[b [i “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson]]
[i Fire. Ice. Light.
The very existence of the galaxy relies on those three elements. The rejoice of the elements allowed the completion of the Starbelt above, and thus, the planet below. The very same elements could gain sentience and create physical forms to ascend as Gods, their purpose to create a planet of life.
The Goddess of the Moon, who paved her way through the sleek, solid surface of ice. An expert in ice and water magic, the Goddess of the Moon used her newfound power to create the oceans that grace Andal, as well as the ice caps and snowy tundra that spread throughout the surface of Eira. Some even say that the creation of the season Ia was her doing.
The God of the Sun controls the wild, everlasting scorch of fire. An expert in Fire and Earthen magics, the God of the Sun conjured the boiling lava pools that rest within the Burning Fire District and the red, rocky earth. The heat that scorches the deserts and the savanna of Danau are said to be the Sun God’s doing, as well as the season of Tân.
Finally, the God of the Stars, who shines through even the darkest shadows with the blinding force of Light. An expert in light manipulation and white magic, the God of the Stars brought light to Andal, and sparked the lives of the many species who were to inhabit it. With the assistance of the Sun and Moon Gods, he created Taflen and Glaw to balance out the hot and cold seasons.
With the sentience of the three Galaxian Gods reaching the earth below, the fight for power amongst the people of Andal ceased. As the planet was cleaned with fire, extinguished with water, and replenished with light, true order was brought forth once again. And the Gods, finished with their daunting task, faded back to the Starbelt one-by-one. Centuries after the scourge and rebirth of Andal, followed by the retreat of the Gods, the story of their birth faded from the minds of all but Elders and Monks, and became legend.
In the seventeen-hundred years the Gods have slept, the need for them to return had not arisen. Andal had learned true peace.
However, true peace is not everlasting without adequate protection, and soon, the need for order will once again be thrust upon Andal.
The Dawn of the Gods will begin again.]
It was cold. So very cold.
In a seemingly endless tundra of ice and snow, a lone redhead ventured. She crossed her arms over her chest and rubbed her hands over the bare skin in a futile attempt to create and preserve warmth. Try as she might, the icy winds pierced her lungs and stung her skin, as if pins were pricking at every open space they could find. Even if she were to try and cry out in a desperate plea for help, the cold that had settled in her lungs made her feel as if they were frozen solid, rendering the task impossible. As she moved forward, her footsteps grew heavy, and her breathing became more labored and forceful. Would such a cruel ending truly be the redhead’s fate? Would she die out here alone?
With such a thick blanket of snow beneath her feet, the redhead failed to see a patch of ice hiding beneath the surface and she lost her footing in a matter of moments. The suddenness of the fall gave her a burst of adrenaline, having become alert enough to try and steady herself before she fell over, though she was forced to resign to her fate as she connected quickly with the soft, powdery snow beneath her. With the adrenaline rush gone as quickly as it arrived, it felt nearly impossible to push herself up and continue moving. She struggled to do so, the last-ditch effort to keep herself alive rendering her useless as it drained the last of the strength she had. The redhead was torn between wanting to try to force herself up again and continue forward and remaining on the ground, resigned to a slow, painful death. With a tear freezing halfway down her face, her fate was determined. She let her eyelids drop closed, listening to the harsh, blistering winds whip around as they faded to white noise. Softer, and softer, and…
[i “Sadie! Wake up already!”]
With a jolt, Sadie Dalca bolted awake in a panic. In her surprise, the redhead rolled slightly too far to the right and she hit the floor with a loud ‘thud’. “What the hell, Ryan?!”
The brunet male in question stood several feet away from their bed, his armed crossed and blue eyes hardened. “I’m sorry. Maybe I wouldn’t have to scare a certain someone awake if that someone was able to wake themselves up at a reasonable time.”
The redhead untangled herself from the blanket and sat up, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes with one hand and cradling a sore spot on her head with the other. She desperately wanted to tell Ryan off for being unfair as she normally would, but she remained silent, her dream still fresh in her mind. The cold that had seeped through her pores, dragging the life out of her body in a painfully slow manner… She could still feel the chill in her bones; it had felt incredibly vivid and realistic, as if she’d truly succumbed to a slow, frozen death. What had brought on such a dream so suddenly, and why did it feel as if she’d dreamed the same thing many times prior? Was it coincidence?
Sadie was harshly broken from her thoughts as a pile of her clothing connected with her face, Ryan having tossed it in her direction. “For Ma’qui’s sake, Mathias! What is your problem today?!”
“I should be asking you the same question, Mercedes. You’re not acting like yourself, half asleep or otherwise.” Ryan then flashed her a soft, subtle look of concern; a look reserved only for those he cares about. “Are you doing okay, Sadie? Have you fallen ill? We can reschedule our meeting in Castle Town if you want.”
“Ryan, I’m fine. It was just an unsettling dream, don’t worry yourself gray.” Sadie offered an awkward smile and patted the male’s shoulder as she stood up. “I’ll get ready and then we can head to Castle Town.” Though Ryan had cast her a glance, signaling that the conversation was not over, Sadie was grateful for the temporary silence as she snuck into the restroom to change.
As a reflex, Sadie glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Instantly, she began to piece together the reason for Ryan’s uncharacteristic gentleness moments ago. She looked exhausted; not as if she’d had a hard time sleeping last night, but as if she hadn’t slept well in days and had just fought a horde of Shadow Wargs the previous night. With the reality-shattering barriers her dreams felt as if they’d been breaching as of late, perhaps the notion that she hadn’t been sleeping much wasn’t so incredibly far-fetched. After she swapped her clothing, realizing she’d spent too much time analyzing her own reflection, she splashed some icy water on her face to wake herself up. The tactic seldom worked, but perhaps, with enough effort on her end, she could play the part well and Ryan would forget her internal turmoil.
“Sorry I took so long.” Sadie sauntered out of the house and over to the tree Ryan was leaning against. “I couldn’t remember where I put my pack.”
Ryan raised a single eyebrow. “Are you sure? It was still attached to your belt when I threw it at you. How did you manage to lose it from the bedroom to the bathroom?”
Sadie grimaced when she realized she was caught in the lie but chose not to comment on it further. Thankfully. Ryan chose his battles carefully, dropping the conversation in favor of walking forward. [i What did that stupid dream mean, and why do I even care this much?] The redheaded female groaned internally. [i If I could just piece it together, I could stop thinking about it and focus so Ryan will stop worrying about me.]
“You know,” Ryan’s voice sounded suddenly, intruding Sadie’s thoughts, and bringing her back to the present. “Now that I think about it, I’ve been having some strange dreams lately as well.”
He nodded, looking thoughtfully back at for her before looking forward again. “Yeah. Most of it is lost to memory, but what I do remember is intense. The entire world was consumed by a raging inferno. It followed my footsteps, it swept in waves before me, the embers left scorch marks on my face… It ended only when I was fully consumed by a tornado of fire. I woke up right as I died, I’m guessing.” Ryan sighed, his shoulders relaxing as if he’d removed the weight from them. “Feels good to say that.”
“That’s interesting. Mine was similar.”
The male looked back at her quizzically.
“I was wandering an endless blizzard. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see. I slipped on some ice and fell into the snow. Just as I was about to freeze to death, you woke me up.” Sadie laughed humorlessly. “How bizarre, the similarities. You caught fire and I froze to death. A reversal of our personalities if nothing else.”
“I guess you have a point.” Ryan shrugged, as if trying to dismiss the subject. “It seems too strange to be normal, but it’s most likely a bit of coincidental happenstance all the same. Either that, or it’s a bizarre after-effect of whatever we ate last night.”
“I’m sorry, but who was it that suggested we order fried squid and egg noodles last night? Oh yeah, that was you.”
Ryan scoffed, biting back a laugh, but refused to contribute to the playful argument and instead opted to run ahead. Sadie just chuckled softly, choosing to keep her walk leisurely, watching the brunet scout the trees for any potential threats in the leaf cover. Though she was not completely at ease, talking about her strange dream with Ryan made the weight a bit easier to carry, especially knowing he had a dream like her own. Perhaps the entire thing really was just a mishap.
“Sadie, come on. You’re too slow.”
“Coming, Ry.” Perhaps, she thought, it was too strange to be a mishap. Things only continued to grow stranger after her encounter at the marketplace yesterday.
Sadie didn’t come into Castle Town often; only to run errands for the Hunters or when the Kingsguard requested her and Ryan’s presence. The pair had originally come to town with a cost summary for the Kingsguard, but Ryan had gotten distracted by something off in the distance and had barely said anything to Sadie before taking off.
“Ryan, where are you going?!” she called out.
“I’ll be right back – I just want to check on something.” The brunet disappeared before Sadie could argue, leaving her to wander the market and await his return.
It wasn’t as if she despised Castle Town – it was rather nice for the capital city of Andal since the merging of the Kingship. She hadn’t been seen by her family since she left town. What would they think if they saw her now?
“Hello? Miss Dalca?”
A strange female voice startled the redhead out of her thoughts, and it took all her training not to pull her weapon out. “Who are you?”
The female in question was a petite blonde girl with striking green eyes. She giggled. “Someone who’s been waiting to meet you?”
“What do you mean? Stop being cryptic.”
“As you wish.” She bowed. “My name is Hazel L’Brour. Does the name strike you familiar?”
Sadie took a moment to jog her memory. “The only time I’ve heard that name is when I used to read up on the Old Lore. She was the Lord of Sages.” The redhead snorted. “And you mean to tell me that is you?”
“It’d be rather rude of me to lie.” The small blonde girl grinned. “I have a request of you, if you’re up for it.”
“Why should I trust or believe you?” Sadie crossed her arms.
“You’re right. Why should you? I could be lying to you.” Hazel summoned a vine out of nowhere, Sadie watching as the tendril wrapped delicately around her wrist. “Or perhaps the legends of the Old War aren’t just legends after all.”
The redhead’s eyes widened. “What kind of trick is this? You mean to tell me magic is real?”
Hazel glanced at the female. “You sound surprised, considering you’re a spellcaster yourself. A mage can usually find another.”
Sadie took a step back. Other than Ryan and her family, no one else knew she was capable of casting spells. “Fine, you have my attention. What is it you want?”
“I can’t tell you everything right now.” The vine disappeared into the brick. “There are too many prying faces nearby, and there are still people I need to gather. I hear you’re rather close with one Mathias Vasile?”
Ryan? She thought. “What do you need with Ry- Mathias?”
“I would like him to be present as well, if at all possible.” The blonde girl locked eyes with Sadie. “I promise, we just need to talk. I know we just met, but I need you to trust me. I won’t do anything to hurt you.”
Sadie sighed deeply. “I don’t know if I should, but…” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll comply, and I’ll bring Mathias with me.”
“Perfect, thank you.” She smiled genuinely. “We’ll need a place to meet up that we are all aware of. The town center will be perfect. You and Mathias should meet me there, and I’ll have someone new with me as well. I promise, once we meet up, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
The redhead wanted to press for more information, but as quickly as Hazel had appeared, she was gone.
“Are you sure they’ll be here?”
Ryan looked like he was ready to throw himself at a wall. “Are you serious, Mercedes? You met a girl who looks like a twelve-year-old child, believed that she was the fabled Lord of Sages, and promised you’d meet her here with a friend? Are you sure that even happened? Next you’ll be telling me that we have a pet Shadow Warg.”
“Would you be mad if we did?” She shrugged. “I wasn’t hallucinating, Ryan. I just don’t know if she’s actually going to show up.”
“You’re completely hopeless sometimes, you know that?” Ryan’s face shifted from annoyance and took on a more serious expression. “You did say that she knew that you were a spellcaster, though. I don’t see you looking for a reason to lie about that, especially to me.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t. I spend way too much time trying to hide it.” Sadie rolled her eyes and glanced at her partner. “Do you think this could have something to do with the bizarre dreams, Ry?”
“Nope, I still think it’s the squid.”
Sadie wanted to scold Ryan for his carefree attitude but kept herself from doing so. She knew Ryan was only using his snarky side as a cover to hide how uneasy he was with the situation. The two of them had no idea what would happen today at their meeting if anything at all. It wasn’t like hunting, where they knew relatively what could happen. This involved a grasp beyond their understanding.
“Hey Sadie, look over there.” At the sound of Ryan’s voice, which wavered slightly with an expectant tone, Sadie’s head snapped up. Approaching the Castle Town center, with the blonde girl in tow, was a tall, young-looking redheaded male. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen or seventeen. Ryan’s muscles tensed. “Is that…”
“It is.” Sadie’s eyes grew wide. “That’s Prince Michael Sala.”
Ryan looked uncharacteristically nervous. “What is he doing here? Did you know about this?”
“What? No! Hazel told me she was bringing someone else with her, but she didn’t mention she was bringing the actual [i prince of Andal!]”
“Don’t say that so loudly, Mercedes!” Ryan hissed. “We don’t want to draw attention to him.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I guess it’s just jarring to see him in person for the first time. I heard he looked like King Mihail from the Old Lore, but I didn’t believe it until now.”
Her partner gave her a leveling look. “You mean to tell me you lived in Castle Town for sixteen years and you’d never once seen the kid?”
Sadie shook her head. “Ryan, I was an heiress! I was kept rather busy when I lived here. Plus, I have nine years on him – he’d have been six or seven when I left home. That’s too young for him to have been in the public eye.”
“Whatever.” Ryan shook his head. “Since it looks like he’s following the girl you recognize, he must be meeting up with us.”
“Yeah, looks like it.” Sadie swallowed heavily and said “Hazel? We’re over here.”
“Oh my god, are these seriously the Hunters you were bragging up to me, Hazel?” Michael glanced back to the short blonde and snorted in annoyance. “The guy looks like he could rough someone up, but the girl looks like a lost puppy he couldn’t bear to leave behind. What good is she going to be?”
“Michael, settle down.” Hazel placed a gentle hand on the prince’s shoulder. “Be respectful.”
Sadie ignored Hazel’s words and grinded her teeth in annoyance. “If we’re judging each other based on looks, you don’t look very royal to me, your Highness. You look like a spoiled brat who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he wears Daddy’s insignia on his chest every day.”
“Mercedes, knock it off.” Ryan shot a glare towards his female companion before turning to Michael. “I’m sorry, it’s Michael, right?” The teenager nodded .”Well… I understand that you must be nervous, but the barbed comments aren’t necessary. You two don’t know each other at all – you can’t make assumptions based on appearances. Sadie definitely knows better.” He rolled his eyes. “Let’s just start over, okay?”
“Oh, all right.” Michael’s brown eyes were still alight with annoyance but thought it better not to argue. Instead, with a quieter tone, he said “My name is Michael Sala. I’m the first – and only – heir to his Majesty Liam Sala.”
“Sadie and I have met previously, as have Michael and I, but this is the first time I will be acquainting myself with Mathias.” Hazel bowed. “My name is Hazel L’Brour.”
“I’m Mathias Vasile Jr.” The brunet’s icy blue gaze carefully fell upon the two standing before him. “I go by Ryan if you don’t mind. I’m the leader of the Gwynt Hunters Association and take primary base in Corwynt.”
The redheaded female took a deep sigh, allowing her agitation to seep away. “My name is Mercedes, but I prefer Sadie, if that’s all right. I’m the assistant leader of the Gwynt Hunters Association.”
“Do you not have a last name?” Michael looked at Sadie with poorly masked skepticism and curiosity.
She glanced at the ground. “I fail to see the importance of it.”
“Well that’s not fair.” Michael crossed his arms. “I practically give you my life story, and you’re just going to-”
“Michael, it’s really not a big deal. Just let it go.” Hazel shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She shot a glance at Sadie and Ryan. “Now that we’re all acquainted, is there perhaps a place we can speak outside of town? The townsfolk appear to be growing quite curious.” Her piercing green eyes were trained on the people who had gathered to watch Sadie and Michael argue. “You two say you take primary residence in Corwynt City, right? Andal’s changed a lot in the few hundred years I’ve been away, and I’m afraid I’m not familiar with my surroundings anymore. Most of what were countries are regions to you now.”
Ryan blanched. “A few hundred years?”
Hazel ignored Ryan’s comment. “Where would you two recommend we go?”
“The old Hunter’s campsite that sits between Castle Town and Corwynt, maybe?” Sadie looked to Ryan for confirmation. “The other Hunters wouldn’t be using it during the day, and we really haven’t gotten much use out of it since the HQ building was renovated anyway.”
Ryan nodded, forcing himself out of his stupor. Sadie wasn’t worried yet; why should he be? “Yeah, that’ll work. It’d be fairly private; the Corwynt townsfolk don’t hang around the innards of the forest unless they’re Hunters or heading through to Castle Town, and I know for certain none of the Castle Town citizens will follow us out.”
“Right.” Michael looked confident, but his eyes betrayed his nervousness. “I’m loathe to trust you two, but… you say you’re Hunters for Gwynt. I don’t see why you’d suddenly have malicious intent. Lead the way if you will.” As Ryan and Hazel took the front, Michael ran after them, only slowing down when he realized Sadie was trailing a good distance behind them.
The redhead rolled his eyes, thinking the female was still upset with him, but noticed a sharpness to her bright green eyes. A trained look in her gaze that he hadn’t noticed while they were arguing. She was scouting, he realized, for possible threats, regardless of the safe cover of Castle Town. He suddenly felt a heavy presence in his chest and resigned to his fate with a sigh. Slowing his step to match hers, he said “You said you go by Sadie, right?” The heavy silence broke easily, which Michael was grateful for.
“Look. I’m…” He swallowed. Why was being nice so difficult? “I know I can be a bit hotheaded, and I’m sorry.”
Sadie shifted her gaze to the redhead, her eyes glinting with surprise, before shifting to an amused curiosity. “It’s all right. I wasn’t exactly calm or collected, nor am I the type of person that fits into the Hunter stereotype. I’m sorry too, I guess. For also being hotheaded and being secretive about who I am.”
Michael shook his head. “You have every right to be. It doesn’t really matter.”
“It’s just… Dalca. My last name is Dalca.” Sadie glanced ahead, making sure she could still see Ryan and Hazel in her line of vision before turning back to the prince. Unsurprisingly, his eyes were wide with shock.
“Dalca? As in Dalca Industrial?” Michael looked struck. “The weapons and technology company built by the insane William Dalca and recently inherited by Rayner Dalca?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Sadie chuckled at his choice of words. “I’m his ex-heiress – Rayne is my younger brother. When William – my father – gave me the choice to stop complaining and run the company when I turned eighteen or leave and never come back… I’m not sure he was expecting me to leave. I was only sixteen when I left Castle Town for good, and the only regret I have is leaving Rayne to take over the company. He was only ten at the time; I didn’t really have the chance to say good-bye. And William probably only cared that he had to run the company for another eight years.”
“I’m sorry. You must miss your brother.”
“I do, sometimes. I did give him my D-Tech ID and how to find me a few years ago, but he’s never reached out.” She shrugged. “I don’t regret much about it; it felt like life truly began for me when I left. I learned a lot about who I was. I spent a year on my own and then I met Ryan. It’s been a long road to get to where I am now, but… I made it. Thankfully, my time at Dalca Industrial taught me how to forge my own weapons but being out here taught me so much more than that. I learned how to fight. I became a Hunter. Ryan and I grew closer. Most importantly, I escaped William’s legacy and wrote my own. I know it’s not what you’d expect from someone raised to be a CEO, but…”
“The world has a plethora of gray in between the black and white, I know.” Michael sighed heavily. “I understand that more than anyone. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own legacy… Having to take over the kingship once my father steps down… I really don’t want to be king when I’m older. My father is a wonderful king, loved by everyone. He knows exactly how to run each region and I just… I can’t see myself being able to fill his shoes. I’m just a kid. I can’t tell him that, I’d just let him down. I’m a coward who hides behind a confident façade.”
Sadie smiled warmly at Michael. “You won’t be a kid forever, Michael. You’ll find your path though, one way or the other. I left Castle Town and my birthright ten years ago… You’re a little older than I was. You’ll find out where you’re supposed to be when you’re meant to.”
Before Michael could form a reply, Ryan’s gruff voice yelled “Hurry up!” at the pair of them and completed the statement with an annoyed grunt.
“Wow. Patience really isn’t a virtue of his, is it?”
“No, not really.” Sadie snorted, holding back a laugh. “But Ryan’s incredible, whether he lets you know it or not. Come on, now. They’re waiting for us.”
The midday light of Sunhigh filtered gently through the thick tree canopy, leaving spots of warm sunlight littered through the forest floor. The campsite Sadie and Ryan remembered was speckled with spotty light; it was easy enough to see during the day, but well-sheltered after the sun set. Michael guessed that was the reason the campsite was once used by the Hunters. It was in an open clearing surrounded by thick underbrush; did it make it harder for Shadow Beasts to startle them, or easier?
Michael shook his head. “So Hazel,” the redheaded male started, ridding his brain of the thoughts. “Mind telling us what this is about?”
Hazel glanced between the three of them and nodded. “I don’t really know how to start, so… I’ll just go for it. It’s going to sound a bit far-fetched, but bear with me, okay? We’re here because one of the Creators of Andal has shown me a vision of a grim future. As the Lord of Sages, I have been re-awakened to show you three your destiny and ensure the darkness is stopped at all costs.”
“How?” Sadie crossed her arms.
“Well…” She shuffled her feet. “You three are the reincarnations of the Galaxian Gods who once purged the planet of its turmoil.”
“What?” Ryan’s voice reached an uncharacteristic pitch; a noise that had even caught Sadie by surprise. “You’re joking, right?” He glanced at Michael and Sadie, before turning back to the small blonde. “You three decided to get together and prank me, right?”
“I wish this was a joke. The last think I wanted to do was aid you three in awakening your magic and interrupt your lives.” The blonde girl sighed in defeat. “Especially considering that one of you is but a child.”
Michael scoffed in annoyance but chose not to comment on the ‘child’ barb. “Hazel, are you sure? Maybe you’re wrong about us, or nothing’s about to happen. We don’t even know each other.”
Hazel shook her head furiously. “Not a chance, Michael. I’ve spent an extensive amount of time back in Andal, lurking in the background. I wanted to be sure I had the right people. I’ve been watching you three since you and I first met, Michael.”
“Wait, really?” The teenager looked shaken. “You’ve been scouting us for four years?”
She nodded somberly, clutching a clump of grass in her hands. She remained silent for a moment, listening to the sounds of the wildlife that surrounded them. There was the howl of a Shadow Warg in the distance, but it was far-off. It wouldn’t bother them. “I’ve seen more of you than Ryan or Sadie, but even so, I’ve heard much about the accomplishments of the Gwynt Hunters. Especially the leader and his assistant. Math- uh, Ryan, becoming leader at only seventeen, and Sadie, the anxious yet strong-wiled ex-heiress who overturned her future to create one she wrote for herself.”
Michael shook his head in disbelief and turned away. “I’m sorry, but I’m sure you’re mistaken. I don’t have magic. None of us do. Magic only exists as an aura that regenerates the Shadow Beasts.”
“That’s… untrue…” Sadie fidgeted with a bracelet she wore. The brown band was covered with different runes that looked hand carved. “I’ve been able to use magic for a long time. I just… never really share it with anyone.”
“She’s right. Sadie’s been hiding her magic since she was but a child; she’s the only one of you who has a natural talent for it, and has it fine-tuned to control it to her whim.” Hazel looked shattered. “It’s true that human-based magics have been nearly depleted from today’s world, but… not you three. And through my awakening, my magic is just as strong now as it was during the Old War.”
Ryan’s eyes shifted from his hands to the ground, avoiding eye contact with anyone around him. It was a nervous habit of his; Sadie had seen him do it a lot in the time she’d known him. “I’ve known that Sadie was a magic wielder for a few years now, but… me? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. I’m a Hunter. I’m a regular Hunter that uses a scythe as a weapon. I’m not a God, or whatever the hell you think I am.”
“As I mentioned earlier, I wish I didn’t have to say any of this, but I cannot control fate, and neither can you.” Hazel’s eyes were firm as she glanced at Ryan, though their eyes did not meet. “I’m here to help you as much as I can.”
“How can you be so sure that anything will even happen?!” Ryan challenged. He met Hazel’s gaze this time, his blue eyes ablaze. “A ‘Creator’ that none of us have ever seen told you the world would end so suddenly it’s a problem? What if you’re making this up? Does this ‘Creator’ even exist?!”
Sadie winced; she knew Ryan was only retaliating to hide his growing anxiety. Gently, she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ryan, please…”
“Why would I do that?!” Hazel’s calm demeanor was gone; she was suddenly alight with rage as she shoved herself into the brunet’s personal space. “Why would I disturb a group of humans, who have been living contently this whole time, to put them through this kind of hell without a reason? I would not do this for my own selfish desires! I’m not a monster, Mathias! I’ve seen hell; I lived through the Old War! I don’t want to be here. The friend I made while I gained my title as Lord of Sages died so I could seal the Sage of Shadows away because that too was fate. I must do this! Your duty is my duty too! I want to return to the stars and to back to my own peace, but I can’t. Not until this is over. And I need you to believe me!”
Ryan desperately wanted to continue the argument – anything to prevent this from being real – but the determination in Hazel’s eyes killed the anger in his heart. He slumped down, admitting defeat. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Ryan.” Sadie leaned into him slightly, offering him comfort.
“Don’t be sorry, Ryan. I understand; I wouldn’t want to believe me either.” Hazel shook her head but offered a smile, nonetheless. “Perhaps we should beet again tomorrow and continue this conversation then. Give you three sometime to discuss what you’ve learned and what’s going to happen. This was a lot to take in.”
“You might be right.” Sadie glanced over to Michael. “We should also probably return his Highness to town before we get executed for kidnapping a prince.”
“You’re not going to get executed,” the curly-haired male retorted. “My father isn’t that protective.”
Sadie snorted. “Calm down, kid. It was a joke. We’re Hunters anyway – he’d at least ask first.” She stood up, nudging Ryan into an upright position. “Come on, Ry. Let’s escort our lost prince into town, yeah?”
“Huh?” Ryan just nodded blankly. “Oh, yeah. Okay.”
“I just don’t understand how I could’ve had magic this whole time and not known about it.”
Sadie glanced up at Ryan from her spot on the couch and sighed softly. The brunet was leaning against the kitchen counter, glaring at the stovetop like it was a foreign invader. “Magic is a fickle thing, Ry. It’s probably from your bloodline. You’re a Vasile, right?”
Ryan rolled his eyes, looking away from the stove momentarily. “Nope. I made up my entire family bloodline and history, including the death of my parents.”
“There’s the Ryan I know.” She chuckled softly and pushed herself off the couch, sauntering over to Ryan. “According to the Old Lore, the Vasile’s have a long history in Andal. I believe the earliest recorded Vasile was from before the Old War, when Andal still had four Kings. You’ve heard the story of King Edward Vasile, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. I know he was real, but magic? The Old War? Sages? I always just passed it off as legend.” Ryan sighed. “Hazel… She looked so determined when we were arguing earlier. There’s no way she’s just making this up.”
“Whether or not magic and sages exist, I don’t want to believe any of this ‘Galaxian God’ nonsense either.” Sadie rolled her shoulders. “We’ll just have to wait it out and see how the cards are played.”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He turned over to her, mischief alight in his eyes. “Do you think I could fight Michael to be next in line for the throne? I am of royal descent, after all.”
[b [i Chapter 2]] “Many times, the thought of fear itself is greater than what it is we fear.” -Idowu Koyenikan
The fierce, deafening roar of a Shadow Warg was silenced as the blade of Ryan’s scythe sliced cleanly through its throat. It dropped to a ground with a satisfying ‘thud’ before dissipating into shadows. “Have you given Hazel’s words any more thought?”
Through the grunt – followed by a pained cry – of a large Werebear, Sadie huffed affirmation. “Some, yeah. Unfortunately, with what little information we have it’s-” The redhead paused to drive one of her jagged daggers through the skull of the beast. With one last cry, the monster vanished into the ether, leaving behind black dust. “It’s a little hard to know what we should expect.”
“That’s true.” Ryan stepped back, his scythe drawn into a defensive position. “It’s just not like you to ponder on one thought for so long.”
