Category Archives: Hero’s Journey
“The Runaway” is nearly finished. Just putting the last touches on the final scene and trying to work out the best point to end it.
Oh, and I’ve also written several pages on the next chapter of HJ as well as started work on a campaign setting for Savage Worlds. It’s an Aerial Fanatsy / Sky Pirates thing.
Mid-morning, Madraday the 10th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Somewhere east of Sandown
As Kiba looked up nervously from his upside-down position, the wolf cub padded forward and stopped growling. The cub cocked its head and sniffed at Kiba. Apparently liking what it smelled, it yipped happily and began to lick Kiba’s face. “Eww cut it out!” Kiba said chuckling as the tongue tickled his face.
“Patsu!” The girl cried in exasperation. “You’re supposed to be an attack dog, not a lick ’em in the face dog!” Sighing, she relaxed her grip on the spear and held out a hand to Kiba. “Come on,” she said as she helped him up, “nobody as clumsy as you could possibly be dangerous.”
“Thanks … I think.” He grunted as we wiped the wolf drool off his face.
“Don’t think,” the girl said fixing Kiba with a disapproving glare, “that this means that I’ve forgiven you for spying on me … pervert.” She accentuated her point by shoving Kiba softly in the chest. As she did so, Kiba hissed in pain and stepped back clutching his chest. Wincing, Kiba reached under his shirt and felt the reopened cuts across his abdomen. When he pulled his hand back out, its palm was covered in blood. The girl stared at the blood smeared on his palm. “Where’d all that blood come from?”
“It’s er, nothing,” Kiba said as he unsuccessfully attempted to wipe off the blood using the bottom of his shirt, “I just got … attacked by … um … an animal last night is all.”
“Don’t be stupid, you’re bleeding!” The girl exclaimed pulling Kiba by an arm towards the boulder she had been lounging on earlier and sitting him down. “Take off your shirt and let me have a look.”
“What? No!” He yelled standing up. With surprising force, she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back down onto the boulder.
“Stop fussing,” the girl said as she tried to take Kiba’s shirt off, “it’s not as if I’m trying to get you naked.” Kiba turned scarlet and spluttered a protest but words failed him and all that come out was a string of gibberish. As he clamped down on the shirt, the girl sighed and decided to try a different tactic. “Let’s try this again, my name’s Lylah and I know a little about healing,” she explained, “if you don’t get that wound seen to properly it’ll probably get infected.”
Reluctantly Kiba slowly pulled the shirt off over his head to reveal the four cuts, blood now seeping through the cloth strips. Lylah quickly appraised the wound as she picked up a small leather pouch that had been hidden behind the boulder. “That looks deep; you say an animal did it?” Lylah asked as she moistened a flannel cloth that she pulled from the pouch in the pool around the base of the boulder.
Lylah removed the cloth strips from the wound and gently wiped the cuts with the damp cloth, cleaning out the dirt and remains of the yellow ointment that Kiba had applied earlier. Kiba resisted the urge to breathe in sharply as the cool water stung inside the cuts and he stiffened against the pain. When Lylah noticed Kiba’s obvious discomfort, she suppressed a smirk at his attempts to hide it. “Those cloth strips were next to useless,” Lylah commented as she placed her hand less than an inch away from his skin just above the cuts, “this should close those cuts quickly.” Closing her eyes in concentration, Lylah’s hand began to glow emanating a soft white light. Particles of light danced around her hand and streamed into the wound causing the skin of Kiba’s chest to also glow. Within seconds, the light particles had almost been completely absorbed into his skin and the cuts already looked shallower. Looking at the wound thoughtfully, the cuts already beginning to rapidly heal, she looked up at Kiba. “I might need some petra flower extract to treat any infection that might have already set in. I think there’s a patch growing just at the top of the cliff.” Kiba was barely listening, still looking at the now healed wound with an impressed expression. She turned towards the narrow path behind Kiba that lead up and out of the sinkhole. As she started to leave, Patsu jumped into Kiba’s lap and yapped in Lylah’s direction. Turning back, she scratched Patsu behind one ear and the small wolf cub made quiet contented noises. “Hey Kiba, could you watch Patsu for me? He hates being left alone, even for a moment.”
“Yeah sure,” Kiba said as he picked up Patsu and scratched him under the chin while Lylah picked up her spear and headed towards the path. Suddenly, Kiba turned to face Lylah’s back with a confused expression on his face. “Hang on, how do you know my name? I never told you it!”
“Oops.” Lylah stopped, her back and posture betraying no emotion except perhaps for the tensing of her shoulders. For a few long seconds neither of them moved or said anything, the silence only broken by the sound of water and wind. Kiba was the first to make a move, dropping Patsu and reaching to draw his short sword. When his hand grasped at thin air, he looked around cursing and spotted the sword lying at the base of the gravel slope on the far side of the sinkhole where he had fallen earlier. In desperation, he grabbed for the hunting knife still strapped to his thigh. Even though he knew that wielding a weapon with such a short reach against someone armed with a spear would put him at a serious disadvantage, it was his only defence. Before he had a chance to draw it and defend himself Lylah span around, picked up a small rock, and smashed it on the side of his head. Sent reeling by the blow, Kiba stumbled backwards over the boulder and fell sprawling on to the ground, white sparks dancing across his vision. He struggled to pick himself up and failed, a black fog closed in as he felt himself loosing consciousness. Collapsing back to the ground, the last thing he saw before falling into unconsciousness was Lylah standing next to him, spear in hand.
With the blunt end of the spear’s shaft, Lylah prodded Kiba’s unconscious form that was laying face down, his lower half submerged in the cold water. “Cute, but so naive.” Lylah said with a cruel smile as her skin began to change texture. Her soft flesh began to toughen and take on a distinct yellowish hue while her hair became dirty and ragged, matted with grime. Her skin, now the texture of tough leather, split and formed scales covering her entire body except for her face that remained clear. Finally, the pupils of her eyes changed from an oval shape to a crossed slit.
Patsu jumped down from boulder and landed next to Kiba. Whining softly, Patsu started nudging the side of Kiba’s face with his nose in a futile attempt to wake him. As Lylah reached down, the wolf club turned to her and assumed a crouched posture, his teeth bared in a snarling growl. Patsu lunged forward at Lylah’s hand threateningly as she tried to grab Kiba by the hair. Pulling her hand back quickly enough to avoid Patsu’s snapping jaws, Lylah swiped at the cub and struck it hard with the shaft of the spear. Patsu was sent tumbling nearly a dozen yards across the sinkhole’s rocky floor before coming to a stop. Whimpering in pain, he cowered as Lylah turned towards him with her spear raised. “Stupid mutt,” Lylah snapped angrily, “what’s gotten into you? Do you want to end up on some hunter’s wall?” Lylah turned back to Kiba, continuing to address Patsu over her shoulder. “If you every try that again, I’ll skin you myself.” Reaching down, she grabbed Kiba by his hair and began to drag him toward a cave entrance that had been hidden behind a dense group of bushes. A few minutes after she had disappeared into the darkness with her catch, Patsu began sniffing at Kiba’s discarded shirt.
Several miles away Jiro bent down to examine a scrap of torn fabric snagged on a branch next to a riverbank. On its own, the black piece of cloth would mean little, but along with the faint but distinctive boot print in the soil beside the bush, it told him that Kiba had passed through here. It was lucky that Jiro had found the scrap at all. Kiba’s trail had met the river a short distance upstream and when it hadn’t continued on the opposite bank, Jiro had concluded that Kiba must have waded along the shallow river in an attempt to mask his trail. Luckily, Jiro had decided to head downstream to try to pick up the trail again and out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted the scrap of fabric.
Jiro estimated that he was still a good few hours behind the boy. Despite the relatively simple trick with the river, Kiba seemed more intent on putting as much distance behind him than on covering his tracks. Thankfully, this meant that it was easy to track him. Why Kiba was doing this was a question that Jiro was still unable to answer and the more he thought about, the more worried he became. At first, he thought the Kiba had foolishly gone after the soldiers that were tracking the survivors of Sandown. That would be a futile quest for revenge at best and didn’t explain why Kiba had felt it necessary to knock him out. As Jiro had tracked him it became clear that, whatever his reasons, Kiba was heading south and not following the survivors north.
He was about to follow the dirt path that Kiba had taken when he heard voices from upstream carried in on the wind. The voices had distinct Eldalan accents and from the brief snippets of conversation he was able to discern, they appeared to be trackers of some sort. Jiro reasoned that if someone were following them, any scrap of information that they had would be vital. Carefully, and silently, he waded back across the river and crept towards the source of the voices.
Soti sat down heavily on a fallen log, his muscles aching from the overnight travel while one of his soldiers filled his canteen from the river. Above them, a trio of sparrows sang at the gathering clouds. At Lars’s insistence, they had continued tracking their quarry through the night and even though it had been a dark night, somehow the Ranger had been able to follow the tracks in the darkness. After reaching the river the trail had gone cold and they had faced a choice whether to go upstream or down in order to pick it up again. Soti had decided to defer making that decision until after the men had rested. Travelling through the night had taken a lot out of them, especially after yesterday’s exertions and although he hid it well, privately Soti knew he needed to rest himself. Only Lars seemed immune from exhaustion.
“What’s eating you?” Lars asked as he leaned against a tree next to Soti. “You’ve been more pensive than a priest since that mage left.”
Chewing on a hardtack biscuit, Soti waited until his men were out of earshot before answering quietly. “This isn’t why I joined the army. What kind of war are we fighting? You’d never describe Arcadia and Eldala as allies or even friends but relations were always cordial. Suddenly, a people we wouldn’t have thought twice about trading with before are a deadly threat to the Empire. Where did that come from? I just don’t get why we’re even here.”
Lars sat down next to Soti, politely refusing a bite of the dry biscuit. “The Emperor said to attack, so we attack. It’s not our place to question orders that may be based on information we don’t have.”
“How can a people barely able to fight back be a threat us? With these new portal stones, we were able to overwhelm their defences in a single day but where is the honour in the indiscriminate massacre of every man, woman and child?”
