The game follows a fictional history through sets of plots called "Sagas". There are currently three sagas: "The Chaotic Chronicle", "The Chaotic Throne" and "Goddess of Destruction". Large-scale updates/expansions known as "Chronicles" are done every six months, which introduce new story elements as well as new features and add-ons. Each chronicle also adds a great deal of new content to the game, including new skills, quests, areas and items; some chronicles also increased the level cap. The list of all the chronicles and the description of the changes introduced in them can be found here.
Harbingers of War
Chapter 1: The Battle for Giran
Due to Cardinal Seresin's efforts, the seeds of trust seem to have finally taken root - if only for a little while. The ominous feeling of an approaching crisis was shared by all of the races. The infernos of war that consume the entire land was sparked in a place that no one could have expected - neither the border regions nor the cold northern areas where the monsters roam, but deep in the realm of humankind.
History is the most severe teacher of stubborn lessons oft repeated. Humans seem to need enemies like the air they breathe. If they can find no likely adversaries, they will begin to agitate those around them. Ever since I learned of the disaster at Giran Castle, the words of my only teacher follow me, taunting with his perverse sense of wisdom: Since humans are made of the refuse of the gods, they are naturally dirty...
After the Elven ambassador passed through Aden's splendid castle gates, Duke Lewin Waldner, who had maintained control of Gludio, was driven out of the territory. The new lord was but an adventurer of unknown roots. In Dion, Duke Ashton was forced to relinquish his throne to rebels, fleeing to Aden. Blocked by the Ol Mahum mercenaries, King Amadeo's soldiers were unable to come to the Duke's defense. The rules of siege are cruel - a rebel leader who captures the castle becomes the lawful ruler for the entire territory. The king can only confirm the outcome. Humans would do well to take heed - even rebellions beyond the outer reaches of a territory may cause the kingdom to promptly collapse. Fate was already stepping toward chaos - an important battle was occurring in the richest part of the kingdom, marking a vital turning point in the events unfolding.
Many suspicious matters attend the battle for Giran Castle. With neighboring lords so abruptly replaced, how could Baron Carmon Esthus needlessly expend his forces in an excursion to conquer Antharas? Where did those who survived the attack afterwards roam? Where was the Baron himself and why did he entrust his castle to Lionna Blackbird, whose importance is yet unknown?
Why do those on the battlefield blithely revel in the fact that things have always been this way? The answers are as apparent to Sieghardt, a mercenary who traveled from Elmore to fight in the siege, as they are to the young princess who struggles to defend the castle at the Baron's request. For both of them and many others alike, the reasons are Harbingers of War.
- Student of Hardin and Writer of Dasparion, Hindemith, Order of the Empire, 1640
Chapter 2: Erica (1)
Innadril Lake borders Giran and Innadril. A huge wasteland stretches north to Death Pass. A river of tears flows south to Innadril Lake. On a hill above the northwestern shore stands the castle with a view of the lake in all directions.
It was a hot summer day when the sun cut through skin like an arrow. The moat surrounding the castle shone brightly, yet dark mountain clouds in the north foretold of heavy rains soon to come. Crows cawed nearby and both armies braced like blades in battle, waiting for the steadily approaching moment of conflict.
Graham was but an old man wearing expensive clothes, representing the castle lord like a merchant visiting a palace. Upon arriving at the tent, Sir Graham adjusted his cloak and complained of the severe western wind.
In contrast, Erica Ken Weber tied her hair together to fly in the wind. Her disquiet before the battle was exacerbated by the grumblings of Sir Graham. The clan flags around the encampment roared like fierce campfires in the wind. To the side, mercenaries handled a cache of supplies, dispersing arrows.
"Thanks to the lord's goodwill and ample investment, we'll not face material shortages. If only other things were as adequately handled by you mercenaries. Or those second-class fighters."
Graham blew his nose, directing his unpleasant gaze over the encampment. Another clan promised to this siege quietly prepared for battle. A group of thirty Dark Elves equipped with thin, polished swords and mithril armor were arrayed beneath a black flag bearing a red wolf crest. At the forefront, a silver-haired Dark Elf female commanded the group.