Sadie snorted and tossed one of her daggers into a tree, hopping onto the sturdy metal to survey the area.
“What should we do about his Highness? I’m not sure how comfortable I am babysitting the next in line for the throne. Especially considering we may not come back.”
“I’m not so sure he’d be a sitting duck, Ry. You’re too quick to judge people.” She jumped down, yanking her dagger out of the tree. The immediate area was clear. “Skyline is clear, I think we got all of them.”
Ryan sighed heavily, giving the now-empty battlefield a once-over. Other than the black blood and bone dust from the Shadow Beasts, there was no indication there had been a fight. “How are you so confident in his abilities? He’s likely never had to lift a finger to defend himself in his life; that’s what the Kingsguard is for.”
“King Liam knows how to fight, you know.” Sadie shot Ryan a glare. “And Michael was carrying a sword on his person yesterday. While I’m certain he’s never had to face a life-or-death combat scenario before, if he’s allowed to carry a sword, he must’ve had basic defense training at the very least. It’s dishonorable to carry a weapon you can’t use, especially if you’re of royal descent.” She took a worn rag from her pack and cleaned her dagger bade. “Don’t forget, he’s also a descendant of King Mihail Sala himself. He carries a warrior’s spirit within him.”
“True. A warrior’s spirit will do him little good, however, if his mind is clouded in the heat of battle.” The brunet resigned, however. He folded his scythe and attached it to its carrying strap. “I suppose I said something similar to you years ago.”
“Something like that.” The female nodded, holding back laughter. “Look how far I’ve come since then.” She tucked her daggers back into their holsters. “Just give the kid a chance to prove himself. Ry. Some advanced weapons training and a few real combat scenarios against some Shadow Beasts and he’ll be fit to fight in no time.”
“You’re right. I suppose I’m just nervous because he’s still so young and I don’t want to be responsible for a child. I also don’t want to take what little childhood he has left.”
“I understand where you’re coming from – I don’t either. He’s a prince, and a Galaxian-whatever, so we need to prepare for him to carry his own weight whether we want to or not. We won’t be able to do it for him in the thick of battle.”
Michael leaned heavily on the long table in front of him, one elbow digging into the hard surface. The piece was made of solid oak, finished with a fine varnish to prevent it from splintering bare skin. The arm that rested on the table held his head up and he looked vacantly forward. He used his free hand to twirl a lock of his curly red hair in his fingers. His father was talking in the background – something about gold reserves – though he’d long since tuned him out, mostly. He instead focused on the events of the previous day.
The unruly redhead was slightly shaken and unusually silent; his entire world felt as if it was spinning. He’d met Hazel four years ago when he’d decided to attend a normal school, and they’d gotten along well. Suddenly, however, it felt as if they were strangers that lived in completely different worlds. They truly were in different worlds, if she was really the fabled Hazel L’Brour from the Old Lore.
[i As far-fetched as it seems, I can’t see her lying about something of that scale…] Everything she’d mentioned about her timeline had been proven accurate, down to the details of the battle between tyrant King Razvan Lupei and Royal Guard leader Mihail Sala. She’d even been able to fill in the details that the history books didn’t have – the information she held onto simply wasn’t available. Unless she’s a quick study, there’s no way she’d have that much detail nailed down in four years’ time. He groaned internally. [i This is all so exhausting. I knew monsters and Shadow Beasts existed, but magic was said to have faded away.] Michael was unable to stay fully skeptical; with Sadie’s confession about harboring her own magic and the way Hazel had disappeared in an instant once Sadie had offered to take him home, he couldn’t continue to deny the – albeit uncommon – existence of magic.
[i Why me, though?] The redhead wanted to slam his head into the table; the only thing keeping him from doing so was his desire to avoid calling attention to himself. And why Sadie and Ryan? The duo seemed pleasant enough in their own way, once he got to know them, but they were nearly complete strangers to him. He’d only ever seen the elder of the two a handful of times when he’d run errands to the castle. Could he really have a fate intertwined with two people he’d barely met?
“Michael Thelonious Sala, at least pretend to pay attention!”
The stern voice was followed suddenly by the thump of a book being thrown at his head. The pain broke Michael out of his thoughts in an instant, his eyes ablaze as he rubbed his head. “Hey! What the hell was that for?!”
King Liam Sala went from sitting to standing, advancing over to him in a few short strides. His arms were crossed, and a frown was carved into his delicate face. The negative facial expression aged Liam considerably, as if the King was never intended to do anything but smile. “At least you responded to that. You haven’t been yourself since Mr. Vasile and Ms. Dalca brought you home last night. What’s on your mind.”
“It’s nothing important.” Michael huffed stubbornly, returning the cross-armed gesture. His brown eyes were sharp and impatient. “Don’t worry about it; it’s none of your business and doesn’t concern you.”
“It has to be something important if you’re distracted like this.” Liam’s blue-eyed gaze softened into concern; the look was more suited to him. “I know politics and finances hardly interest you on the best of days, but you usually take notes and at least make eye contact with me. Is something bothering you?”
“No, I just told you I was fine.” He could feel anxiety and frustration bubbling up within him; he did his best to swallow it down. It wasn’t Liam’s fault. “I’ve just got more important things to worry about right now, that’s all.”
“What..? What could possibly more important than your country, and the regions within its boundaries?” Liam’s eyes held questions, though they were not scathing. “Andal’s fate is your future, Michael. I won’t be around forever. Running a country is a huge responsibility, and you need to be ready for it before I pass.”
The young prince winced at the reminder and resigned with a bow of his head. The anger he harbored melted away. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Dad.”
The brunet rolled his shoulders, pulling a chair out and sitting down on the plush velvet cushion. “What’s going on, Michael? Can I help?”
“Honestly? I’m not sure. I don’t even know where to start.” He sighed, holding back a dry laugh. “Maybe you can answer an unrelated question for me. How much do you know about King Mihail and the events of the Old War?”
“Hm…” Liam scratched his head. “The lore laid out that King Mihail started out as the head of the Gwynt Kingsguard-”
Michael’s right eye twitched with annoyance. “I know what the lore says!”
“Right, sorry.” He coughed to clear his throat. “Impatient child. Anyway… Your grandfather, King Brysen, mentioned that our bloodline used to hold a strong line of Holy magic due to King Mihail having children with Queen Lavina. I’m not sure how strong it holds these days; magic is a rare feat in today’s world. Is that the kind of answer you’re looking for?”
Liam nodded. When Michael didn’t say anything else, he attempted to press him a bit further while he was not wound up. “Was there… anything else you needed?”
“Uh…” Michael bit his lip. “What… what does fate mean to you?”
“Fate? That’s an unusual question.”
He shook his head. “You can forget I asked, if you want.”
Liam smiled. “No, I have an answer. It’s just… a strange question, coming from you. Fate might mean something different to everyone you meet. I think fate’s an excuse for religious folk to talk big.”
Michael’s eyes widened. “What do you mean by that?”
“I have my reasons to believe that, and maybe I’ll tell you one day. Trust me, though, that fate is all in your mind, and that you write your own ending.” Liam nodded. “You’ll be happier that way. It sounds strange, considering you have part of your life written out for you, but I can’t write everything. Meeting Kasara wasn’t determined for me. Being kind wasn’t determined for me. I made those choices myself.”
“I understand.” He nodded. “Thanks.”
“If that’s it, I think we’ve avoided the finance reports long enough.” The King stood, stretching out his back and heading back to the reports. “I’ll try and shorten it, okay? I think I can cut you some slack for the day.”
Michael smiled. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Any time, Michael.”
Ryan grunted audibly as he looked for the source of the sound. Sadie’s D-Tech – a wristwatch with holographic touchscreen capabilities – was resting peacefully on the table. The watch face was brightly lit with a small envelope on the screen before it faded back to black. “Sadie, you have a message.”
“Wait, really? Only you or the Hunters ever message me.” Sadie’s voice drifted in from the kitchen. “Can you open it and read it to me? I’m busy.”
“Yeah, sure.” Ryan shifted his position on the couch so he could reach the watch. He unlocked the device, enabling the holographic screen to project out. He tapped on the Message icon and read the incoming note.
Unknown IP: Hi Sadie. It’s Michael. Please let this be Sadie and not some strange person; Dad said it’d be you. I’ll be finished with the financial reports within the hour; should I track Hazel down so we can meet up again?
“It’s not urgent,” the brunet started, choking back a laugh. “But it’s from his Highness.”
“Michael? Really?” Sadie walked into the living area, holding half of a squid in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. “How did he get my D-Tech ID?”
“He said his father gave it to him,” he hummed, adding Michael’s IP to her contacts. “Even so, you’re an Assistant Leader in the Andal Hunter’s Association. Most likely, the castle has it on file. Anyway, he was just asking if we wanted if we wanted him to track Hazel down so we could meet up again.”
“I mean… it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Tell him yes, and to let us know if anything changes.” She wandered back into the kitchen, slapping the half squid onto the counter. “Why couldn’t he ask his father for your D-Tech IP?”
Rolling his eyes, Ryan sent the requested reply and set Sadie’s watch back on its charging station. “I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t counting on you being a whiny child about the whole thing.”
“Ouch. That hurt.”
The brunet chuckled but said nothing. He tuned into the sounds of Sadie chopping squid and the popping from the fry pan as his mind began to wander. I know we said we would, but what would happen if we decided not to do this?
“You shouldn’t worry so much, Ryan.”
Ryan glanced over to Sadie. She hadn’t so much as looked away from the task at hand, yet she seemed to know what was on his mind. She always did, somehow. “What makes you think I’m worrying?”
“You’re fidgeting. I can hear it.” She knocked the last of the squid pieces into the skillet and re-fired the flame on the stove. “You’ve always been a loud worrier. I can understand why you’re concerned, but we have no idea what’s going to happen yet. We may not even have to do anything right off, and it’ll be a situation we must monitor. Until we know more, it’s best not to get ourselves worked up.”
“Maybe you’re right, but what if everything changes after this? What if nothing will ever be the same?”
The redhead shrugged. “Panic?”
Ryan was about to reprimand her for not taking him seriously when he heard Sadie’s D-Tech go off again. Ignoring his feisty partner, he picked the watch back up to read the message.
Michael Sala: I’ll try to slip out of Dad’s clutches a bit early, then. Fake a school project or something. I guess we can call this “the advantage to being a prince that goes to a normal school” or something. See you later.
“That little shit.” Ryan laughed loudly.
“Little? The kid’s like, six feet tall.”
“Whatever.” The brunet snorted. “Michael said he was going to lie to his father about a school project so he could escape his duties sooner. He’s a shit. A con artist, even. He’d make my sister proud.”
“Sounds like something you would’ve done,” Sadie chirped. She turned away and grinned. “It’s definitely something I’ve done. ‘Father, I must get my schoolwork done.’ Or ‘Father, I don’t feel so well.’ The second one didn’t always work, but studies made him harder than diamond.”
Ryan snorted, holding back a laugh. “I never had the time to lie about anything. Mom would’ve killed me when she caught me if Dad didn’t first.”
After a moment of silence, the only sound the sizzling of the frying pan, Ryan meekly asked “Will the squid be done soon? I’m getting hungry.” The brunet then swiveled out of the way quickly, dodging a knife that was thrown his way. It missed him by mere centimeters, creating a small breeze on his neck. “What the hell, Sadie?!”
“Unless you can come over here and will it to cook faster, stop bothering me and wait!” she snapped.
“Please try to make it home before Sundown if you can,” Liam gently suggested. “Don’t make the Hunters bring you back again if you can help it, okay? They’re busy enough as it is; they shouldn’t have to worry about you outside of the castle walls.”
“All right, Dad.” Michael bit back an annoyed sigh; he knew his father was only looking out for him. “I’m not going that far; just to Corwynt. I’ll call you if I think I’ll be any later than Sundown, okay?”
Liam furrowed his brow but nodded. “You said Ms. Wardwell was going to be traveling with you as well?”
“Yes, Dad. I just have to go meet up with her.”
“Does she know how to defend herself if monsters, Shadow Beasts, or Ma’qui forbid a L-”
“Father, please. That’s enough. We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” Michael then took a deep breath to calm himself. “Look, I know you’re worried because of what happened to Mom, but I know the basics on how to use a sword. Hazel’s an amazing fighter – she’s top of the girls’ fighting club at school. Corwynt is only a twenty-minute walk from here, and the Hunters frequent the area between here and Corwynt. I’ll be okay, I promise.”
Liam smiled sheepishly, nodding. “All right. I understand. I apologize for being so over-protective.” He chuckled. “You’re a lot like your mother, Michael. Kasara was always annoyed with my excessive worrying. She was just as stubborn, too.”
“Thanks, I guess.” Though it wasn’t the first time his father had compared him to the late Queen, and it was meant as a compliment, it never failed to sting his heart. The loss of his mother was as fresh as the day he died. “I… I know I interrupted you before you finished, but what was the last thing you were going to say?”
“It began with an ‘L’ and then I cut you off.”
The King blanched. “Don’t worry about it.” His words were quick – too quick. “Forget I said anything. Shouldn’t you be off?”
“Dad.” Michael crossed his arms. “What were you going to say? You’re hiding something from me.” He frowned. “Does it have something to do with how Mom died?”
Liam said nothing immediately, he just fidgeted with his hands. After a moment, he said “Do you remember how I wouldn’t let you see her body until after the medics had patched her up?” He saw Michael nod. “It was because her torso was torn completely open, and you were only thirteen at the time. I didn’t want to frighten you, so I had them stitch her up and clothe her before you were able to bid your farewells. Normally, I’d have let you in sooner, but…”
“It was a creature called a Lycanmorph. A creature that has since been exiled from most towns and cities in Gwynt, so it’s likely you’ll never see one unless they manage to get past the Hunters.” Liam shuddered. “They had only been exiled from Castle Town at that point, but one had managed to sneak by in its human form. It must’ve trailed Kasara as she went out of town, and then…”
“It attacked her…”
He nodded. “The Hunters that found her said it looked like she tried to put up a fight, but it was futile. Lycanmorphs are aggressive and powerful creatures. It was gone even before the Hunters showed up. Maybe Mr. Vasile will know something – you could ask him if he or his entourage ever encountered another one.”
“Maybe I will.” Michael frowned. “I’m sorry for prying, Dad. I shouldn’t have made you tell me, but-”
Liam shook his head. “You’re young. Your curiosity got the better of you, and I should’ve told you sooner. Life won’t always be sweet, my son, but you will be a strong, capable leader. You have grown so much over the past four years. Kasara would be proud of you.” He smiled. “Run along now. I don’t want you to be late.”
“Right.” Again, Michael felt a pang of sadness at the mention of Kasara. Especially now that he knew how she died. “I’ll have my D-Tech on me. If you get too¬ worried, give me a call, okay? I promise I’ll answer for once.”
The brunet nodded, patting his son’s shoulders, and squeezing them gently. “Be careful, please. Come home safely, no matter how late.”
Michael nodded. “I promise, I’ll come home.” He waved good-bye to his father, making sure his D-Tech was securely fastened to his wrist and his sword was on his belt before he headed down the long corridor that was the King’s Quarters. He faintly remembered walking through here often as a small child, always pestering his mother for something or the other. It was hard to believe, Michael thought, that Queen Kasara had died four years ago. It felt like both a lot longer and shorter time since then. Sometimes, he thought to himself, he could still hear her shouting down the corridor at him as he argued back at her. Sometimes, she would have the mist of tears in her eyes; he knew Kasara did not like to argue. Michael frowned. He really wished he could turn back time and take back some of the things he said to her.
Shaking his head furiously, he pushed open the front double-doors to the castle. He was promptly greeted by two members of the Kingsguard, who bowed upon seeing him. Michael formally returned the gesture.
“Good afternoon, your Highness.” The female guard – Ayana – stood. “Where are you off to today?”
“I’m just meeting up with some friends.” The response slid easily off his tongue. “Don’t worry; I’ll be home before dark.”
The male guard – Tyryn – nodded his understanding. “Understood. Would you like one of us to accompany you to your destination, your Highness? Would you like us to fetch His Majesty to travel with you?”
Michael shook his head near desperately. “No, thank you. Da- uh, his Majesty knows I’m going out for a while. I promised him I’d do my best to be back by Sundown, but I promised to return safely.”
“All right, then.” Tyryn smiled.” Be safe, Highness.”
The redhead just waved at them as he ran down the brick staircase, taking them two at a time until he reached the bottom. It was something he’d always done; he didn’t even think about it anymore. Michael scanned the courtyard as he walked up to the gates; there were a few guards talking by the large Koi fountain on the left-hand side of the cobblestone walking path. None of them acknowledged him; whether they saw him and knew he would be fine, or didn’t see him at all, was up in the air.
He spotted the gardeners on the right-hand side of the path, trimming the pink rosebushes and planting new ones to replace the ones that had started to wilt. It was a tradition Kasara had started – she was appalled at the lack of flowers in the garden. Only Tatsu, the gardener he’d known since he was an infant, waved to him, and he returned the gesture. Tatsu’s age was beginning to show; she had deep wrinkles on her face and streaks of gray throughout her hair. She hadn’t let it slow her down and worked just as hard as her much younger co-workers. It was admirable, Michael decided, how she had decided to remain dedicated to the Sala family for her entire life. He would bless her in her retirement.
Michael foolishly felt the need to look back a few times before he exited the courtyard and felt ridiculous for doing so. There hadn’t been a need to sneak off the castle grounds since he turned fourteen, and yet he still had felt the need to make sure no one had seen him leave. It was a habit he hoped no one would catch onto.
Once he stepped onto the sidewalk, closing the gates to the castle courtyard, he took a deep breath. It was nice feeling normal on occasion. He lifted his wrist, unlocking his D-Tech and bringing up the holo screen.
Michael Sala: Sadie, I’m heading out of Castle Town now. Hazel hasn’t responded to any of my messages; I hope everything’s all right. Have either of you heard from her? If I must, I’ll just leave without her and she can track us down when she’s ready.
The streets of Castle Town were oddly quiet for midday, but Michael chalked it up to it being an oddly warm, sunny day for the last month of Tân. He guessed the townsfolk were staying in their homes to keep cool or enjoying the warm day before the cold months of Iâ were upon them. He prayed to the Creators above that his citizens would remain safe this Iâ; the casualties that resulted from last year’s Iâ season proved that it was a tough world outside the town walls. The Shadow Beasts were relentless in the cold.
Mercedes Dalca: Be safe, Michael. We’re going to finish eating lunch and then head back to HQ. We have a meeting to attend before we can meet up with you. If you get here before we get back to Corwynt, send me a message or stop by the HQ building to wait for us.
Michael didn’t bother responding to her and instead brought up Hazel’s contact ID. She hadn’t responded to the plethora of messages he’d sent and was beginning to grow concerned. He tried to call her, frowning when he got no answer. Sighing, he brought up the holo screen to send a message.
Michael Sala: Hey Hazel, it’s me again. Where are you? Is everything all right? I’m heading to Corwynt City to meet up with Sadie and Ryan. Call me back when you get this, okay? Stay safe. Thanks.
The red-haired prince decided to keep his walk leisurely with the intent of making his wait as short as possible. In the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but worry that something was about to go wrong. He wasn’t sure if it had something to do with Hazel being missing currently, but he sighed, trying to push the thoughts to the back of his mind. She was the legendary Lord of Sages, after all. She’d be fine.
Zakkeel Prowell: Where are you guys? We’re about to start the meeting. I can start with the minor news so you can be here for the important stuff if you’d like. Maybe if you two were ever on time to meetings, I’d be surprised.
Mathias Vasile Jr.: Can it, Zak. We’re on our way.
“I knew it was a bad idea to lay down after we ate lunch,” Sadie whined as she jogged through the forest. “We always fall asleep when we’re full. At the very least, we should have set an alarm or let Zak know so he could’ve called us.”
Ryan grumbled. “Maybe, but I’ll never give Zak the satisfaction of knowing we fell asleep on accident. And we can’t do anything about it now.”
“We could always stop eating at home and get fat on ink noodles and seafood like everyone else.”
The brunet bit his tongue to suppress his laughter as the two approached the HQ building. “As tempting as that sounds, that costs a lot more money. It’s cheaper to cook seafood ourselves. Just because we have unlimited access to the Hunters Fund doesn’t mean we should abuse it.”
“I guess. You’re no fun.” Sadie stuck her tongue out at her partner but silenced herself as they entered. She heard low-volume chattering coming from the meeting room, and she quietly entered the room with Ryan right behind her.
It wasn’t long before they were noticed. “Alas, our wonderful region’s Lead and Assistant Hunters have shown themselves!” Zak bowed in a teasing fashion. “Lord Vasile. Lady Dalca. Blessed you could show up on such short notice.”
Ryan bowed, sticking his tongue out at the blonde. “But of course; it’s my pleasure. Apologies for being tardy. What is the purpose for today’s meeting?”
“We’ve already covered all of the tedious things; the tendency to over-spend the budget, fixing weapons, and recruiting young fighters to become Hunters. Here’s what really needs our attention.” Zak handed Ryan his D-Tab. “We’ve recently noticed a new trend among the Shadow Beasts; their numbers have increased in the area between Castle Town and Corwynt. When we asked the other Leaders and Deputies in Gwynt and other regions, they have said the same thing. We’ve calculated a sixty-eight percent increase over the last year. Worrisome, if nothing else.”
“Yeah, very much so. Are the Hunters in other towns and regions having luck keeping them at bay?”
“Mostly,” the blond Deputy answered. He changed the tab on his D-Tab. “Smaller regions, specifically Leiaf, have reported several casualties due to the increase: Hunter, civilian, and animal. Danau Leader Urien Currii has reported that the Hathaway Clan of Hathaway Rescue have been aiding in the destruction of the Shadow Beasts.”
Sadie took the D-Tab from Ryan, frowning at the statistics on the screen. “This is far more than a few casualties here and there. Have the other Deputies of Gwynt reached out to you for assistance? They’ve said nothing to Ryan or I.”
Zak nodded. “They mentioned that they would be all right fending for themselves at this time. Rythna Oliver of Awel City HQ has offered to send a few of her Hunters to Leiaf, at your discretion.”
“I’ll speak with her regarding that in a while, but I think if any of the HQs send out Hunters or medics for relief, it should be you.” Ryan levelled Zak with a look. “You have the largest number of Hunters in Gwynt due to the coverage for Castle Town. If you have any Elites to spare, I suggest sending an Elite to head the team, and two Hunters as backup to Leiaf.”
Sadie set the tablet down on the table. “If I may suggest something, Ryan, Corwynt HQ also has three medics. We should send Lindsay Cadwallader with the relief effort. She’s our most experienced in both medical and battle; she’d lend a great hand.”
“I agree. Make sure that Lindsay goes as well, Zak.”
“You got it.”
Ryan nodded slowly. “Do we have anything else to add?”
“No, sir, I think that’s it. I will set up the relief team once the meeting is adjourned and send them with extra supplies.” Zak saluted Ryan, and the Elites that surrounded him mimicked the action. “I’ll stay here and organize a few more patrols. We need to study the pattern of the Shadow Beasts more closely while keeping the citizens safe.”
“Sounds good. This meeting is adjourned.” Ryan gave Zak a bow and a salute before turning around, walking out of the room with Sadie trailing behind him. He silently wondered if he made the right decision but said nothing out loud. It was already done. He would just have to hope that everything went well, and his Hunters returned home.”
“Are you worried about them?” Sadie inquired suddenly, breaking the brief silence. “The group of Hunters we’re sending to Leiaf, I mean.”
“Of course,” Ryan affirmed, nodding. “Anyone would be, after hearing the percentage increase of Shadow Beasts in Andal. I just… gotta keep telling myself that they’re travelling together, and they’ll have the rest of the Andal Hunters to support them along the way. They’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Sadie jumped as her D-Tech started flashing and chiming unexpectedly. Looking at the screen, she took a deep breath. “Oh, it’s Michael.” She hit the green ‘answer’ button, a hologram of Michael appearing above the screen. “What’s up?”
[i “Hey, sorry. I just got to Corwynt. I’ve been doing a bit of sightseeing since I don’t leave town often, so I’m sorry if you’ve been waiting on me.”]
The female laughed. “Actually, you caught us at a good time. We just got out of our meeting. Have you been able to reach Hazel yet?”
She saw Michael’s hologram shake his head. [i “No, not yet. I left her a voice message about an hour ago and let her know I was heading here, so she shouldn’t have a hard time finding us. I’ve stopped at a small café west of the open market if you want to meet me here. I don’t really know my way around town yet.”]
“You got it. We’re on our way now.” She closed out the call and glanced at Ryan. “Still no Hazel… Michael’s at the Rozen Maiden Café. Let’s go meet up with him.”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, okay. We can talk about what we learned yesterday and give him the warning about the Shadow Beasts.”
“Do you think we can get something to eat while we’re there?” Sadie asked hopefully. “We got talking about seafood earlier and I’m craving shellfish and ink noodles.”
[b [i Chapter 3] “Despair is a cruel companion. It robs you of everything; especially the choices that still lie within your control.” -Brownell Landrum]
“The number of Shadow Beasts has increased again, huh?” Michael inquired. “All across the six regions, too. That sounds awful. I remember Dad and Sir Taemin talking about the forest being ‘more unsafe’ than usual; this must have been what he was referring to.”
“Most likely. The forest has been rather cruel this season.” Sadie shrugged, twirling some ink noodles on a fork. “Between the Shadow Beasts, the regular monsters, and the increasing numbers of bandits, the Hunters in every region have been kept busy. Zakkeel Prowell, our deputy in Corwynt, has been monitoring the situation here.”
The redheaded male sighed. “Sounds rough. I don’t envy you two; I can say that much. You have a lot of hard decisions to make.”
“You got that right.” Ryan laughed. “Not many people do envy us, I presume.”
Michael was silent for a moment before saying “Can I ask you something, Ryan?”
“Hm?” He nodded. “Sure, go ahead.”
“Four years ago, Queen Kasara died in the woods outside of Castle Town. I know you’re young, but were you leader of the Hunters back then?”
Ryan nodded. “Yes, I was. My deputy before Sadie was the one who found Kasara – I had to bring her back. Why do you ask?”
“I didn’t know what killed her four years ago until earlier – Dad didn’t tell me to keep me from being upset.” He laughed darkly. “It’s not his fault – I can’t blame him. There’s just something I want to know. Where is the Lycanmorph that killed my mother?”
Sadie gasped. “Lycanmorph?”
“What?” Ryan questioned.
“Hey, sorry I’m late!”
Michael looked over at the sudden voice, snapped out of his dark stupor when he saw Hazel running towards them. He was relieved that she had finally shown up, the feeling overpowering his sadness and anger. Hazel looked winded and disheveled, but unharmed. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to show up; did you get my messages? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine, don’t worry.” Hazel grimaced at the sudden tension. “It seems a bit grim here – is everything okay with you?”
“It’s fine – nothing that can’t wait.” He glanced at Ryan, who nodded in understanding, and glanced back at Hazel. “What kept you?”
“Right.” She laughed. “About my tardiness… I apologize. I was looking into a hunch and lost track of time. I’d left my D-Tech at home and only listened to your voice message about twenty minutes ago. I’m sorry that I worried you all over nothing; I should’ve at least messaged you when I got back.”
“What were you looking into?” Ryan asked curiously. He massaged his temples to relieve the tension. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
“Ex-Shadow Sage Rau. I’ve felt an increased presence of shadow magic over the course of the week, but I haven’t seen him around. Other than the shadow magic surge, I haven’t sensed his specific magic signature, either.”
Sadie glanced up. “Earlier, the Deputy of the Corwynt Hunter HQ let us know that there has been an increase in the number of Shadow Beasts. Would the increased presence of shadow magic have anything to do with it?”
The blonde nodded. “That’s exactly what’s causing it. Before the end of the Old War, Shadow Beasts only showed up whenever Rau was in the area. They did not exist anywhere else, as regular magic wasn’t strong enough to sustain them. At the end of the war, when Rau was exiled from the Sages, he released the Shadow Beasts to the entire world before his powers were stripped from him. He said it was his ‘resolve to finish what he started’. If he plans to hold true to those words, the increasing number of Shadow Beasts are only the beginning.”