Lars turned to Soti, a strange expression on his face. “The mistake you’ve made is to keep thinking of this as just a war.” For a moment, neither man spoke; both were lost in their own thoughts.
“Lars, what exactly is going on? Why are we even out here looking for this kid?” Soti asked.
“What makes you think I know more than you?” Lars answered evasively.
“For one thing,” Soti began, “the Rangers always know more about what’s going on with the Empire than anyone else.”
Lars looked surreptitiously at the three soldiers resting by the riverbank. None of them showed any signs of being aware of their superior’s conversation. Satisfied, he turned back to Soti and began speaking in a low whisper. “Arcadia, Galtea, the Broken Kingdoms; this whole region used to be part of an ancient empire known as the Geldren Domain. It was massive, one of the most powerful nations before the Godswar. Even Eldala began life as a colonial province of it. Not much of it remains today except a few ruins and the common language that we all share. Before the Godswar, the Domain was dedicated to the worship of the Titans who, before the Usurper Gods started the Godswar, were the highest divine authority in existence. Ultimately, the Titans were defeated and were cast out of the heavens and their mortal supporters punished. The Gods devastated the Domain in retribution, almost wiping out this entire continent. Eldala was spared only because we had rebelled against the Domain and sided with the Gods, but even then we lost much.”
Frustrated, Soti interrupted the Ranger. “I went to school just like you Lars, what’s this got to do with what’s happening now?”
“Everything. Do you know what a titan spawn is?”
“It’s the half-demon offspring of a Titan and a human isn’t it? But they’ve not been seen in generations.”
“Not exactly. While they haven’t been seen in Eldala for some time, over here they are much more common.” Lars held up a hand to forestall Soti’s question. “Remember, that the home provinces of the Geldren Domain never abandoned the Titan’s. Even after the God’s victory, conversion was a slow process. Many continued to worship the Titan’s in secret, which led to the formation of the Titan Cults that plague the region to this day. Not long after, the Titan’s, who never completely abandoned the mortal world, rewarded the cults for their loyalty. They gave them a ritual that allowed them to tap into a fraction of the power of Titan and use it to impregnate a human woman. A few weeks later she would give birth to a child that would outwardly appear to be human but it’s soul would be that of a Titan. This child would grow up to be a powerful member of the cult, more often than not assuming its leadership.”
“So, you’re saying that this kid was, is, one of these titan spawns?” Soti asked. Lars however was not listening.
“Damn it, it all makes sense now! THAT’S why we attacked here in the first place. The invasion, the rumours, even that kid. It all fits, Gods how could we have missed this!”
Soti was confused; his friend seemed to be jumping from subject to subject. “Lars you’re not making much sense.” Lars grabbed Soti’s shoulders, the light of epiphany burning behind his eyes.
“Ask yourself this, why did we commit resources to taking out such a small village? It’s isolated, has no resources worth speaking of and has no strategic potential whatsoever. Even the Arcadians didn’t see the need to garrison it. What tactical advantage could we possible gain by committing troops here that could’ve been used to strengthen the attack on a larger target elsewhere? None, that’s what, and what made this village different from a hundred others just like it that are supposed to be dealt with by the second wave? Only one thing. The Toshiko kid, that’s what. The entire reason why we attacked that village is him!”
“No, listen. Before the Rangers were sent to infiltrate Arcadia, we started hearing rumours, both from some of the officers in charge of the invasion and from within the Imperial Court itself. Allegedly, the Emperor had been consulting priests and diviners for months prior to signing the order to launch the invasion. As cliché as it may sound, somehow His Highness had got his hands on some prophecy that spurred him into action. From the few fragments we are able to acquire, it claimed that a titan spawn born fifteen years ago here in Arcadia would be a future threat to the Empire.”
Soti’s eyebrow raised in scepticism as he responded. “Uh huh, a prophecy foretelling of some future threat. You’re right, that does sound cliché.”
“And it’s complete bullshit. In over 800 years of recorded history, there hasn’t been a single instance of a prophecy coming true. The myth of the prophecy handed down by the Gods is just that, a myth. That doesn’t stop some taking advantage of people’s gullibility however. Ever heard of the Order of Taran Kur?” Soti shook his head. “I’m not surprised, the Rangers have been investigating them for several years and we’ve got little more than a name and a list of some the individuals involved. Mostly high-ranking mages. We believe that they’ve been manipulating the Imperial Court for sometime and may be behind the fabrication of the prophecy. All in an attempt to get their hands on…”
“…the titan spawn.” Soti said, interrupting Lars and finishing his sentence. “But to start a war over it, that just seems insane. Whatever the reason is, I think it’s important if that’s the case, that we need to prevent this titan spawn from falling into their hands. Especially considering that bitch of a mage lied in an attempt to throw us of his scent. With green hair and orange eyes, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this kid.”
“Aye,” Lars agreed, “but first we should let the men rest. We’ll stop here for an hour and then head upstream.”
Opening his eyes, Jiro broke the mental link with the sparrow above the Eldalan men. As he slowly crawled away from the group, he inwardly cursed. The conversation he had eavesdropped upon confirmed what Jiro had learned from the solider that he had interrogated the day before. Jiro had hoped that the soldier’s testimony, which had been based on rumour, would prove to be false despite the use of the Confessor’s Chain. However, given what he had just heard, he now had to admit the truth, if only to himself. The Eldalans, believing a prophecy, were here to eliminate a threat but since they had not known the exact identity of the threat, they had taken the coldly logical decision to ensure its destruction by wiping out every last Arcadian. “If I had just done my duty fifteen years ago like I was supposed to,” he started to think to himself before he clamped down on the thought. Whatever the present situation, he had made the right decision all those years ago. At least that’s what he hoped.
A few minutes later, he was back at the site where he had discovered part of Kiba’s shirt. With a group of Eldalan soldiers’ right behind him, he had to move fast and find Kiba. With his concern growing by the minute, he set off down the trail in pursuit of the boy.
Kiba came to slowly groaning; cracking open one eye at a time, his head pounded and there was a ringing in his ears. Blood covered the side of his face where Lylah had struck him and the hair near the wound was matted with it. It was dark and he was still groggy from the blow so it took him a moment to realise the full nature of his predicament. Chained to the wall by wrist manacles above and behind his head, Kiba was in a sitting position with his ankles shackled and bolted to the floor. Locked around his neck was an iron collar fastened to the wall by a short length of chain, further restricting his range of movement. The chains chinked loudly against the stone as Kiba tugged at them but it was no use, they seemed fixed fast to the stone and no amount effort would dislodge them. Not that Kiba had any strength in him, since waking up he had felt weak and slightly nauseous. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he began to make out the stone walls of a cave. He appeared to be in a small chamber at the end of tunnel, a grate made of crudely constructed metal bars blocking the exit. What little illumination there was came from a dimly flickering torch, its light reflecting from around the corner on the damp cave walls. In the darkness at the back of the chamber, Kiba could now see the rough outline of a figure slumped against the far wall, partially hidden behind a natural column. “Hey mister, where…” he called out, but as he did so, something about the way the figure was sitting caused him to stop. Straining against the chains and the neck collar, Kiba shuffled sideways in an attempt to get a better view of the figure. When Kiba saw the bloated and decayed flesh of the corpse, he jumped back uttering a cry of shock. Although seeing a dead body similarly chained up was chilling enough, the expression on its face was force. Fixed on to its face was a terrifying visage, either a frozen expression of fear and pain or the result of decomposition on the muscles of the face. Considering his present situation, Kiba would put money on it being the former.
The sound of the metal grate being raised and slammed back down pulled Kiba’s attention away from the decayed corpse and back to the entrance of the chamber. Standing just inside the bars and leaning casually against the wall was Lylah. She smiled as Kiba glared at her, not the friendly smile she had shown earlier by the pool, an arrogant smug smile with a faint hint of hunger. “Well, look who’s finally awake.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Kiba yelled at her angrily as he tugged at the chains yet again. Lylah chuckled as she walked slowly across the chamber towards him, amused it seemed at his futile anger. As she did so, a burnt out torch fixed to the column in the centre of the chamber suddenly reignited.
Kneeling down next to Kiba, Lylah traced a finger through the blood on his face, causing him to suppress a wince as the finger crossed the still oozing wound. “Chained to a wall, no hope of escape or rescue and yet you’re still defiant. But then you’ve always been rather strong willed haven’t you?”
“Unchain me you crazy bitch and I’ll show you just how ‘defiant’ I can be.”
“Actually,” Lylah said as she straddled his legs, “I like you just where you are.” Placing her finger in her mouth, she licked off Kiba’s blood. As she did so, a shiver ran down her spine and every nerve ending tingled. For a brief moment as she savoured the taste, the colour of her eyes changed from blue to yellow and the pupils quickly changed from circular to cross-shaped. A ripple of scales flashed across her body as she swallowed the blood.
Kiba gulped nervously as he saw the momentary change in Lylah, the first pangs of fear beginning to gnaw at his thoughts. “What the hell are you?”
“I could ask you the same question,” she said lightly brushing his hair with her hand, “there’s three voices inside your head where there should only be one. One of those voices is so full of anger and malice that I can almost taste its rage. It’s practically screaming.” Lylah was now leaning quite close and Kiba was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable at the close proximity. “Then there’s your’s, so confused and alone. In the last few days you’ve seen your entire world thrown upside down and you’re still trying to make sense of it all.”
“Wait,” Kiba said interrupted, “how do you know all this?” Then the answer suddenly hit him. “That’s how you knew my name without being told isn’t it? You’re reading my mind!”
Lylah smiled as she leaned even close, whispering into his ear. “It’s just a little trick, not even that hard really. I use it to peek inside a person’s head and see what their weakness is, what’s most likely to draw them in and make it easy to catch them off guard. Adolescent males are the easiest, show ’em a pretty girl and they’ll all but bare their throats.”
Gritting his teeth and cursing his own stupidity, Kiba realised how easily he had let his guard down been sucked into Lylah’s deception. He recoiled, as much as he could, as Lylah abruptly licked at the blood oozing from his head wound. “What the hell are you doing!?” As her hand drifted down across his naked torso to his waist where it slipped into his pants, Kiba started to panic. “Hey wait,” he cried out as Lylah’s hand began to work its way down to his groin, “stop!”