"You need not worry. They are the mercenaries of the Red Wolf Brotherhood. It is said not long ago they overwhelmed a group of griffon knights of high standing in clan battle."
"Oh... That is amazing," Graham retorted with an unseemly gaze.
"It is also said they have neither pride nor compassion, but an evil reputation for becoming annoyed and abandoning those who employ them. Not long ago, someone from a commercial guild attempted to hire them, but found his tongue cut out. He must have said something wrong."
The Dark Elven female directed her gaze at Erica as if noticing her glance. With a deliberate movement, Erica placed right hand to left breast, bowing in acknowledgement. Sir Graham turned his head quickly.
"Enough of the inspection - we shall return to Sir Sieghardt."
"If that is your wish, my lord."
Before she could finish her response, she was already looking at Graham's back as he rushed to the head mercenary's camp. Erica smiled.
Of the various Dwarven guilds, the Black Anvil was famous for concocting and employing particularly strange mechanical devices. The Black Anvil was rumored to have participated in the great tragedy that occurred in Dion Territory, when the Core of Cruma Tower was resurrected.
"Alright, whatever you want. I have nothing to say about that otherwise."
Sieghardt raised both of his hands and the three Dwarves in attendance raised the flats of their hands as well. On the back of their hands was a black tattoo inscribed in the shape of an anvil. They moved their short legs as they talked and Sieghardt shook his head from time to time as the Dwarves explained something. Finally, the leader of the Dwarves shook hands with Sieghardt and the Dwarves departed just as noisily. Erica coughed dryly and spoke carefully in a somewhat loud voice.
"We're ahead of schedule, but Sir Graham feels that the inspection is finished, general."
Sieghardt looked surprised but Graham nodded his head in affirmation.
"I have seen enough of the dignified appearance of the troops of Sir Sieghardt. I look forward to the results of the battle. But..."
Graham paused and looked toward Erica. Erica nodded her head softly. "I will step out for a moment."
"No," said Sieghardt, "It is alright. She is a trusted servant."
"In that case..." Graham opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated again. "How is it that you can trust Dwarves?"
A smile spread slowly on the face of Sieghardt.
"I have not depended on Dwarves like this before, but it would be an offense not to accept them, considering the sincerity they have always shown me."
Seeming satisfied, Graham departed without another word, leaving Sieghardt and Erica to themselves.
"I did not mind going outside, general. But I was thankful you said I was a trustworthy servant."
"We will have to speak of all sorts of things during the fighting, but it is more trouble to have to explain everything again later." Sieghardt then added, as if he had thought of something suddenly,"Things are well ahead of schedule. I think you have done a thorough job accounting for even the last potato in supplies."
Erica touched her hair softly in a show of modesty.
She wanted to ask about the Dwarves but decided against it, as Sieghardt would tell her soon enough. He always devised his strategies alone and gave instructions to his underlings about only what needed to be done. She had been surprised many times before, but had lately grown accustomed to his unexpected commands.
The Dark Elf woman that led the red wolves was waiting for the two when they emerged from the camp. She approached Sieghardt and put out her hand. After pressing his lips softly to her sekaman skin gloved hand, Sieghardt spoke a few words of greeting. It was in the Dark Elven language, with which Erica was unfamiliar. The woman smiled unnaturally but did not speak, returning to the encampment where the races were gathered. She seemed to like Sieghardt.
The defending mercenaries were deployed on the castle walls. As she covered her eyes from the sun with her hand, Erica inspected them carefully. She could see many Elves that had light, soft physiques and pearl-colored skin, which the Ruhn women envied. Some mystics in pure white robes also stood nearby, holding their staffs in hand.
"There are twenty or more archers above us. We must be prepared for many casualties when we attack the castle gates."
"Not to worry, Erica," Graham spoke with a confident voice. "That is the extent of their forces. You can be certain they have handled little more than farming tools before. Their bows cannot hide their numerical weakness."
Without speaking, Sieghardt looked over the forces arrayed on the castle wall and allowed a smile to cross his face.