“So, it looks like he’s planning to strike sooner rather than later…” Ryan sighed. “I’ll have my Hunters report any further anomalies to me.”
“Thank you.” Hazel bowed.
“Also… I’ve decided that, regardless of how impossible all of this sounds, I accept it as the truth. Hazel, if you wouldn’t mind, please guide us.”
Hazel’s face visibly relaxed as Ryan spoke. “Thank you. I’m relieved that you believe me.” She pulled a thick book out of her satchel. “I’ll be honest; I don’t know everything about the Galaxian Gods. Creator Ma’qui couldn’t tell me everything he wanted before he sent me back here. I’ll tell you what I know; the rest we’ll have to find out through the lore and what we discover as we travel.” She opened the book, a small cloud of dust coming off the pages. “This book is from the era of the Sage’s War, which means it’s only written in Ancient Andalan. I will transcribe it for you.”
“No need; the page you opened to starts by explaining the role of the Moon God.” Sadie pointed to a moon-shaped rune on the page. “They possessed ice powers and created water as well as the Frozen Lake District.” Silence surrounded her, and she blinked. “What? My father had a massive library I’d hide in when avoiding meetings or lectures. I learned a lot of niche things when I was younger.”
Michael shrugged. “After that, it continues with the God of the Moon’s role in restoring Andal after they ended the chaos and bloodlust with the forced purge.” The silence continued. “Look, I was surprised that Sadie could read it, but I’m the next king of Andal. If I didn’t know the Ancient language by now, Dad would kill me. Half of the King’s Scriptures are written in the Ancient Language, and no one’s bothered to transcribe them.”
“You have a scribe,” Sadie complained. “What does she do if not transcribe old books and documents?”
The redheaded teenager shrugged. “I’m sure she has more important tasks to attend to. I’ll ask Dad though if you’re truly that curious.”
“Am I the only one here who can’t read Ancient Andalan?” Ryan crossed his arms, looking crestfallen. “Way to make me feel inadequate.”
Hazel rolled her eyes. “Like I said, I’ll transcribe it if I have to. Don’t worry about it; it’s not a common language anymore.”
“Look at it this way,” Sadie started. “To give you credit where it’s due, you’ve been a Hunter your whole life. You had little need to learn the Ancient Language.” Sadie shrugged. “I wouldn’t know it myself if not for my father’s terrible parenting skills. Anyway, Hazel, does that book have anything besides the history of the Galaxian Gods?”
“It mentions the shrines the Guardians erected for each of them, and the location.” Hazel flipped through the yellowed pages. “I scanned through the book earlier, and unfortunately, there’s only information about the Star God. The Fire God and the Moon God’s pages have been torn out or worn down due to age.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Of course they are. Why would it be easy? Where can we find the shrine for the Star God, then?”
“D’daear. It rests within the Red Mountains, beyond Old D’daear Castle Town. One of the monks in the area could likely help us find it.”
“D’daear?! That’s halfway across the damn world!” Michael threw his arms up. “Dad’s gonna love this. How do you go about saying ‘Hey Dad, I have to go halfway across the world to D’daear to hunt magical stones’ without the king demanding to know why?” He made a face. “I can see this going well. ‘Michael, you’re insane. I can’t let you go to D’daear!’ Yeah, I know I’m insane, but we’ll all die if I don’t go!”
The blonde laughed at Michael’s theatrics. “We’ll have to figure it out as we go. It’s more information than we had before, at least.” Hazel stood. “I don’t have anything more of interest right now. I’m going back to the Church of the Holy Mother to see if there’s anything else hidden there. Even if it’s just a rumor or a clue, we need more information on the other two shrines and if they’re still standing.”
Sadie nodded her understanding. “What should the three of us do in the meantime?”
“Well, Michael can scour the castle’s library for anything I won’t have public access to.” Hazel glanced at him. “Old letters, documents, books that might be falling apart… Grab whatever you think would be helpful.”
He nodded. “Right.”
“As for you two,” she started, pointing to Sadie and Ryan. “Just continue to monitor the frequency and strength of the Shadow Beasts. If it continues to worsen, just let me know and we’ll take action.”
“We’ll also start planning the trip to D’daear.” Ryan scrolled through a page on his D-Tech. “I’ll get in touch with Kalee Gustafsson of the D’daear Hunters and let her know we’ll be passing through.”
Michael glanced at the Hunters. “I know my royal bloodline grants me safe passage through any region, but how can you two go? Don’t you need to get a traveler’s pass from a Bishop beforehand?”
“Thankfully, we can avoid that headache.” Sadie held up her Hunter ID badge. “This is all we need. Thanks to King Mihail and a long-standing pact between the Andal Hunters Association, we work together and share information regarding threats and monsters. This also allows us access to any region without speaking to the Bishops prior. We often give the Leaders of each region a heads-up before we pass through, however, as a common courtesy, and thus, they return the favor.”
The young redhead nodded his understanding. “Makes sense. I’ll go back to the castle, then. I’ve got some reading to do, by the sounds of things.”
“I’ll send you guys a message when we need to meet next.” Hazel nodded to them. “See you later!”
When Hazel vanished, Ryan turned to Michael. “To answer your question, no, we never found the Lycanmorph. We know it’s claw signature, though, if that’ll help.”
“Perhaps it will.” Michael nodded. “If we run into it in our travels, we may just have to have a little talk.”
Michael was grateful the castle was quiet upon his return – other than being greeted at the doors per usual, he hadn’t been hounded by any of the maids or targeted by Liam, who surely would have asked him a thousand questions. He just had too much to focus on right now to play his father’s paranoid games. At least now I know why he’s so paranoid, Michael thought to himself. It didn’t make it any easier to deal with, however.
The echo of his footsteps as he made his way to the library was an unusual sound, but not unwelcome. It was getting late; most of the castle staff were either getting ready for the evening meal or had gone home for the day. It was likely just him, a few maids, the chefs, and the Kingsguard. He hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of the king since he’d returned; Tyryn had mentioned that Liam and Taemin – the head of the Kingsguard – had taken off for a meeting but wouldn’t clarify what it was about. It was strange, considering that Liam hadn’t mentioned a meeting to him before he left, but he shrugged it off all the same. If he hadn’t brought it up, it didn’t much matter.
Michael walked up to the doors of the library and tugged on them, surprised when he was suddenly met with resistance. The doors are locked. Dad never remembers to lock the library. His mind drifted to earlier, when the two of them were going over the finance reports. Liam must’ve left the reports sitting out in the open and locked the doors to keep prying eyes away. Time to go get the key, then.
With an annoyed sigh, Michael made his way to the King’s Quarters. Though he didn’t find himself in the King’s Quarters often, he was seldom met with resistance or questions about his presence. Getting the key would be easy.
As he made his way to the corridor leading to his father’s chambers, there was a series of family portraits hung along the wall. The first one was quite old and hand-painted; it was the portrait of King Mihail Sala, Queen Lavina Ungur-Sala, and their two children. The paint was beginning to peel due to time, but from a distance, the wear couldn’t be seen. The next portrait, still hand-painted, was of King Ravin Sala, Queen Taki, and their only son. The line of portraits continued through each change in leadership – somewhere in the middle, the portraits changed from paint to photo – until Michael’s eyes landed on the last one; King Liam, Queen Kasara, and himself. He was much older in the photo than the other portraited children; he’d learned from his father that he’d been quite the uncooperative toddler and wouldn’t stand still for a photograph. Michael chuckled a bit, knowing how much of a stink he’d have to had raised to force the photographer to wait until he was eleven.
Michael could feel his heart squeeze tightly in his chest as he glanced at Kasara. In the photo, she was smiling; one hand holding Liam’s and the other hand on Michael’s shoulder. Liam looked standard, much like the rest of the Gwynt kings. Michael looked agitated, as if he was just waiting for it to be over. He probably was – he couldn’t remember. He knew he could be a jerk.
The redhead walked away quickly, throwing the doors to the King’s Quarters open to avoid any more depressing thoughts. The office space that laid before the chambers was immaculately kept; all pens were kept in a handmade mug on the righthand side of Liam’s desk, and papers that hadn’t been tended to have been placed right next to the cup. Papers that had been tended to have been stacked neatly on the left-hand side, ready to be filed into their appropriate locations. The trash bin on the floor was near empty; there was only a solitary crumpled paper occupying the space.
On one side of the room sat a small bookshelf, filled with research books and files he wanted to keep with him. A few pictures hung on the too-white walls; one of Kasara and Liam on their wedding day, one of Liam and Michael, and a photo of the three of them that had been taken shortly after Michael’s birth. Those aside, the walls were completely bare; the office looked like it was barely used.
The redhead brushed by everything to get to Liam’s desk and opened the top drawer. The space only held a few small trinkets and handful of keys, which Michael grabbed to inspect. After confidently picking the correct key, he made his way out of the King’s Quarters and shuffled back over to the library, unlocking the door, and letting himself in. He thought about leaving the doors unlocked, as he was now occupying the space, but decided to lock himself in. His father had locked the doors for a reason, after all, and Michael didn’t want to bother finding a hiding spot for the finance reports.
Michael was always shocked at how large the library was. The shelves were fourteen feet high with mobile ladders attached to them, and they spanned endlessly throughout the enormous room. The ceiling was finished with a beautiful, stained glass portrait of a king and a queen. Perhaps the couple in the portrait were the first king and queen of Gwynt. He remembered asking Kasara when he was a child, though she hadn’t known the answer.
The redhead seldom occupied the library on his own, or for an extended period. He normally frequented the space when he attended a meeting with his father or the Kingsguard, or when he did research for school projects. The solitude was freeing; he was surrounded by thousands of years of knowledge, and it was all at his fingertips. But first…
Michael felt himself move automatically towards a small door at the back of the library – the door was labeled “Archive Room” with an old copper plate. He had never formally been barred from entering the room, but his father had denied him access many times in the past, making excuses or promising him that he would show him the room another time. With the doors to the library locked – and Michael in possession of the only set of keys – his curiosity got the best of him and he placed his hand on the doorknob. His gut twisted in anticipation and anxiety; he feared being caught even though the King was not in the castle. Likely, this would be the only opportunity he’d get to look around without prying eyes. Glancing over his shoulder to be positive that no one was watching, he opened the door to the Archive Room and quickly closed himself in.
With a yawn, Michael glanced at his D-Tech to look at the time. Though it’d felt like ages, only two hours had passed since he’d entered the library. Despite his total solitude, he hadn’t stayed in the archive room for long; he only bothered to look for files that seemed relevant to what Hazel had spoken with them about before leaving the room, settling into a secluded corner of the library. He had managed to find various books on Andalan lore that he was sure Hazel and Sadie wouldn’t be able to find; they were stacked neatly next to him on the floor. The redhead was currently scanning a file he’d found in the archive room, reading details on the Sage’s War that his father hadn’t shared with him. Michael couldn’t bother to be upset; perhaps Liam didn’t even know, or perhaps he just didn’t find them relevant to the current state of Andal. Regardless, he couldn’t deny that Hazel would find them useful.
“Without the Light of the new Dawn, Shadows will fill the corners of the World…”
[i Does the Light refer to Hazel?] Michael pondered, scanning the document. [i Is it King Mihail or Queen Lavina? I’m certain Shadow is referring to Sage Rau, but it’s so vague… Sage Rau was exiled, and King Mihail and Hazel won the Sage’s War. What could he gain from coming back?] He traced the cryptic prophecy, written in Ancient Andalan, with his finger. [i What could the new Dawn represent? Is that what the Light brought, or is this prophecy what Hazel is here to help us fulfil?]
Before the redhead could ponder the thought further, he was disturbed by a loud crashing from the other side of the library doors. [i What the hell… That sounded like glass… What’s going on out there?] Michael crept closer to the doors and pressed his ear to the wood, surprised to hear muffled shouting and crashing from beyond the barrier. Though he desperately wanted to throw the doors open and demand answers, the intelligent part of his brain told him to stay silent and hide until he figured out what was happening.
Thinking on his feet, he bolted back towards the Archive Room and closed the door, locking it from the inside. He slumped against the door and pressed his weight against the surface for further protection. Lifting his wrist, he pushed a few buttons on his D-Tech and hit his father’s name. Come on, pick up…
“Michael!!!” When Liam answered, his hologram looked both relieved and terrified. “Where are you?!”
“That doesn’t matter; I’m fine!” Michael hissed. “What the hell is going on in the corridor? Where are you?”
Liam’s hologram shook his head furiously. “Now is not the time to be stubborn, Michael. Don’t argue with me; I’ll try to answer questions later. Stay where you are, and stay hidden, is that clear?”
The redhead’s eyes widened. “What?! You can’t just say something like that and expect me to stay put! What the hell is going on??”
“The castle and Castle Town are under attack; that’s all I know right now. Stay where you are; I mean it.”
“Wait! Dad, I can-” Liam had hung up on him before Michael could argue further, leaving Michael wanting to scream in frustration. [i I can’t just sit here while we’re under attack and wait for another parent to die… I must do something…] Michael’s hand brushed against the hilt of his sword, and he grinned. He wasn’t the best fighter, but he’d be able to put some of his skills to the test, at least.
Leaving his research behind, Michael all but kicked the door to the Archive Room open. The library doors were still secure, but he could hear banging on the other side. Whoever was on the other side of the doors was actively trying to get inside, and Michael would be ready. I’ll just throw them a surprise party… Hiding behind the righthand door, he undid the lock and watched the left door swing open violently. Before him was a man dressed in dark clothing, but he didn’t look human. His eyes were glowing red, but the rest of his face was covered in a bone-white mask with two red swirls coming out of the eye holes. He was cloaked, and the hood was covering most of his head. [i Is… Is that a Shadow Beast? It doesn’t… look like any Shadow Beast I’ve ever seen…] The redhead shook his head vigorously. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on it.
While the hooded figure was scouring the half of the library Michael wasn’t in, Michael drew his sword and lunged at the creature, sticking the blade through the beast’s head. The mask on the creature’s face fell off and hit the floor, dissipating into the ether as it connected with the stone structure. For a moment, glowing red blood poured from the wound, but the creature began to crumble into black dust before it disappeared completely, confirming Michael’s theory. [i So, he was a Shadow Beast after all… If that’s true, then…] He snapped his head towards the corridor. It was one of The Forsaken from the Lore… He needed to find his father.
Michael didn’t spare the fallen bodies a second glance as he ran swiftly through the corridors of the castle. It felt as if he was never going to get where he was going; the hallways were stretching on forever. The world was going to crumble around him before he could do anything about it.
He wordlessly slashed through a few more of The Forsaken as he continued down the corridor, the grip on his sword tightening with each passing second. As he reached the King’s Quarters, he grabbed the handles and threw the doors open, the wooden panels opening with ease. “Dad!”
“Michael?!” The voice before him, filled with pain, struck him with surprise and anger. “I told you to-” Liam grunted as he threw a Shadow Warg off his back. “I told you to stay where you were!”
“You’re stupid if-” The redhead could barely finish forming his response; before him, a human in onyx-colored armor was approaching. Shadow Beasts of varying sizes surrounded him, as if they were guarding him. The curve of the sword the mysterious man held looked familiar, but Michael couldn’t pinpoint why. After a moment of thinking, he shook his head. He didn’t have time to waste. “I can’t stay put while my town and my home are under attack! I can’t lose you like I lost Mom!”
From behind, a Shadow Warg charged at him. Michael heard the clicking of claws in time to jump away, avoiding a full blow, but he felt claws rip into his shoulder. “Dammit!”
“No! Michael!” Liam roared as he swiped at the Shadow Warg, causing the beast to dissipate into shadows. He ran over to Michael the instant the beast disappeared, glancing at the wound. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine…” Michael looked up to his father, his eyes widening as he saw a shadow loom closer. When his eyes adjusted, he screamed “Dad, look out!”
“Sadie, I have good news.” Ryan plopped into his desk chair, reading a message on his D-Tech. “Zak just informed me that the relief party has safely crossed the Gwynt-Danau Desert, and are taking a short break at the Danau Castle Town HQ before pushing on any further. No injuries or casualties.”
“That is good to hear.” Sadie filed through a few papers on her desk. “Prir has officially revoked their call for help; I guess they’ve managed to whittle the numbers down enough to manage on their own. I’m honestly more worried about Leiaf anyway. They’re such a small, scarcely-populated region.”
“Don’t forget that Leiaf also has the Boar Clan, who have been the protectors of that region since the dawn of time itself. Keenan Boar-al is still the leader in that area, and the beta and lead omega of the Boar Clan are her deputies. Keenan is likely asking for help to play it safe, but the other members of the Boar Clan will help if it gets too dangerous.”
The redhead shrugged. “That’s true, I suppose.”
Ryan kicked his chair away from his desk and yawned, stretching his arms and legs. “Maybe it’s time we head for home. I’m getting tired.”
“Fine with me.” Sadie rose from her chair, cracking her back. “We could always do some hunting on the way back. We should start studying the patterns of the Shadow Beasts more closely, anyway.”
Unfolding his scythe, Ryan grinned. “That’s also a good idea. I’m never too tired to kill Shadow Beasts.”
The female Hunter pressed herself into the wall, distancing herself from the blade as it inched closer to her face. “Watch it. Our office isn’t big enough for you to be pulling that thing out in here.”
“Imagine if one of the Hunters heard that out of context.”
“Ryan!” Sadie shoved past the brunet and exited the building. She heard Ryan following behind her, laughing. She couldn’t help but join him. “You’re an idiot.”
“That may be, but I’m an idiot with a charming personality and good looks.” The brunet winked. “On a more serious note, we should consider taking Michael hunting sometime soon. He needs to get used to fighting someone more serious than a trainer in the Kingsguard or his father. They probably go too easy on him.”
Sadie nodded. “That’s a good idea in the long term, but what if he gets hurt or we get him killed? How do we explain that to the king? ‘Yes, your Majesty, well… We were giving your son tactics training and a pack of Shadow Wargs blindsided him. He’s still alive, but we can’t find his arm.’ That’d go over well.”
“It’s not like we plan on bringing him out here the first time, Sadie. We’ll train him in the bunker first.” Ryan rolled his eyes. “I’m sure if we made something up, like wanting to give Michael extra self-defense training due to the increased number of Shadow Beasts so close to Castle Town, King Liam would understand and grant us permission. It’s not like it’d be a complete lie anyway.”
“I guess that’s fair. Even my father wanted me to know basic self-defense. I’ll give Michael a call in the morning and set up an appointment to speak with King Liam.” Once the pair crossed the line from Corwynt City to the darkness of the forest, Sadie pulled out her saber daggers. Let’s make this a bit of a contest, shall we? Like we used to.”
Ryan nodded, uncharacteristically excited. “Winner is whoever kills the most Shadow Beasts. Whoever loses must clean out the men’s dorm in the HQ building, and that includes the bathroom.”
“That’s gross.” The redhead winced. “I can’t lose, then.”
It was well beyond Moonrise when the two Hunters arrived home. The late-night air had chilled significantly, though the couple had barely noticed as they’d fought their way through the forest. Now, covered in sweat and grime, they could feel the drop in temperature as they reached the door. “Taflen is definitely here,” Ryan remarked as Sadie unlocked the door. “Which means Iâ is not far behind. Night Foxes will start to cast ice spells again.”
“We’ll deal with them like we do every year.” Sadie opened the door, only to be greeted enthusiastically by a small creature. “Hey there Arian!” The redhead picked the ferret up, allowing it to rest on her shoulder. “Did you miss us today?”
Arian made a happy squeak, nibbling gently on Sadie’s ear.
Ryan just chuckled softly, cutting through the main area swiftly and entering the bedroom. He took his utility belt off and tossed it aside. “He napped with us earlier when we came home for lunch; he can’t miss us that badly.”
“He misses me more than you.” Sadie chuckled as she placed Arian in his cage. “Anyway, which one of us is burdened with the task of telling Zak he gets to clean the men’s dorm and bathroom this week?”
“I’ll do it. I proposed what would happen to who won and who lost.” The brunet shrugged. “I didn’t expect us to come up even; I can’t beat you anymore. Neither of us want to do it, and what’s great about being the leader is I can do what I want.” He flopped down on their bed, not caring that he was still fully clothed.
“Ryan…” Sadie rolled her eyes. “Come on, now. At least wash up before you pass out like an old man.” The redhead took her utility belt off, setting it on the bedside table. As she was taking her D-Tech off, it flashed. “Hm?” Glancing at the screen, she was surprised to see Zak’s name come up. “He’s not asleep already?” Nonetheless, with a sudden pit of anxiety in her stomach, she pressed the answer key. “Evening, this is Sadie.”
“Sadie! Ryan! Thank Ma’qui you’re awake!” Zak’s projected image looked horrified. “We need your help ASAP! We have a Code Black in Castle Town! I’ve already dispatched the Elite Squad to begin rescuing civilians, but they’ve already begun reporting casualties. We need you two as soon as you can get here!”
Ryan was instantly awake and alert, grabbing his discarded belt off the floor. “We’re on our way. Get another squad with a medic out to Castle Town right now; we’ll meet you there. Be safe.”
“Yes, sir!” The call ended immediately.
Sadie’s heart pounded in her ears. Castle Town was under attack so soon? That meant Hazel was right, but also meant… “Michael.” She grabbed her own belt and re-attached it to her waist. She barely spared a thought as she put her daggers in their holsters and made her way towards the door. “Let’s go.”
“Right.” They only spared a moment to glance at each other before running in the direction of Castle Town. Through the darkness of Moonrise, only rising embers could be seen from beyond the town walls. Ryan didn’t know what was going on beyond the gates, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to find out.
“One should… be able to see things as hopeless, and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald]
Hazel had hoped that it wouldn’t start like this but knew the serenity that surrounded her wasn’t meant to last. Just like the Sage’s War, the fragile ‘peace’ that ordinary citizens knew was broken in a matter of moments, and she was again bathed in flame and chaos.
Throwing Ma’qui’s book in her satchel, she placed the bag on her shoulder and began to run through the streets of Castle Town. Though the town had been modernized since the Sage’s War, if she closed her eyes she could see the bodies of tyrant King Razvan’s Kingsguard laying before her. Only this time, it wasn’t King Liam’s doing.
It was Rau’s doing. Again.
[i I need to get to Michael…] Hazel could barely see past the billowing smoke and packs of Shadow Beasts as she blazed her way through Castle Town. She cut through the Shadow Wargs easily with magic vines, looking for any signs of the wayward prince on the streets. Even finding King Liam would relax her slightly; Liam would be able to guide her to Michael easily. Through the chaos of the fighting, the blonde could hear the Hunters filing in, standing alongside capable citizens with weapons of their own. She frowned; they were grossly outnumbered. Shadow Beasts, especially Night Foxes, could multiply in the presence of strong shadow magic, whereas humans could not. Hazel shook the thoughts from her head. She had to focus on finding Michael.
The castle was looking more like the ruins of L’Brour Mansion as the seconds passed – one of the guard towers was alight with flame, and another had collapsed. There were bodies of slain Guardsmen scattered through the once-beautiful courtyard, their blood staining the grass and the stone pathways. The dust and broken armor plates of Shadow Wargs and Night Foxes lay on the ground as well, proving that, at the very least, the dead guards’ efforts had not been entirely one-sided.
“Lord Ma’qui, accept the souls of these fallen men and allow them to rest forevermore.” The blonde stopped momentarily to chant the prayer, the crackling of fire and the roar of Shadow Beasts in the distance being all she could hear.
Most of the doors in the castle had been forced open, the wood carelessly tossed aside and broken. The once-beautiful architecture was slowly burning down, and Hazel winced. Much of the castle remained the same from King Mihail’s rule – history itself was being erased with this attack. It would not be easy to recover.
Fortunately, as Hazel carefully navigated the corridor, there weren’t many Shadow Beasts within the castle; many of them had been reduced to shadows or broken armor plates by the brave Hunters and Kingsguard. A few Forsaken and Night Foxes prowled through the castle ruins; the small Sage sliced through them easily in favor of passing through quickly. They had been leading her to the one place Hazel had hoped they wouldn’t reach – the King’s Quarters.
Without looking at the mangled wooden doors, the stench of blood and shadows that emitted from the room was overpowering and told her all she needed to know. If Hazel wasn’t bound by duty and determined to see it through, she’d have turned tail and fled, but Michael had to make it out alive, even if she didn’t. She’d see to it. Michael was one of Andal’s only hopes for the future. She cautiously turned the corner and gasped softly. Near the door lay the body of Liam Sala – she could tell that he was still alive, but with how much blood he was losing, and the severity of his chest wound, he wasn’t fated to last much longer. The shallow breaths he took proved him unconscious. At least, when he passed, he would not feel it. She sent a silent prayer for the fallen King. Ma’qui, at least, would grant him mercy.
Glancing around the room, she saw Michael towards the very back, blocking blows with his sword that were being dealt by a man in armor. She was certain that the armored man was not Rau, but he was dangerous. She had to interfere.
“Hey!” Hazel raised an arm, sending a bolt of lightning towards the armor-clad man. It knocked him off-balance, giving Michael a chance to compose himself. “Leave him alone; I’ll be your opponent!”
“Hazel, don’t!” Michael desperately flicked his gaze between her and the king – he was clearly still processing everything that was happening. “Dad… he didn’t stand a chance. You need to go!”
The blonde shook her head. “I can’t, Michael. You need to get out of here.” As the man in armor started to get up, she summoned a vine and gripped at a piece of his armor. “You need to find Sadie and Ryan, quickly! I can hold him off, but I don’t know how much time I have here, so get out!”
“Go!” she hissed. Her grip was loosening quickly – though he wasn’t Rau, he was borrowing Rau’s power. He was a servant, at the very least. “Listen – I don’t play a part in restoring the peace to Andal, you do! If I die here, then so be it! I did my part! It is your fate to survive! Now get going!”
“Fate is just an excuse! We can change this!” Michael had a few tears falling down his face as he echoed his father’s words. “I can save-”
“Get going! Now!” With her free hand, she shot a ball of fire at Michael’s feet. In surprise, the redhead jumped, running towards the door. Before he made it too far, she tore the satchel off her shoulder, tossing it toward Liam’s body. Hopefully, Michael would understand the message.
Michael froze at the doorway, kneeling at Liam’s body. His chest had stopped moving; he had died. “I’m… I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Dad… Tell Mom I’m sorry you had to die, too… I… I love you…” In one swift motion, he took the sword off Liam’s belt and the satchel off the floor before running out of the door.
[i Fate… What a cruel word. Maybe it is just an excuse, but still…] Hazel waited for the boy’s ginger hair to disappear beyond the door before turning back to the enemy. “What business have you here?”
“You know what business we have here, Hazel L’Brour.” His voice was deep, but young. Who had Rau found to host his magic? “Unless all of those years asleep made you senile. Did your precious Lord Ma’qui not tell you everything?” He used his sword to cut through the vine that held him.
“Your Rau’s new puppet, I take it.” She breathed deeply and summoned vines from the ground. “He’s trying so hard to come back from exile that he’s using humans to harbor his forbidden magic. How young is the body you stole?”
He chuckled. “He is not a child, but barely. This boy has a lot of hatred in his heart; he was perfect. Once Rau has returned, his magic will be stronger than ever, thanks to this boy. Now, enough talk.” He held his sword out. “Let’s see what you can do.”
“This will be an interesting battle, then.” The Sage’s eyes began to glow a bright green. “My first in several hundred years, no less.”
“Indeed. Too bad you won’t be around to see me destroy the God’s reincarnations.”
“We’ll just see about that!”
“Sir, we’re approaching Castle Town! How should we proceed?”
“Open the gate with caution, Zak.” Ryan nodded to him. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us.”
Zak nodded. “Yes sir.” He turned to the group of Hunters. “Be prepared for an ambush in three! Open the gates!”