Lylah ignored his struggles and continued regardless of his protests. “Gods, your spirit’s aura is so strong,” she said as she began to caress a suddenly very uncomfortable Kiba. “The old guy barely saw the week out, I bet you’d last for months.” Her free hand hovered just an inch above his chest and Kiba could something from deep within being sucked out of him and into the hand. Along with Lylah’s activities inside his pants, the sensation was not entirely unpleasant. However, this made him struggle and protest even more, unwilling to submit to it. “Stop struggling, this was the first thing you thought of when you laid eyes on me.”
“I SAID STOP!” Kiba yelled as he twisted violently, throwing Lylah off him. As she landed roughly, she reverted to her scaled form and slapped hard him across the face, her claws leaving three furrows across his check. Snarling in anger, she planted one hand on his chest, pinning him firmly to the floor while the other grabbed his hair and painfully pulled his head back.
“I don’t think you get it,” she said quietly, “either way, you’re dying down here. The only choice you get is whether you go screaming in pain or groaning in pleasure.” In answer, Kiba spat in her face. “Pain it is then.”
The claws on the hand pinning him to the floor began to grow, gaining an extra three inches. The tips of each claw pierced the skin as it grew, drawing blood. Kiba gasped at the sudden sharp pain as the claws embedded themselves in his flesh. Lylah’s smile however told him that much worse was to come. Seconds after the claws ceased growing, Kiba again felt the same sensation of something being sucked out of him. This time however, it was not a pleasant feeling as the pain grew by magnitudes. Despite himself, Kiba screamed as the white-hot pain flooded his body. As he writhed in agony, Lylah laughed softly as his spirit flowed out of his body and into hers. “Had enough yet?”
Kiba did not hear her however; all thoughts other than the pain had been overwhelmed. The pain was the worse than he had ever felt, worse even than when the Eldalan soldiers had stabbed him the day before. Yet in the midst of this, at the back of his mind, a voice cut through the pain. “Let me out you idiot before she kills both of us!” Kiba immediately recognised Dace’s harsh tone. A pressure, the feeling of him trying to break through, accompanied his voice. Kiba would rather die then let Dace loose on the world. Between the pain inflicted by Lylah, the draining of his spirit, and Dace railing at him to give in, Kiba could feel himself slipping away bit by bit and Dace getting ever nearer to freedom. Just as he reached the point where he could not struggle any longer, a new voice cut was heard in his mind.
“Don’t give in to him Kiba, you’re stronger than he is and he knows it!”
Dace seemed to yell back at the newcomer, but the damage had already been done. The newcomer’s voice had bolstered Kiba’s resolve, and despite the pain, chuckled to himself. Focusing on the flickering torch behind Lylah, Kiba forced a smile. “You gonna have to try harder than that,” he said to Dace.
“Brave, but stupid.” Lylah, of course, could not hear the voice in Kiba’s head as she fed on his spirit so she assumed that he had been speaking to her. “If that’s how you want it.” Kiba screamed as she increased the rate at which she fed multiplying the amount of pain she inflicted. This time, the boy was unable to take it and mercifully passed into unconsciousness.
Lylah withdrew her claws and looked down at Kiba as she stood up. His skin was pale, covered in sweat and the claw marks on his chest had become small tears, the flesh ripped as he had struggled with the pain. She had taken more than she had intended, loosing her herself in anger when he had resisted. Still, she thought to herself, Kiba had more than enough spirit to give.
Suddenly curious, she left the chamber and made her way through the poorly lit tunnels to another chamber some distance away. In one corner, there was a small bed buried beneath a pile of blankets and rags and against another wall was a table. On this table was the pack that had been ripped from Kiba’s back when he had fallen into the sinkhole. Lylah had retrieved it after she locked him up in her “pantry”; she used the belongings and valuables of her victims for barter and trade. Emptying the contents of the pack onto the table, she discarded the clothes and other supplies and picked out a small leather pouch. Carefully opening it, she took out the small pile of coins and an envelope. There must be at least 60 or 70 coins in the pile, quite a haul for a boy to be carrying around. Even though the coins would prove to be useful, her attention was fixed on the envelope.
The paper was old and yellowed; the back was sealed with a drop of wax indicating that it had probably never been opened. When she had been inside his mind earlier, she had seen an image of this envelope and received the strong impression that somehow it was important. Carefully she broke the seal, took out the letter within and started reading.
Ten minutes later, Lylah found herself standing over the still unconscious Kiba. “So that’s what you are,” she said to herself quietly as she watched his shallow breathing. “The letter explained a lot, too bad you’ll never get to read it.”
The first few drops of rain were starting to fall when Jiro slid to a stop. Ahead of him on the dirt path sat a small grey wolf cub. On the ground in front of Patsu’s paws lay Kiba’s bloodstained shirt. Jiro’s heart skipped a beat when he saw it, even from where he was standing; Jiro could see that some of the blood was still wet. Taking a step forward, he bent down to pick it up but before he could do so, Patsu snatched it up and jumped back out of his reach. Perplexed, Jiro took another step forward and attempted to retrieve the shirt but again, Patsu jumped out of his reach. After a third try, the cub ran a dozen feet down the path and turned, as if waiting for Jiro.
Jiro stood back and sighed, you did not need to be a Royal Guard to understand what was going on. “Ok, I get the message. You want me to follow you is that it?” In response, Patsu yapped and hopped back a couple of steps. “All right then, lead the way.” The cub turned and ran down the path, Jiro chasing close behind. After a few hundred yards, Patsu darted off the path and into the trees. For a brief moment, Jiro wondered whether he was doing the right thing, leaving behind the trail he had been tracking and following the cub. However, he reminded himself that there was only one way the cub could have got hold of the shirt, Kiba must be in serious trouble.
The cub eventually stopped on top of a small hillock, treeless and with limestone rocks protruding from its grassy surface. As Jiro reached the top, he was able to see down the far side and see that it was broken up by boulders and crevasses. Probably the result of countless centuries of erosion and subsidence. Nestled in the shadows at the base of one of the deeper crevasses was the small mouth of a cave. It was to this opening that the cub bounded to and waited patiently for Jiro to catch up. Jiro clambered down into the crevasse and stood before the cave entrance. Rivulets of rainwater dribbled down the rough walls and into the cave, disappearing into the dank darkness. With one his short swords in hand, he pulled a large crystal the size of a chicken egg from a waistcoat pocket. The crystal was a sunstone, a type of crystal known for its ability to soak up light and then release it when the sunstone was in darkness and squeezed. Gently holding the sunstone, the quartz-like crystal emitted a soft white light that illuminated the descending passage. Not knowing precisely what he would find, Jiro carefully entered the cave and made his way down the slippery slope.
Twisting back itself a number of times as it descended, after several hundred yards the tunnel opened up on to a large cavern. Easily large enough to fire an arrow across without striking the far wall, the cavern’s floor was smooth rock whose shape reminded Jiro of gently undulating sand dunes. The effect was only pierced by stalagmites, stalactites, columns and a large pit in the far corner. One-half of the cavern’s floor was occupied by a small lake fed a cascade of clear water flowing out shaft on the cavern’s roof. In the light provided by the sunstone, Jiro could discern a series of worn markings in the cavern floor, the sign of a frequently trodden path. Following the path, Jiro could see that it ran from the lake to a series of hewn stairs near the pit. Moving towards the stairs, as he passed the pit the faint smell of decay assaulted Jiro’s senses. Apprehensively, he crept up the edge of the pit and peered down. Its base was hidden in darkness, beyond the sunstone’s light but the walls of the pit were riddled with ledges. The ledges were covered with bones and, in some cases, partially decomposed body parts. Jiro was no stranger to scenes of carnage, he had seen friends and comrades killed in battle before, but there was something about the charnel pit that bothered even him.
Patsu dropped the shirt and bit at the cuff of Jiro’s pants, tugging him towards the stairs. Leaving the pit behind, Jiro followed the cub up the slippery stairs and into a tunnel that sloped upwards. After five minutes of negotiating a maze-like warren of tunnels and chambers, the pup stopped and dropped into a defensive posture, growling lightly. Up ahead, the flicking glow from a torch could be seen approaching from around the bend. Quickly scooping up the wolf club, Jiro ducked into a side passage and crouched behind a stalagmite. Placing the sunstone on the floor, it ceased emitting its light and the passage was engulfed by darkness again. Jiro did not have to wait long as a yellow scaled, female humanoid, walked past heading in the direction of the cavern. One hand she carried a torch and the other was dragging a body. To Jiro’s immense relief, the body was that of an adult in an early state of decomposition. As soon as she had passed around another corner and the flickering torchlight could no longer be seen, Jiro picked up the sunstone and continued down the corridor, Patsu trailing just behind.
When Jiro came to a fork in the tunnel, he bent down and examined the floor. There was blood on the floor, from the angle and direction of the smears Jiro could tell that someone had been dragged down the right tunnel. Patsu ran down the tunnel and through the barred grate at the end into the chamber beyond. The chamber was lit by a single torch and, by its light, Jiro could see Kiba slumped against and chained to the wall.
He quickly broke the lock securing the grate and rushed over to the boy. Kiba was unconscious but thankfully still alive. Using a dagger, Jiro snapped several rusted links freeing Kiba from the wall and floor before gently laying him down. For the time being he could do nothing about the neck collar or the shackles around Kiba’s wrists and ankles, they would have to wait until later. Jiro took a canteen of water and poured some of its contents onto Kiba’s face. Spluttering, the boy regained consciousness but it took several moments for his eyes to focus. “Are you okay to walk? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.” Jiro asked quickly, concerned that the creature could return at any time.
Kiba, for his part, seemed to have trouble concentrating and for a brief second seemed unable to recognise Jiro. Weakly, he tried to push Jiro away before responding, his speech slurred. “Piss off; I’m not falling for it again.”
Jiro grabbed the boy’s chin and forced him to look the older man in the eye. “Kiba, I need you to focus.” It was no use; Kiba did not seem to hear him.
