any harder than it has to be,” said a low gruff voice as the footsteps came to a stop above Kiba’s head. A sword was thrust the gap between planks narrowly missing Kiba’s face. In panic, he thrashed backwards in the water and began to swim for all his worth the few dozen feet to the shore. Behind him, he heard the pounding footsteps as the man ran back down the dock towards the shore.
Swimming diagonally away from the dock, Kiba hit the beach running and headed towards the path back to the village, arms and legs pumping furiously. He only got a few yards before he was shoulder-barged from behind and sent sprawling to the floor. As he tried to get up, a savage kick to the side forced him back down, this time onto his back. The man planted his right foot on Kiba’s chest pressing down and forcing all the air out of his lungs. Gasping for breath he watched as the man raised his sword above his head, point down, and prepared to bring it down onto his neck. Kiba grabbed the hunting knife strapped to his side and, perhaps for the first time in his life, uttered a silent prayer to Corean, Arcadia’s patron god, before slashing at the man’s right leg. The man howled in pain and stumbled as Kiba scrambled to get up, both of them tripping the other in the sudden tangle of legs. The man fell forward, crashing down on top of Kiba, grunting with the impact.
For a moment neither of them moved, then Kiba pushed the man off him to his side. Sitting up, Kiba realised that there was blood on his hands and chest. Apart from the arrow wound on his arm he didn’t seem to be injured, looking to the man still lying face up next to him, he saw his hunting knife sticking out of his chest. He leant over him cautiously and prodded him in the side. Getting no response, he grasped the hilt of the knife and pulled. It needed both hands to pull it out and as he did so, he felt the blade grating against bone and as it came out, a spurt of blood followed. Kiba looked at the blood soaked knife, the blood on his hands and the wound on the dead man’s chest. He tried to stand but found that his legs suddenly seemed to lack all strength and collapsed back to the ground. Kiba doubled over and vomited the remains of his breakfast onto the sand until there was nothing left but dry heaves.
After a few minutes, Kiba staggered away from the body and over the dock. In an attempt to get rid of the acrid taste of bile in his mouth, he picked up his canteen, swilled some water, and spat it out. A spasm of pain from his arm reminded him of the arrow cut and he picked up the bandanna from next to his boots and tied it tightly around the wound stopping the bleeding. His mind was racing, it may have been an accident, and the man might have been trying to kill him, but he’d killed someone. This brought up the question of why. Who was the man and why did he try to kill him? Kiba put on his boots and socks, picked up his pack, walked back to the body, and knelt down next to it.
He looked like a bandit, the clothes certainly fit the part, but Kiba supposed that bandit swords wouldn’t be in such good condition. It looked relatively new and from the stories he’d heard from merchants, the local bandits usually used crossbows and not bows. He was still trying to make sense of everything when something in the corner of his eye attracted his attention. It was a thick column of smoke rising above the treetops. As he watched, he realised what he was actually seeing was several small columns coalescing into one as they rose into the sky and they were coming from direction of the village.
Kiba jumped to his feet, if he could see the smoke from here, a fire in the village would have to be a huge one. He set off running down the beach towards the path back to the village but when he got to the foot of the cliff, he stopped. Something was wrong, apart from what had just happened. Deep down, he couldn’t explain it, but he knew that something very bad was going to happen. He went back to the body and picked up the sword and bow. Something told him that he might need more protection than what his knife could provide. Now wearing the dead man’s scabbard and quiver, he set off back to the village unsure of what he would find.
The village was a couple of miles down the coast on the other side of the headland. It took Kiba nearly half an hour to hustle down the forest path but he eventually reached the top of the valley looking down on to the natural harbour the village was built around. Several buildings were burning, most noticeably the church and the inn, and even from here, he could see large numbers of armoured men setting fire to houses and cutting down anyone they came across. In the village square, Kiba could make out a group of men in more elaborate armour standing guard around an individual dressed in plain traveller’s clothes. He was holding a staff from which a blue light emanated from a crystal on the top. Behind them stood what could only be described as a ripple in mid air. Kiba assumed this was some sort of magical portal as every so often a soldier would walk into the ripple and vanish or would appear out of the ripple as if he had just strode off the parade ground.
He began to make his way down the slope, carefully picking a route between the trees and to the rear of the village in order to minimise the chance of being seen. Since most of the soldiers seemed to be concentrated at the harbour and the houses on the valley floor, Kiba decided to cut through the church yard and as he crept between the rows of gravestones he saw a small boy running down the path parallel to the yard. He recognised him as the eight-year old son of the innkeeper, Busamaru. Little Busa, as people in the village tended to call him, was a good kid that often followed Kiba around the village. To his parent’s annoyance, and Kiba’s amusement, he had started to imitate Kiba. He was about to call out to the boy when he heard shouts from further down the road and several arrows flew through the air striking Busamaru in the back. Busa fell to the floor screaming and Kiba could only watch helplessly from behind a gravestone as two soldiers caught up with Busa and repeatedly stabbed the boy with their swords, cutting his pleas for mercy short.