"Lionna... She is not bad."
Erica had heard that name only recently. When she heard that responsibility for the defense of the territory had been entrusted to a girl of not even twenty years by the lord of Giran, she laughed in sheer disbelief.
Although Lionna Blackbird had commanded forces successfully in many other clashes, Sieghardt and Erica had defeated rivals much more formidable than her. However, they were troubled by a rumor that Lionna received divine protection from the Fire Dragon Valakas.
Erica forced all such rumors from her mind. Perhaps she knew the stories too well. Regardless, her general who stood before her could kill an opponent while laughing. She did not know what he was thinking; only that he would win. She would entrust the fight to him and concern herself with the work of which she was given charge.
Suddenly, the restless soldiers become startled. Several pointed toward the castle walls with expressions of disbelief. With a high-pitched screech, the castle walls opened and an Elf emerged, wearing Elven chain mail over his porcelain skin. Standing in platinum boots and wearing a long sword on his waist, he raised his empty right hand in a peaceful gesture.
"It seems as if he has come to surrender."
The Elf crossed the bridge over the moat and headed towards the place where Sieghardt and Erica were standing, approaching carefully with nimble steps. He bowed courteously to Sieghardt, as he was the leader of the attacking side. Sieghardt nodded, but the Elf stood straight and spoke in an elegant voice.
"This is a message from Lionna Blackbird, who as representative of the lord is in charge of the defense of Giran Castle."
The Elf pulled a scroll from his waist and unrolled it with both hands.
"Brave commanders and soldiers. I wish from my heart to praise your orderliness and dignity. As the defender of Giran Castle, I beseech you, please put your weapons away and go back to where you came. The owner of this castle was decided long ago and there is no reason for this to change. Whatever you want, it is not something you can obtain through military might. This declaration is also a warning: If you insist on your reckless attack, you will certainly suffer a cruel fate. On behalf of Lionna Blackbird, commander for the defense of Giran Castle. Nothing more!"
The distorted face of Graham contrasted with the refreshing laugh on the face of Sieghardt.
The Elf who finished reading aloud had no expression. Like all the other tribes of the forest that Erica knew, this Elf had a face with which one could not judge his mind in the slightest. As if waiting for Sieghardt's reply, he just stood there without blinking an eye. Sieghardt prepared his voice and then yelled loudly.
"Go and tell that young woman who you regard as your leader that I will cause little trouble if she will kindly hand over the castle! That is all!"
Laughter could be heard throughout the attacking camp at Sieghardt's thundering cry. However, the Elf replied without hesitation or even a hint of agitation.
"I will convey that you have rejected the request of Lady Lionna. I will go."
The Elf returned quickly toward the castle gate, showing his undefended back.
Erica came to Sieghardt's side.
"If you were trying to make them angry, would it not have been better to cut his throat before sending him back?"
"What anger? This is all just the formality of siege battle."
"Is that so? Is there a principle that must be followed even with this Lionna girl?"
Sieghardt nodded his head.
"It is a rule. Everything must take place according to the will of the castle. They will protect the castle. We will invade. We express our intentions and decide on the date and time. Those who break the rules can never be recognized by the castle."
"But doesn't that make things more advantageous for the defending side?"
Erica hesitated, but Sieghardt laughed knowingly. No matter how she looked at the possible outcomes of today's battle, she could not discern any reason that they would lose. Erica sighed and stretched out her shoulders.
Suddenly, a damp wind blew in from the northern mountains.
Chapter 3: Lionna (1)
Lionna looked down from atop the parapet of Giran Castle, watching Vellion's return from the attacker's camp.
The Elven knight soon arrived and stated formally, "The leader of the enemy forces rejected Lionna's request."
She let out a short sigh at the confirmation of what she already knew. Vellion's face looked a bit distraught and Lionna wondered if he had also received some insulting words from the enemy. She looked out at the enemy camp sprawled outside the castle.
"So, we will have to fight. Thank you for your efforts, Vellion."
The Elven knight courteously bowed his head in response.