“You’re in my mind again, showing me what I want to see.” As he spoke, his eyes began to flutter as he started to loose consciousness again. In response, Jiro reached into another pocket and pulled out a small vial of clear liquid. Popping the waxed cork stopper with his thumb, he forcibly opened Kiba’s mouth, poured the liquid into the boy’s mouth, and then held the mouth closed. He had to act quickly, the moment the liquid was exposed to the air and came into contact with the heat of the body; it evaporated becoming an odourless, invisible gas that acted as a powerful stimulant. It took effect as soon as Kiba breathed it in, increasing his heart rate, breathing and the flow of blood to his brain. Almost instantly, his eyes snapped open showing much more alertness than before. “Jiro? What the hell are you doing here?”
“You with me?” Jiro asked as he helped Kiba up. The boy nodded, still unsteady on his feet and needing Jiro’s help to stand. “Good, because we need to get out of here fast. Afterwards, you can fill me in on what you’re doing down here and then you can explain why you thought it necessary to bean me on the back of the head.”
Kiba smiled weakly at Jiro’s attempt at humour. “Oh … that.”
“Yes ‘That.’” Jiro said as he lifted up the grate and helped Kiba underneath it.
“How did you find me?”
“He showed me,” nodding towards Patsu who followed the pair close behind.
“So the little fella has a name them, looks like you made a friend.”
As Jiro helped Kiba down the tunnel, he knew that if they did not move faster they would be caught. But as he looked over at the boy’s pained and slightly woozy expression, he realised that it was probably a miracle that he was on his feet at all.
Suddenly Kiba stopped, his hand flying to his neck as if searching for something. “Shit,” Kiba cried, “where is it?” Kiba had just realised that his pendant was missing. Panicking, he frantically tried to go back to the chamber to search for it but was stopped when Jiro grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.
“Where’s what?” Jiro asked confused.
Kiba opened his mouth as if to say something but instead looked down at his feet. “Nothing,” he mumbled.
Lylah dumped the body of the hunter over the side of the pit and watched as it tumbled into the darkness and vanished. She was about to turn and head back to the stairs when she noticed something lying on the floor on the far side of the pit. Picking it up, Lylah quickly realised that it was the shirt belonging to Kiba that he had taken off while in the sinkhole earlier. There was no reason why it should be down here. Inspecting the shirt, she noticed a damp patch surrounding a cluster of small holes. They were bite marks and the dampness had been caused by saliva. “Patsu,” she cursed as she saw a series of boot and paw prints heading towards the stairs.
Leaning on Jiro for support, Kiba followed Patsu as he lead them up the left hand fork to what he hoped was the surface. They passed a number of side tunnels and chambers, one of which was lit by torches. As they hurried past it, Kiba stole a glance inside. He saw the contents of his pack emptied on the table inside along with his other equipment. Pulling away from Jiro, he stumbled inside and began to frantically search through the pile.
Jiro followed him into the chamber and tried to pull him away from the table. “We haven’t got time for this!”
“I’m not leaving without it!” Kiba snapped back, a determined look on his face.
“Without what?” Jiro asked exasperatedly.
“My pendant!” Jiro immediately knew what Kiba was talking about; after all, he had been the one that gave Ren the pendant to give to the boy. He could understand how much that pendant might mean to him, as it was the only link between him and his mother. “Found it,” a relieved Kiba said as he plucked the steel chain from the pile of clothes. Putting it on, he held the crystal as he closed his eyes as if in silent prayer.
Sweeping the rest of the items into the pack since they might as well take everything with them, Jiro noticed the silver disk hanging on the chain next to the pendant. “Where did you get that?” He asked pointing at the disk.
“This?” Kiba said quietly holding the disk, “I found it in a box under dad’s bed. I … think it belonged to him.” Kiba swayed as he said this, almost falling to the floor. The stimulant was starting to wear off.
Picking up the pack and Kiba’s weapons, he put an arm around the boy and guided him out of the chamber. “Time to go.”
Following Patsu, they soon felt fresh air on their faces and could see sunlight filtering into the cave from an opening ahead.
Lylah slammed the bars of the grate in anger, screaming a curse. Somehow, the boy had got loose, probably with help. Running down the passageway, she slid into her sleeping chamber. As she expected, the boy’s things were gone from the table. Picking up a crossbow from a wall rack, she checked the tension of the bowstring before picking up a quiver containing a number of bolts. Each of the bolts had a leather cap covering the head of the bolt. When Lylah locked the bowstring in place and loaded one of the bolts, she removed its leather cap. When she did so, the metal of the head glistened as it was covered by a sticky substance.
Careful to prick herself with the bolt head, she set off down the passageway towards the sinkhole entrance.
As Jiro and Kiba left the cave, the rain had now become heavy, falling from the oppressively low grey clouds and striking the ground in great moving sheets. “Good,” Jiro said as they stepped into the torrential downpour, “the rain should mask our trail somewhat, making it harder for those following us to track us.”
“Silver lining huh?” Kiba asked weakly.
“You got it kiddo, come on, stay with me.”
Kiba managed a laugh, “I thought I told you I’m not a kid any more.”
Jiro cried out in pain, stiffened and fell forward taking Kiba with him. Looking over at Jiro, Kiba saw a crossbow bolt sticking out of his back. For a brief, panicky second, Kiba feared the worst but he saw the Jiro was still breathing and his eyes were open. Meanwhile Patsu had turned to face the cave and was growling, aggressively. Kiba turned and looked in the direction that Patsu was growling.
Lylah stood there calmly loading another bolt. “Interesting thing about petra flowers, crushing the stamens produces a powerful paralysing toxin.” Kiba drew one of Jiro’s short swords and attempted to get to his feet, falling back down. “The toxin is short lived but extremely fast acting. It starts breaking down in the blood almost immediately and within a few minutes, it has almost completely dissipated. What was on the bolt is just enough to cause instantaneous and near total paralysis of the voluntary muscles.” Lylah began to walk slowly forward, aiming the crossbow at Jiro. “A second bolt will unfortunately cause paralysis in the autonomic muscles such as the heart and lungs. Death follows within minutes and I’ve been told it’s quite painful.” Taking aim, she pulled the trigger and fired the bolt at Jiro’s prone back. Kiba lunged forward, interposing himself between the bolt and Jiro. Raising the short sword, Kiba just managed to bring it up in time, sending the bolt ricocheting harmlessly to the sinkhole’s wall. The sword was knocked out of his hand by the force of the impact. “Impressive, but that won’t stop be from killing that man and dragging you back to you cell.
Pulling out her third and final bolt, she locked the bowstring and loaded the bolt. Lylah decided to shoot Kiba, slit Jiro’s throat and drag the paralysed boy back to the cell. When she lifted the crossbow and aimed at Kiba, she was surprised to see that he had managed to get to his feet. He still looked unsteady, and his head was down looking at the floor, his hair hiding his face. Regardless, she fired the bolt.
In a display of blurred movement, Kiba’s hand whipped up and grabbed the bolt out of the air. In an effortless display of strength, he snapped the bolt snapped in his hand, dropping the two broken halves to the ground.
“How the…” Lylah whispered.
“In the last 24 hours,” Kiba began without looking up, “I’ve been shot at, stabbed, chased, beaten and nearly raped by some shape changing freak.” Kiba looked up at her, brushing his hair out of his face. “I’m through playing the victim.”
Late Afternoon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge
Her travelling robes splattered with mud from the walk through the village, Imperial Legate Yrsa Baugsdottir held a cloth to her nose and mouth as she surveyed the carnage. Next to her, Strike Captain Soti Serksson appraised his companion. With her braided blond hair, flawless fair skin and deep blue eyes, she appeared to be in her mid to late twenties. However, Soti mused, her status as a mage could put her real age anywhere between 20 and 120. Some said that the High Archon himself was over 200 years old. “What in the name of the gods happened here captain?” Yrsa asked Soti, breaking the hushed silence in the field.
“I was hoping you would tell me,” Soti responded sighing in exasperation, “that is after all why I summoned a diviner.”
“Oh, yes, sorry.” Yrsa blushed as she stammered her reply. “Forgive me; this is my first time on the battlefield.” Soti grunted as Yrsa got to work marking the divination circle on the ground near the dismembered bodies of the Eldalan soldiers. Bloody mages, he though to himself, ready to make all the decisions but lacking the stomach to see the effects for themselves.
One of the soldiers in the farmyard down the dirt track called out to Soti. “Captain Serksson, we’ve found something you should see.” Leaving Yrsa under the watchful eye of two of his subordinates, Soti began to jog back down the track towards the farmyard. Two soldiers were busy digging up a shallow grave that had been located next to an apple tree in the centre of the yard. The soldier that had called out to him was standing in front of the farmhouse and was part of a group that had been ordered to search the house. Four soldiers sent to get rid of the inhabitants of this farm had turned up dead, three of them torn limb from limb. This was a great cause of concern since little resistance from this village had been expected. Next to him, sitting on a small wooden bench and drinking from a waterskin, was a man dressed in the clothes of an Eldalan Ranger. Soti saw that the soldier was holding something five feet long and wrapped in cloth.
“What’ve you found soldier.” Barked Soti as he approached the young soldier who was barely out of his teens.
“It’s just like what Master Asbosson said,” the soldier began, “looks like just two people lived here. A farmer and his son. Didn’t find anything out of the ordinary until we checked the loft then we found this.” The soldier removed the cloth wrappings to reveal a gleaming sword and he handed it to his captain. Soti held the sword and began to examine it closely. Its silver blade had an iridescent finish with a faint yellow sheen wherever the blade caught the sunlight. The blade itself seemed to have whorl-like markings ingrained into the metal. Unusually, the sword did not have a hilt guard where the blade joined the hilt. Instead, it had a large circular inset made of something that looked like red obsidian only it seemed much tougher. Etched in yellow into the inset was the crest of the Kingdom of Arcadia. When Soti saw the inset his eyes widened in a mixture of awe and respect.
Speaking in a hushed voice, he turned to the soldier. “This sword, the blade is made of Sun Steel. A metal forged from a type of iron ore found only in the Desert of Geb and this inset is made from Blood Stone. Incredibly rare, it’s said to be made from the crystallised blood of the last dragon to fly above the forests of Northern Arcadia who died over a century ago.”