As the gate to Castle Town was opened, Sadie could barely contain her shock at the sight. Gone was the vision of the city she had grown up in as a child – the city full of lights, laughter, wonderful smelling food, and cheerful people. The town before her was one of ash, despair, and lost hope. The stone streets were scorched by fire and stained with blood, and the skies filled with smoke and flying embers. She didn’t have much time to dwell on it as a Shadow Warg came at her; she tossed one of her daggers into its skull with practiced ease. The great beast let out a deafening cry as it fell, crumbling into shadows and dust. “Ryan! Battle plan!”
“Right. The Elite Squad that Zak sent here has filed into Sector One – the Castle sector – to secure the King and the Prince.” Ryan pulled out his scythe. “Zak, I need you to split your squad between sectors two and three – the Residential district. I’m not concerned with the Business district right now; our priority is the safety of King Liam, Prince Michael, and the citizens of Castle Town. This in mind, casualties will be reported, but we must reduce them as much as we can. Sadie and I will split up – I will support whichever squad of Zak’s that he is not leading, and Sadie will meet up with the squad at Sector One and support their efforts. Check in frequently and report all injuries and casualties as you become aware of them.”
“Yes, sir!” Zak saluted, the Hunters behind him following suit. “I will head the squad at Sector Three. The emergency signal at HQ was activated moments before I called you, and backup at HQ will be on standby if we need more Hunters. All the other Deputies in Gwynt have been notified, as well as the other Leaders in Andal. They expect to be kept updated.”
Ryan nodded. “Excellent. Move out! For Andal!” The Hunter squad broke apart, filing quickly into the Residential district. He turned to Sadie and took a deep breath. “Sadie, we don’t know what’s going on, but I need you to secure Michael and bring him back to Corwynt. I haven’t heard from Hazel… I hope she’s all right… Just ensure Michael’s safety.”
Sadie nodded. “Understood. I’ll be back.” She retrieved her dagger from the fallen Shadow Warg’s broken armor plate, preparing to take off, when she was stopped by Ryan grabbing her hand. “Is something wrong?”
“Be safe.” His eyes flashed with uncertain emotion. “Please.”
Sadie blinked. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best, Ryan.” She squeezed his hand tightly, staying still for a moment before running off into the embers. She felt awful for not being able to reassure him, but she knew he’d understand. There was no certainty in a Hunter’s life. They would live, or they would die. There would be nothing in between.
The redhead ran carefully, the once-neat brick road being broken in several spots due to the carnage. Jumping over potholes, she sent a prayer to Ma’qui that this battle would end quickly. The bodies of civilians and Hunters were beginning to pile up – they had tried their best, but it just hadn’t been enough. She was grateful, at least, that there were signs of a fight as she passed by. Their lives weren’t wasted. Her Hunters were doing everything they could, and it made Sadie proud.
Though she hadn’t had to fight but the one Shadow Warg since entering Castle Town, she knew her luck was about to end. The cry of a Night Fox confirmed her thoughts, the cry being cut off by a dagger to the throat. It made a distorted garbling sound before disappearing into dust, the plate making a ‘clack’ sound as it hit the ground, chipping as it did so. The howl of a Shadow Warg in the distance kept her alert, and she picked up her dagger, replacing it in its holster and continuing her forward motion.
The Hunter abandoned her bracelet and started firing ice spells at the attacking Shadow Wargs and Night Foxes. The bracelet was a simple copper band with a symbol carved in the center – a diamond with a circle inside, with four smaller diamonds surrounding the bigger one. The purpose of the band was to lock her magic away; at this point, it served no purpose. Her magic would me more helpful than harmful.
Her favorite type of magic had always been ice; she wasn’t sure why, but it felt natural to feel the faint stinging of cold in her fingers as she casted an ice spell. When Sadie casted, her green eyes shifted to an ice-blue color – a sharp, but pleasant, change. Ice magic was pleasantly discreet; seldom did her enemies notice when their backs were turned that an ice spell had been cast; when they did, it was far too late for them to run. Though it would have been far more conspicuous to continue to use her daggers, it was quicker to use her magic. She had no time to lose. Michael, and possibly the King, needed her.
The last of the nearby beasts fell and Sadie paused for a moment to catch her breath. Turning around to assess the situation, she frowned. Though the bodies of the Shadow Beasts were long gone, and the traces of ice melted away, she felt like she’d barely made a dent. Still, at least it was something.
She felt a surge of relief, however, as she approached the castle gates and saw bodies – moving bodies – of a few Elite Hunters. “Ita!” she shouted as the female finished off a Werebear. “What’s the status?”
Breathing heavily, she said “Gregor is down.” Ita kept a straight face, but her thickly accented voice – showing her Eiran roots – betrayed her sadness. “I have not heard news of his death – Kirstin is with him now – but it did not look good when she began assessing his condition. Sansu stayed behind at HQ to assist with any returning injured. We lost Naruu to one of the Forsaken.”
“There are Forsaken here?” Sadie felt her heart drop. “That could only mean…” [i If Hazel was right, Rau’s magic is near… The Forsaken can only form in the presence of a large amount of shadow magic…] She shook her head. “Move Naruu’s body to a safe location and continue to monitor this area, okay? Keep it clear. Zak is in Sector Three and Ryan is in Sector Two. They’re working on damage control and evacuation to the other cities in Gwynt. Who else was in your squad with you?”
“I’m the only one out here now. Gregor, Naruu, Kirstin, and Orin were in my squad.” Ita took a moment to think. “Isabelle went to Prir to assist with the Shadow Beast relief. Keegan, Teslin, and Lanis stormed the castle to secure the Prince, King, and the castle staff. Orin saw you coming and went inside to back them up.”
“Understood. I’ll send someone back out here to help you guard the courtyard. We’ll get through this for the King and the good of Andal!” Sadie saluted to Ita, the other redhead returning the gesture. She then ran into the castle courtyard, grateful that all was quiet on this end. Though it was littered with the bodies of fallen Kingsguard and Shadow Beast armor, there were no battles taking part. Getting inside would be easy.
Getting to Michael, on the other hand, wouldn’t be.
Ryan effortlessly slashed through a Forsaken and a Night Fox as they charged at him, allowing him to safely un-corner a family of three. He’d almost passed the house, seeing the extensive damage on the outside, until he heard a loud scream from within. “Come on now,” he urged firmly, yet gently. “It’s not safe here. We need to get moving.” He held out his hand to them. “The Hunters will take you somewhere safer.”
There was a small girl with the family who looked up at him with tears in her eyes. Without thinking, she wrapped him in a quick, meaningful hug before letting go, rushing back to her parents. The two before him looked just as grateful.
“Rosa,” he shouted, ushering him out of the house and into the safe hands of the female Hunter. “Get these ones in with Rowan’s group. There should be enough for him to make another run to the town gates. Get them to Corwynt as quickly as possible and return back here at once, understood?”
“Yes, sir!” Rosa nodded and smiled at the family. “Come now. It’s safe where we’re going, I promise.”
[i It’s easy to make those promises, but can you keep them?] He shook his head at her thoughtless optimism and exited the broken-down home. His sector was nearly clear – there had been more casualties than they’d anticipated, but he hadn’t had the time to mourn for them. He reported the casualties to HQ for damage control and carried on – there were living humans that still needed his help. [i I hope Sadie’s having luck finding Michael at the castle…] He knew she was likely having a harder time than he was, but he wanted to hold onto that shred of hope.
It was all they had right now.
Sector Two was broken and empty; a burning ruin of what was once a beautiful part of town. Flower beds trampled, houses on fire, bodies littering the streets… Was this what the Old War was like all those years ago? Back then, the citizens of Gwynt didn’t have the Hunters Association. All they had were themselves.
It was truly a terrifying thought.
Ryan released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding when he approached Sector Three and saw Zak shoot down a small Werebear. “Zak!” he shouted. “How is it looking over here? Sector Two is clear.”
“This appears to be the last Shadow Beast,” he replied, watching the Werebear disappear into the ether. Zak lowered his gun – a beautiful pewter-colored pistol – but did not holster it. “Sector Three is clear of all living civilians. I sent the survivors off with Marcas’ group and they’re heading for Corwynt. They won’t all be able to stay there, but we’ll split the refugees between the cities of Gwynt. The other Deputies are aware of this.”
Ryan nodded. “That’s what I was thinking. Gather the Hunters that remain between Sectors Two and Three and continue to search the city for any remaining stragglers. I’m going to head for the castle to see if Sadie and the Elites need any assistance.” He placed his scythe on his back holster. “Call me if anything comes up, and if you get overwhelmed, inform me of your position and [i move out immediately.] Is that clear?”
Zak looked shocked – almost offended – and shifted his feet. “Ryan… With all due respect, we can’t just leave you and Sadie to-”
“Deputy Prowell, that was a direct order.”
The blond opened his mouth to continue his argument but lowered his head. He knew the effort was fruitless. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
Ryan’s face softened slightly. “Thank you. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I get it.” Zak nodded. “Stay safe, Ryan. We’ll see you back at base. Make it a promise.”
“I’ll do my best.” He nodded to Zak before running in the direction of the castle. [i I’m on my way, Sadie. Just hang on.]
The entire castle reeked of magic and death. Sadie was forced to take shallow breaths as she ran through the bloodstained halls – it was the least she could manage to keep her anxiety at bay. She was able to feel Hazel’s magic, as well as the strong shadow magic of another person, but they had disappeared moments ago. Try as she might, she wouldn’t be able to find the two of them now.
As she passed quickly through the corridors, she only had to defend herself from one Forsaken and a few stray Shadow Wargs. As the stronger shadow magic began to fade, the Forsaken had retreated. Sadie held her breath instinctively as she neared the King’s Quarters; the once-beautiful portraits that lined the hall were stained with blood and partially shredded. If it looked like this out here…
Sadie wasn’t sure she was ready to turn her head, but knew she had no choice.
In front of the doors to the King’s Quarters stood Lanis, the last Elite Hunter remaining in the castle. As she had encountered the others, she had ordered them to head outside with the survivors. She was confident she would be able to find King Liam and Michael on her own. “Lanis!” she shouted. “Lanis, it’s Sadie! Are you all right!”
“Sadie?” The brunette female, who was normally strong and full of life, sounded small and lifeless. As she turned around, her eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears. “Sadie… It’s… It’s the King. He’s…”
“…dead…” Sadie had been afraid of the worst, and the words slapped her in the face. Still, she kept a strong front. Lanis needed her. “Is the Prince in there? Have you seen him since you’ve been inside?”
Lanis shook her head furiously. She crossed her arms across her chest. “There’s only one other person in here, but they’re too small to be the Prince. He must’ve gotten away, or I pray that he did. King Liam… His Majesty… Our great leader…”
“Lanis, please. It will be all right eventually.” Sadie walked up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t-”
“How is anything all right?!” The brunette all but shouted, forcefully removing Sadie’s hand. “The King is dead, and the Prince is missing! Gwynt Kingdom is burning! What are we supposed to do?!”
Sadie took a deep breath. “Calm down, Lanis. I understand there’s a lot happening, but panicking will not help.”
She looked away, her face turning red. “I’m… I’m so sorry ma’am… I have… no idea what came over me.”
“It’s all right.” She gently began to lead her down the corridor. “Head outside and meet up with the others, understand? Kirstin is outside – I strongly recommend you check in with her. I’ll finish things up in here.”
She nodded. “Understood, ma’am.” Lanis turned around to walk down the corridor, stopping only as she heard the rushing of footsteps. Looking up, she saw a form coming closer and instantly grabbed her bow, preparing an arrow. “Unknown spotted.”
“Wait!” Sadie stepped in front of the brunette, blocking her weapon. “Look closely, Lanis. It’s Ryan!”
Ryan looked relieved as he approached the two females. “It’s good to see the pair of you in decent health.”
“You as well, sir.” Lanis lowered her bow, placing the unused arrow back in her quiver. After wiping the tears off her face, she said “I apologize for drawing my weapon on you.”
“No harm done – a Hunter should always be prepared.”
“Right. I’ll go meet up with Kirstin now. Excuse me.”
Once the Elite disappeared, Sadie released the breath she held. “What’s the situation outside?”
The brunet frowned, furrowing his brow. “Not good. We have confirmed twenty-six civilian deaths and fifteen civilian injuries. We saved a lot of them – the refugees are being split between the major cities of Gwynt as we speak. Zak and the rest of the Hunters are sweeping the unchecked Sectors for any stragglers and to finish the body count.”
“Got it.” She shook her head. “Twenty-six. And that’s only so far…”
“I also found this.” Ryan held out Sadie’s abandoned bracelet, now mangled and useless. “Secrecy was no longer an issue?”
“Not at this point. Saving Michael was more important.”
Ryan nodded. “Understandable. Regarding that, what’s the status here? Have you found Michael yet?”
“No, I haven’t seen him. He’s still here; I can feel his presence. He’s still alive.” Sadie glanced down at the door to the King’s Quarters, her eyes filling with sadness. “According to Lanis, the King is dead… I… I haven’t been inside yet to confirm it for myself. I was waiting for Lanis to go outside. She would’ve followed me in there without question, and I don’t want her to have to see it again. She’s already going through so much; it likely would’ve broken her apart and that’s the last thing we need right now.
“That’s fair.” Ryan bowed his head. “If the King really is dead, Michael must know. That must be why he’s still here.” The brunet unsheathed his scythe and started towards the King’s Quarters. “We should go in, then. We need to confirm King Liam’s death, and then we’ll make a statement when we get Michael back safely.”
Sadie nodded but said nothing further. She followed Ryan into the dark room, lighting a small flame in her hand to light the way. Instantly, the coppery smell of blood flooded her nose, dizzying her. The scent and sight, under normal circumstances, would not have affected her, but the shock of seeing King Liam, eyes half-lidded with a gash in his chest… The sight of a small blonde girl, face first on the marble floor in a pool of her own blood… The sounds of fire crackling outside, the screams of the Shadow Beasts fading to a ring in her ears…
She hadn’t realized she was falling until Ryan wrapped his arm around her. She barely registered anything at all. She could barely feel herself hover, weightless, in the air that surrounded her. The Kingdom was on fire. King Liam was dead. Michael was missing. Hazel, their guide, had died trying to protect Michael. They were alone. Completely alone.
“Please, answer me!”
Sadie couldn’t understand why she was still so dizzy, or why she felt like she was on fire. Was she burning too? Would she leave Michael and Ryan alone, just as Hazel and Liam had done? Would she fail Hazel so soon? Had she died for nothing?
“Sadie, take a deep breath.”
When had she stopped breathing? Is that why she was still dizzy? There were bits of clarity trying to creep back into her brain, and Ryan’s voice had finally reached her. Following his instructions, she started to regulate her breaths. It had taken her a few tries – she had messed up her breaths with his counts and had to start over – but she finally had a grip on herself again. “I’m sorry.”
Ryan shook his head as the redhead leaned into him. “Don’t be. It’s… not a pretty sight. And… it’s been a long time since you’ve had an attack like that.” He helped Sadie stand up and made sure she was steady before letting go. “Can you light it back up in here?”
“Yeah, sure.” She re-lit the flame in her hand, and the haunting images returned. Though she was prepared for it this time, it didn’t make re-living it any less painful. “Whoever was here got Hazel, too.”
“It doesn’t look like she made it easy for them, though. This place is destroyed. Who do you think she fought?”
“I don’t quite know. It’s a strong shadow presence, but… it doesn’t feel stable enough to be a former Sage. And Hazel said she hadn’t felt his magic signature… Perhaps he isn’t strong enough yet to forge an attack on his own and is using a puppet as he re-gains strength.”
Sadie nodded. “Strong magic users in the past, according to the lore, could find extraordinary humans and rewrite their souls using their own signature magic.”
“Damn. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough, then.” Ryan sighed. “We shouldn’t stay here. We need to get Michael and head back to Corwynt.”
Michael felt small and useless, cowering in the archive room as he listened to his city crumble. He clutched his head as he listened to the castle turn into piles of rubble. As he recalled Hazel fighting for him to get away. As his father literally bled out in the King’s Quarters. He had no idea what was going on beyond the door. He couldn’t hear anything anymore, beyond the silent destruction. What lie beyond the door? He wanted to move, to scream, to do anything, but he couldn’t.
The room was beginning to feel small as he hid, the darkness swallowing him. He needed to get out. Was it clear? Would he make it? Hazel was hell-bent on him escaping; she’ll have risked her life for nothing if he gets killed because he felt claustrophobic. Michael clutched his father’s sword closer to his chest. The old weapon might be all he had left. He felt tears threatening to escape from his eyes, but he blinked them away. He couldn’t cry. He had to be strong.
After what felt like hours passed by Michael heard footsteps approaching the library. He couldn’t tell who they belonged to, but they didn’t sound like Shadow Beasts. Internally, he was grateful – the library was the most structurally sound place he could find to hide, but he knew it wouldn’t withstand another attack.
Discounting the possibility of Shadow Beasts, he realized that it meant the footsteps belonged to either Hunters or surviving members of the Kingsguard. With the small room continuing to close in around him, he didn’t care if it was safe outside anymore. Without another thought, he burst out of the archive room, Liam’s sword in his arms. Michael tumbled over a fallen beam, hitting the floor with a sharp ‘thud’. Liam’s sword slid a short distance away from him – he reached out to grab it and pulled it back. The footsteps stopped - if he hadn’t called attention to himself by exiting the room, he had by being clumsy.
“Who’s in there?!” The bellowing voice, while heavily guarded, sounded gruff and familiar. It was like music to Michael’s ear.
“Ryan?!” Michael felt tears stream down his face as the familiarity hit him. He’d barely had the chance to pick himself before the footsteps were heading towards him. All thoughts of being strong were gone. He just wanted to leave. Wanted Ryan to get [i him out of this Ma’qui forsaken place.]
“Oh, Michael…” The voice that reached him belonged to Sadie this time. “I’m… so glad to see you. I was afraid you hadn’t made it… It looks like you’re unharmed, as well…” The redhead opened her arms and wrapped him in an embrace, cradling the younger gently in her arms. It was a stark contrast to their first meeting – he was unsure if it were something he’d ever get used to.
The curly-haired teenager slowly returned Sadie’s embrace. “Did… Did Dad m-make it?” he started to choke on his words, already knowing the answer. Sadie just hugged him tighter, forcing more sobs out of him. “P-please tell… t-tell me he’s o-okay…” He gripped Sadie’s vest as he felt his anguish wash over him.
Michael felt a shift as he continued to sob and heard a mumbled “I’m sorry” from Ryan. Though Ryan wasn’t as comforting as Sadie, he had joined the embrace to try and offer condolences to the young prince. Though Michael was caught up in his own grief, he would eternally be grateful.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he felt Ryan’s weight shift away, and then Sadie move a bit. Her emerald-green eyes locked into his own, and she offered him a soft, sympathetic smile. “We need to go, Michael. It’s not safe here right now.” She squeezed his shoulders reassuringly.
Michael nodded, wiping the tears off his face, before something came back to him. “Oh, hold on a minute…” Though his movements were sluggish, the redhead broke away from the female and made his way to the corner he was hiding in just moments ago. He tossed aside a few books he didn’t care about that were scattered throughout and sighed in relief when he reached the bottom of the pile. “It’s still here.”
“What’s still here?” Sadie inquired.
“This…” He hiccupped as he spoke but lifted the book Hazel had shown them. “Hazel handed me a satchel as I escaped the King’s Quarters and told me to run. The book she had earlier was inside. I… tried to look through it, but…” Michael shook his head. “I did notice she left something in the middle.”
When Sadie received the book, she opened to a page that had something wedged in it. Immediately, she laid eyes on what looked like a once-beautiful crescent moon charm. There was a small blue orb on the center with a wedge taken out of the glass, and the metal of the crescent was dirty and scratched. She couldn’t tell why, but it felt like it was pulling her towards it somehow. She touched the cool metal with her hands. It felt rough and cold, like ice. “It’s a pendant.”
“What do you think it’s for?” Ryan inquired. “She left it for us, so obviously it holds some importance.”
Michael shrugged. “She didn’t tell me; there wasn’t really time. Maybe we can ask her?” He looked over to the two Hunters and felt a sting when all they did was give him a look of sadness. “She… can’t tell us, can she?”
The female redhead shook her head. “I’m afraid not.” She took the pendant and attached it to her pack. “I’ll… hang onto it for now. And we’ll take the book with us, too. It’ll be helpful.” She held her hand out to Michael. “Now let’s get out of here. I have a lovely old gardener who has been waiting to see that you made it.”
“Tatsu…” Michael paused for a moment, looking back at his home. He would have to come back to fix things, but he knew he couldn’t do that right now. Instead, he nodded and took Sadie’s hand. “Okay… Let’s go.”
“Life isn’t meant to be lived perfectly… but merely to be lived. Boldly, wildly, beautifully, imperfectly, magically lived.” – Mandy Hale]
“It’s good to see that you made it back safely, sir.”
“Prince Michael is still alive! Ma’qui has answered our prayers!”
“How is the King?”
“Are you three all right?”
Ryan felt tired and overwhelmed as he entered Corwynt City HQ, but he didn’t have the heart to tell the Hunters who approached him to take a step back off. At his abrupt order to exit the city, there was uncertainty hanging over everyone’s heads. It was certainly understandable; he’d allow the questioning to continue for now. “Rosa, where’s Zak?”
“He’s been in the boardroom since we got back,” she answered easily. “He’s waiting for you.”
“Thank you.” The brunet turned to Sadie, who had Michael trailing behind her meekly. “Why don’t you get Michael settled down on the couch in our office. He needs to get some sleep.” He glanced at the lost expression in the teenager’s eyes and felt a pang of sympathy. He understood what the redhead was going through. “Meet me in the boardroom once he’s settled, okay?”
Sadie nodded. “Sure thing.” She gently placed a hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Come on, kiddo. Our office is this way.”
He watched the exchange for a moment longer before he turned around and entered the boardroom. In the center of the room, hovering above a few sets of papers, Zak stood with Kirstin and Ita at his side. “How’s news coverage?”
“I haven’t reported anything to the other HA’s yet,” Zak responded. “I just said that I was waiting for you to return and that you’d make an official statement. The other leaders accepted that without question.”
Ryan nodded. “I figured. What’s the damage?”
“We lost Naruu Banes, Gregor Kinsley, Maura Turnbull, and Anita Franscesca.” The blond lowered his head. Taking the gesture as a cue, Ita and Kirstin nodded to each other and left the room to give the two some privacy. “The Elder Committee of Corwynt are holding their bodies in the morgue now, as well as the recovered civilian bodies, and a burial will be held at dawn. The final count for civilian casualties is thirty-five. Sansu contacted Isabelle Lithgow, and she will be returning with the others who were making the trek to Prir. Prir HQ understand this and wishes us well.”
“And what do we tell the other HA’s in regard to the King?” Sadie said suddenly. She shut the door to the boardroom behind her.
“We tell them the truth, and we make a decision on what we’ll tell the Bishops before we make our announcement.” Ryan sighed. “How’s Michael holding up?”
She shrugged. “He’s… adjusting, at the very least. He said thank you, but I’m not sure everything’s processed yet.”
Ryan shook his head. “Surely not. A lot has happened.” He turned to Zak. “Send out a mass bulletin to the HA’s that I’m going live on the D-Jector in five minutes.”
Zak bowed. “Of course. What should it say?”
“Just tell them that we have a critical update on the status of Gwynt Castle Town, and that there are to be no Bishops or Bishopmen in the HQ at the time of the meeting.” His icy blue eyes went dark. “I can trust the other Hunters, but I’m not quite ready to trust anyone else.”
“Good evening,” Ryan started. “And thank you all for coming at this late hour. I’ll keep this as brief as possible. My name is Mathias Vasile, and I am the leader of the Gwynt Hunters Association.
“Earlier this evening, you all received an emergency message from the Corwynt City HQ that there was a Code Black in Gwynt Castle Town. This, unfortunately, was not a drill. We received prompt messages from each Leader stating that they were awaiting further instruction and would be ready to assist if needed. That gesture alone is appreciated.
“Before I go too much further, I want to report the deaths of two Elite Hunters, Naruu Banes and Gregor Kinsley. Two of my regular Hunters, Maura Turnbull, and Anita Franscesca, have also lost their lives in the line of duty. Along with these four Hunters, thirty-five brave civilians lost their loves in the battle that took place tonight. But…” Ryan never looked away from the camera, nor did his face change. “We lost our great King, as well. His Majesty, Liam Sala, is dead.”
“Our great King did not die in vain!” Sadie shouted, silencing the pained mourning that could be heard through the speakers. “He died protecting his Highness, Prince Michael Sala. Andal will prosper once again as soon as we find the demonic soul behind this vicious attack and bring him to justice.”
The brunet nodded his agreement. “Yes. Prince Michael Sala lives, and is in decent health, though reasonably shocked. And, with this news, I have a request of all of you. I am wary of the Bishops and Bishopmen that surround our great countries, this being why I asked for a lack thereof this meet. They have always acted sneakily and viciously, and with darkness in their hearts. I would like to keep Prince Michael’s survival a mystery to them for now. If they have any questions, assure them that the Gwynt Hunters Association is investigating the attack. I will let you all know when it is safe to inform them. But please, keep this between us.”
“If you have any questions for us, you have the direct contact information of the Corwynt City HQ’s Deputy, Zakkeel Prowell. Send them to him, and one of us will get back to you as soon as possible.” Sadie nodded. “Please, act with caution. I fear this is not the first attack we will see, but together, we will overcome this dark period. This meeting is adjourned.”
When the glowing D-Jector orb faded to black, Ryan took a deep breath. “That was far more draining than I expected it to be. I just hope the other Leaders head my advice and keep the Bishops out of it for now.”
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” Zak interjected. “The Hunters and the Bishops have never had the best relationship – they think they’re ‘Holier than Thou’ because they bear the holy mark of the King. Meanwhile, we’re out here sweating and bleeding for the people.” He crossed his arms. “I’ve always appreciated that we don’t have a Monastery in Corwynt City or in Gwynt Castle Town.”
“I agree.” Sadie nodded. “Ryan, you didn’t sound nervous at all. You delivered the message wonderfully and didn’t stutter once, even when I knew you were fighting with your emotions. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“Thanks.” The brunet looked away, clearly embarrassed.
“What are you two planning to do now?” Zak picked up the stack of papers on the table. “I’m going to start the paperwork for the fallen Hunters. Why don’t you guys head home and get some sleep? We’ve had a long night.”
Ryan shook his head. “You had as long of a night as we did. And we won’t go to bed while you’re still all still here working through the rest of the night. Sadie and I are Hunters too. We’ll help you guys sort this stuff out.”
“Ryan’s right.” The redhead smiled softly. “We’ll attend the dawn vigil with you guys, too. We might have a lot to do, but you’re not alone, Zak.”
“Thanks, guys. That means a lot.”
It was mid-morning when Michael regained consciousness.
The teenager rose slowly, stretching the stiffness out of his limbs. The events from last night washed over him like a tidal wave – the attack, Sadie and Ryan finding him and bringing him to HQ, his father’s death… Michael shook his head, swallowing back the emotions. He didn’t want to think about it now. He was grateful, at least, that his sleep had been dreamless. He wasn’t sure he could bear to see it all again…
The office was empty still – he’d half expected to see Sadie or Ryan occupying one of the desks, but neither accompanied him. Neither had tried waking him either, to his surprise. They had a lot to do now, didn’t they? Did they have time to let Michael sleep the day away?
Michael rose from the small leather couch and draped the blanket – which he didn’t remember having when he passed out – on the back. The office was rather sparse of décor – he guessed Sadie and Ryan didn’t spend a lot of time in here, but there was a photo on the desk in the back corner. Curiously, he walked over to it and picked the frame up. In the photo was a small brunet boy with ice-blue eyes, a beautiful woman with jet-black hair, and an older brunet male with kind, yet stern, brown eyes. Were these Ryan’s parents? Was the small boy Ryan?
Suddenly feeling like he was prying, he set the photo down where he found it and exited the office. Though he didn’t know his way around the HQ building, he was sure he’d find Sadie or Ryan if he wandered around for long enough.
“Good morning, Your Highness.”
The unfamiliar voice that sounded from behind him caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand up. When he whipped his head around, he saw a petite woman with wavy green hair standing there. “Who are you?”