"As discussed earlier this morning, Vellion, I want you to direct the foot soldiers. If the enemy breaks through the castle gates, you must prevent them from reaching the inner castle. Baron Esthus entrusted the defense of this castle to me and I would like to prevent the enemy from ever reaching the inner keep."
"I will do my best. All else is in the hands of the gods."
"May the blessings of the stars be with you always."
The Elf descended the stairs gracefully and disappeared from view. Lionna sighed again, much deeper than before.
Less than half the defensive forces remained in the castle. Even Cardia de Hestui and others on whom Lionna could always rely were outside the castle. The enemies had suddenly appeared when least expected. Could spies have infiltrated the castle walls? Were that the case, could she trust anyone?
For a moment, her suspicions ran loose and all sorts of doubts began seeping into her consciousness. This girl, who was thrown into the role as lord of the castle, tried to shake the thoughts tormenting her.
Anger surrounded her entire body like a mist enveloping a lake. Her knuckles turned white as she grasped the stone railing of the parapet.
"I stand ready to assist in the castle defense, Lady Lionna."
The declaration from behind her came from an Elf whose voice she had not heard for a long time. Turning around, she realized he was wearing the green ceremonial dress permitted only to the high priests of Eva.
"Ah, Ellik! You have arrived!"
"I am sorry, but we were greatly delayed in Dion."
"Do not apologize. You know of our... situation?"
Ellik nodded. "I met Dubian upon my arrival."
The two comrades walked slowly through the castle.
"As you know, this layout is very similar to that of Gludio Castle. The fiercest battle in that siege took place at the entrance to the inner castle. That was the weakest link in the chain of the castle's defenses."
"I regret the disappearance of Duke Waldner. He was a good man. Is he still missing?"
The silence of the Elven priest revealed what he would rather not say.
Her voice became somewhat severe. "The castle gates cannot be defended." Lionna tried very hard to fight back the tears suddenly welling up inside of her. "Is there anything we can do?"
"It would be good to gain some time at the castle gates and thin out their ranks from the protection of our castle walls. As soon as the enemy breaks through, we must be prepared to withdraw our forces to the entrance of the inner castle."
"Those are my thoughts as well. We really have no other choice."
Ellik nodded his affirmation.
Lionna returned to the castle walls. Looking across the battlefield, her gaze came to rest on a flag with the head of a golden sheep emblazoned on a black background. She carried her thoughts like heavy burdens. "That is where the enemy leader waits."
"I suppose those thoughts are also shared by our counterparts."
"Their actions are those no ordinary leader would dare, or common adviser would recommend. Ellik, this unreasonable war is a dangerous force that looms before our eyes. We must find some way to prevail."
Ellik regarded Lionna for a moment - a human girl whose age was not even one tenth his own.
"I follow your charge, Lionna."
She resolutely returned to the ranks of soldiers and assigned combat positions to the archers and mystics. Later, as she was giving final strategic instructions to the foot soldiers in the castle's inner court, Ellik brought a female Elf to meet her. During the introduction, Lionna noticed she had long golden hair and fine features. On her neck was an amulet of Eva, the goddess of the lake.
Many of the young foot soldiers found themselves staring, as this was the first time actually seeing an Elven woman in the flesh. "Would that you were half as attentive to my instructions," Lionna quipped wryly. The soldiers all lowered their gazes, suddenly embarrassed. Lionna smiled as she motioned the Elves to follow her in order to make their introductions elsewhere.
"This is Luellin, the oracle of my command."
Lionna could see she was an elder of very high position in Elven society. She bowed her head to greet the Oracle, hoping to hide how nervous she was.
"During the battle, she will shield you with her protection and healing magic."
Lionna extended her hand. "With our meager resources, the archers and foot soldiers would benefit more from such protection. Please assign this person to Vellion's inner castle defense. Receiving such unwarranted consideration does not seem right to me."
Ellik's reply was polite but firm. "You are our leader. We take the necessary measures to safeguard you from injury. To not do so would threaten the safety of us all."