“So, it’s worth a lot then?” The soldier asked ignorantly prompting a laugh from Master Ranger Lars Asbosson who got up and joined Soti and the soldier.
“Is it worth a lot? This sword is crafted by master artisans,” explained Lars, “by special request of the King of Arcadia himself. It is only given to those people who have served with distinction with the Royal Guards. It’s a crime for anyone other than them or their descendants to possess such a sword.” The three men looked at the sword, a newfound respect on their faces.
“What’s it doing here then?” The young soldier asked to no one in particular.
“That’s a very good question,” Said Soti, “Lars; your orders were to investigate anything unusual in the target area prior to the attack. I think you will agree that this definitely qualifies as unusual.”
Lars passed the waterskin to Soti as he pulled out a small notebook from an inside pocket. “Let’s see,” he began as he flipped through the pages before finding the right one, “the Toshiko farm. According to my information an old farmer named Ren and his teenage son were the only inhabitants.” Lars pointed over to the apple tree. “I’d venture that the initials T and R on that tree are a makeshift grave marker for the father.”
Soti took a swig from the waterskin, quenching his dry throat before responding. “Anything odd about either of them?”
“No, not really,” Lars replied after thinking about it for a few seconds.
“That wasn’t exactly a resounding no.”
“Well, the kid and the father weren’t related by blood. According to the village gossip, the old man adopted him about 15 years ago as an infant. I saw the kid once walking through the village. He didn’t look like a local either with that green hair of his.
“Green?” Soti asked with a raised eyebrow. Lars’s response was pre-empted by a cough from behind them. The three men had failed to notice her as she approached and quietly eavesdropped on their conversation. Soti was about to ask her how long she had been standing there when Yrsa spoke first.
“Strike Captain Serksson, Master Ranger Asbosson,” she began accompanied by a respectful slight bow, “I have completed my divinations and am ready to make my report.”
“Well?” Soti asked impatiently.
“Oh, well, it appears your men arrived at the farmhouse as planned. They found one person, a late middle-aged man, in the kitchen. They searched the house for any other occupants and finding none took him outside and despatched him. At this point a boy, probably no more than 14 or 15 ran down from the tree line waving a sword about. I get the impression that the man might have been his father. His anger might have given him courage but it sadly did not impart any skill with a blade and he was outmatched and quickly over powered. Unfortunately for your men before they would deal a killing blow, a mounted huntsman arrived shooting the squad leader in the neck with his bow before …” at this point Yrsa went pale and her handkerchief again went to her mouth as she seemed to experience the divination a second time “… setting his hunting hounds on your men, tearing them apart. Afterwards they buried the body of the farmer and escaped on horseback heading north together.” Yrsa pointed in the direction in which the unsaddled horses had charged off in her vision, conveniently leaving a set of tracks to follow.
“Is that all?” asked Soti to which Yrsa simply nodded. “Very well then, thank you for your assistance, the soldier here will escort you back to the village to see that you get to the portal safely.”
“Pleasure to be of service Captain Serksson, your quarry should only be a half-days ride away at most. Good luck.” And with that, the young soldier saluted and followed Yrsa back towards the village. After she had entered the trees and was out of sight and earshot, Lars motioned to Soti to follow him and the two men walked far enough away from the farmyard to ensure that they were not overheard but their men.
“She’s lying.” Lars stated without ceremony.
“I’m not a Ranger like you Lars, but even I can tell that there were no animal tracks around the bodies.” Soti agreed. “She’s too smart to get it wrong so the question is why did she lie?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that those horse tracks she told us to follow were made by riderless horses. I did find two sets of fresh footprints heading away from the farm to the east. I suggest that we send the bulk of the men to follow the phantom horse tracks while you, me and three of your best men follow the real tracks to the east.”
Soti thought about the plan before responding. “Sounds good, meet back here in one hour. I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to this Toshiko kid than Yrsa was letting on.”
Yrsa knocked smartly on the door to the chambers belonging to the head of her order, The Circle of Tarun Kar, and waited until permission was given to enter. The chamber was silent save for the crackling fire in the fireplace and the scratching of quill on parchment. The master, a middle-aged 6-foot tall man with blond hair and blue eyes, the archetypal Eldalan, sat behind the desk in his voluminous studying a series of ledgers. The man was Baug Jokulsson and he was Yrsa’s father.
“I swear Yrsa, how is that the most secret society in all of the Empire produces more paperwork than the entire Imperial Bureaucracy?” He asked no one in particular as he sighed and pushed his chair back from the desk. Baug walked around the desk and stood in front of Yrsa. She looked up into her father’s face and smiled.
“It’s good to see you too father,” she said as father and daughter embraced warmly, “although I’d take an Arcadian spring over one of ours any day. It’s freezing in here.” Her father laughed and waved a hand towards the crackling fire in the hearth. As his fingers traced a series of motions in the air, the flames erupted upwards, roaring with a heat that filled the room.
“Sorry, sometimes it’s easy to forget how cold it can get without these damnable robes of office,” he apologised, “speaking of Arcadia, how was your mission?”
Yrsa walked over to the desk and picked up a juicy looking apple from a bowl. Biting into it, she savoured every crunch as she spoke. “It is just as we thought; the presence we detected in Benbridge was that of the titan spawn. It seems the reason why we were unable to determine its exact identity and location was that it is an immature specimen barely aware of its true potential.”
Baug opened a locked desk drawer and withdrew a scroll case. Within which was a detailed map of Arcadia will all its towns, villages and border settlements marked on it. A small number of these, less than half a dozen, had been highlighted. One of these highlighted locations was Benbridge and that village was the only highlighted location that hadn’t been recently crossed out. “Considering you are referring to it in the present tense, I can assume that it is still alive then.” Yrsa nodded her confirmation. “Good, if we’re lucky we might be able to find it before it gets itself killed.”
“There’s more, it seems that the immature spawn was under the care of a former member of Arcadia’s Royal Guards and is now under the protection of another of their number.” Yrsa commented as she finished her apple.
Baug’s head snapped up, mild surprise evident in his eyes. “Are you sure? The Arcadians had a kill on sight policy towards titan spawn last time I checked.”
“Although I’m not sure if the spawn is aware of his true nature yet, I got the distinct impression that both the guardian that was killed by the troops and the protector that left with the spawn both were aware.”
As Yrsa described the full flow of events that she had seen in her vision, Baug sat down at the desk absorbing all she said. “Interesting, an immature spawn completely unaware of his nature and raised as a normal human. Very interesting indeed. If his sire truly is Hrinruuk, as his mark suggests, then we may have finally found the key that we have been searching for. To think, the culmination of centuries of planning depends on a mere child. It is imperative that we locate him before the Emperor’s Finest catch him.” He got up and walked over to the fire where Yrsa joined him as he looked into the flames. “Does this Serksson suspect anything?”
“No father,” she replied, “I spun him some line about hunting dogs and sent them north instead of east. It’ll take that man weeks to figure out he’s going in the wrong direction.”
Baug looked at his daughter reproachfully as he summoned a servant from the corridor outside, “Yrsa dear, I’ve told you before about assuming stupidity amongst those not gifted with magic.” In response, Yrsa merely rolled her eyes.
The servant entered unobtrusively as she was trained to do, moving with agility and purpose despite the sightless white orbs where her eyes should be. She knelt in one knee, awaiting a command from her master.
“Assemble the Talon’s,” Baug instructed the servant without acknowledging her presence, “it seems they have a hunt on their hands.”
After the servant had left the room, Yrsa turned to her father. “Father, given what our soldiers have done to his home, the spawn’s cooperation will be hard to secure and it is unlikely it will come quietly.”
“We do not need his consent, just his blood.”
Just Past Noon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge
As Jiro paid his respects at Ren’s makeshift grave, led a trio of horses out into the yard. Jiro watched with some confusion as Kiba gently stroked the sides of the unsaddled horses heads, whispering quietly. The three horses took off, charging in a circle around the yard before galloping off into the woods. After Kiba had picked up his pack and joined Jiro, he turned to the boy. “What was all that about?”
“Nothing,” he responded as he adjusted the straps on his pack, “I just told them to run as fast as they could and not come back because it wasn’t safe here any more.”
Jiro raised an eyebrow quizzically, “And they understood that?”
“Of course, horses aren’t stupid, they’re very intelligent animals,” Kiba answered with an indignant expression on his face.
“Have you got everything you need?” asked Jiro. Kiba nodded reluctantly. “Then we better get going.” Jiro turned towards the dirt track out of the yard and began to walk towards the gate. He stopped as he realised that Kiba was not following him. The boy was looking back towards the house, a nervous and apprehensive expression on face.
“I’ve lived in this house all my life,” Kiba began, “Gods, I’ve never been further out of the village than Sandown.” Jiro walked over to him, stopping alongside. He put a hand on Kiba’s shoulder and turned him so that the two were facing each other. Looking down at Kiba, and seeing the fear and worry in the boy’s eye’s, he was suddenly reminded that, whatever the manner of his birth Kiba was still half-human. That human side could feel fear just as much as any full-blooded human. However, right now there was precious little time to reassure the boy. Any minute now, Eldalan troops could arrive looking for their missing patrol.
“Kiba, we have to go. It’s just not safe to stay here for much longer,” The boy nodded his understanding, his eyes lingering on the mound of disturbed earth by the apple tree for second before he turned his back on his home and followed Jiro down the dirt track.
They walked in silence through the woods as they left Benbridge behind. Only the occasional word passed between the two as they skirted around the main road out of the village and kept to the little used dirt tracks and paths. Although they could have travelled faster on horseback, it’s easier to follow horse tracks than footprints and they would have had to keep to the better maintained roads. This way, they could sneak past any patrols without being spotted or heard. Jiro had not been happy about parting with his horse, they had been together for many years but every mote of his training told them they would have a better chance on foot. Kiba had grown up in these woods hunting with by himself and with his father and he knew every track and every path through these woods. Armed with that knowledge they managed to evade the patrols and leave Benbridge far behind.