Kiba slumped behind the gravestone biting on his lip hard enough to draw blood and fighting back tears. He was scared, confused and more than a little angry. Kiba couldn’t understand what was happening and why. Arcadia had been at peace for over a century and although it was a small kingdom, it didn’t really have any enemies. Why would someone attack his village and in this way? They weren’t important, just a small fishing and farming village. The smoke from the church was drifting across the graveyard and underneath the smell of burning wood, he could smell the grotesque stench of burning meat. What had they done to deserve such butchery?
Behind him, the soldiers were laughing and joking. Kiba could feel his blood starting to boil and his heart was beating so loudly that surely they could hear it. “I wish more of them had put up such a fight as this brat, it wouldn’t have been so boring otherwise.”
“I know what you mean,” answered the second, “why should we get stuck with this pissant little village.” Their accents were definitely foreign and Kiba couldn’t place it.
“I think this kid was the last,” the first one speculated. Kiba’s grip tightened on the sword, his pulse racing and a red mist beginning to encroach on the edge of his vision. He was seconds away from getting up and charging them when the first soldier continued. “Once Sergeant Leifsson and his patrol gets back from sweeping the farms to the south we should be able to get out of here.” His anger vanished in an instant and was replaced by a cold dread. His home was to the south and most likely his father would still be there.
Using the smoke as cover, he crawled along the ground away from the soldiers and over the wall around the graveyard. Now hidden from the soldiers, Kiba sprinted into the woods on the southern slope of the valley, weaving between trees and vaulting over undergrowth. The village’s farms were located in a series of cleared fields on the forested flats to the south of the valley and it took Kiba only a few minutes to run up the slope and down the path that led to the Toshiko farm.
When he got to the edge of the hollow the farm was situated in he skidded to a stop. In front of the farmhouse were four soldiers, two of whom held Kiba’s struggling father tightly by the arms and forcing him to his knees. As he watched in horror, a third soldier drew his sword back and stabbed him in the stomach. Kiba screamed out as his father slumped to the floor clutching his stomach. The soldiers turned, momentarily surprised, readied their swords and began to charge towards the boy. Kiba reached behind him pulling out the bow he had taken, he knocked an arrow and fired without thinking or even taking the time to aim. The arrow streaked through the air striking the soldier who had stabbed his father in the neck. He went down instantly in a spray of arterial blood accompanied by a gurgling scream. Kiba knew that he wouldn’t have time to ready another arrow so he dropped the bow on the ground and drew his sword. With a wordless battle cry of rage, he charged towards the soldiers, his sword raised above his head.
Although the only sword training he had ever received was listening to the bedtime stories of great knights and epic battles told to him by his father, Kiba seemed able to hold his own even against three trained soldiers. He parried the first attack, twisting around and ducking under the second bringing him face to face with the third soldier. Kiba swung his sword at the soldiers midriff but the soldier deftly stepped to the side and parried the blow sending Kiba stumbling. He recovered quickly enough to block two simultaneous blows that nearly forced him to the ground. Somehow, he found reserves of strength he didn’t know he had and pushed the blades back with enough force to send one of the soldiers sprawling in the dirt. The third soldier, who had forced him to stumble earlier, turned around bringing his sword smashing down in an overhead strike. Kiba parried the blow one handed, holding the sword in his right hand while punching the second soldier in the stomach, winding him. Kiba was so focused on the second and third soldiers, he forgot about the first soldier that he had knocked to the ground. The first soldier kicked the side of Kiba’s legs knocking him to the floor. Kiba rolled over almost instantly into a combat crouch just in time to receive a pommel bash to the side of the head. He brought his sword up as he staggered backwards, stunned by the blow. He never saw the third soldier swing his sword but he felt the blade as it sliced across his chest. Kiba lost the grip on his sword as he collapsed to the floor, his fall helped by a second sword blow to the back. His vision faded and he lay motionless on the ground, his blood soaking into the dirt.
The soldiers, panting heavily, gathered around the boy’s body. One of them kicked him in the side but received no response. Believing him to be dead, one of them picked up the sword that Kiba was using and examined it. “Hey, this is one of ours! How did this little bastard get a hold of it?”
The third soldier took the blade. “That’s Gunnasson’s; I’d recognise that pommel design anywhere.”
“It belongs to Kiba now,” said the boy, his voice deeper and more guttural than before “and he’d like it back.”
The three soldiers turned back to the boy who was rising to his feet. As they watched, the blood from the vicious cut across his chest stopped flowing and the sides of the wound closed together and healed. What was more disturbing was the boy’s face. His orange eyes seemed to burn and glow with an inner fire that wasn’t there before and appeared more animal now than human. His incisor teeth had become actual fangs and two-inch claws grew from the tips of his fingers and thumbs. A row of spines pierced the back of his shirt and a six-inch spike grew out of each of his elbows. The boy growled and took a step forward and the soldiers fell back, suddenly afraid. One of them hissed “titan-spawn” lowering his sword and turned to flee. The boy leapt through the air, over the heads of the two soldiers that had held their ground, and landed on the fleeing soldier’s back driving him to the ground. Ignoring his screams, the boy grabbed both the man’s arms and pulled. With a wet and visceral sounding tear, they ripped free. He turned to face the two surviving soldiers, whose faces were white with terror, and charged at them while screaming in a language not heard in the mortal world for nearly 700 years.