Realizing he had spoken too loudly, he quickly glanced toward the foot soldiers, who were too busy appearing disinterested to meet his gaze. He spoke again in a lower tone.
"When the siege starts, this will become a scene of mass confusion. Frankly, I abhor this kind of battle. Young and old alike, whose lives have already faced so many hardships, will be destroyed in an instant. Throughout all of these uncertainties, one thing is absolute: Your life must not be sacrificed."
Reluctantly, Lionna nodded her head without speaking.
A horn blared in the distance. Its low, wailing resonance alerted everyone in Giran Castle to prepare for battle or run before the ensuing chaos. The steady reverberations inspired the forces on both sides with renewed purpose.
Many of them would soon join the rows of forgotten headstones in some unkempt cemetery.
Archers on the parapet set arrows to bows, aimed for the masses and pulled back with all their strength. Blue energy from soulshots commingled with spells recited by the mystics until a golden energy coursed through the bodies of the archers.
Units of attacking soldiers arrayed in groups of thirty, awaiting the signal. Finally, the commanders in the field raised their swords and the soldiers began marching toward the castle in an arrhythmic crescendo of footsteps sparsely punctuated with cries of war.
Hundreds of arrows sliced through the sky in a cruel rainbow.
The battle had begun.
Chapter 4: Erica (2)
As expected, the first to reach the castle gates was the Red Wolf Brotherhood. The warriors intended to tear down the gates quickly, but when they crossed the bridge, Elven foot soldiers suddenly emerged from hidden side passages and blocked any possibility of retreat.
The defending foot soldiers wore light armor, making the greatest use of their dexterity. The Elven knight, who had entered Sieghardt's camp alone to convey the declaration, was their commander. Rather than clash directly with the Dark Elves, they moved skillfully to prevent them from retreating. As a result, the Red Wolves were battered by arrows pouring over the castle walls and they fell one on top of another. Had Sieghardt sent the supporting troops any later, the Red Wolves would have been wiped out completely.
Seeing the first attackers so cruelly decimated, the morale of the other soldiers quickly fell. The weather seemed to change in accordance with events on the ground. Gathering clouds billowed by northern winds blocked the sun, coloring the sky in hues of flaming ash.
As these events unfolded, Erica contemplated Sieghardt's expression. His face looked like he had bitten into something extremely bitter.
She could not contain her surprised disappointment. "This is not at all what I was expecting!"
Still silent, Sieghardt seemed to be deciphering some unfathomable code in his head. Erica decided to observe the events without saying anything more.
Graham, who was standing nearby, looked very dissatisfied. He sputtered awkwardly and finally exclaimed.
"Those mercenaries came at a high price! Make use of them now, lest they go to waste!"
Sieghardt ignored Graham completely and gave instructions to his assistant.
"Red Wolf Brotherhood, retreat. Archers to the front. Aim for the feet of the enemy soldiers and shoot three burst shots. Then fire at the archers on the castle walls. Twisted Claw fighters - prepare to discharge."
The messenger delivered Sieghardt's commands loudly to the troops. Soon multiple units of Rangers moved forward to fight in three groups of five. Responding to the commands of the Hawkeye and the Phantom Ranger, they loaded their arrows, pulled back the strings and poured forth like water. Their shots flew into the wind and broke into hundreds of pieces, lighting many fires at the feet of the Elves. Fortunately, the survivors of the Red Wolf Brotherhood and the units that had risked their lives to rescue them escaped without great losses.
Graham stomped his feet, frustrated at being ignored. Reaching the end of his patience, he put his hand to the back of Sieghardt. The ears of the black panther that had been sleeping next to Sieghardt stood up. The animal straightened its back lethargically and interceded Graham and his master. The panther bumped into Graham's leg with his shoulder, throwing him off balance. Stretching out his neck, the beast brushed himself against his benefactor, yawned and gave Graham a disdainful look. Graham caught himself and stepped back silently, his belligerent attitude quickly dissolving. Some time ago, Sieghardt had summoned this panther from the world of the dark.
Although Erica felt some sympathy for Graham, she took noticeable pleasure at his cold sweat and sudden silence.