When the sun began to dip below the horizon later that evening, Jiro decided to call a halt and hunker down for the night. They made camp in a small hollow surrounded on all sides by dense woodland and nestled between several small hills far from the nearest track or road. While Jiro crawled through the undergrowth around the clearing laying down trip lines, Kiba set to work gathering firewood as the temperature started to drop. Jiro returned to the clearing to find the boy sitting next to a crackling fire, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the flames.
Kiba had been quiet since they had passed Sandown earlier that afternoon. The town seemed to have faced a similar fate as Benbridge, several buildings were burning and a number of fires had coalesced into a conflagration that threatened to raze the town to the ground. No movement could be seen and no attempt appeared to have been made to put out the fires. From their vantage point in the hills above town they had a seen a number of bodies lying in the streets and as they had circled around the town they had crossed the boot tracks of heavily armed soldiers. Jiro had surmised that they were probably left by Eldalan troops chasing after survivors that had escaped the massacre at Sandown. Kiba had wanted to go after them but Jiro had stopped him, arguing that it would be suicide to charge after them. Heated words had been exchanged between the two but Kiba had reluctantly agreed in the end. Since that incident, Kiba had hardly spoken a word to Jiro and as they sat around the fire sharing a pack of trail rations, the silence was uncomfortable but it was Kiba that broke it first.
“Where are we going?” Kiba suddenly asked.
Jiro looked up before answering. “I’ve got some friends in Galtea, if Eldala is on the warpath it should be safe there.”
Kiba’s brow furrowed in confusion and he looked up from the fire. “Galtea? But we’re heading east, Galtea is to the south.”
“That’s true,” Jiro said as he put his plate down, “but Eldala has the largest navy in existence. While we remain in northern Arcadia, their airships have a hard time spotting us under the trees. But if we follow the roads through the plains of southern Arcadia we’ll be sitting ducks. Even if we get across the plains, between Arcadia and Galtea lies the Desert of Geb and I’m not going to chance crossing it with … well it’s probably impassable this time of year anyway.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question uncle.” Kiba answered giving Jiro the look that all children give to adults when they know they are trying to avoid giving a straight answer.
“Heh, uncle, you haven’t called me that…” Jiro began before Kiba interrupted him.
“Don’t change the subject. And don’t treat me like a kid; we’re not heading towards Galtea, so where are we going?”
Jiro paused for a second before answering. “We’re heading to Freeport, it’s a coastal city state in the Sundered Kingdoms on the eastern side of the Hornspires. I’m hoping we can book passage to Galtea on a boat or airship from there.” Kiba thought about this for a moment before speaking again.
“But the only way across the mountains is the Daikenee Pass in the northern tip. Anyone planning to cross the Hornspires into the Sundered Kingdoms would have to go through there. The Eldalans would know this and would be watching it.”
Jiro nodded, slightly impressed at the boy’s surprisingly sound analysis. “True, true, but Freeport is directly due east of Benbridge. If we keep heading east, we’ll eventually get there.” As soon as Jiro had finished, Kiba jumped up in a shock.
“Whoa, hold on there. Ignoring for a second that the only way across the Hornspires is the Daikenee Pass in the north or through the desert in the south, between Arcadia and the Hornspires is the Deep Wood. If crossing over the top of the Hornspires is impossible, then crossing the Deep Wood is suicide. People say that elves live in the heart of the forest and kill anyone who intrudes. No one who enters the Deep Wood has ever returned.”
Jiro simply smiled. “Ok, there’s two things wrong with that statement. First, elves are just a story told to scare little boys into being good and as you said earlier, you’re not a kid any more. Secondly, if no one has ever returned then where do all the stories come from?” Slightly embarrassed now at his outburst, Kiba sat back down. “Look, do you trust me?” Kiba nodded, “then trust me when I say that I know what I’m doing. Anyway, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. Get some shut eye, I’ll take first watch.” He passed Kiba a couple of blankets and, using his pack as a pillow, the boy lay down and tried to get to sleep. A few minutes later, he rolled over, looked at Jiro, and asked the one question that had been foremost in his mind since this morning.
“Why are the Eldalans attacking? Why are they doing this?”
Jiro found that he couldn’t look him in the eye as he lied and said he had no idea. Kiba rolled back over and was soon fast asleep.
There was a light mist hanging low to the ground, rolling in great sheets along the forest floor. Above the treetops, the stars of the moonless night where hidden behind by the unbroken clouds, casting the woods below in near total darkness. When he had woken, Jiro was nowhere to be seen and the campfire was nothing more than glowing embers. Along with Jiro, their packs and weapons had also vanished as well as the supplies they had gathered. There had been little time to worry about this as somewhere in the forest, Kiba could hear the sound of a child whimpering along with something else, something animal.
Although he was armed only with a stout branch, he forged ahead regardless until be broke through the trees into clearing inside which was scene from a nightmare. In the centre of the clearing, bound tightly to an old and gnarled oak, was a small boy. No more than seven or eight, he resembled a younger version of Kiba with a splash of unruly green hair and brilliant orange eyes. Naked from the waist up, there were angry red welts under the ropes binding his arms behind the tree and across his chest where he had struggled in vain to free himself and his eyes were wide in terror. Circling around the tree was a pack of three animals composed entirely of shadows. Their form resembled that of giant wolves but no features, save eyes that glowed a hellish red, could be discerned. A row of horns or spikes ran down the length of their spines and every foul breath condensed into vapour, seeming to replenish the mist around them. When the boy noticed Kiba’s arrival, from behind a cloth gag he screamed a wordless cry for help.
Spurred into action, Kiba charged into the clearing swinging the branch like a club. Snarling, the wolf things leapt at him, fangs bared and claws primed to strike. Kiba’s branch connected with the head of one of the wolf things with a sickening crunch despite the wolf thing’s incorporeal nature. Its head dissolved into a cloud of fine black dust, its body soon following. Another wolf thing leapt onto him, its weight driving him to the ground and causing him to drop the branch. Kiba tried to throw it off but found himself trapped beneath it as he tried to hold its jaws away from his face while straining to reach the branch with his free hand. A second wolf thing came into view as Kiba struggled with the one on his chest and Kiba was certain that it was smiling as it approached. Its foul breath smelt sulphurous and in a sharp motion, its jaw darted forward and bit at Kiba’s arm. The shock of the bite caused Kiba to lose his grip on the other wolf thing’s head and it lunged forward, clamping its jaws around his unprotected neck. As it jerked its head side to side, Kiba was surprised that instead of the sharp pain and the tearing of flesh you would expect to receive when your throat is being torn out be a monstrous wolf, he instead felt a curious draining sensation. A deep coldness spread throughout his body as the other wolf thing started chewing on his arm and soon a heavy tiredness began to envelop him. His struggles seemed useless, soon there was no strength left in his body, and he just lay there, unable to move as the creatures sucked the life out of him. Eventually his eyes fluttered closed as his body began to surrender to the blackness.
A scream from the child bound to the tree brought him back to his senses and his eyes snapped open. The wolf thing on his arm released it hold and lifted its head to howl at the child. In that instant, with renewed strength Kiba whipped his arms up, grasped the head of wolf thing that was gnawing on his neck and plunged his thumbs deep into its eyes. The wolf thing howled in pain and tore free. It staggered for a few steps before collapsing to the floor, writhing and convulsing like a fish with its head cut off, whimpering in agony before dissolving. The remaining wolf thing span ran to face Kiba who had rolled over into a crouch and was reaching for the branch. Kiba managed to grab the branch just in time as it leapt at him through the air and he brought it up to impale the wolf thing on it like a spear, using its own momentum to carry its body over his head as he rolled on to his back.
As the last wolf thing dissolved, Kiba lay for several seconds on his back panting heavily before remembering why had charged in to the clearing in the first place. Despite the savagery of the battle, Kiba had no physical injuries, something he was very thankful for. He crouched in front of the boy and carefully removed the gag. Speaking quietly, he tried to reassure the boy as he attempted to untie the ropes.
“It’s going to be Ok, what’s your name?”
“D-Dace,” the boy stammered between ragged breaths, “hurry, they’ll come back. They always come back.”
As if on cue, in the darkness something howled, the same unearthly howl that the wolf things had issued only louder and deeper. Dace began to panic as the sounds of something crashing through the trees got louder and closer. He was pleading with Kiba who was cursing the fact that he had no knife and that the knots securing the ropes across Dace’s chest were tied too tightly to be undone. In desperation, he braced himself with his left foot against the trunk of the tree and pulled at the ropes across Dace’s chest with all his strength.
“Come on,” he pleaded through gritted teeth, “please gods, give me a break.” With a great heave, the ropes snapped and Dace fell forward into Kiba’s arms. He was shivering from the cold night air so Kiba took his shirt off and put in on Dace. It wasn’t much but hopefully it would keep the edge off the cold. He was about to ask Dace if he could walk but from the other side of the clearing, the sound of splintering wood heralded the arrival of the thing crashing through the woods. Picking up the branch, Kiba told Dace to stay behind him and turned to face the sound. A pair of trees crashed aside as a two headed, 20ft tall version of the wolf things from earlier forced its way into the clearing. Its howl painfully loud and echoing in the otherwise still night. Kiba took one look at the monster and dropped the branch. “Oh screw that!” he muttered as he lifted Dace onto his back and started running. With a howl, the monster gave chase, ploughing through the trees behind the two boys.
With the low-lying mist and the darkness, it was a miracle that Kiba didn’t trip on some hidden piece of undergrowth as they made their headlong flight through the night. Even so, Kiba’s skin soon became cut in numerous places as he forced their way through the woods, branches and bushes scratching him in the process. However, the constant sound of the thing chasing them drove any thought of pain or discomfort from his mind. After several minutes of blind flight through the woods, nature threw a barrier into their path. A wide, slow flowing river stood in their way and they had no choice but to cross it, the wolf thing was only seconds behind them. Making sure that he had a good grip on Dace on his back, he jumped into the water. The water was ice cold and it caused Kiba to breath in sharply as he began to wade across but thankfully it only came up to his waist at its deepest point. It was slow going and took nearly a minute to wade across it and when they finally made to the opposite shore, Kiba nearly collapsed on to the grassy bank. Shivering violently from the cold, he turned and looked back towards the other side where the wolf thing was pacing back and forth along the opposite bank, unwilling to enter the water.