A few minutes later, Kiba’s vision cleared and he sat up and was presented with a scene of absolute carnage. Around him lay the “bodies” of the three soldiers that had attacked him. They appeared to have been torn limb from limb and a wide swath of the ground around them was sprayed with blood. Kiba himself was covered in blood, but even though he vividly remembered his stomach being cut open and being stabbed in the back he didn’t seem injured at all. Even the arrow cut on his arm from earlier seemed to have healed. Rather than trying to explain all this, Kiba picked up his sword and bow and raced down the dirt track to where his father was lying.
As Kiba knelt down next to his father, his eyes fluttered and he coughed up blood. He ripped the bandanna off his arm and pressed it onto his father’s wound hoping to stop the bleeding. “Kiba…” his father spluttered.
“Don’t talk, we need to get you to a healer.” Kiba wasn’t listening as he ran into the farmhouse and came out carrying some rags to use as bandages and a small vial. “Sandown is only eight miles inland. If we leave now we can make it before nightfall.”
“We’ll need to use the wagon,” Kiba continued as he hastily applied a yellow ointment from the vial to the wound and dressed it with the cloth rags, “that wound is too deep to ride with.” He was about to run to the barn to get horse hitched to the wagon when his father gripped his arm and stopped him.
“It’s too late for me son…”
“I’ll ride ahead then and bring the healer here, without the wagon I can be back in a quarter of the time.” He tried to pull away but his father’s grip was surprisingly strong.
“Kiba,” he said softly, “even if you tried, I’d be gone long before you even got there.” Kiba slumped to the floor feeling helpless. “Listen to me…”
Kiba slammed his fist on the ground, “If I weren’t goofing off like usual, if only I’d been here…”
“Then they would’ve killed you too.” His father interrupted. Tears welled up in Kiba’s eyes as he began to accept the inevitable. “There was nothing you could’ve done.”
“I could’ve tried.” Kiba said quietly, barely a whisper.
Ren tried to laugh but instead could only manage cough up more blood. Kiba used one of the cloth rags to wipe the blood away. He helped his father up and leant him carefully against a hay bale to make more comfortable. “Kiba, you may be many things but you are not a killer.” Kiba looked away when his father said that. “Listen to me; there are things I should’ve told you years ago. Things about your real mother and father. The time just never seemed right and you never asked about them.” Ren’s eyes unfocused and he seemed to look off into the distance as if remembering something. “How was I supposed to tell him, no child should ever have to shoulder this burden.”
“Tell me what?”
Ren’s attention turned back to his son, “It doesn’t matter. Under my bed there’s a box, inside it there is an envelope. The letter within explains everything.” Kiba had to lean in close as his father’s voice grew faint. “Regardless of what it says inside I want you to know this. I have never once regretted adopting you. Even if I was your birth father I would not love you more. You have a good head on those shoulders and a strong heart. You’ve been the best son a father could ask for and I’m proud of you.” His eyes unfocused and his entire body stilled.
“Father, wake up,” Kiba shook his father in desperation, tears now streaming freely down his face. “nonononono you can’t die,” he held his father close to his chest and rocked back and forth sobbing for some time.
Eventually he laid the body of his father carefully on the ground and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He knew there wasn’t much time, eventually someone would come looking for the missing soldiers. Kiba picked up a shovel, walked over to the apple tree in the middle of the yard and began to dig. It didn’t take him long to dig a hole big enough and deep enough for Kiba to gently lay his father in and bury him. He had no stone to mark the grave with so he took out his knife and carved his father’s initials in the bark of the apple tree.
Still in a daze he walked into the farmhouse and went upstairs. He grabbed some random clothes from his room stuffed them into his father’s old backpack along with some food and supplies from the kitchen. Remembering his father’s words, he went back upstairs and looked under his father’s bed. Sure enough, there was a small wooden box hidden underneath some spare blankets. Sitting on the bed he cautiously opened it. Inside there was a pouch containing more than a dozen gold coins, more than Kiba could remember seeing in his entire life. There was also silver disk about an inch and a half across with a small hole at the top, possibly to thread a chain through. One side was a design etched in gold of three swords arranged point to pommel in a triangle. On the back was an engraving that read “Toshiko Ren” and then something in Old Arcadian, a language that Kiba couldn’t read let alone speak. At the bottom of the box was envelope addressed “For The Child”. Kiba looked at the envelope for several minutes, wondering whether he should open it.
The decision was made for him when he heard the sound of a galloping horse approaching. Kiba stuffed the contents of the box into his pocket and picked up the backpack. Making sure he had all his weapons he crept to the window to peer out. In the yard there was a man with bloodstained clothes wielding a sword on horseback, his back to the window.
“Ren! Kiba! It’s Jiro, are you still here?”