In long strokes, Sieghardt kneaded the thick, lush fur that covered the immense cat, which purred loudly in response. Calmed to an almost trance-like state by this therapeutic activity, the leader addressed Graham in a detached, sublime tone.
"Do not worry, Graham. Since they are expendable, we will use the mercenaries as we see fit."
Sieghardt signaled his attendant to bring him a chair and his voice became more authoritative.
"The full-scale battle has not yet begun. Now, for the sake of your own well-being, please have a seat and watch the action from a comfortable distance."
Confounded, Graham could do naught else but seat himself and remain silent for the time being.
One drop. Two drops. Rain started to fall in earnest. Thick humidity that blanketed the conflagration became a torrential downpour, harsh drops stinging charred and weary faces. The field of battle became a mire of brown mud. Without regard to the capricious winds, clashes of iron rang ceaselessly and screams of the dying grew louder with the passage of time.
An Orc crouched in the rain some distance from the agonizing screams. Shakdun, who had received the title of Destroyer from his race, was deeply immersed in meditation. Contrary to his silent disposition, thoughts of malice permeated his inner being. Were he able to join the fight, the Destroyer would have already shown the enemy the true meaning of his name. Erica was curious what he could be thinking at this moment. About his brothers who were rebuked as betrayers? A shameful memory of the day he was exiled by the prince of flames? Perhaps he thought about his fiance left back home.
Blood poured from his shoulder, glistening against the tendons of his wide, powerful back. Shakdun was ready for battle.
His finest troops, numbering slightly more than twenty, waited patiently in their raincoats for their general's command. One of them held out an extra raincoat, but the leader raised his left hand without turning and spurned his subordinate's offer. Erica witnessed this and decided she would rather follow Sieghardt's lead than that of the Orc.
"If you do not hurry up and send them into battle, Shakdun may come running with that club."
As if waiting for an ideal moment, Graham spoke up. He held an oily shred of paper against the rain as he stooped in the chair provided by Sieghardt.
"That Orc is the Destroyer who ruined one of the taik orc villages in the Forest of Mirrors!"
"One does not use a glaive to kill flies. This is not the right time for Shakdun to step forth."
Graham stood up abruptly. "When would be the right time?"
Without blinking, Sieghardt remained impassive for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Graham shrugged his shoulders and collapsed again into his chair, muttering drolly.
"As usual, our infallible leader knows all and says nothing. But if he loses -"
"We will win." Erica cut him off.
In disgust, Graham sulked off and disappeared behind the camp. Erica was glad that he had left, even though he had escaped physical rebuke.
The rain fell in a torrent. As the heavens flashed in the north-west, the landscape changed to a white hue. Thunder boomed in the distance like the dull thump of beating drums.
"The intense lightening and rain reminds me of a heroic scene from the songs of the bards." Erica mused to herself.
A messenger approached, saluted Sieghardt and called out in a loud voice.
"Our Osori unit was destroyed! The leader of the Sigh of Hag unit is dead!"
"We can see that, you idiot!"
Before Sieghardt could say anything, Erica approached the messenger yelling shrilly, having lost control of her emotions. The leaders of the units still awaiting the commands looked in the direction of the sudden commotion. Erica was silenced by Sieghardt's black panther, which nudged her with his head and growled with a low rumble.
At last, Sieghardt spoke.
"And what of the Elves?"
"You mean the enemy?" Shaken, the messenger barely managed to reply. "They began to retreat. But it seems a few of them are still resisting outside the castle."
Sieghardt gave a faint smile. "Of course. That is the way the game is played."
He told the guard on duty to bring a lantern. Taking the lantern directly, he headed for the edge of the lake and gestured toward the mist-covered lake. A flame appeared from the middle of the lake as if to reply.
Suddenly, a massive flow of water splashed, throwing rocks toward the base of the mountain facing the military encampment. Something churned continuously in the water. A new sound was added to that of the waves and the rain, like the cawing of a bird. This changed to a creaking noise, as if hundreds of wooden doors were opening and closing. The water splashed again and a vibration emanated from within the earth. An enormous body, like a large column, rose up through the thick mist. Erica looked for the end of the column, but realized it was part of something much bigger. Already beside her, she had to turn completely around to see the entire thing.