The woman chuckled. “I’m sorry, Highness. I didn’t mean to scare you. My name is Kirstin Lennox, and I’m the secondary medic here at the Corwynt City HQ. I was just passing through on my way to med bay, but you looked lost, so I wanted to help. Are you looking for Sadie and Ryan, by chance?”
“Yes, actually.” Michael sighed in relief. “I would be grateful if you could bring me to them.”
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you.” Kirstin bowed. “I’m sure I saw Ryan passed out in a corner not too long ago, but Sadie’s been working all through the night. They both were, I’m assuming. Come with me.”
Michael stayed silent as he followed the short woman. Did Sadie and Ryan really pull an all-nighter because of what happened in Castle Town? He felt guilt pool up in his gut. He knew it wasn’t his fault, but he knew that he was partially the reason they were still awake. He wished they would’ve let him help.
“…Highness, are you listening?”
“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Lennox.” Michael chuckled sheepishly. “I must’ve spaced out. What were you saying?”
Kirstin smiled softly, expressing her understanding. “No problem. I said Sadie is in the boardroom, and Ryan is asleep under a few papers by the file room. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No, thank you. You’ve been extremely helpful.” He bowed to her before facing the file room first. Ryan had an open folder on his lap with a few scattered pages on it. He was sat on the floor, leaning against the wall with his head resting against a decorative shelf. His mouth was wide open, his chest rising and falling, and soft snores could be heard occasionally. He didn’t look comfortable, but he looked positively exhausted, and suddenly, Michael understood how he could fall asleep where he sat.
Glancing into the boardroom, he saw Sadie putting various things into a large box. He did hear that a few Hunters had died in battle – perhaps they were cleaning the barracks and Sadie offered to do it so the Hunters wouldn’t have to. He couldn’t see her face well from the angle he stood at, but if Ryan’s were anything to go by, she must’ve been worn out as well. Michael decided to take his chances and go in. “Sadie?”
The redhead didn’t bother looking up but twitched as she registered Michael’s voice. “Glad you’re awake, Michael. Sorry I didn’t wake you sooner; we had a Dawn Vigil this morning and I didn’t have time.”
“Don’t worry about it, you seem busy.” He sat down in an empty chair. “Have you rested at all since we got back?”
“No; I just said I didn’t have time. We’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the emergency signal we sent out, we had to make a statement to the other HA’s in Andal, Zak had to file papers for the late Hunters…” Sadie shook her head. “Sorry if I sound snappy. There’s a lot more to do, but Ryan and I are almost done with the bulk of it.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Ryan is asleep on the floor in a pile of papers and a puddle of his own drool.”
“No ‘m not…” On cue, Ryan stumbled into the boardroom, haphazardly holding onto the folder he had before. His eyes were half-lidded and his hair sticking up in various directions, but the older didn’t seem to mind. He barely made it over to Sadie before he slumped down into a chair, resting his forehead onto her shoulder. “What’re you doing?”
“Packing Naruu’s things.” The female frowned. “I offered to do it. The other Banes siblings couldn’t even look at her bunk. She was the oldest of them, and the most respected Elite. It was the least I could do.”
The lead Hunter blinked a few times to try and wake himself up. “Sadie, we need to head out of town soon. You should’ve taken a nap.”
Sadie snorted and rolled her eyes. “You only got rest because you passed out, Mathias Ryan. Don’t lecture me.”
“Woah. I know we have things to do, but why are we leaving town?” Michael spun around in his chair. “What’re we doing?”
“Hazel gave us a lead, remember? The temple of the Star God is in the Red Mountains. We don’t know much else right now, so we should start there.” Sadie placed a lid on the box. “That’s everything. I’ll let Orin know it’s in here and he can decide what they do with it.”
Ryan nodded. “Michael, before we set out, is there anything you need to do? We won’t be back this way for a while.”
"What is there for me to do?” Michael lowered his head. “My home is destroyed. There’s nothing for me here.”
“We’ll get your home back, Michael.” Sadie’s green eyes were tired, but fierce. She shared a look with Ryan before placing a hand on Michael’s shoulder. “We’ll restore peace to Andal and Castle Town. You’ll be leaving here a prince, but you’ll come back a King.”
“She’s right.” Ryan nodded. “Oh, and before I forget.” He handed Michael a file. “This is Kasara’s case file. It has a picture of the claw signature of the Lycanmorph that killed her. It also contains what we saw during our investigation. I took the photos of Kasara out – otherwise everything is as it was the day we made the report.”
Michael nodded. “T-thanks, Ryan. I’ll be sure to look it over. I’ll avenge both Mom and Dad…” His eyes grew dark. “That’s a promise.”
“So, you’re leaving Gwynt?”
“Yeah. It was a last-minute arrangement.”
Zak nodded. “I understand. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
Ryan shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. I’ll be available through my D-Tech, and we’ll come back in a heartbeat if you need us.”
“Corwynt will be in good hands until then.” The blond grinned. “The other Gwynt HQs have offered to send a few Hunters to help us with the rebuilding of Castle Town. Hopefully, within a few months, we can send the Castle Town citizens home.” He glanced around. “It’s quiet. Where are Sadie and the Prince?”
“She took him into town to get supplies, and to get him clothes more suited for travel.” Ryan yawned. “I think she was also planning to get someone to cut his hair. It’s unlikely anyone will pay him any mind, but we’re attempting to keep a low profile as we travel. The less recognizable he is, the better.”
“Understood.” Zak offered a small smile and patted Ryan’s shoulders. “I’ll take care of the HQ and Arian until you guys come back. Go meet up with Sadie and Prince Michael. We’ll pray for your safe return.”
“Thank you, Zak. Please… don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything.” Ryan reached around to his back rig, making sure his scythe was securely strapped in, before walking away. He laid a hand on the door handle and looked back, glancing at the Hunters as they did their daily duties. He didn’t know when – or if – he’d see them again. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt truly frightened before; this may have been the closest he’d ever come to it. “May Ma’qui keep you safe…” He pushed the door open and walked into the warm midday sun.
The HQ building was only a short walk from the city limits, but Ryan chose to take his time. The sun was filtering gently through the trees, trickling gently to the forest floor below. The wind was blowing gently, caressing the loose strands of Ryan’s hair, and gently tossing them from side-to-side. The picture painted before him was breathtaking – a stark contrast to the hellscape he witnessed just hours before. Was this really the same world? Was Ryan dreaming? Would he wake up to Corwynt in ash? He chuckled at the dark thought and shook his head. He was getting carried away.
Ryan barely noticed the transition from the dirt path to chiseled stone; the open air and lack of tree cover were what notified him that he’d entered Corwynt City. He received looks from the townsfolk – some disgusted, some grateful – and chose to ignore them. His work required dealing with humans of all sorts, and he knew there were people that didn’t appreciate refugees. Hopefully, the Castle Town refugees wouldn’t have to be around long.
“I look like an idiot, Sadie!”
“You do not; you look fine!”
The brunet almost laughed out loud at the familiar sound of bickering but quieted it down to a chuckle. It was nice to hear, like bells in his ears. It was comforting, somehow, that Michael was able to act like nothing was wrong. He’d make an excellent King.
Ryan followed the sound until he saw the pair standing in front of a barber shop, and his eyes widened in shock. Michael was donning a simple lightweight white t-shirt and black pants with a blue jean overcoat draped over his shoulders. He wore a brown belt and a belt pack, and a few lightweight armor pieces to tie it together. His shoes were brown, durable mountain boots, and his hair had been tamed from his unruly ginger curls to a simple, neatly cut shorter style. He looked more like a Hunter than a Prince. “Is that really you, Michael?”
At Ryan’s exclamation, both Sadie and Michael looked over. “Oh, hey Ryan.” Sadie bounded over to him. “Can you tell this stubborn idiot that he doesn’t look stupid? He’s not taking it from me.”
“Can you tell your lovely girlfriend that she’s obviously blind?” Michael crossed his arms. “I look like a child who tried to dress himself after getting his hands on the farmhand’s wool shears.”
“Stop that, you look fine.” Ryan rolled his eyes to mask his amusement. “You look like a novice hunter. Add a little bit of dirt and a scar or two and the Bishops will be arguing with you in no time.”
Michael blinked. “Do you really mean that?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, kid.”
“Anyway, are we ready to set out?”
“As long as you two are done arguing,” he replied with a snort.
Sadie glanced in the direction of the HQ. “Will they be okay until we come back?”
Ryan nodded. “Of course, they will. They’re seasoned Hunters. They have the rest of the Gwynt Hunters to help if they need it, and Zak promised to contact us if anything big comes up. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“I know. I guess I’m just worrying too much. Everything’s happening so fast…” She sighed. “I have a request to make, before we go to D’daear.”
“And what’s that?”
“I want to make a stop in Danau; we have to pass through anyway. I have an interest in Fudlosgi Village.” Sadie took Hazel’s book off Michael’s utility belt and flipped through it. “There’s some handwritten notes here that were scrawled in Scribespeak about Hathaway Rescue in Old Danau Castle Town. In the lore, it said that the Lord of Sages fought alongside a Hathaway in the Old War. Now that we know Hazel is real, we know that to be true, as well. The Hathaway clan are important historical figures. I figure if there’s anyone that might know what Hazel was trying to tell us, they might. The Rescue is still in Old Danau, but I know the main Hathaway clan resides in Fudlosgi.”
Michael nodded. “That would make sense. Do you know how to get there? This is literally the farthest I’ve ever been. I’ve only ever seen maps and books of Andal.”
“We’ve been all around, so we can lead you.” Ryan sighed. “It’s not going to be an easy trek – there’s a desert between Gwynt and Danau that’s not easy to travel through and has frequent sandstorms. The Danau Desert is also home to the Risen – undead creatures that can only survive in that area. They’re dangerous, so I suggest training against the Shadow Beasts in Gwynt as we pass through.”
“I should also note that Gwynt is the largest region in Andal, so it’ll be a few days before we reach the Gwynt Plains.”
“I can handle it, Ryan.” The redheaded teenager crossed his arms.
“I didn’t say you couldn’t. I just want you to be ready.”
Sadie rolled her eyes. “And you said our bickering was awful. If you two are done, let’s get going. We can make it to Awel City by nightfall and sleep in an Inn if we leave right now.”
Ryan nodded and said nothing further. He took the lead and started walking, Sadie and Michael falling into place easily behind him.
“Ryan! Sadie! Wait!”
The sudden voice froze Sadie in place. “I-is that…?”
Ryan nodded stiffly. “I think so…” He turned around, and his face fell. “Ma’qui help us…”
“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” -Benjamin Franklin]
“This is just great.” Ryan lowered his head and started moving forward again at a faster pace. “Maybe if we keep walking, we can pretend we didn’t hear her. She can’t make me pay attention to her.”
Sadie snorted, slightly amused. “How long has it been since she last saw us, anyway? Three years? What could she possibly want?”
“Who are we even talking about?!” Michael followed along, looking behind them. He saw the townsfolk, some shops, a woman with jet-black hair coming straight for them… “Wait, who is that?”
“Michael, come on!” The redheaded female grabbed his arms. “We need to go-”
“Mathias Ryan Vasile Jr, are you running away from me?!” The female pursuing them was yelling now, drawing attention to the small group. “I told you to wait!”
The brunet sighed, slowing his pace to a halt. “Just kill me; now the entire town knows she’s looking for me. Might as well get this over with.” He turned around to face the woman. “What do-”
Before he could finish his sentence, the black-haired woman wrapped him in a bone-crushing hug. “I was worried about you, Ryan. I heard about Castle Town.”
“…oh.” Ryan’s demeanor became less visibly irritated. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were in the area, Maiya.”
After witnessing the exchange, Michael glanced at Sadie. “Can you explain to me who the hell this is, and what the actual hell is going on here?”
“Right, sorry.” Sadie chuckled. “Neither of us were really… expecting to see her. Michael, meet Maiyalaan Vasile, Ryan’s older sister. She’s a traveler.”
“Maiyalaan Vasile…” The teenager said the name slowly and quietly. “She kind of looks like the woman in that picture, but younger…”
Sadie looked at him warily. “What was that?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m just surprised – I didn’t know Ryan had any siblings. I thought it was just him.”
Ryan pushed Maiya away from him, effectively breaking the embrace. “Well, she’s ten years older than me and hardly ever around, so I really didn’t think she was important to mention at the time.”
“How rude.” Maiya turned to Michael. “You must be Prince Michael Sala. Don’t worry, I won’t go around telling everyone.” She giggled at the teenager’s facial expression. “I’m Maiyalaan, as Sadie told you, but call me Maiya, please. I’m a traveler and a spiritual guide. I’m often seen training with the local monks.”
Michael bowed. “As you know, I’m Michael Sala, heir of Liam Sala. It’s a pleasure.”
“Not that we don’t like seeing you, Maiya, but you didn’t just come to Gwynt overnight.” Sadie crossed her arms. “What were you actually in the area for?”
The black-haired female held out her hand, watching a crow land on her outstretched finger. “The crows told me of an ill omen heading this way. This was your jurisdiction, and I wanted to see if the crows bore true. Did they?”
Ryan looked away, his expression unreadable. “You know the answer to that.”
“I know only of the ill omen. I do not know the outcome of the omen.” Maiya smiled sadly. “I don’t envy your life, Mathias. I refused to follow our father’s path for this very reason.”
“You know why I did.”
The tension in the air was thick enough to split with an arrow, and Sadie had heard enough. “It was nice to see you, Maiya, but we have places to be.”
“Like Fudlosgi Village?” she inquired. “What do you seek there?”
Sadie looked visibly anxious. “How do you know that?”
“The crows hear a lot of things, Sadie.” She released the bird into the air. “They whisper those things to me in passing. I’m not your enemy, absent as I may be. I’m sorry for that. I’d like to help you if I could.”
Ryan glared at Maiya. “What could you possibly offer us?”
“I mean, why not?” Michael interjected. “What harm could a pair of extra hands be? I don’t really know Maiya, but I don’t get a bad feeling from her. She’s… strange, admittedly, but she has good intentions.”
Maiya chuckled. “The prince is young, but smart. He is a spiritual guide like me, after all.”
“See, she- wait, what?”
“Don’t confuse him, Maiya.” The younger Vasile rolled his eyes. “If you want to travel with us, that’s fine, but I want to know your motives.”
“I don’t have an underlying motive, Ryan. I want you to understand that. I just… The Crow’s Omen ended up coming true, again, and everything feels so much darker than it seems.” The tall woman wrapped her arms around herself. “We’ve lost everything else. Can I at least try to help you stay alive? Your life is dangerous enough without this threat of overbearing darkness. I want to help you understand it, at the very least.”
Sadie shared a glance with Ryan and looked back at Maiya. “We… don’t know a lot about it ourselves, but as long as you promise to back out if it becomes too much for you, you can come along.”
“Thank you. I promise.”
Ryan glanced at his sister and frowned. “Right.” He turned and started walking again, the three others in his entourage following at a steady pace. “Sorry about this, Maiya. I didn’t think you’d actually get worked up over this.”
“It’s okay. I know how you can get.” The female’s ice-blue eyes were soft and kind, contrasting her brother’s. “I tried to leave it alone – I know you’re capable of taking care of yourself. It just felt wrong to keep ignoring it.”
“I get it.”
Michael watched as the two fell into a somewhat easy silence. Neither of them seemed uncomfortable – perhaps this was often how their conversations went. As Sadie and Ryan pushed further ahead, Michael slowed his pace to match with Maiya’s. “Hey, I have a question for you.”
“Hm?” She glanced over to the redhead. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“I just…” He glanced up at the sky as he walked. The trees were beginning to form over them again – they were transitioning back into the forest. “You said something earlier about me being a spiritual guide? I’ve tried to forget it, but it just keeps bothering me.”
Maiya chuckled. “It’s nothing bad, Michael. You come from a long line of Holy magic users. Your ancestors, Mihail Sala and Lavina Ungur are who I’m referring to. Mihail wasn’t a magic user, but he had a lot of it, and it was strong. Lavina, however, was a Holy Mother. The Holy Mothers have been replaced by Bishops in our times. Lavina used Holy magic, and with it, she had a long line of Holy familiars that she created. Only spiritual guides can use familiars. It seems that, after all these years, she’s finally found someone to pass those familiars down to. You.” She chuckled. “Mine are the crows. They tell me of omens.”
Michael’s face fell. “What do you mean? Why did my dad never tell me about this? How do I even use them? How would you know when I don’t?”
“It’s easy for one guide to find another.” Maiya smiled at the sound of a crow’s call. “It’s highly likely King Liam didn’t even know. Familiar use doesn’t run in my family at all – I just got lucky. As for how you would use them, I’m not sure. When you’re ready, they’ll come to your aid. That’s all I can say.”
“Hey! Quit gossiping!” Sadie snapped from up ahead. “If we don’t get to Awel City and I have to sleep on the ground tonight, I’m going to kill both of you!”
“Do you think she actually would?” Michael blanched.
“No.” The tall woman laughed. “But we should meet up with them anyway, so she stops yelling.”
Sadie’s soft snoring was the only thing that could be heard over the crackling of the fire. Luckily for the four of them, the night sky was clear and full of stars, and the weather only held a tinge of the bite that the months of Taflen brought. The colder months of Iâ were approaching.
“Is she still mad that we’re only halfway to Awel City?” Michael dared ask once Ryan approached the small fire.
Ryan laughed and shook his head. “Not at all.” He glanced over at his sleeping companion. She was laying on her back on a blanket they’d brought with them – it wasn’t idea, but it was better than laying on the ground. “I think she’s more upset that she didn’t get to fall asleep in a bathtub, to be honest. Once she laid down, she was out.”
“Women are so complicated.” The redheaded teenager rolled his eyes.
Maiya tossed a few pieces of grass onto the fire. “I’m sorry. My arrival was poorly timed. I held you back.”
“Your arrival is always poorly timed.” The brunet snorted. His eyes then widened at his choice of words. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“You did, you just didn’t mean to say it. It’s fine.” She chuckled. “That was many years ago now, anyway. I know you’ve forgiven me.”
Michael blinked, feeling lost. “You guys are weird. Am I missing something?”
Maiya and Ryan shared a look, but he older chose to speak first. “Years ago, on two separate occasions, I came back home to aid our parents. Both times, I arrived too late. It’s the traveler’s curse.”
“I blamed her back then.” Ryan stared into the fire. “I was only eight when Mom was killed. We were out on a walk to Castle Town, and against Dad’s wishes, she went without a Hunter. Mom could hold her own okay – the scythe I use was hers. I was starting to learn the basics of self-defense, but we were surrounded by bandits who didn’t think too kindly of the Hunters, and they knew who Mom and I were. She tried her best to fend them off, and she threw me into a tree to keep me from getting hurt. Dad and the Hunters had shown up first, and then Maiya a short time after. When I saw her, I yelled at her and told her she should’ve been home. She left and didn’t come back home for nine years.”
At that point, I came back too late, too.” The female chuckled dryly. “My terrible timing is almost laughable at this point. Ryan was the Assistant Leader at this time, and he wouldn’t meet Sadie for another year. Our father was fighting a surge of Shadow Beasts north of Cawad Village – the Deputy of that area had called for help. Ryan had gathered a few Elites and arrived, but he was unable to save our father. Both our father and the deputy of Cawad died in that battle. I had arrived, thanks to the word of the crows, but by then, the damage had been done. Ryan turned on me, telling me to stop showing up if I wasn’t going to be any help, and marched back to Corwynt carrying our father’s body.”
He sighed heavily. “I called her a week later after I’d calmed down to apologize; death is part of a Hunter’s life, and that wasn’t Maiya’s fault. She understood, and that was that. We didn’t see each other for two years – I had just been named leader of the Gwynt Hunters, so I suddenly became a lot busier, and she decided to go back to the Red Mountains to train. We’ve had this strange relationship ever since, and I’ve tried to be better about how I go about it.”
Michael sighed. “I don’t think attempting to avoid her is ‘being better’, Ryan.”
“Well, no. But I didn’t want to deal with anything this morning. We’d had a long night and I wasn’t in the mood. It had nothing to do with me not wanting to see her.”
“It’s not that big of a deal. I arrived too late again, but at least I didn’t have to stand before your gravestone.” Maiya frowned. “That, at least, was the very least I was hoping for. I should’ve called you, but I don’t have a D-Tech anymore.”
“I only got it for you three years ago.” Ryan furrowed his brow. “What happened to it? They’re supposed to last for ten years.”
“I don’t think they’re made to withstand being dropped in lava.”
“You’re hopeless, Maiyalaan.”
“And clumsy.” Michael laughed. Hearing the two of them was almost comforting, as if he were bickering with his own mother. But it reminded him of Sadie, and a conversation they’d had before. “Doesn’t Sadie have a younger brother?”
Ryan nodded. “What brought that up?”
“Seeing you two. You and Maiya have been reunited, but Sadie doesn’t know anything of her brother’s whereabouts. She hasn’t even mentioned him. Do you think she’s worried about him?”
“Maybe. She doesn’t know if he made it out or not, and I’m sure she’s trying not to think about it.” The brunet frowned. “She hasn’t seen Rayner since she left Castle Town nine years ago, and she figures it’s unlikely that he’d try and track her down if he’s still alive.”
Maiya held back a laugh. “Sounds like someone else’s little brother that I know. I won’t mention any names, though. To protect the innocent and all that.”
Michael fell into a comfortable silence as the two began to bicker. Other than their arguing and Sadie’s snoring, the night was quiet. In the distance, off the beaten path, he could hear the unmistakable howl of a Shadow Warg. It gave the redhead an idea. “Ryan?”
Ryan dropped his argument for the moment and glanced at Michael. “Is something wrong?”
“No, not at all. I was just wondering, while we were here…” He felt his face heat up with embarrassment. “I need to get more training in with a sword, and there’s a pack of Shadow Wargs nearby. Do you think we could take them out?”
“I mean… I don’t see why not.” He stood up, pulling his scythe out of his pile of belongings. “Maiya, do you mind staying here with Sadie? I don’t want to wake her.”
Maiya nodded. “Sure, no problem. Be careful, you two.”
Ryan nodded. “Right. We’ll be back before long.”
Four days had passed since the attack on Castle Town. News of the attack, and of King Liam’s untimely death, had swept like wildfire throughout Gwynt; Sadie could only imagine how the news was circulating throughout the other regions of Andal.
They had passed through most of Gwynt without incident, having finally made it to Awyr Village. They would just need to pass through the Gwynt Plains and the Danau Desert, and the worst of it would be behind them. For now.
“Awyr Village!” Maiya’s eyes glowed as she gushed. “I want to look around for a bit! This place is full of history – it was one of the first villages founded in Gwynt. You guys do what you need to do; I’ll meet up with you!”
“Maiya, we’re not here to sightsee!” Ryan’s words fell on deaf ears; the female was already gone. He sighed heavily. “We need to check our supplies anyway. We’ll be hitting some rough territory and we won’t have access to any for a while.”
Sadie nodded but wasn’t paying attention to what her partner was saying. There was a chilling presence coming from just outside the village, and it felt like it was piercing her core. Her stomach churned painfully, feeling rotten. The aura she felt was like the one she felt in Castle Town the night of the attack; just what was out there?
“Sadie? Are you listening?” Ryan waved a hand in front of her face. “Hello? Is everything okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, supplies. Right. Why don’t you take Michael to get supplies? I want to check something out.” Something occurred to the redhead as she glanced around. “Where is Michael, anyway?”
The brunet shrugged. “He said something about going ‘just outside of town to get practice in’ before we head off to Danau. Why?”
The rotting feeling in her gut intensified. “Do you happen to know which way he went when he took off?”
“I think he went that way.” He pointed in the direction of the Gwynt Plains side – the same direction that the eerie presence was coming from. “What’s going on? Did something happen? Talk to me, Sadie.”
Sadie shook her head. “I don’t know, Ry… I don’t think anything’s happened, but…” She looked in the direction Ryan pointed in and felt her heart pound. “I just… I felt a strong surge of magic just now, but… I can’t pinpoint who it belongs to. It just… feels like the same signature that I felt in Castle Town.”
“Are you sure?”
She dug her fingernails into her arms. “I don’t know…” Anxiety clawed at her heart, dragging its nails tauntingly across the surface. Every heartbeat was painful, and every breath was forced and ragged. She couldn’t take it anymore and took off running in the direction of the Gwynt Plains without another word.
Ryan was only stilled for a moment before he took off after her. “Sadie! Wait!”
Michael felt as though his swordsmanship skills were improving as he sliced easily through a small Night Fox. There weren’t as many Shadow Beasts out to train with during the day, but they were just as dangerous as they were at night. Ryan and Sadie had taught him a lot over the past few days, and while he knew it would be a long time before he was even close to their level, he felt like he was finally getting to the point where he could hold his own.
Even Maiya, as strange as she was, had given him some helpful tips when it came to surviving on the outside. And really, if anyone were to know, it would be her; she was a traveler and didn’t have a home. He still knew nothing about summoning familiars, or if she was even being serious when she said he could, but he chose to let it go for now. There were more important things to worry about.
The Plains were quiet and refreshing – this side of the plains still provided some tree cover, creating a cool, crisp atmosphere. The rain from last evening had started to dry, and the rotting leaves below his feet gave off a musty, yet pleasant odor. Taflen was in full swing. He briefly wondered how the seasons changed in other regions; he’d find out soon enough.
Through the pleasantness of the afternoon, he could feel that something was off. He couldn’t pinpoint what, or who, but something wasn’t right. As if a stone had been cast in a still pond, disturbing the surface, and once it was stilled again, a larger one would be cast. What was giving him this feeling? Was it paranoia, being outside the village for the first time without Sadie or Ryan? He tried to shake it off, but it lingered, and he couldn’t just ignore it. Michael decided he’d turn back and let Ryan know.
The paranoia he was feeling had turned to dread the second the teenager had turned around, and he felt the life drain from his entire body. This was it; this was how he was going to die. He could feel something creeping towards him at an incredible speed, and though he knew it wouldn’t do him any good, he put his hand on his sword. However, it was deemed unnecessary, as a powerful blast of ice magic tore past him and collided with whatever was trying to draw near. That could only mean one thing. “Sadie!”
“Michael!” The female sounded winded – had she been running for a long time? “Thank Ma’qui we found you. Are you all right?”
“Y-yeah, I’m fine.” Michael felt shaken, but he was alive. He was still alive. “What’s going-”
Ryan’s voice broke through his own. “Sadie, look out!”
The young male barely had time to register anything as he was shoved away; Sadie was blocking a shadow attack with ice magic. But there was something that interested Michael more. “Sadie! The pendant!”
“What about the pendant?!” She grunted, using the force of her own magic to reflect the attack back at the unknown assailant.
Curious, Sadie looked down and confirmed what Michael had said – the moon pendant Hazel had left in the book was glowing. It felt ice-cold to the touch, and it sounded almost as if it was trying to speak with her. “Well, let’s see what this thing’s trying to say, shall we?” She tore the pendant off the chain and held the glowing object in front of her as the assailant sent another attack towards the trio. “Let’s go!”
Michael’s eyes widened at what transpired. As the shadow magic was reflected, the moon pendant began to shift and change form. In a flash of blinding white light, it went from a small, palm-sized pendant to a full-sized magical staff. The imperfections were gone; the glass in the orb complete and the metal clean and shining. “It’s…”
“Hazel found the staff of the Moon God… Or Goddess, in this case.” Ryan could barely believe his eyes.
“So, the little blonde brat was telling the truth after all.”
Sadie held the staff in her hands and frowned at the voice. “Show yourself.”
“There’s no need to be rude, is there?” From the trees emerged a tall figure in dark armor. His face was covered in a mask like that of the Fallen, but from what Michael could tell, he was a human. A small tuft of hair could be seen from under the helmet, but it was shadowed, so he could not tell what color it was. “I knew if I antagonized you enough, one of you would show your true identity to me.”
Michael recognized the armor instantly and shrunk back. “This is the same guy who killed Hazel and my father, Sadie. Be careful!”
Sadie nodded. “Right… You sound familiar somehow, but I can’t place it. Who exactly are you?”