Taking advantage of the lucky break, Dace helped Kiba to his feet and they half ran, half stumbled down a dirt track away from the river through farmland. Eventually, they had to stop as Dace could run no further and Kiba was too tired to carry him. As they rested against a tree, sitting close to share body heat, Kiba looked down at Kiba. “Who tied you to that tree?”
Dace turned and looked up at Kiba, a feral gleam in his eyes. As he smiled, Kiba saw fangs where none had been before. “You did,” Dace answered as he poked Kiba in the chest with a clawed finger.
Morning, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Several miles outside of the village of Benbridge, home to the Toshiko’s
At just over 6ft in height, Yamasaka Jiro was a powerfully built man that rode his horse with confidence. His black hair was tied back into a ponytail that reached down to the base of his neck. Jiro had always considered his striking blue eyes his best feature and even though he was now in his 40’s, they still had that boyish twinkle about them. He was dressed in a white short-sleeved tunic over the top of which was worn a dark green pocketed waistcoat made of tough fabric. His tan pants were made of the same material as the waistcoat and he had metal knee guards strapped over the top of them. Jiro had similar protection over his elbows, shoulders and metal plates were fixed to the backs of his gloves. A pair of horizontal scabbards at the base of his back held a pair of matched short swords and on his left forearm he wore a leather bracer with a silvery jewel embedded in its centre.
Although his appearance suggested that he was a somewhat roguish adventurer he was in fact an experienced warrior having been a member of the Royal Guards since the age of 22. He had been the youngest individual to be accepted into its ranks for generations, a fact that he was very proud of. Jiro thought that the achievement was due in no small part to the training he had received from his instructor Toshiko Ren. He had taken the nervous young squire and moulded him into a capable soldier.
Jiro whistled as he rode his horse through the woods to the east of Benbridge. So far, the start of spring had been glorious and today was no exception and Jiro was looking forward to seeing his old friend and mentor again. It had been over a year and a half since he had last seen him and he had planned to visit last month but his duties had kept him away. In the left saddlebag pouch was a tightly wrapped parcel. A belated birthday present for Ren’s son. Kiba had a keen interest in hunting and according to Ren’s letters, was “a devil with that home-made bow of his”. When he was in Galtea several months ago, he had seen an item that Jiro thought would make a perfect present. Obtaining it was difficult to say they least, but he thought it was worth it. Fifteen years ago, he had left the newborn boy with Ren and had kept a close watch on him as he grew. He had feared that one day, his decision to disregard the law and let the child live would prove to be an ill-advised one. That one day, the boy’s titan-nature would prove too strong to resist and on that day, Jiro would be the one that would have to put him down. Thankfully, as Kiba grew it became clear that the decision Jiro had made was the correct one and that Ren had been the right choice as surrogate father. Ren had raised the boy well and instilled within him a strong sense of right and wrong. As far as Jiro could sense, the boy did not have one evil bone in his body, regardless of the blasphemous circumstances of his birth. Of course, Jiro admitted to himself, he had lost his objectivity on this matter years ago.
Although he appeared to be casually ignorant of his surroundings, Jiro was paying close attention to the bushes that ran either side of the dirt road. A few minutes earlier he had heard the sound of movement from with the bushes which alerted him to the presence of at least four individuals. They appeared to be shadowing him from within the undergrowth and if he was not mistaken an ambush would take place any moment. He was not disappointed for soon enough his keen ears heard the sound of bowstrings being released.
Four arrows, two from each side, whistled through the air passing each other exactly where Jiro had been a fraction of a second earlier. Jiro had dismounted in one fluid motion, leaning back and rolling to the side, landing in a crouch grasping the hilts of his two swords. His horse had galloped off down the track and out of sight, just as she was trained to. She would return when Jiro called for her, meanwhile he had the men in the bushes to deal with. From out of the undergrowth stepped four grubby men in bandit attire, each wielding a bow with sword strapped to their belts. Slowly the arranged themselves in a circle around Jiro.
“So it’s to be four against one, I appear to have the advantage then.” Jiro taunted confidently, if not a little arrogantly.
One bandit, slightly cleaner than the rest, took a small step forward. “We got you surrounded mate, if you haven’t noticed,” he retorted. Jiro mentally marked him as their “leader”.
“No, I’ve got you precisely where I need you to be.” Jiro looked into the leader’s narrowed eyes and smiled.
The bandit leader scowled, “And just what use do you think those nice shiny swords are going to be, you take one step and you’ll become a human porcupine before you get close enough to use them.” Jiro had to admit that he had a point. One of these day’s his overconfidence is going to get him killed. “Kill him.”
On their leader’s command, three of the bandits loosed their arrows. Jiro turned side on to one arrow letting it pass by and embed itself harmlessly into the trunk of a tree. He swept his twin swords upwards, the sun glinting of their blades as he intercepted the two remaining arrows. The arrows ricocheted off the parrying blades into the chest of the bandit leader. As Jiro span to face the archers, the bandit leader looked down at the arrows embedded in his chest in confusion as he dropped to his knees before limply slumping forward. “Captain Hakisson!” screamed one bandit as he dropped his bow, drew his sword and charged at Jiro. He easily rolled under the bandit’s wild swing and thrust one of his swords into his back. Spinning round the hapless bandit, he back thrust his other sword into the man’s neck nearly decapitating him. Jiro turned towards another bandit and flung his sword at him. The blade struck him in the stomach, embedding itself up to the hilt. After the seeing his comrades dispatched so effortlessly, the final bandit nervously stumbled backwards, turned and fled. Jiro sighed and raised his left arm. The jewel embedded in the bracer glowed softly and an ethereal light flowed upwards from its silvery surface. The light coalesced into a spectral form in the shape of a small crossbow, complete with a ghostly bolt already loaded. With a mental command, the crossbow fired and the bolt flew across the space between Jiro and the fleeing bandit leaving a white streak in the air behind it. The bolt struck the man square in the back, exploding in a burst of energy that surged throughout the man’s body and sending him crashing head first into a tree.
When the bandit regained consciousness several minutes later he found himself naked and tied tightly to a tree. Next to him were piled the stripped corpses of his comrades and next to them was a neat pile of their possessions. Jiro sat on a log across from the man eating an apple, peeling it with a small dagger. “Packs a hell of a punch doesn’t it?” he asked between bites.
“I ain’t saying nothing,” spat out the bandit.
“You know what you are,” said Jiro as he pointed to the bandit with his knife, “you’re a question. And I hate a question without an answer. Let’s start at the top shall we.” He got up and crouched next to the bodies of the bandits. “This man,” he said prodding the nearly headless bandit, “called this man,” pointing at the leader’s body, “Hakisson. That’s not a local name is it? Then there’s the matter of your accent. I’ve been to every province in this Kingdom and none of them have an accent quite like yours.” He turned to the pile of weapons. “Usually in this region its crossbows, but bandits with bows I can accept. What I can’t accept is this sword. See the design of the blade, the distinctive markings and patterns in the metal, this shows it was forged somewhere in the Eastern regions of Eldala.” The man watched Jiro through gritted teeth, beads of sweat beginning to form on his brow. “Almost every aspect of you screams bandit … except this sword, your accents, your names, and the fact that each of you have had a shoulder tattoo obliterated with a hot blade. All that says that you are not bandits at all, but Eldalan troops. So here’s the question, and it’s strictly pass fail, what are a group of soldiers from the Empire of Eldala doing in the woods of west Arcadia?”
Jiro waited for an answer but the man just stared at him defiantly. He shook his head and went over to his horse that was tied to a nearby tree. Taking a canteen out of one of saddlebags, he took several large gulps. There is more than one way, he thought, to pry the truth from unwilling lips. Jiro put the canteen down and reached back into the saddlebag. Down at the bottom, there was a small pocket and from within that he pulled out a small silver chain. A small ivory hammer, no larger than a thumb was attached to the chain. It was the symbol of the Hedrada, the god of justice and knowledge. Tossing the chain back and forth from hand to hand, we went back to his prisoner and knelt in front of him.
“This,” Jiro said as he started to place the chain around the man’s neck, “is called a Confessors Chain. Anyone who wears it is compelled to speak nothing but the truth.” The prisoner tried to twist out of his grip but Jiro smacked the back of his head against the tree, stunning him, and finished fastening the chain. “Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name?”
“Gelir Idmundsson,” answered the man without hesitation.
“Good, where were you born?”
“Stockdon.” Jiro nodded, he knew Stockdon. It was a coastal city in eastern Eldala.
“Now, what were you doing here?”
“We’re attached to the 2nd Battalion. Our orders were to infiltrate Arcadia along with the 1st and make our way to our assigned targets.”
“And then what?” Jiro prompted sternly.
Ten minutes later Jiro had the information he required and was galloping through the woods towards Benbridge. He was still several miles away and it took him nearly an hour to close the distance, all the time praying that he was not too late.
What he had been told chilled him to the bone. The man had explained the Eldalan plan. How hundreds of soldiers had crossed the border secretly and took up positions around the towns and cities posing as bandits or travellers. Eldalan Rangers had gone ahead disguised as merchants and infiltrated the towns. As he talked, a dawning sense of realisation had overcome Jiro. The Royal Guards had been receiving reports over the last several months of massive troop movements within Eldala and a build up of forces in their northern coastal cities. It had been presumed that they were preparing for an attack on the Calastian Hegemony. The two countries had been enemies for generations so it had been a fairly safe bet. But surely, Jiro asked, any troop movement that size towards Arcadia would’ve been seen weeks in advance. The man’s answer was frighteningly simple. Each of the Rangers carried a simple staff that had a special headpiece, an enchanted crystal. When used, it created a portal between the Ranger and the attack staging grounds in Eldala. Suddenly it all became clear; the Empire would be able to ‘port legions of troops directly into the hearts of Arcadian towns and cities. There would be no warning, the Empire would have complete surprise and it would be a complete rout. It was already too late to warn the capital; according to the man, the attack was already under way. With him being under the control of the Confessor’s Chain, Jiro had no reason to doubt this. When the man had explained the intent behind the attack, Jiro felt sick to his stomach break. This was no invasion, this was genocide. The Empire of Eldala intended to wipe out every last Arcadian and lay the entire country to waste. Worse still, if what the man had been told was true, all this might be Jiro’s fault. Just before he had left the man to the forest’s mercy, he had told him that if any harm had come to Ren or Kiba, he would track the man’s soul down in the afterlife and make him suffer for all eternity.