It vaguely resembled human form, but with strangely long arms. Its entire body was covered in mud and vegetation, like some ancient giant appearing from the bottom of the lake. The maleficent streaks of rain washed it of these impurities. As the lightening struck again, Erica could clearly make out its face.
The behemoth passed well over their heads, making its way towards the castle wall in heavy, lumbering strides.
Chapter 5: Lionna (2)
All words were forgotten in the empty thickness of battle. Sounds of rain and the clashing of weapons seemed remote and insipid. As soon as she saw that thing, Lionna felt a huge anvil drop from outside existence to land with the forgotten harshness of reality on her head. An enormous iron leviathan, towering over the castle walls, lumbered slovenly towards them. Soldiers protecting the castle fell into panicked chaos, disregarding their duties, only able to stare at the thing.
"Shoot! Shoot now! No need to aim at something that size!"
Someone managed to scream a command to the archers. Shocked into reality, Lionna gathered her wits and instinctively held up her spear.
"Maintain order!" She yelled with all her might.
"Think about our comrades, those who fought and died against Antharas, never to return! Act in a manner befitting their sacrifice!" With one foot on the parapet, she aimed her spear at the mechanical blight.
Her officers were first to respond, commanding soldiers to let loose with arrows and magic. However, the arrows bounced off the giant behemoth's iron hull like mad flies. The mystics sent flaming balls of crimson that rode the hot moisture, only to leave faint scorch marks on their target.
The gray golem disregarded their combined resistance, treading heavily towards its destination. As it approached the moat, a crossbeam supporting the bridge creaked ominously. Suppressing her urge to scream, Lionna ordered her forces to continue their resistance.
Suddenly, the somnambulant automaton crashed into the castle walls with the full force of its brutish mass. Lionna staggered near the precipice, collapsing into someone who grabbed her tightly and brought her down safely on top of himself, breaking her fall.
Gathering her wits, she realized the person underneath her was sorcerer Dubian of the Ivory Tower. His robes were completely muddied from the rain and his wet hair stuck to his face.
Lionna stood up and returned to the parapet, forgetting to thank her supporter. The berserk machine slowly raised its huge arms to pummel the castle gates. Magic and arrows sent against the giant abated, leaving flames only on one arm, which soon extinguished.
Dejected, Lionna could spur her soldiers no further. Looking off in the distance with a languid gaze, she felt despair consume her entire body.
"That golem was created by Dwarven blacksmiths of the Black Anvil Guild. Look at the mark on its shoulder - it represents the black anvil itself. But to move a body so large requires an extraordinary power source."
Cutting short the lengthy explanation, Lionna replied sharply.
"What does it matter? That thing is going to raze the castle gates. We must find a way to stop it!"
At that moment, the entire castle shook fiercely, with a force much stronger than before. Many soldiers collapsed in their places and sorcerers fell like coins from the Ivory Tower. Lionna held the stone columns of the parapet with both of her hands, barely able to endure the onslaught. With every rise and fall of the golem's huge arms, the thick boards that made up the castle walls were splintered and scattered all around.
Dubian called out while supporting his body against the wall of the lookout tower.
"The one controlling that thing must be a Dwarf of the Black Anvils. We must find him! If we can stop him, this golem will become nothing more than a lifeless iron heap!"
Lionna paid no heed to the arrows that flew in from the attacking camp. Pushing her upper body over the edge of the castle wall, she inspected the scene. Due to the fog of the lake, she could only see a world completely awash in a milky-white haze.
Another violent crash added to the sounds of destruction, resulting in visible cracks on the castle gates. Lionna blinked uncertainly, blinded temporarily by a sudden burst of light that came from the direction of the lake. She ran along the castle wall to determine the cause.