“My name is not important… I am but a vessel for Lord Rau’s return. If you need to call me something, you may call me Shai.” He chuckled. From beneath the mask, Michael was sure he was grinning. “You should step down and allow Lord Rau’s essence to consume this world. You shouldn’t lose your lives in a battle you won’t win. You should let the shadows consume you instead.”
“Tough talk for a mere vessel,” Ryan hissed.
Shai seemed displeased at the outburst. “Lord Rau wants nothing but the best for Andal, don’t you understand that? Humans are so selfish; I know the Hunters have seen their fair share of it. He just wants to cleanse the world and re-create it in darkness.” He glanced over to Michael. “And as for the Prince, here… Your survival was an accident.” He held up his hand, forming a shadow ball. “It’s a mistake I won’t make twice.”
“Your fight is with me!” Though Sadie didn’t know how to use the staff in her hands, it felt natural to her as she swung the light object around and slammed the base of it into the ground, creating a wave of ice spikes. Though the attack missed Shai, it knocked his attack off-course, sending it into the forest. “Leave him out of it.”
He laughed. “I’m not quite of strong enough power to defeat one of the Galaxian Gods, despite there only being one of you. I will leave for now but know this.” Shai charged an attack once more. “Lord Rau will rise, whether you three back down or not. It will be less painful if you retreat. It is your choice, in the end.
As Shai vanished into the shadows, his attack was released. Though Sadie did her best to block it, the power of it was stronger than the last ones she deflected, knocking her off her feet and sending her flying back.
“Sadie!” Ryan ran over to the fallen female. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bruised ego.” Sadie sat up, looking at her hands. The staff had disappeared and turned back into the moon pendant. She grasped it tightly. “The staff of the Moon Goddess is mine…”
“I wonder how Hazel came across it…” Michael crawled over to the pair carefully. “Or if she even knew what it was.”
The redhead shook her head, placing the pendant in her pocket. “There’s no way to tell. We can’t ask her.”
“Whatever the case, there are at least two more to find, if Hazel was right about there being three Gods.” Ryan looked over at her, his mind spinning. “Do you think the Hathaway’s will know anything?”
“That’s what we’re going to Fudlosgi Village to find out.” Sadie stood up, brushing the dirt off her shorts. “Let’s get back to the village and track Maiya down. We need to prepare for the trip, and we should tell her what happened.”
[b Chapter 7] [b [i “It’s life that matters, nothing but life – the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky]]
“So, you ran into a man named Shai who claims to be a vessel for the fabled ex-sage Rau?” Maiya glanced at the trio. “I’m glad you’re all okay; magic vessels can be as dangerous as the mage themselves. What else did he say?”
“Not much,” Sadie admitted. “He just said that Rau would return to plunge the world into shadows, no matter what we did.” She crossed her arms. “The body he was using seemed familiar, but I can’t figure out why.”
The elder Vasile placed her teacup on the table. “Magic vessels have different uses. According to legend, shadow vessels are chosen because the vessel has deep sadness or hatred in their souls. Perhaps its someone you’ve met in passing. Who it is isn’t important, anyway. Stopping him is your main purpose.”
“We learned a few more things during the exchange with Shai, too.” Ryan glanced over to Sadie. “You remember that little crescent moon pendant that Sadie’s been hanging onto?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
Lowering his voice, he said. “Well, we figured out that it’s the weapon of the Moon Goddess. One of the Galaxian Gods.”
She raised an eyebrow. “The Gods of Legend that re-created Andal after the destruction of Man?”
“We’ve proven that it’s more than just legend at this point.” Michael pulled out the worn-down book that Hazel left for them and handed it to Maiya. “We had a guide that gave us this book and the pendant. We don’t know everything, but we know that the Gods are of importance. And Sadie is the Moon Goddess.”
“If everything else in your lives wasn’t so far-fetched, I’d have trouble believing you. I still am, really, but you wouldn’t lie to me.” Maiya skimmed the pages. “I can’t perfectly read Ancient Andalan, but I’ll have to look into this more. In the meantime, is the plan still to go to Fudlosgi Village?”
Sadie nodded. “I have to speak to the Hathaway clan. They’re the oldest living family in Andal, save from Michael’s and my own, and they’re sure to have some answers for me. The guide Michael spoke of came back from the dead to give us what little information we have. The Hathaway’s might be the only help we can get now.”
Maiya nodded. “All right, then. Why don’t you three go on ahead without me, and I’ll catch up. I have some things I want to investigate here, and there’s a disbanded Monastery outside the village where some monks reside. They can read Ancient Andalan better than myself, and they’ll be able to help me with this.”
“Will you be all right crossing the desert on your own?” Ryan asked. “It’s a stupid question, I know, but…”
“You’re trying to be more caring, I get it. The gesture is appreciated.” She smiled fondly. “I’ll be all right on my own; I’ve been travelling for a long time. I’ll probably only be three days behind you, at maximum.”
Ryan nodded. “Right. Take this with you.” He reached into his bag and took out a D-Tab. “You can’t make calls with it, but you can message any of us when you leave town, so we know when to expect you. All of our IP addresses are logged.”
Maiya took the D-Tab gratefully. “Thank you.”
“Don’t break it.”
“No promises, little brother.” The elder Vasile ruffled his hair gently.
Embarrassed, Ryan swatted her hands away and composed himself. “On second thought, it really wouldn’t break my heart if you stayed in Gwynt.”
Maiya laughed. “Not going to happen.”
“Didn’t think so.” Ryan nodded to her. “Be careful.” He watched her take a step back and turned to the others. “Are you two all set to head out?”
“We have everything we need,” Michael reported. “And probably a little extra. I might’ve gone overboard with supplies.”
Sadie shrugged. “At least we have supplies if we need them.”
“Exactly.” Ryan nodded. “I haven’t heard anything from Zak yet, so no news is good news on that front. If I haven’t received an update by the time we’ve crossed the desert, I’ll give him a call.”
“Understood. I contacted Urien Currii in Danau and told him to expect us within the next day.”
“All right. See you soon, Maiya.” He turned around and waved good-bye to Maiya as they began the trek out of town. “We’ll attempt to get as far as we can while it’s still daylight. I don’t want to cross the desert at night if we don’t have to.”
“Definitely not. The sandstorms can get vicious even during the day, and they make it hard to fend off the Risen.” Sadie pulled out one of her daggers and began to spin it around.
Michael blanched at the mention of the undead creatures. “Have… you ever had to fight one of the Risen before?”
“Only once,” the female admitted. “We got ambushed by a few of them. Luckily, they found us right after a sandstorm passed. That was enough for me.”
“They’re less dangerous than the Forsaken,” Ryan explained. “But they’re deadlier than Shadow Wargs, Night Foxes, or Werebears. To date, they’re the only Shadow Beasts we’ve discovered that are closed to being ‘zombified’ or ‘undead’. We’re not sure what to classify them as, really. The only thing we know for certain is that they’re native to Danau, they can only appear in deserts, and they can only come out at night.”
“I’m not so sure I can handle this fighting stuff.” Michael slowed down. “It’s all so overwhelming.”
Sadie sighed sadly. “Sorry, kiddo. For the moment, you don’t really have a choice. Now let’s get a move on; we’re burning daylight.”
“Come on!” Ryan shouted, hoping his covered mouth didn’t muffle his speech too much. The harsh winds of the sandstorm blocked his view of Sadie and Michael, but he was confident they hadn’t lost their way. “We’re almost to Old Danau! We can take a short rest there before we move on!”
“Right!” Sadie wasn’t sure her words reached the leader but carried on regardless. Her goggles were tightly affixed to her face, keeping her eyes clear of sand, and her bandana was secured over her mouth. She knew Ryan was equipped with the proper gear as well, but Michael had been struggling to keep up, trying to block the sand from his eyes.
The teenager was using his scarf as a makeshift mask, which was adequately blocking the sand from entering his lungs or mouth, but his vision was heavily compromised. They could lose him in the storm if they weren’t careful. Thinking on her feet, Sadie grabbed Michael’s arm and pulled him along. “Just close your eyes and trust me, okay?”
The teenager said nothing in response but did as he was told, lowering his head to keep the sand from hitting his face. After what felt like an hour – but was only a few minutes – he felt the wind die down and the pelting of the sand cease, followed by Sadie releasing his arm. “Is the storm over?”
“For now.” It was Ryan who answered, lowering his bandana but leaving his goggles on. “There’s another cloud in the distance, so we should hurry to town. Old Danau is right ahead.”
Michael brushed the sand out of his hair and face before looking up. He saw a town made of mostly stone buildings – probably what kept them upright in the nastiest of sandstorms, he guessed. “Wow, it’s so much different looking than Castle Town back home.”
“We can gawk when we get there. Let’s get moving.” Sadie lowered her own bandana and walked towards town at a brisk pace. The soft sand was hard to keep a steady pace in; luckily, there was a partially sand-covered stone path that revealed itself as they neared Old Danau, allowing them to move more quickly. The female nearly collapsed with relief as they entered the walled-in town. “Finally made it.”
“And not too soon.” Ryan glanced outside the town walls. “That cloud’s drawing closer. I wonder if the old castle’s walls still keep some of the sand out.”
“You’d be correct!” a chipper, accented voice sounded. The three turned their heads, locating a tall, lanky blue-haired male walking towards them. “It’s not a perfect setup, but it’s helpful.”
Ryan took his goggles off, allowing them to dangle loosely around his neck. He spotted the Hunter’s ID badge on the other’s belt and visibly relaxed. Though the blue-haired male was scrawny, Ryan could see the layers of muscle built up under his frame. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m Mathias Vasile, leader of the Gwynt Hunters, but please, call me Ryan.” He held out his hand. “This lovely lady is my assistant leader, Mercedes Dalca.”
“I’m Grewyn Baoghill, the deputy of Fudlosgi Village HQ. We also serve the folk of Old Danau, here.” Grewyn took Ryan’s hand and shook it firmly. “It’s a pleasure. I’m out here running a few errands for the townsfolk, but Urien told me y’all were gonna be out here and suggested I wait for ya. He was gonna come out here and meet ya himself, but some red tape with the Bishops has him tied up at the office. Should’ve heard the words comin’ out of his mouth this mornin’.” He turned to Sadie and bowed. “Pleasure to meet ya as well, m’lady.”
Sadie returned the polite gesture with a smile. “No, the pleasure’s all mine, really. You’re welcome to call me Sadie if you’d like. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to Rudger Y’tsven? Wasn’t he the deputy of Fudlosgi a few years ago?”
“Yes ma’am. He retired last year and went to travel Andal. Was always a dream of his, he said. Not many Hunters get to live to retirement.” Grewyn glanced past Sadie and looked at Michael. “It’s good to see you in good shape, your Highness.” He then covered his mouth. “Shoot, sorry ‘bout that. I know we’re keeping that on the down low.”
Michael just laughed and offered him a polite nod. “I’m Michael Sala. I appreciate you looking out for me. And don’t worry too much; there’s no one out here. They must be sheltering from the sandstorm.”
“That’s very likely.” The accented male nodded. “Why don’t I take y’all back to the HQ and get ya set up with Urien? He’s been dyin’ to see y’all since Mathias – uh, Ryan, sorry – made his announcement about Castle Town. We’re setup halfway between here and Fudlosgi; won’t take us long to get there.”
“Will we make it before the next sandstorm hits?” Michael asked nervously.
“Of course, don’t you worry about that. I reckon that one’s about half an hour off – it’ll take us less than that to get where we’re going.” Grewyn smiled brightly. “And once ya get closer to Fudlosgi, they don’t hit as hard ‘cause there’s a few more trees out that way. The Hathaway’s wouldn’t live out there without a little bit of woodlands, y’know.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to head that way now,” Sadie added. “We’re on our way to Fudlosgi anyway, and we promised Urien that we’d stop in on the way.”
Ryan nodded his agreement. “That sounds good. If you wouldn’t mind leading the way, Grewyn, we would be grateful. It’s been a while since we’ve been out this way.”
He nodded happily. “I’d be right happy to! Right this way”
“So,” Michael started, following the chipper blue-haired deputy. “You said there were some trees closer to Fudlosgi. Does that mean there’s a savanna up ahead?”
“You guessed it. Danau is a combination of scattered deserts and savanna. The biggest savanna, where Fudlosgi Village is, starts around where our HQ is and stretches through Lludw Village. After that, it’s scattered deserts and savanna throughout the rest of the country.”
“It’s what makes Danau unique.” Sadie’s footsteps were quiet in the soft sand. “Most of the countries in Andal have a specific land layout, but Danau is fairly scattered.”
Ryan glanced over to her. “It’s also what makes Danau dangerous. “While the Risen can’t surface in the savanna, they can appear in any of the deserts. It’s better to pass through them quickly, or during the day.”
Grewyn chuckled. “Ya grow used to them after a while. At least we don’t have Night Foxes ‘round these parts, the pesky varmints. I’d rather take on a thousand Risen than five of those little devils.”
“Strange that you’d say that. I find Night Foxes preferable to literal shadow zombies.” Sadie rolled her eyes good-heartedly. “But I suppose it’s a cultural thing.”
“I suppose so, m’lady.” Grewyn stopped in front of a large building made mostly of stone. “Here we are.” He stepped inside and opened the door. “Urien, I’m back! I brought the Hunters from Gwynt!” There was some muffled yelling coming from another room, but it was impossible to make out what was said. The blue-haired male sighed heavily. “I’ll be right back. Why don’t y’all take a seat in the common room over there while you wait, okay?”
When Grewyn took off, Michael blinked. “What do you think that was all about?”
“Most likely an everyday occurrence, if he was annoyed by it.” Ryan shrugged. He sat down in a plush black chair and fiddled with his D-Tech. “Nothing from Maiya or Zak yet. What about you, Sadie?”
She shook her head, choosing to sit on his lap rather than an open chair. “Nope, not yet. They’ll reach out soon.”
“Must you?” the brunet groaned.
Michael laughed but chose to look around the room. The inside walls had wooden paneling covering them, giving the building a homey feel from the inside. “Are the buildings all stone to keep them upright during sandstorms?”
“I think it also keeps them cool,” Sadie guessed. “Because a lot of the buildings in the savanna areas are stone as well. Think of it this way – it’s as hot outside right now as it is for Gwynt in Tân, right?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, it’s the beginning of Taflen right now. It’d be cooling off nicely at home right now, but it feels like Tân is just starting here. Imagine how hot it must get during Tân while living here. The stone keeps the cool air in and blocks the heat. It would also explain the lack of windows. There are few to keep the heat from coming in easily.”
The teenager shrugged. “I like hot weather. I wouldn’t mind it here as long as I had a private pond or something.”
“I’d melt here.” Ryan shoved Sadie off his lap and took a deep breath. “And she would, too. We’ll deal with it for short periods of time, but neither of us really like heat.”
“Rude.” Sadie brushed herself off and sat down in a separate chair. “Maybe you can convince the Bishops to let you move the Castle to Old Danau’s space when everything is said and done.”
Michael shook his head. “And give up not having to see Bishops in Castle Town? No thanks.” At Ryan and Sadie’s blank stares, he added “What? You think you guys are the only ones with grievances with the Bishops? They’re jerks.”
Before either could respond, a winded-looking Grewyn entered the room. “Sorry for the wait, folks. Urien can see y’all if you’re ready.”
“Is… everything okay?” Ryan dared ask, standing slowly.
“Oh, everything’s fine.” He lowered his head. “Urien’s a wonderful leader, he really is. Unfortunately, with Aerona on a mission and not available to keep tabs on him, the man’s a clumsy mess who’ll kill himself under piles of books.”
“So nice to see y’all made it in one piece!” Urien pushed a few books off his desk and onto the floor below. “Please excuse the mess; the wife is outta town on a mission and she’s usually the one who helps me keep my head on straight.” The Danau leader was quite a bit older than Ryan; he had jet black hair with gray streaks running through it and laugh lines on his light brown skin that showed his age. His eyes were dark brown but lively, indicating the man still had quite a few years of life left in him.
Ryan bit back a snort of laughter. “No problem, I get it. I’m a terrible cook and usually rely on takeout or bunker bites if Sadie’s on a mission.” He then held out his hand. “I believe this is the second time we’ve met, Urien, but I don’t think you met my current assistant the last time I was in town.”
Urien shook his head and took Ryan’s hand. “Nope, I believe Takeda was still your assistant when ya came through last. But it’s nice to meet ya, young lady.”
“I’m Mercedes, it’s a pleasure. I go by Sadie if you’d prefer.” She held out her hand to give him a handshake but was thrown off when he kissed her on the hand delicately. “Uhm… It’s… it’s okay… You d-don’t need t-to be so formal…”
“Nonsense, m’lady.” The black-haired male offered her a smile. “It’d be rude to greet ya in any other way. Oh, and here we have his Highness himself.” Urien bowed graciously. “It’s great to see you in good health, Highness.”
Michael felt his face grow dark red. “T-thank you, sir. But please, you can just call me Michael if you’d like.”
“Y’all are such a modest bunch. Not takin’ too much for granted. I like that.” Urien let out a hearty laugh and then sat down. “It’s good to see y’all made it through the desert all right. I take it your deputies are rebuilding Castle Town?”
Ryan nodded. “Corwynt City’s deputy, Zakkeel, is keeping me updated on progress and anything else that pops up. We’re hoping that we can get his Highness back home soon to resume his duties once we’ve figured out who and what caused the attack.”
Urien blinked. “Right. And you’re off to see the Hathaway clan now, is that right? Do ya think they can help y’all find out who did this?”
“We’re hoping,” Sadie answered. “They’ve got access to the oldest Andalan information. We’ll keep you updated as we find out more.”
“Bless you, m’lady. If there’s anything we can do, just let us know, y’hear?” Urien smiled at the trio. “I’ll contact Corwynt HQ and see if they need any backup. Us Hunters have to stick together in times like this, Bishops be damned.”
Ryan bowed. “We’re forever grateful for your kindness. We will repay you in any way that we can.”
“Oh, there’s no need. Just promise me one thing.” His kind brown eyes turned dark. “Promise me you’ll find the sorry varmint that killed out great king and you bring him down. I want his head.”
Sadie closed the door to the HQ behind her, her shoes crunching softly in the dry grass. “Urien is quite the character, Ryan.”
“That he is, but he’s a good man, and a hell of a fighter. You should see him on the frontlines.” Ryan ran a hand through his hair. “It’s a wonder someone like Grewyn can handle him, though. Rudger knew how to put him in his place, but Grewyn is so sweet. Their personalities must clash from time to time.”
“He must see who Urien truly is, then.” Michael fiddled with the cross-shaped trinket that was wrapped around his sword. “Grewyn is upbeat, kind, loyal, and hardworking. Urien is goofy and clumsy, but strong and determined. They probably clash often but come together when it’s important. Like Sadie and I do.”
Ryan and Sadie glanced at each other, and then back at Michael. “Are you sure you’re only seventeen?” Sadie teased. “That was awful grown-up of you.”
“Shut up!” Michael swatted at Sadie, his face growing red. “Let’s just get to Fudlosgi Village so we can settle down for the night.”
The brunet rolled his eyes and the two began to bicker, following behind them as they walked at a slower pace. He was listening to the crow’s call when he suddenly felt a sharp jolt in his upper body, spreading throughout him like wildfire. He felt like he was being submerged in a pool of hot water, and it stopped him in his tracks.
“Ryan?” Sadie looked back, noticing that Ryan had stopped. “Are you okay?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, I’m fine.” Ryan shook his head, attempting to clear the weird feeling. He only succeeded in making it worse, and he decided to deal with it later. “It’s just the heat, I think. I was looking forward to Gwyntian Taflen.”
The female didn’t look entirely convinced, but she had no reason to believe he was lying. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
Michael snickered. “Wow, he really is a baby when it comes to the heat, isn’t he?”
“No more of a baby than when you woke up with that centipede on your face,” Ryan retorted with a sneer. The barb seemed to silence the teenager and they continued their trek in relative silence; every so often, Sadie and Michael would exchange a barbed jibe, but Ryan didn’t bother contributing any further conversation. It took all his strength not to collapse on the ground and take a nap; why was he suddenly so hot? He knew Danau was a hot country, and that he should be warmer than normal, but this was out of range, even for him. He thought about bringing it up to Sadie but held his tongue. It’d only worry her.
By the time they’d reached the limits of Fudlosgi Village, Ryan felt both miserable and relieved. The heat was pulsing through him furiously now, as if he were being repeatedly doused in boiling water, but reaching the village meant he could rest for a while. Part of him wanted to believe he really was just overheated, but deep down, he knew it was something bigger. He just couldn’t place what.
Sadie had noticed the elder’s silence but chose not to comment on it. Instead, she scouted the area. “Look, there’s an inn nearby. Let’s get a room and recharge, yeah?”
Ryan just nodded. “Sounds good.”
“I know I teased you about it before, Ry, but you actually look like hell.” Michael glanced at Ryan with a worried expression. “You’re pretty flushed; are you sure you’re feeling okay?” He raised a hand to touch Ryan’s forehead, jumping back when Ryan swatted at him. “Hey!”
“Step off, I’m fine.” The brunet instantly felt bad for snapping at the teenager; he knew Michael was just trying to help. “I’m sorry. I’m only tired.”
“It’s fine. We’ve travelled a lot today.”
“Come on, you guys,” Sadie urged. She led the two over to a well-kept wooden building with paper lanterns hanging on the outside. There was a woman with dark purple hair behind the counter, turned around and facing the wall. “Hello, miss?”
The woman jumped but turned around with a kind smile. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting any guests this afternoon. Welcome. May I offer y’all a room?” The woman was tall and pale, with kind brown eyes and a round face. She had a pair of glasses sitting on the bridge of her nose. The one thing that stuck out the most to Sadie was the pair of fuzzy purple ears that stuck out of her head.
“Oh! You’re a Hathaway!” Sadie’s eyes lit up. “I… didn’t expect to find you on accident, I’ll be honest.”
“I wasn’t aware anyone was looking for me.” The woman chuckled good-naturedly and came from around the counter. “Nonetheless, I’ll be happy to assist y’all in any way that I can. First, did y’all need a place to stay for the evening?”
Sadie nodded. “Yes, sorry.” She shelled a few gold pieces out of her pocket and handed them to the woman. “Will this be enough for a night?”
She nodded. “Yes, certainly. I’ll situate you three shortly. But first, y’all seemed to be looking for something.” She beckoned for the three to follow her. “I should introduce myself. I’m Kiki Hathaway. Judging from your accent, you three aren’t from ‘round here?” Kiki took a seat at a lounge table and motioned for the group to do the same.
“No, we’re native of Gwynt. We’re on the lookout for something.” Sadie sat down. “I’m Sadie Dalca, the assistant leader of the Gwynt Hunters.”
“I’m Michael Sala, prince of Andal.” Michael bowed politely. “It’s nice to meet you. Please, keep my identity a secret if you would.”
When Ryan said nothing, staring blankly at the wall and breathing heavily, Sadie nudged him. “I’m sorry, this is Ryan Vasile. He’s the leader of the Gwynt Hunters. He’s a bit overheated right now, otherwise he’d be engaging in conversation.”
Kiki just waved at them. “I understand. A native of Gwynt isn’t used to the heat here.” She frowned. “Will he be okay?”
At the mention of his name, Ryan seemed to snap back to reality. “I’m sorry to worry you, ma’am. I’ll be okay.”
“Let me at least get y’all something cold to drink. You must be parched after crossing the desert and part of the savanna. Wait right here.” She smiled kindly at the trio and walked off.
Once Kiki disappeared, Sadie placed a hand on Ryan’s forehead. “You’re burning up, Ryan. Once we talk to Kiki, you should take a cold bath and get some sleep.”
“I planned on it.” Ryan snorted and rolled his eyes. “While we’re mothering each other, how are you two?”
“I’m fine,” Michael noted, ignoring the hostility in Ryan’s voice. “My feet hurt and I’m a little sweaty, but I’ll live.”
Sadie frowned. “I’m not mothering you, Mathias Ryan. I care about you. But if you insist, I’m fine.” She turned away from him. “Stubborn prick.”
“Sadie, wait…” The brunet frowned, mentally scolding himself. He had been trying not to take his foul mood out on the two of them, but he’d failed. He’d find a way to make it up to them later.
“Here ya are.” Kiki set a tray of water in front of them and sat back down. “Now, Miss Dalca, what did you need from me?”
Sadie watched Ryan take a glass and swirl it around before looking back at Kiki. “We received a visit from Hazel L’Brour.”
“Hazel L’Brour, huh? Interesting.” The werewolf tapped her fingers on the table. “She was up this way a few months ago, asking if we’d seen a book she was looking for. We didn’t know she’d revived, to be honest. We didn’t know she could, but she is a Lord, after all.”
“She gave us an old book and a pendant.” Sadie pulled the pendant out of her pocket and placed it on the table. “Ryan’s sister has the book right now, but does the pendant look familiar at all?”
Kiki picked it up and examined it. “It’s the Moon Pendant. I don’t know a lot about it myself, but I know it was used by the first – and original – Moon Goddess when Andal was first under reform. There were two more, if my memory serves me right – the Sun Key and the Star Cross. They were separated after the original Galaxian Gods disappeared. There were temples for all three of the Gods, too, but all but one was lost to time.”
“We know the Temple of the Star God still exists, according to the book…” Michael glanced at his hands. “But the Sun Key could be anywhere.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that way. But Andal is full of ruins – explore those, and I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.” She smiled. “My daughter, Haliiva, is quite the explorer when it comes to ruins and has found a lot of interesting treasures. When she returns from her latest expedition, I’m sure she’d be happy to speak with you about it.”
Sadie nodded. “That’d be wonderful. But in the meantime, I’m going to let Ryan get some rest.” She stood up, hauling Ryan up with her. “Where should we go?”
“Hang on just a moment, I’ll fetch you a key.”
Ryan felt his blood pulse painfully as the moments passed – what was wrong with him? Why was he feeling this sensation? He could barely hear Sadie as she urged him forward, but he followed, not wanting to worry her further. Suddenly, as he walked, he felt another strong, painful pulse, and he felt like he was on fire. He couldn’t move. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. He could barely make a sound.
Behind spotted vision, in a flash of white, Ryan saw a glimpse of a platform surrounded by water. A dark cave. Curious red eyes reaching down to grasp something…
Sadie? What’s… going on? He knew what he wanted to say, what he was trying to say, but he couldn’t force the words to leave his mouth. He felt consumed by the fire in his blood, as it replaced every bit of liquid in his body. Ryan barely saw Sadie as she ran over to him, his vision growing spotty very quickly, and then he felt nothing as he sank into sweet, blissful darkness.
[i “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran]]
Time seemed to move in slow-motion for Sadie as Ryan started to collapse, and she did all she could to catch him before he hit the floor. “Ryan!”
Michael ran over, his face white. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. “What’s going on? What happened?”
“He’s so warm… I don’t know…” Sadie forced herself to blink back tears; she did not have time to have a breakdown right now. Ryan needed her. “I don’t understand. He was fine until we left the HQ at sunhigh.”
“I have a theory…” Kiki hummed to herself. “It might sound a little far-fetched, but he might be affected by heavy magic in the area. I just don’t know where it could be coming from, or what could be causing a reaction like this.” She shook her head. “Let’s get him upstairs and into bed. It won’t do him any good to stay out here.”
Sadie nodded silently and held Ryan close as she carried him upstairs. She could hear Michael following closely behind her but didn’t say anything to him. She was at a loss for words. As Kiki unlocked a door to a room, she walked in and set him onto the first bed she saw. As she got a good look at him, she noticed how uncomfortable and flushed he looked. His mouth was slightly parted, and he was breathing hard. “What can we do?”
“I’ll head to the rescue in Old Danau and ask Thorne if he has any ideas.” Kiki took her long scarf off and wrapped it around her head like a headdress. “In the meantime, think of creative ways to cool him off and keep yourselves busy.”
“Wait.” Michael stepped towards her. “Do you need someone to go with you? What if you get attacked by a Shadow Beast?”
Kiki snorted gratefully. “I appreciate the gesture, Highness, but if you recall, I’m a werewolf. I’ll be fine.” She nodded to them. “Y’all be careful. I’ll be back soon.”