As he approached the outskirts of the village, Jiro heard shouting and the sounds of fighting from a clearing ahead. Charging into the clearing, he saw three Eldalan soldiers facing off against a single youth wielding nothing more than a broken staff. Behind him stood a woman armed with a small dagger shielding a small girl, probably her daughter, from the men. The boy was badly injured; sporting numerous cuts and bruises, yet still, he held his ground. Standing between the soldiers and his family, waving his staff like a club. Clearly, the soldiers had been toying with him for their own amusement.
Using the element of surprise, Jiro charged his horse straight at a soldier that appeared to be moving in for the kill. With a downward slash, he struck the soldier’s neck cleaving the head cleanly from the body, a spray of blood in the air marking his death. Jiro dismounted and landed with both swords drawn between the family and the remaining two soldiers. Unlike the last group he had faced, this time he was in no mood for banter and he immediately advanced on his enemy. Jiro’s sudden appearance had stunned both of the soldiers but one of them, an archer, recovered quickly enough to let loose an arrow at the new arrival. Jiro was so intent on the soldier in front of him that he failed to notice the approaching arrow. Yet when it struck him square in the shoulder blade, he didn’t show any sign of noticing the impact. Ignoring the pain, he leapt forward and attacked the soldier in front of him, his blades forming a whirling windmill of death ahead of him. The man tried in vain to block Jiro’s blows, but there was too many and the blades moved too fast. Within a few brief seconds, the man’s chest became criss-crossed with slash marks and the blood flowed freely. As a killing blow, as the man staggered backwards under the onslaught Jiro opened his stomach with a single slash to his abdomen and he was dead before his body hit the floor. The remaining soldier was still attempting to knock another arrow when a barrage of spectral bolts from Jiro’s bracer struck him in the face. He screamed and clutched his face, sinking to his knees, as the flesh burned and sizzled. Jiro finished him off with a double stab to the back of the neck.
“Ichiro!” cried the woman behind him as she rushed forward to catch the boy as the collapsed backwards. Jiro ran over to her as she cradled her son, up close Jiro could see that although the wounds were serious they were not fatal. The woman begged him to help as he reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a small leather pouch. Inside were some bandages, several vials and small metal flask. “Take this and give him three cap-fulls,” he said giving her the flask. “It should help dull the pain and speed up the body’s natural healing process.” She did as she was told as Jiro took one of the vials and began to apply the yellow ointment from within to the boy’s injuries. “This should staunch the bleeding and ensure that the wounds do not get infected.” The boy tried to cough up the foul tasting potion but his mother held his nose and forced him to swallow it, obviously used to giving medicine to a reluctant child. Jiro reached behind him and pulled out the arrow from his shoulder, wincing with the sudden pain, and discarded it. “Peno isn’t it?” he asked as he began to dress the boy’s wounds with bandages, “Kyojima Peno, you’re Yuji’s wife right?”
“Yes,” she said nodding looking at Jiro slightly confused, “do I know you?”
“Probably not, I’m an old friend of Ren’s.”
“Old Man Toshiko? You must be Jiro, he talks about you often.” Jiro smiled, he knew how much Ren hated that nickname.
“Can you walk lad?” He asked as he helped the boy up. Ichiro took a step forward gingerly and after feeling no pain nodded. “What’s happening in the village?”
She told him how suddenly, soldiers started pouring out of a hole in the air in the village square. When they started torching everything and cutting down anyone they came across, they had tried flee but a group of soldiers had started chasing them.
“They just started killing everyone,” Ichiro began, “then they came after us. Dad and Piro stayed behind to hold them off.” His eyes were red as he held back tears. They appeared far older than they should be and gave the impression of having seen things no child should have to see.
Jiro knelt in front of him. “Take it,” he said pressing one of the soldier’s swords into his hand, “you keep protecting your family.” He turned to Peno, “Keep to the woods. They have patrols watching the roads looking for anyone trying to escape. Try to avoid the towns and cities, the same is happening there. Make for the border.” As he climbed up onto the saddle of his horse, Peno grasped his good shoulder.
“You’re going after Ren and his boy aren’t you,” Jiro nodded, “be careful, we saw soldiers heading in that direction before we left sight of the village.” Jiro thanked her, mounted the horse and rode off.
Riding in a circuitous route around the outskirts of the village, he kept inside the tree line to remain hidden. On one occasion, he got a clear view down the valley into the Benbridge and could see the burning buildings and the carnage that had taken place in its streets. He finally made it to the flat plateau to the south of the Benbridge where the farms were located. As he rode past the burning farms with the butchered remains of those that had lived there, he urged his horse on, anxious to get to the Toshiko farm and dreading what he might find there. When he arrived in the hollow, he was confronted by a sight that shocked even him. On the dirt track leading down to the farm through the fields, he saw the remains of four soldiers. Only one of them was intact, apparently killed by a single arrow to the neck. The others appeared to have been torn apart and blood was soaking into the ground in all directions. Not even one seemed to have all their limbs still attached and each of them had a look of abject terror frozen on their faces. As Jiro looked at the bodies, one of them even seemed to have been beaten to death with his own severed limbs. For a moment Jiro was at a loss to understand what could have happened to the soldiers, the brutality displayed was inhuman. In that instant he realised that there was one thing that would have the strength and ability to do this, and potentially it lived right in this hollow.
Gathering the reins, he charged his horse down the track into the farmyard. There was blood soaking into the dirt and there were signs of a struggle. Drawing his sword, he tentatively called out.
“Ren! Kiba! It’s Jiro, are you still here?”
For a minute the only answer Jiro received was silence but then he heard the sound of the farmhouse door opening behind him. He turned his horse and readied his sword, preparing himself for whomever or whatever came out. As Kiba stepped out, Jiro nearly collapsed with relief. Lowering his sword, Jiro slid out of the saddle as the boy dropped the pack he was carrying. From the look on his face, he didn’t need to ask Kiba about his father. Jiro walked over and embraced him, Kiba was filthy, his clothes were covered in blood but he was very much alive.
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?”
Late Evening, Wilday the 13th of Vanger, 658 AG (After Godswar)
A small village on the western coast of the Kingdom of Arcadia
Toshiko Ren had just sat down in front of a roaring fire and was savouring the aroma of a freshly brewed cup of tea when someone knocked on the door. Grumbling, he picked a lantern and walked over to the door. When he peered through the peephole, he smiled and quickly slid the bolts and opened the door. A young man in his early twenties stood before him wearing leather riding armour and a plain green, mud splattered tunic and pants and armed with a bow and sword. His clothing was drenched from the torrential rainstorm raging outside and he was gently cradling a tightly wrapped bundle. “Jiro, m’boy, get inside. What brings you all the way out here in this ungodly weather?”
Jiro stepped inside the farmhouse, shaking off the excess rainwater as Ren closed the door behind him and handed him a towel. As if on cue, the bundled emitted a small gurgle and Jiro loosened some of the wrappings to reveal a small baby just waking up. “Actually, I’m here because of him,” Jiro began as he looked over to the cup by the fire, “also, you wouldn’t happen to have some more of that tea would you?”
Ten minutes later Yamasaka Jiro was sitting by the fire wearing dry clothes and nursing a cup of tea while Ren held the baby. “So lad, what possessed you to travel with a baby in this storm?”
Jiro smiled, “I’ll be twenty six in spring, I’m not a boy any more Ren.”
“Ahh Jiro, you’ll always be the freckle faced youth who could barely lift a sword that I met at the training grounds.” The two men shared a laugh. “However I hear that they finally accepted you into the ranks of the Royal Guard, all that hard work paid off.”
“You taught me well.” Jiro answered as he sipped his hot tea.
“So, what’s the little tyke’s name and who was the lucky girl.”
The young man spluttered into his tea nearly dropping the cup. “I’m not his father, and as far as I am aware, the boy has not yet been named.” Jiro finished his tea, reached into his satchel, and pulled a beaten leather document wallet. “What I am about to ask of you is no small matter, but there is no one whom I trust more.”
“Sounds serious,” Ren responded sitting up straight.
“This letter,” Jiro continued as he produced an envelope from the wallet and handed it to Ren, “explains everything. In short, the boy is in need of a father.” Jiro opened the letter dubiously and began reading. As he did so, his eyes widened in disbelief. “The law of the land is quite clear on this matter,” Jiro explained, “in situations such as this there should only be one course of action. However the boy is an innocent and deserves the chance at a normal life regardless of the circumstances of his birth.”
Ren folded the letter and looked down at the boy. The child gurgled contentedly and yawned, oblivious to conversation going on around him. “What of the mother?” he asked.
“Sadly, we were too late to save her.” Jiro reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and passed it to Ren. “Before she passed on, she made me promise to make sure the boy was given this.” Ren opened the handkerchief and from within, the blue crystal pendant sparked in the light from the fire.
“I’ll do it on one condition.”
“That you don’t wait too long until your next visit,” Ren stood up and clasped Jiro’s hand, “it’s been too long old friend.”
Jiro smiled, “I’ll try to visit whenever I can, my new duties keep me busy.” He reached into the wallet and pulled out a second envelope. “This is for the boy, when he is old enough this should explain everything.” Ren nodded and took the envelope as Jiro got up and gathered his gear. “Sorry to drop this on you and leave so suddenly but I have to get back to the capital before I am missed.”
Ren gently placed the now sleeping child down on a blanket on the floor in front of the fire and walked Jiro to the door. “I understand, but don’t be a stranger for too long.” The two men embraced and then Jiro was gone, out into the storm. Ren closed the door went back to the fire crouching down next to the blanket he watched the tiny form sleep peacefully. “Well little cub, it seems you are in need of a name.”