The female werewolf disappeared beyond the door, leaving Michael and Sadie alone with the unconscious Hunter. “Can I… do anything?”
“Like what? We don’t even know what’s wrong.” Sadie sighed, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. She released some gentle ice magic from her fingers, wrapping the cool tendrils around Ryan’s sleeping frame. Though it wasn’t much, she saw some minor relief flood through his body, putting some of her anxiety at bay.
“I know, but… I can’t just stand around like a useless child.” Michael slumped to the floor.
“To be fair, now you’re sitting there like a useless child.”
The teenager turned to return the barb until he saw a ghost of a smile on Sadie’s face and thought it better to just ignore it. “Did anything like this ever happen to you when you first discovered your magic?”
“Honestly? I can’t remember. I do remember being more resistant to cold than others, but I thought it was just because I really liked the snow and Ia. I didn’t know I even had magic stores until I was five.” Sadie sighed. “I had to hide it – my mother resented me for it. As for possible ailments, the only people who would’ve known if I suffered ailments would’ve been my parents. My mother’s been dead for seventeen years now, and I don’t know if my father survived the attack on Castle Town.” She spat on the floor before returning to her gentle magic. “Good riddance.”
“I guess… But Kiki said it was possible that magic could be doing this to him.” Michael jumped to his feet. “Maybe that Shai person is back in the area and he knows we’re here. He made it clear the last time that he wasn’t done with us.”
Sadie shook her head. “I don’t think so. At least, not yet. I haven’t felt an abnormal spike in shadow magic since we’ve been here.”
The redhead groaned. “You’re also overwhelmed, Sadie. Don’t you think you could possibly be overlooking it? Can Shai mask his power until he’s ready to be found?”
“I don’t know, maybe. We don’t know a lot about the guy.” She lowered her hands for a moment, wincing when the discomfort immediately returned to Ryan’s features. “There could be a lot of factors here. I just don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
“I understand.” He patted the sword on his belt. “I’m going to check out the savanna area outside of town. Do some exploring and map the area.”
The female shot him a look of concern. “Will you be all right on your own?”
“Are you insisting that I can’t take care of myself?” he snapped.
“No, you idiot!” Sadie practically stormed over to the teenager. “I’m not. I’m making sure you’ll be okay because Ryan’s already out of commission and I don’t know when – or if – he’ll recover. We can’t have two of us out of the game, you stubborn moron!” She turned around and crossed her arms. “You men are all the same. You don’t think before you open your mouths.”
Michael felt his anger melt away instantly. “I’m sorry… You’re right. I appreciate the concern, but I don’t plan on going far. I just need to get out of here and do something before I go crazy. I’m getting restless and sitting in here watching Ryan writhe in agony isn’t helping.”
“Right.” She took a deep breath and faced Michael again. He could tell her eyes were misted over, but she’d managed to hold tears back. “Just… don’t take on more than you can handle. And call me if you get into a bind, okay? I might not want to leave Ryan here alone, but he’ll be fine. You won’t be if a pack of Shadow Wargs turns you into dog food.”
“I promise, I’ll contact you if I need help.” He offered her an awkward smile. “It’ll be sundown soon, and I don’t want to be out much later than that on my own if I can help it.”
“Back by sunset, then?”
“By sunset. I’ll be back later.”
When Michael disappeared, Sadie returned to her spot on the bed and placed a hand on Ryan’s forehead. As she released a gentle surge of ice magic, she began to hum softly. [i We’ll figure this out, Ryan. I promise.]
Though there was still quite some time until sundown, the few trees of the savanna blocked most of the sun’s harsh rays, providing a cooler setting than earlier. The heat was dry, but not unpleasant, with the hint of a breeze in the air. The brown grass beneath his feet crunched as he walked, indicating it had not rained this way in some time. Perhaps Michael really wouldn’t enjoy living in Danau – he enjoyed the smell of thunderstorms far too much, both before and after.
The teenager spotted a strange-looking rock formation in his peripherals and stopped, a grin forming on his face. A childish instinct was bubbling inside of him, begging him to climb the formation and stand atop it so he could view his world from the peak. Try as he might, he could not fight the urge, and he found himself scaling the structure easily. He only had to use his sword once to regain his balance as a loose rock caused him to slip.
As he scanned the savanna from the top of the highest rock, he went from feeling powerful to feeling ridiculous. He was a prince, for Ma’qui’s sake, and he just climbed a pile of rocks like it was a wall at a playground. Sadie and Ryan would have no doubt teased him for ages about it had they been here to witness it. Maybe he’d tell Sadie about it when he returned to Fudlosgi. She needed something to laugh about.
The silence gave Michael time to think about the events that had transpired over the past few hours. The sudden change in Ryan had been jarring, and he was surprised that Sadie hadn’t reacted differently. Most women would’ve lost their minds if their spouses had collapsed without a hint of warning, but Sadie had kept her composure, mostly. He realized then that it was because Sadie didn’t think she had the luxury to act like a normal person; she was a leader; she had to keep her composure. Was she worried about Michael thinking of her differently if she were to cry? He’d have to ask her.
Michael sat atop the rock’s smooth surface and pulled the cross trinket off his sword’s hilt. The cross was strange – slightly hollow-feeling – but it was a source of comfort, as it was the cross that was used as the mark of the king. It was also the same cross that was wrapped around his father’s sword when he’d swiped it from the castle. Though his father’s sword travelled with him, it remained unused and wrapped in his cloak – it wouldn’t be right to use it before he was crowned. But the cross was a mark he couldn’t bear to leave behind.
He wrapped the cross trinket around his right wrist and grasped it in his hand, bowing his head in a silent prayer. Michael wasn’t particularly religious like the kings before him, but there wasn’t anything else he could do. He prayed for Kiki’s safe return. For Ryan’s recovery. For Sadie. For himself. He was at a loss, but perhaps the spirits of his ancestors would hear him and help him in his time of need.
Michael raised his head after several minutes and looked up at the sky. The sun was starting to lower beyond the Red Mountains in the far distance, blending a beautiful portrait of pinks and oranges in the sky above. He slid off his perch, remembering his promise to return to Sadie, and turned back towards town.
But there was something foul in the air that just wouldn’t let him leave.
An eerie aura crept up Michael’s spine, chilling him to his core. It was a similar darkness that he’d felt when they’d first met Shai, the only difference being he didn’t feel Shai’s signature within the area. Whatever was going on, whether Shai was present or not, he was behind the sudden increased chaos.
Michael could also feel a wave of fear. There was fear and pain mixed in with the chaos and darkness, and he couldn’t ignore it. Not while he was still alive and breathing. He barely noticed as his feet turned him around and into the opposite direction, dry grass flying up in retaliation of his harsh footsteps. He didn’t know if he’d be able to help, but he had to try.
He knew he shouldn’t play hero; he wasn’t strong enough. Not like Ryan or Sadie. As he ran, Michael pulled up his D-Tech and hit Sadie’s number. Hopefully, she hadn’t fallen asleep, and she’d answer.
[i “What’s up?”]
“Sadie, we might have a problem!”
[i “You sound winded; are you running? Why is your video off? What’s going on?”]
“That weird dark aura is back,” he explained breathlessly. “It’s like Shai’s, but it’s not his. He caused it. I can feel it.”
[i “Are you sure?”]
“Positive. I’m heading towards it now, but I need your help. I don’t think I can handle whatever’s out there without you.”
[i “Right. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Stay safe.”] A pause. [i “Please.”]
Sadie hung up after that, ending the conversation. Michael knew he shouldn’t be surprised at the redhead’s concern, but he was. Was she concerned that he couldn’t defend himself, or that he would be overpowered? He shook his head. This wasn’t a good time to get riled up over something nonsensical.
A pained howl brought Michael out of his thoughts, and he stopped in his tracks. From an area of the savanna laden in caverns, he could see something approaching. It was still a bit far-off; all he could see were the nearing shadows, but the chaos and the fear were so strong, they felt suffocating. He drew his sword and waited; he didn’t dare inch closer.
The figures were closer now – one was a small, but larger than average, black wolf. The wolf was in the front, running as quickly as it could. It had a limp and a gash on the left side of its face, but it was still alive. It was a werewolf, so Michael assumed that it had to be a Hathaway.
The werewolf’s pursuer was much larger, and Michael couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be. It looked like a combination between a Shadow Warg, a Werebear, and other creatures Michael couldn’t identify. It was terrifying. The teenager felt like running away, but the Hathaway’s were doing so much to help them. He at least needed to help the werewolf escape.
As the werewolf darted past him, the glimmer of a necklace catching his eye and distracting him momentarily, he swung his sword into the leg of the beast. The sudden infliction of pain caused the beast to howl and lose its focus. As it crashed to the ground, Michael turned to face the Hathaway. “Are you okay?”
The werewolf had shifted, a small black-haired girl with red eyes taking its place. Her right arm and left cheek were scathed, but he didn’t think the wounds were too deep. “I think so… Thank you.”
“What is that thing?” He ran over to the girl, inspecting her wounds. “And why is it after you?”
“How should I know?” Her red eyes shifted in anger. “I was exploring runs like I usually do – I’ve never seen a beast like that before. But once I pulled this out of a cave…” She pulled on a red key that hung on her neck, dangling with another pendant she was wearing. “It just appeared. It was almost out of nowhere.”
Michael was intrigued with the key. “You were exploring ruins? You wouldn’t happen to be Kiki’s daughter Haliiva, would you?”
“I’d really like it if you’d call me Halii,” she responded smarmily. She opened her mouth to speak again, but her eyes widened. “Watch out!”
The teenager had a split second to react; he pulled out his sword to defend himself. Though most of the hit was blocked, he felt sharp claws pierce his shoulder and he let out a hiss of pain.
Halii pulled out a throwing knife with her good arm. “I’m so sorry; I distracted you. It really wasn’t a good time to correct you on my name and-”
“Don’t be, it was a rookie mistake to look away.” Michael lifted his sword again but dropped it due to the protest in his shoulder. [i What can I do? Is this how I’m going to die? Because I looked away?]
When Michael saw a flurry of icicles fly by and hit the beast, knocking it back, he could’ve cried.
“How the hell did you manage to find a Fusion?”
“Sadie!” Michael had to keep himself from hugging the female as she approached. “It was chasing her.” He pointed to Halii.
Sadie nodded. “The pendant she’s wearing gives off powerful magic; it seems interested in that.” She twirled the Moon Staff around. “I’ll keep it at bay for as long as I can; you guys should get back into the town. Get a few Hunters out here or something.”
“I can’t just leave you out here!” the redhead snapped. “You might be stronger than me, but that thing will tear you apart!”
“And I still have some fight left!” Halii shifted back into her werewolf form and growled. “I’m not leaving either, considering it’s my fault it’s out here.”
“Stubborn idiots!” she spat. She turned to face the Fusion. It was getting back up now, and it looked angry. “If you’re staying, don’t get in my way, Michael. You either, wolf girl.”
Michael snorted. “Speak for yourself.”
“Bring it on!” Halii growled.
“There you are. Welcome back.”
“Why… why am I so tired?”
“You were running a high temperature and then you collapsed.”
“Oh… What are you doing?”
“Ice magic. It seems to be helping a little bit. Do you want me to stop?"
“No, don’t. It’s nice… Where’s Michael?”
“He was getting restless and went for a walk. He’ll be back before moonrise, and he’ll call with any trouble.”
“Hm… And where’s the werewolf?”
“Kiki? She went to Old Danau to speak with her mate, I assume. She wants to find out what’s going on with you. She thinks it might be magic.”
“I’m beginning to really hate magic.”]
Ryan felt hot and uncomfortable, but something in the back of his mind kept him from slipping back into unconsciousness. He wished he could just get over whatever was plaguing him suddenly; the sooner he recovered, the sooner they could continue their journey.
He wasn’t sure if it could be just generic magic causing the problem; wouldn’t Sadie’s magic have influenced him in some way? Or the various Shadow Beasts he fought every day? He wasn’t an expert on magic; what did he know?
The exhausted male glanced back at the door, where Sadie had exited just minutes before. She had seemed hurried but had tried to keep him from worrying about it. He knew better. Something was wrong. He hadn’t heard the conversation, but her eyes gave everything away.
It was always her eyes.
[i “I have to go out for a bit, Ry.”
“Michael needs me to meet up with him for something. He didn’t give me many details, but I’ll fill you in when I get back.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“…Stay here. I’ll be back.”
“Right… be careful.”
“Yeah. I will.”]
The uneasiness in her voice had made sitting still even harder, but what good was he now? Ryan pushed himself up; though it was a struggle, he’d managed to get himself into an upright position. If he could barely sit, how could he help with whatever Sadie and Michael had gotten themselves into?
He didn’t care, he decided. He had to try.
With unsurprising difficulty, Ryan managed to get himself into a standing position. His vision swam for a few moments before steadying; he would need to help himself if he were going to make it anywhere. Thinking fast – and using the bed as a makeshift railing – Ryan made his way to the pile of their belongings, pulling his scythe out and unfolding it in one swift, dizzying motion.
Ryan decided to use his scythe as a walking stick. Though it wasn’t ideal – or built for that use – it got him out of the room and down the stairs. He stopped right outside the inn door to catch his breath; was this really his best idea? He knew rationally that it wasn’t, but he didn’t know what else to do.
He was grateful that sunset was approaching; the sun’s rays were barely touching his already heated skin, and there weren’t as many townsfolk out to witness him as he shambled across town. He barely managed to catch himself as he slipped a few times; at least his reflexes were trying to be on-point. He could at least brag that up to Sadie later.
Oh. Sadie. She was going to kill him if he didn’t end up killing himself.
The dirt and grass of the savanna were easier to dig the base of his scythe handle into; he was grateful for the added traction as he grew more tired. Ryan could feel himself grow warmer as he traversed through the savanna, which made no sense; the sun was lowering. He should be cooling down.
The sound of unnatural howling is what clued Ryan in that he was going the right way. He could smell the coppery tang of blood – he could only hope it wasn’t a lot, or at least a lot from Sadie or Michael. Somehow, a spark of adrenaline allowed him to pick up his pace; though all he could manage was a brisk jog, he no longer had to use his scythe to hold himself up. It was exhausting, but he couldn’t lose Michael and Sadie. He just couldn’t.
As he came across the scene, that’s exactly what it looked like was going to happen.
Ryan had no idea how it happened, but he felt himself drop his scythe as his anger bubbled. He was frozen to his spot; there was an injured wolf laying on its side with Michael hovering over it, looking worse for wear. Sadie was still in the thick of a fight with a Fusion, but she was injured, and she looked tired. Her dodges were becoming slower, and she was getting hit more often. Her right eye was fixed shut, two claw marks raked over that side of her face, scarring the area, and caking it in blood. She was battered and bruised all over her body, and she didn’t look like she even had the strength to fight back anymore. All she could do was dodge.
Michael looked like he’d tried to help, but he was nowhere near as experienced as Sadie was. His sword was thrown off to the side, just out of reach, and Michael’s shoulder was torn. He had a large bruise on his neck, and his left leg had claw marks raked down it. The wolf he was protecting – a werewolf, with closer observation - looked like it’d tried to help as well but wasn’t faring much better. While he was looking away, the wolf had shifted back into a young girl. When he got a good look at her battle wounds, Ryan had seen enough.
Both Michael and the girl looked over in his direction. “Ryan?!” the redhead shouted, but it had gone largely ignored by the elder male.
He felt a heat – an anger – he’d never experienced before, but this time, it wasn’t painful. He felt like it was guiding him, so he let it. Ryan felt the palms of his hands burn, and suddenly, everything was starting to make sense. It wasn’t an outside magic that was hurting him.
It was his own maturing fire magic.
“Heathen!” he shouted, holding his hands in front of him. With an unexpected, yet welcome, surge of power, he felt the heat that was building inside him rush out towards his hands and in the direction of the beast in the form of physical flames. The flames stung slightly as they pushed forward from his hands, though the feeling faded quickly. He saw Sadie duck out of the way just in time to be caught in the crossfire and listened to the beast screech in pain.
“Ryan?! What the hell are you doing out here?” Sadie’s voice had reached a new pitch. He could almost see the unspoken question on her lips; [i How did you do that?!] He didn’t know how to answer her, so he decided not to.
“I’m helping you!” he retorted. “It’s getting back up; are you ready?”
The female couldn’t argue as the creature extinguished itself; it looked livid. “We’ll talk about this later, Mathias.”
“Yeah. Later.” Though he still felt weak, Ryan felt some of his energy return after releasing the fire magic. “Let’s just kill this thing.”
One of the first things Michael thought when he saw Ryan was how angry he was that Ryan had come out, but how relieved he was that Ryan was okay. Michael had thought about crawling over to his sword so he could help, but his injured leg made him think otherwise. Instead, he looked over to Halii, intending to ask her for one of her knives. “Halii, do you…” He trailed off suddenly, his eyes widening.
“Huh?” Halii glanced at him quizzically. “Why are you staring at me like that?”
“The key on your necklace.” He pointed to it. “It’s pulsing.”
The young female looked down and gasped, her red eyes filled with disbelief. “What is this thing? Is it a protection rune?”
Michael shook his head. “I don’t think so. It almost feels familiar somehow…” He closed his eyes, dredging up the encounter with Sadie’s Moon Pendant. The way it had started glowing when she was fighting Shai. “How long ago did you find that?”
“I don’t know. A few hours ago?” Halii shrugged. “How is that important?!”
“Ryan collapsed a few hours ago after getting really hot. He was completely fine before that…” Michael glanced at the pair, who were still fighting the Fusion. Sadie was doing well for someone newly half-blinded, and Ryan for someone completely unskilled in magic. Both, however, were getting extremely exhausted. “Ryan’s never used magic before now; he’s never been able to. And I think it’s tied to that.” He pointed to the key again. “I think that’s the Sun Key. And I think Ryan’s reaction is tied to you breaking the seal to the entrance of its hiding place.”
The young werewolf gasped. “This little key is the weapon of the Sun God? Is that…” She glanced at the Fusion. “Is that why the Shadow Beast came after me? For the key?”
“It must’ve been created specifically by one of the ex-sage’s vessels to retrieve it.” Michael shook his head. “It’s pulsing because it knows Ryan is its owner… He needs it. Can I have it?”
“I’ll take care of it.” Halii ripped the key off her necklace, breaking the chain in the process. “Hey! Hothead! I’ve got something for ya!”
What Michael witnessed next was nothing short of dangerously beautiful. He saw Ryan’s hand open as they key spun towards him – almost as if he knew it belonged to him – and caught it with practiced grace. He then threw it at the Fusion; as it spun towards the beast, it formed into a full scythe within a tornado of flames. With his normal scythe in hand, Ryan ran to catch up with it, holding the normal scythe over his head and slashing down into the beast as the Sun Scythe cut through.
Sadie had stepped back the moment Ryan had caught the key in his palm but held her staff firmly in case something had gone awry. She grinned as the beast was seared in two, both halves falling unceremoniously onto the dry earth below. With some of the underbrush catching flame, Sadie casted some water magic over the area to extinguish the flames quickly.
“Ryan! You did it!” Michael rose carefully onto his good leg, with Halii’s help, and surveyed the area. The Fusion had fallen. Ryan was alive. The Sun Key had been found.
“Yeah.” The Hunter’s voice was tired and breathless, but he turned to Michael and smiled softly. “We did.”
“Ryan?” Sadie’s voice was soft and uncertain. “Are you okay?”
Ryan nodded gently. “Yeah. I’m… I’m only tired.” As if detecting his lack of energy, the Sun Scythe morphed back into its key form as Ryan became unsteady on his feet. Before the older male could collapse entirely, Sadie had run up to him and caught him. “Nice catch.”
“Idiot.” Her words were harsh but coated with a familiar fondness. “Rest now, okay? I’ll get you back to the inn.”
“You’re tired too, though.” Ryan’s words were meaningless, however, as he went limp in Sadie’s arms shortly after.
The redheaded female shook her head. “He’s hopeless.” She faced Michael and Halii. “Can one of you fold up Ryan’s scythe and take it back with us? It’s almost moonrise and Kiki should be back soon. She’ll want to know what’s happened.”
Michael nodded, but Halii beat him to the scythe and began to neatly fold it away. “Is he going to be okay?” the teenager asked tenderly.
“Yeah.” Sadie smiled. “He’s going to be just fine.”
[i “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” – Og Mandino]]
It was shortly after Moonrise when Sadie returned to the inn, Ryan in her arms, and Michael and Halii following behind. Her injured eye made navigation difficult; luckily, the darkness of the forest had taught her to rely mainly on sound, and they’d made it back to Fudlosgi without further incident.
Kiki had not yet returned by the time they walked inside, allowing Sadie a sigh of relief. They had time to figure themselves out, now. “Stay downstairs and get cleaned up,” she suggested, shifting Ryan to her back. “I’m going to lay Ryan down; I’ll be right back.” Sadie did not wait for a response and headed upstairs, entering the room Kiki offered them and laying Ryan down in the bed he’d occupied earlier.
Sadie laid a hand on Ryan’s forehead, grateful that he was only mildly warm. Using the pent-up fire magic and the Sun Scythe must’ve worked the heat out of his system. The female gently pried the Sun Key out of the unconscious male’s hand and placed it on the side table – she’d find a chain to put it on later. After scanning him further, she was grateful that, other than a few scuffs and some dirt, Ryan was unharmed.
[b “Haliiva Tsuva Hathaway, what in Umbra’s Chambers happened to you?”]
The female winced at the yelling downstairs; she had a distinct feeling that if she didn’t start explaining something, the two downstairs would end up more banged up than they already were. Sadie moved the hair out of Ryan’s face and smiled at him before rushing downstairs. She narrowly avoided a wall she didn’t see in her new blind spot and groaned in frustration. “Kiki, you’re-”
“By Ma’qui’s eyes, all three of y’all look like hell!” Kiki looked frantic as she ripped off her headdress. “What happened? Start talking!”
“Kiki, calm down!” Sadie raised her arms in defense. “It looks worse than it really is, I promise. We got into a tangle with a creature a bit bigger than us, but it’s dead and we’re not.”
“Well thank the gods for that.” The purple-haired werewolf took a few deep breaths to calm herself down. “How did this happen?”
“Your daughter managed to find the Sun Key in some ruins.” Sadie pointed upstairs. “The key is upstairs right now, and it’s the reason Ryan got so sick so quickly. Halii must’ve activated it somehow, and in doing so, it awakened his fire magic. My guess is he didn’t know how to use it and it didn’t know where to go, so it overloaded his body.”
Kiki nodded. “I’m glad it wasn’t something worse. How is our resident Hunter now?”
“He’s asleep but doing much better. His temperature has gone down significantly; the mild fever is likely due to exhaustion.”
“Is he as banged up as the rest of y’all?”
“No.” Sadie chuckled nervously. “He’s a little dirty and scuffed up, but he missed most of the fighting. He has some minor burns on his hands from using fire magic, but those’ll go away by tomorrow at the latest.”
“Right.” The elder werewolf still looked exasperated, but more relieved that the group was still alive. “Off topic, I couldn’t find much back at the rescue, but maybe what I did scrounge up could be helpful.” From the satchel on her shoulder, she pulled out a green folder. “Thorne dug up a few documents from the old castle library, and this was all that seemed relevant. One of the pages has sketches of the Moon Pendant and the other two artifacts.”
“Thank you, Kiki.” The redhead flipped through the folder, skimming the first page. “I’ll transcribe it for Ryan so he can get up to speed.”
“Didn’t study up on his Ancient Andalan?”
“I’m afraid not. He’s been a Hunter his entire life; there’s never been a need to.”
“I s’pose that’s fair.” Kiki turned to Kiki, who was looking over Michael’s leg. “Haliiva, how are your wounds?”
“Fine. They’ve already stopped bleeding.” Halii glanced at her mother briefly. “I’ll wrap them after a bath.”
She nodded. “And yours, Highness?”
Michael shrugged sheepishly. “The shoulder wound isn’t as bad as I thought, but Halii says the leg wound is pretty deep. I’ll be fine, though, don’t worry.”
“Good to hear. Halii, show Michael where to find the medical supplies, and then both of y’all should get some rest. I’m gonna help Sadie here with the wound on her face and then get some shut-eye myself.” Kiki pointed towards the stairs. “Move along, now.”
Halii rolled her eyes. “Yes, mother.” Without waiting for Kiki’s response or Michael’s protesting, she grabbed the prince by the sleeve of his shirt and dragged him towards the stairs.
“Halii, wait, slow down!”
“Quit whining, Michael. You’re fine.”
Kiki crossed her arms as the two disappeared upstairs, shouting at each other. The sound muffled itself as a door shut. “I swear, I don’t know where she gets her attitude.” She shook her head. “Never mind that. How are you holdin’ up? That wound on your face looks pretty nasty.”
“It stopped bleeding some time ago, but it’s throbbing something awful.” Sadie shrugged. “Still, it could be worse. The dried blood has it fused shut – I’m not sure if I can still see out of it or not.”
“I’ll help you clean it up at least.” The purple-haired werewolf wandered over to a drawer, pulling out a hand cloth and a bottle of antiseptic. “Come sit over in the light, okay?”
Sadie did as she was told, sitting in a chair Kiki pulled out for her. “How was your trip to Old Danau? Did you run into any trouble?”
“Not really. Saw a couple of wannabe bandits tryin’ to rob some poor sap on the road, but they turned tail once they saw me comin’.” She carefully started wiping around the wound. “There was a hell of a sandstorm brewin’ in Old Danau when I got there. Thorne was tryin’ to keep the kids from goin’ outside when I showed up. I yapped at ‘em a bit and they stayed in line.”
“Sorry to make you go all that way for a few papers.” Sadie bit back a hiss as the dried blood pulled on the wound.
“It wasn’t for nothing, at the very least. Those papers do look rather important.”
She hummed. “I wonder if Michael will have a reaction to his artifact if its activated before we find it.”
“Perhaps you’ll find something when transcribing the notes. I didn’t really read them, so I won’t be much help.” She stepped away. “Okay, you should be able to open your eye now. Do that for me and tell me if you can see out of it.”
Sadie nodded. Deep in her heart, she was anxious; though she knew she’d make do without her right eye, it would put her at a disadvantage. Pushing the thoughts aside, she slowly and painfully opened the damaged eyelid. Darkness. “Nothing. Not even light.”
“The outer damage was extensive – I wasn’t sure. Will you be all right?”
“Yeah, I should be. My left side is the strongest, and I practically trained in the dark for the first year after leaving home. It’ll take some adjusting, but I’ll be fine.” She stood up, placing a hand on the raw wound. The torn area was rough and ragged, so she turned to the small mirror on the wall to investigate. Her pupil was already beginning to cloud over, but her iris and the white of her eye were fine, only irritated from the wound. The claw raked over the eye and toward her ear, stopping just before it hit. It was bothersome, but it was the risk of her job. “I need a bath and some sleep.”
Kiki frowned. “Are you going to tell Halii and Michael that you’re half blind now?”
Sadie shook her head. “No. I’m sure they both suspect it’s not the same, but it happened because I was protecting Michael after he lost his weapon. If I told him right now, he’d just feel guilty. He’ll find out eventually.” The redhead yawned. “Good night, Kiki.”
[i Maiyalaan Vasile: Hey, Ry. Sorry it took me a while to reach out; I ended up backtracking to Castle Town to look for something. Your Hunters are super dedicated – it’s starting to come together out here. You should really thank them when you come home. Anyway, I’m leaving Awyr in the next few moments – I’ll let you know when I reach Old Danau so you can update me on your location. I hope you’re well. And remember, I travel faster than you!]
The ‘ping’ from his D-Tech is what summoned Ryan from his deep slumber. It took him a few moments to recall the events of the previous day – the Sun Key, using fire magic, the Fusion – but he took a deep breath as he realized he felt practically normal. As he picked up his D-Tech to check the notification, he winced at a slight stinging sensation in his fingers. Burned? Is this normal? The burns weren’t bad enough to deter him; he’d ask Sadie when he had the chance.
Sadie. The message temporarily forgotten, he turned to locate his partner. His heart soared when he realized she was asleep beside him. She faced away from him, snoring softly. He winced as he scanned what he could see of her body – she was battered and bruised, but she wouldn’t complain about it to him. Not unless she had to. He couldn’t see her injured eye from his current spot, but he guessed it didn’t look good.
As he carefully slid off the bed, intending to get a closer look at her face, he noticed Michael in another bed across the room. The teenager was also still asleep, mouth slightly agape and stretched across nearly the entire surface of the mattress. Ryan chuckled softly; he was still a kid, after all. His left leg was outside of the blankets and bandaged, his pant leg lifted slightly to show off the area. Michael looked like hell, too.
Ryan frowned, shaking his head, and made his way to Sadie’s side of the bed. Instantly, his frown deepened. Though the right side of her face was partially hidden, the fresh scarring he could see was deep. He knew that if the eye wasn’t lost, it was permanently damaged.
“Oh, Sadie.” Ryan touched the uninjured side of her face gently. He knew she wouldn’t be inherently upset – Hunters had to be prepared for anything, this being no exception. He was upset for her; she’d managed to keep herself from being inflicted with any permanently disabling wounds for the past nine years. Though he knew she would continue to push with all the power she had, he knew she would seethe about it to herself. Ryan wouldn’t hear about it, no matter how he pushed.
The redhead stirred under his touch, her good eye opening first, and the bad eye following at a slower pace. Internally, he winced at the milky color her iris was already starting to take, hoping Sadie couldn’t tell. “’re you okay?” Sadie mumbled sleepily.
“I’m fine.” Ryan’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. “Just worried about you.”
She yawned, pushing herself up. The too-large shirt she wore – likely one the pair had been sharing for a while – hung loosely on her frame. “Don’t be, I’m all right.” She fixed herself into a cross-legged position. Her injured eye followed the good one at a slightly-delayed pace. “Nothing we shouldn’t be prepared for.”
Ryan sighed but nodded. “Quiet down a bit, yeah? Michael’s still asleep.”
Sadie winced. “Sorry.” She moved her sleep-ruined hair out of her face. “What’re you doing up so early? You’re usually the last one awake.”
“My D-Tech went off.” He stared blankly at his partner for a moment before sighing. “I forgot about the message. Could you grab my D-Tech for me? I left it on my side of the bed.”
“Yeah.” She grabbed the watch and glanced at the screen. “It’s from your sister.”
Ryan lit up. “Finally.” He tried to sound annoyed but was more relieved than anything. He scanned the message quickly, humming affirmations to himself. “Castle Town is coming along well, apparently. She’d also left Awyr and is heading our way.”
“So it’ll be a while before she reaches us.” Sadie bit back a yawn. “Should we wait here for her or move on?”
“Well remember, she’s a seasoned traveler. She does travel faster than us. However, I want to leave it up to you.” Ryan shrugged. “Do you feel you can move on?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. If Michael can handle travelling on his injured leg, we can slow our pace, but I’d like to head out sooner rather than later.”
Ryan suspected Sadie wasn’t going to tell him whether she was really prepared to venture out, so he simply nodded. She’d get more stubborn with an argument. “Right, got it.”
“I’ll go get ready, then.” Stretching her limbs, Sadie reached out to grab Ryan’s hand. She squeezed it firmly for a moment before pulling away. “When Michael gets up, we can let Kiki know we’re leaving and head out.”
She said nothing further turned away, grabbing some clothes, and closing herself into the small, attached restroom.
“Stubborn,” he finally grumbled. [i “When Michael’s awake, we can let Kiki know we’re leaving.”] He felt bad for mocking her, but he was similarly irate. Why wouldn’t she allow herself to relax while they could?
Ryan looked back, seeing the young male roll out of bed. Michael was careful with his injured leg, keeping it from touching the bed if possible. His short hair made it so Michael avoided bedhead; what Ryan would have paid to see what it looked like before the haircut. “Oh, you heard that, did you?”
Michael chuckled; the sound was tired and dry, but full of humor and life. “I heard you mock Sadie as soon as her back was turned.”
“Well, she’s being stubborn.”
“Sounds like someone else we know.”
The Hunter couldn’t seek a valid argument, so he just sent an ice-cold look Michael’s way. The younger just raised his hands in a ‘I surrender’ fashion before bending down to retrieve his clothing. “I’ll head to another room to change. You should consider the same, and maybe a hairbrush. You look like a hedgehog.”
Ryan tossed a pillow Michael’s way, the redhead squawking as the pillow hit him, and laughing as he quickly limped away. He sent a quick message to Maiya, letting her know they’d be leaving Fudlosgi, before grabbing his things and joining Sadie in the restroom.
“Y’all really are welcome to stay longer, if you’d like.” Kiki’s voice was soothing, a frown etched in her face. “Two of ya still have fresh wounds, and Ryan looks like he could use more rest.”
Sadie shook her head. “Michael said his leg is feeling better, and, well…” She shrugged. “We’re going at a slower pace to give Ryan’s sister ample time to catch up, but we really don’t have time to wait around.”
She sighed, relenting. Kiki seemed to understand that the redhead was stubborn. “I understand.”
“Thank you so much for everything.” Ryan bowed to her. “You’ve been incredibly helpful, and we will forever be grateful.”
The werewolf blushed. “It’s my pleasure, really. If y’all really must go, take care of yourselves, ya hear? And don’t forget that y’all will always have a place here, whether or not y’all can pay.”
“Thanks, Kiki. We really appreciate it.” Sadie shifted her pack, so it sat correctly on her belt. She looked confident, but she felt uncomfortable as half of her sat in the dark. Should she be pushing herself so soon? She couldn’t turn back now. “Are you two ready?”
Ryan nodded. “Whenever you are.”
“Yeah.” Michael shifted his shoulder bag. “Say good-bye to Halii for me, Kiki. I was going to do it myself, but I couldn’t find her.”
“She’s probably sulking – whether she’d admit it or not, she probably liked y’all.” The purple-haired female giggled. “I’ll pass it along. Y’all take care now.”
“Bye.” With only a further moment of hesitation, Sadie pushed open the door and stepped out into the warm, dry morning air. Midsun was Sadie’s favorite time of day, no matter the location. The sun was still at a low level in the sky; if they were still in Corwynt, the sparkling dewdrops would be shining on the grass. The temperature was already quite high, promising a hot day ahead of them. “Kiki gave me some papers last night, Ry?”
“Hm?” The brunet made an interested noise, kicking up a cloud of dirt as he walked. “Can I see them?”
“I have a few more pages to transcribe, but I got most of them done last night.” She dragged Michael back slightly and fished through his bag, retrieving the folder with the documents, and handing it to Ryan. “You’ll know when to stop. I also have some notes in the margins for some harder to explain parts.”
Ryan scanned the first page. “I shouldn’t have a problem reading this as we move, seeing as we’re not speeding along.”
“Just don’t trip over anything,” Michael teased. “Only one of us needs to have a useless limb.”
“I’m a bit more coordinated than-”
Sadie stopped in her tracks, Michael and Ryan following suit. When the redhead turned around, she was surprised to see who was behind them. “Halii? What are you doing here?”
The black-haired werewolf was panting; she must’ve barely caught them. “Don’t… don’t go yet…” She straightened herself out, a serious look in her bright red eyes. “I want to go with you.”
“Halii…” Michael frowned.
“You can’t just go with us, Halii.” Sadie crossed her arms. “We’re not just travelling Andal because we want to.”
“I know that!” Halii spat. “I want to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for. I might not be as skilled as Mom or Dad, but I’m a Hathaway, too!”
Ryan frowned. “You’re just a child. We can’t-”
Angry tears began streaming down the young werewolf’s face. “I’m not just a child! I’m a werewolf fully capable of defending herself! I know Ancient Andalan, and I can recite more lore than any of you lot! I’m just…” She looked away, wiping the tears from her face. “I’m not doing anything with my life. I want to learn more. I want to grow, like my parents did. I know I’ll inherit the Rescue someday, and I’m fine with that. I just don’t want to inherit the Rescue without exploring the world and learning everything I can! If you guys fail, there won’t even be a Rescue to inherit!”
Sadie sighed. “You’re quite the handful, you know?” She placed her hands on her hips. “Does Kiki know you’re trying to come with us?”
“I’m often gone for days at a time anyway; it won’t make that much of a difference.” Halii then pointed to her D-Tech. It was scuffed, but usable. “I can also call her if she starts to get worried.”
“Fine?!” Ryan’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Sadie, are you sure about this? She’s too young to-”
Sadie glanced at him. “She said she’s capable of taking care of herself; werewolves do learn to fight earlier than human Hunters. She also sounds like I did when I left home… I can’t say no to that.”
Halii lowered her head. “I know I’m causing a lot of trouble, but… I really feel like I could be a lot of help. I’m good at tracking ruins; that’s how I found the Sun Key.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Ryan sighed. “Let’s get going, then, before I have the chance to change my mind.”
“Are we almost in Lludw?” Michael was practically dragging his bad leg behind him as he wiped sweat off his forehead. “I don’t care that my leg hurts, but I’m fairly certain the sun is trying to kill me.”
Sadie snorted. “We’re not even close, kiddo. What’s wrong? I thought you liked the heat.”
“It’s not even that bad.” Ryan rolled his eyes. “It’s not even Sunhigh yet – just wait.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that.” The redheaded female glanced at Ryan. The elder had yet to even break into a sweat. “The fire magic must be giving you resistance; you’re usually the first person to complain.”
Halii stopped in her tracks, cracking her back. “Why don’t we stop for a bit? There’s a watering hole nearby, and I want to redress his wound.”
“I second that.” The teenager shared a grateful look with Halii. “It’ll also give Maiya some time to catch up, won’t it?”
Ryan side-eyed Sadie. “It was your idea to leave so soon. What do you think?”
She glared at him but nodded. “We may as well, before we hit the next stretch of desert. The worst thing we’ll find out here are the Dark Bobcats and Midnight Coyotes.”
“They’re not as troublesome as Risen or Night Foxes; he probably didn’t think about it.”
“Anything’s less troublesome than Risen,” Ryan added.
Halii snorted as she sorted through her messenger bag. “I’m not scared of the Risen. They’re desert zombies that can pack a mean punch, but only if they can gang up on someone by themselves. Those varmints don’t stand a chance with a group this size.”
“While that might be true,” Sadie retorted. “I’d rather avoid them all together while Michael’s leg is acting up. They’re sneaky, and Ryan and I have only encountered them once. We’re not experienced enough with them.”
Michael frowned. “I’m sorry that I’m holding us back. I should’ve been more careful.”
“We both should’ve been.” She touched the fresh wound on her face. “We can’t go back now.” Walking up to Ryan, she snatched the scythe off his back. “I’m going to scout the immediate area, Ry. Stay with them.” She dropped one of her daggers at his feet.
“Sadie, wait-” Before Ryan could try to argue, Sadie took off into the savanna. “Why my weapon? Stubborn woman.” He shook his head and picked up the dagger she left behind. At least he had a weapon. “How’s his leg, Halii?”
“It’ll be fine in a few days. It’s just irritated from being jostled around.” The werewolf finished wrapping the wound. “I’m not a medic, but it’d be a good idea to rest in Lludw for the evening and leave Danau in the morning.”
The elder nodded. “If I can manage to convince Sadie it’s a good idea, I agree. She’s exhausted, too; I might be able to wear her down.” Putting Michael and Halii in the back of his mind, he sat against a think tree and pulled out the worn folder. Though he’d attempted to read while walking, he’d had to help Sadie fend off a few Shadow Wargs along the way. Hopefully, with Sadie off hunting, he’d have some luck.
Michael didn’t want to sit around and do nothing, so he scooted closer to Ryan. “Can I see the papers that haven’t been transcribed? I can help you read them.”
“Sure.” He handed them over and began to scan the first page. “This one here goes over stuff we’ve already figured out; the Moon Pendant, the Sun Key, and the Star Cross.”
“Does it go into further detail?”
“Marginally. The Moon Pendant didn’t transform into a staff for the first Moon God – it looks like they used a Trident.” Ryan hummed. “Sadie’s handwriting gets sloppy here, but it looks like the weapons of the Gods change based on the soul of the user.”
“A scythe makes sense for you, then,” Michael chimed. “Why a staff for Sadie, though? She uses daggers, doesn’t she?”
“Well, yes, when she doesn’t take my weapon.” Ryan turned to Michael. “She’s actually quite skilled with them, too. Perhaps it’s because the daggers aren’t her choice of weapon.”
The prince cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Just that. She didn’t necessarily want to use a weapon when she joined the Hunters; she prefers magic. However, magic users are rare these days, and she wanted to avoid calling attention to herself. She already knew how to forge the saber daggers; she just had to learn how to use them. Took her about a year.”
Michael nodded in understanding. “The staff forged itself because she uses magic as her weapon. Since I haven’t fought a lot, what do you think mine will be?”
The elder Hunter shrugged. “I’m not sure. It looks like the first Star God used a spear.” He glanced to Michael. “Have you gotten anything from those pages?”
“Yeah, actually. It has some vague lore on the Galaxian Gods.” Michael pointed to the page. “This word here is Mtora, which means Moon in Ancient Andalan. Sores is Star, and Soria is Sun. Gox means god, and Goxeia means Goddess. Mtora Goxeia is-”
“The first Moon God was actually a Goddess.” Ryan nodded to himself. “Think it’s relevant?”
“I’m not sure. Like I said, it’s vague. We have their names, though.” He skimmed the page with his finger. “The Moon Goddess Luna, the Son God Solis, and the Star God Seren.”
After a few moments of silence between the two males, Halii plopped herself down at Ryan’s open side. “I remember reading something about reincarnations having to follow rules. Mom said the same thing when I asked her about it.”
“Rules?” Michael set the page down. “Such as?”
“I don’t remember them all, sorry. I do remember that they have to be the same biological gender as the first incarnation.” Her red eyes were clear and focused. “They also have to share pieces of the same bloodline. It doesn’t seem important, but it’s likely that the Star God Seren was the very first incarnation of a Sala.”
Michael crossed his arms. “The Galaxian Gods didn’t stay in Andal, though. How could Seren have been the first Sala?”
“It’s a technicality. I’d have to ask Mom or Dad to clarify it for me, but I think when the Gods’ first incarnations disappeared, their essence was spread throughout the world. When life was reborn, your ancestors would’ve been created.”
“That’s really helpful.” Ryan smiled. “Thanks. We know more than we did before. We can share this with Sadie when she gets back.”
“Share what with Sadie when she gets back?”
Michael jumped a bit, looking behind himself. Sadie had Ryan’s scythe carefully slung over her shoulder. “Oh, hey. Any luck out there?”
“Yeah.” She grinned. “Not as hard as I thought it’d be with my… new disadvantage. I think I’ll be all right.” Sadie folded the weapon and placed it with Ryan’s things. “What did you find out?”
“Why don’t we head to Lludw first and we’ll talk there?” Ryan suggested easily. “We’re sitting ducks for Shadow Beasts out here, and Michael could use another day of rest on his leg.”
Michael was taken aback by Ryan’s suggestion – hadn’t he said Sadie needed rest? Then it hit him – Sadie wouldn’t accept the offer if it was for her, but for someone else… “Right… Halii said it was starting to look better but I don’t think an extra day would hurt.”
“Oh, all right.” Sadie rolled her eyes but offered a small smile. “Do you think you can walk, or do you need me to piggyback you?”
“Shut up. I can walk.”
[i Maiya Vasile: Hey! Just letting you know that I made it to Old Danau – I traveled nonstop through the night to make sure I’d make it this quickly. Let me know where you are, and we can meet up soon!
Ryan Vasile: We’re in Lludw. Sadie needed to rest up – I’ll tell you when you get here – but if she asks it was Michael who needed rest.
Maiya Vasile: Uh, got it. Are you planning to stay in Lludw?
Ryan Vasile: I’ll stay if Sadie lets us. I’ll let you know if we move.]
Ryan turned off the screen to his D-Tech and glanced at the mentioned female. Rather than sleeping in, Sadie had woken early to continue working on the papers Kiki had given them. He’d considered arguing with her to get her to rest some more, though he feared pushing the issue may cause her to want to leave sooner. Considering she was at least at rest for the moment, he decided to let it go.
He wasn’t sure how Michael and Halii were doing; where they were a group of four, they’d decided to spend the extra gold on two separate rooms. A good idea, considering the younger two were arguing most of the night. It had left himself and Sadie in fits of laughter as they argued over anything they could think of; it had only ended when the nighttime groundskeeper scolded them around Moonhigh. At least, Ryan thought, Michael and Halii didn’t yell at the groundskeeper. The last thing they needed was to find another inn in a small town.
“Ryan, you’re still awake, right?” Sadie’s voice was quiet and gentle, natural for the Sunrise hour.
“You should look at this. I found something.”
Intrigued. Ryan sat up and made his way to the small table Sadie was working at. His hair was mussed from laying down, though he paid it no mind. “What’d you find?”
“I overlooked it when I read through these the first time, but the documents have a passage on connecting the power of the God’s Charms. It says the three charms can be connected to form an all-powerful weapon, the weapon being what the leader’s heart chooses.”
“The original weapon was a mace. Whoever lead the Galaxian Gods in the beginning must’ve been a powerful warrior.”
Sadie nodded. “Maybe. There’s also some unclear text here, but what I’m gathering is that the other two Gods were sacrificed in some way to complete the original prophecy. She frowned. “The last one faded into stardust when the job was done, energy depleted.”
“Are you thinking that’s what we’re going to have to deal with?” Ryan clicked his tongue nervously. “We… really don’t have a lot to go on, do we?”
“No, we don’t. We’re only the second incarnation; we’re writing history as we live it. I’m hoping we don’t have to die, but…” She shook her head. “Anyway, it doesn’t say here who was the designated leader. We don’t know this time, either.”
“I hope we don’t have to figure it out the hard way. Are you going to tell Michael?”
“Of course I am. He’s a part of this too, teenager or not. He’d just get angry if we-”
“Sadie! Ryan!” The door to their room burst open, Halii barging in. She was breathing heavily. “I can’t find Michael!”
Ryan shot up. “What do you mean you can’t find him? He’s six feet tall and has bright red hair! How did you lose him?”
A growl rumbled deeply in Halii’s throat. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Ryan! He was in the room when I fell asleep and now he’s not there. His sword and his belt still are which means he has no weapons.”
“I wonder where he could’ve gone.” Sadie placed the files aside and stood. “Halii, I want you to check around town. Ryan, head out of Lludw toward Fudlosgi. I’ll check the desert/savanna area between here and Rradir. He probably hasn’t gone too far, but if he doesn’t have his sword he’s a walking target.”
“Right. I’ll find you or Ryan when I’m done in town.” Halii ran out of the room, her tail bristling.
“All right.” Sadie grabbed her belt and slipped it on. “Let’s go.”
[i “Michael… Sweet Michael…”]
[i That voice…] Michael felt a presence; warm and familiar. It roused him easily from his deep sleep, fogging his mind and clouding his thoughts. The voice sounded sweet and warm, wrapping sticky, sugar-laden tendrils around his heart and squeezing tightly. It was addicting, and he wanted more.
He moved silently as he left the room, paying his sleeping companion no mind. It was as if she didn’t exist; all he could focus on was the voice. The warmth it brought him, and the familiarity he felt. It reminded him of home. It felt like…
Michael could hear part of his brain shooting signals at him, alerting him of potential danger, but he tuned it out. He didn’t want to stop; he wanted to be happy. Didn’t he? He’d already lost so much; he’d give anything to see Kasara again. He ignored every red flag his mind continued to send him and kept going.
[i “Almost there, Michael…”]
Michael had crossed the barrier from Lludw to a rocky section of the desert when he heard the voice again. It sounded different this time, but it didn’t deter him. He still felt warmth spreading throughout his body and refused to let it go. He couldn’t lose it. Lose her. Not again.
“Who’s… who’s out there?” His voice carried throughout the darkness. “Mom? Is… is that you?”
He couldn’t believe how small he sounded; how desperately pathetic. He was calling out into the empty Lludw desert for a voice he wasn’t sure he’d even find. Still. He had to try. He couldn’t give up.
[i “What’s wrong? Tired of waiting?”]
Suddenly, Michael felt sick. The warmth was gone, replaced with an unease he’d only felt once before, back in Awyr Village. Had he been tricked by Shai? The magic didn’t quite feel the same; he knew it wasn’t the dark Puppet this time. “Who are you?!” He reached for his belt but hissed when he felt nothing. He’d left his sword behind. Idiot!
[i “What’s wrong? Did you forget your toys? Don’t worry, little boy.”] In front of him, a shadow materialized, and he hissed. A siren. The demonic creature had a human-like complexion, with beautiful long blonde hair and gorgeous blue eyes. She had bat-like wings that stretched her entire arm span and sharp, pointed fingernails. “I know you miss your mommy, Michael – I can send you to meet her if you want.”
“How dare you!” Michael felt like crying out of pure rage. “You use my dead mother to lure me out here without my sword? You’re nothing but a spineless wench!”
The siren cackled softly. “You’re rather gutsy for a young man, but you’re just an overgrown toddler who never outgrew wet-nursing.” She lifted one of her hands, extending her nails into sharp claws. “Would you like to see mommy again? Your blood smells delicious, and I can’t wait to eat you up.”
“Get the hell away from me!” His heart pounded in his chest – there was nothing he could do except run. Michael turned to flee, slipping in the heavy sand, and landing with a soft ‘thud’. [i Dammit!]
“You’re not even going to try to resist me?” Her sing-song voice was beginning to make him dizzy. “I’ll send you to hell slowly, little boy!”
Michael closed his eyes and covered his face, bracing for impact.
[i Where are you??] Sadie ran through the savanna, slicing easily through the Shadow Beasts as they approached her. She couldn’t see his footprints or feel his presence. Where had he gone? He couldn’t have just vanished.
When the savanna transitioned to desert, Sadie felt a shift in energies, and suddenly stopped in her tracks. Though she didn’t see anything immediately in front of her, she felt a sickening twist in her heart. Something dark lay ahead. The darkness was laced with tendrils of false hope, and she was stricken with the realization that Michael didn’t leave town on his own accord.
There was a [i siren in the area.] And that bitch had led Michael to the desert without weapons. He was defenseless.
She remained still and slowed her breathing, closing her eyes. Sirens used a sickening, cursed magic – she should be able to find her with careful channeling. Sadie felt the auras around her sink into her pores. Halii was still in town, and Ryan was wandering between Lludw and Fudlosgi. Nothing was wrong on their end thus far, and they were quiet; they didn’t quite grab her attention.
Suddenly, she felt Michael; fearful and strong, and a powerful, unpleasant tug. That must’ve been the dirty demon that was trying to take Michael from them. And Sadie would make her pay.
Opening her eyes with a sharp ‘snap’, she whipped her head around to the rocky end of the desert. They’re over that way. Michael was still alive. She would not fail. Not this time. Using wind magic to propel herself forward, she took off in a sprint toward a set of small sand dunes. Careful to avoid sharp rocks, she either wound around them or jumped over them if they were short enough.
As she approached, the sight before her caused her to gasp. The siren’s body bore black tendrils, wrapping themselves tightly around Michael’s head and making their way down his body. She wouldn’t be able to reach him in time. Michael would die. He would not become the great King she promised he would be.
Would it be her fault?
Just as Michael’s body began to completely disappear beneath the black, leeching tendrils, a great white light surrounded him, his brown eyes suddenly aglow.
Sadie heard the siren scream, as she stepped back, causing the tendrils to retreat. Michael was once again in view, but not for long.
The light focused itself into a harsh beam of light, coiling around Michael like a snake. With a great, blinding flash, the beam had transformed into a Leviathan. The serpent, fully formed, wrapped itself protectively around the prince, who knelt around the ground in great shock. His body remained alight, glowing alongside the great beast. Had… had he done this?
[i “You dare harm this Child, you foolish jezebel?” The Leviathan boomed. “Are you aware of the price that will be paid for this crime?”]
Michael couldn’t believe his eyes, nor could the female Hunter below. Both stared in stunned silence at the great being, waiting for the siren to speak.
The demon only screeched, irate that her prey had been taken from her. She remained surrounded by great tendrils, ready to strike again.
[i “It appears you have a death wish, Heathen. Very well.”] The Leviathan shifted slightly, lifting one of its great claws. The sharp scythes glinted in the early morning sun, fixing at the end of one of the sharp, pointed claws. Heaving slightly, the creature sliced down, a beam of light slicing out of the newly inflicted wound. The siren screamed in agony, the tendrils burning in the light before the demon dissolved into the air. The light faded, revealing that only the Leviathan, Michael, and Sadie remained.
“What..?” Sadie took a tentative step forward, feeling a furious protective nature from the great serpent that stood before her.
The Leviathan shifted so that it was facing Sadie, tense and ready for battle. It was worn out, but kept a stern look on the female below. Though Sadie was stronger than the siren, the Leviathan slowly relaxed as it realized that it felt not a devious nature, but that of the healing sort. She continued to slowly approach. “Michael? Michael, can you hear me?” The redhead did not answer. He was likely in shock, not that she could blame him. He was doomed to die and a dragon suddenly appeared. Sadie stared up at the beast, pleading with it. “Please, I need to get to him.”
The great beast stared at her a moment longer before unraveling its mighty form, allowing access to the prince in the center. The redhead then collapsed, his eyes wide and his chest rising and falling at an alarming rate. Sadie ran over to Michael, sending a silent thanks to the serpent as she kneeled to her friend. Cautiously, she pressed her forehead into his, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. “Michael? Michael, it’s Sadie. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. You’re safe now.”
In awe, the Leviathan watched as Michael became receptive to Sadie’s gentle touch and soothing words. In the background, it shifted as it heard voices approaching. The two were strangers, much like Sadie, but it couldn’t tell if it could trust them. The Leviathan began to slide closer to the newcomers in a slow, dangerous pace.
“They’re friends,” Sadie muttered soothingly, looking up at the Leviathan. “They are okay.”
Slowly, Michael calmed and shifted to a normal, upright position. Ryan and Halii, finally recognized by the Leviathan, ran up to them, lifting Michael’s spirits nominally. The Leviathan had settled greatly noticing Michael’s ease. [i “Your group is unusual, young Prince.”]
“I mean… yeah, I guess.” Michael looked anxious again but swallowed back a gulp. “Who are you exactly, though? You seem as if you know me.”
[i “I do not have a name, but I am a Leviathan. I was created as your guardian familiar by Lady Kasara. The feeling of protection goes with you, Prince Michael, to keep you safe and protect every Chosen hereafter.”]
“Mom… Mom created you?” Michael looked up at the Leviathan, its great snout pointed at the ground.
The serpent grunted. [i “Indeed. I can help you in times of great peril until you grow more, but for now, that is all. I will leave you now, but not without the blessings of the Great Ma’qui and Lady Kasara.”]
The blinding white light flashed again, and Sadie blocked her eyes with her arm. Michael, Ryan, and Halii followed behind her as the light enveloped the surrounding area. Once the light faded, Sadie opened her eyes.
Michael was once again on his own, but he remained upright and alert. “Michael?” Sadie’s voice was soft as she approached him. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” There was a slight strain to his voice. “I’m perfectly fine.”
As the sun started to rise, eliminating the pitch blackness of the night, Sadie pretended not to see the fresh tears streaming down the teenager’s cheeks. “Good. You’re getting stronger, kid.”
“Do you… really think so?” Michael looked at her. “It… doesn’t feel like it sometimes. Sometimes it hurts too much to be strong. What do I do then?”
She shrugged. “We’re working through our trauma, Michael. Those who don’t have it will fail to understand how it works.”
“I have days where it hurts too much to breathe,” Ryan admitted. “It doesn’t mean I’m weak. It just makes some days a little harder than others.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” The teenager smiled softly, wiping his face. “We should get back. I’m half-dressed and have no weapons.”
Sadie nodded. “That’s the idea. Let’s go.”
“Can I take a nap first?” Halii grumbled. “Since someone got hypnotized and woke me up early?”
“Nope,” she teased. “We must get going soon. You’ll be fine.”
“That’s not fair.”
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