Dubian followed behind her, reciting spells that formed a magic column of circular light. A cat-like creature with unusually large eyes emerged, standing on two feet. The sorcerer uttered more commands and the creature leaped upon the parapet, put its paws to its forehead and gazed across the lake. After a short time, it approached the sorcerer and communicated mentally with its master.
"The Dwarf is at the lake."
With that, Lionna sprang to action. "Bring me a swift horse!"
She hurried toward the stairway. "Fighting an opponent you cannot see is a futile endeavor. One must go directly to the source."
"No, you cannot do that! It is too dangerous!" The Elven oracle Luellin, who had not spoken until now, blocked Lionna's path.
Lionna roughly pushed her aside and shouted,"Get out of my way!"
Luellin staggered slightly, but refused to allow Lionna to pass. She looked intently into her eyes and yelled in desperation, "My life, as well as that of everyone in this castle depends on you!"
Soldiers on the castle walls followed Lionna with their eyes, supporting Luellin's pleas.
Ice-cold drops of rain stung her neck, shoulders and chest. As Lionna muttered to herself, an archer extended his hand and took a position.
The archer handed his bow to Lionna. She walked quickly to the north end of the castle wall.
"Dubian. Pen and paper."
The sorcerer and oracle followed behind. "Speak. I will write what you say."
Lionna reached the north side of the castle wall and tied the completed letter to an arrow. She relied on memory to find a small thicket located northeast of the castle and pulled the bowstring. The arrow followed an arc as it disappeared into the fog.
A short time later, she looked in the direction the arrow had flown and headed again for the west side of the castle wall. She still had much to accomplish.
Vellion lead a few more than twenty Human and Elven foot soldiers, concealed in a small thicket between the castle and lake. The attackers would not have expected numerically inferior defensive forces to expend a separate unit. Vellion and the foot soldiers departed from the castle through a secret gate to the north, where they awaited further orders.
Having read the letter attached to the arrow, Vellion headed for the lake immediately. They avoided the attackers, which were concentrated mainly in front of the castle gate. Bypassing the eastern side of the castle walls, they traced the edge of the lake according to Lionna's instructions. Fog concealed the group's movements until they reached their destination.
They came face to face with the attackers.
A Dwarf held a lantern that was covered to protect it against the rain. In his other hand, he held a strange mechanical device, shaking and gesturing with it in the golem's direction.
Vellion's eyes met those of the Dwarf. The Dwarf looked back at the Elf, opened his eyes wide in surprise, but began to laugh.
A huge Orc with fierce claws of steel appeared from behind the Dwarf, which quickly turned and hid behind him. The head lieutenant of the foot soldiers also appeared, whose body was encased in heavy armor, emblazoned with the crest of a golden sheep.
Vellion looked at the lake that stretched behind the Orc and sighed. He slowly lifted his sword.
Chapter 6: Erica (3)
The Elf emanated a surprising ruthlessness. The edges of his Elven Longsword ran with blood as his opponents ran for their very lives. Erica watched with amazement as the Elf slew six of her fellow soldiers. A wiry rogue approached the Elf from behind, moving stealthily through the fog. His grip tightened around the hilt of his long, serrated dagger.
Erica watched as the rogue raised his dagger for the killing blow. Without warning, the rogue's neck was sliced open and his weapon flew haphazardly. A shining, fist-sized orb returned to the Elf of its own accord. He stood as still as a statue, except for his eyes, which were scanning for a new target. His expressionless gaze fell on Erica, who was mostly enshrouded in fog.
With sword outstretched, a faint aura flowed from the Elf's body. The soldiers raised their weapons and approached the Elf. The mercenaries, once possessed by bloodlust, were suddenly satiated. The sight of their fallen allies, scattered and broken across the battlefield, did nothing to deter them as they approached their own demise.
Even as these words left her lips, Erica became aware that she was no longer hidden by the fog. She too walked toward the Elf, carrying nothing but her pitiful dagger.
One after another, the mercenaries died on the Elf's sword. Erica strained to restore her own will, managing to stop the movement of her feet. It was all she could do just to remain still as the Elf engaged her Dwarven ally. As the killing stroke was about to fall, she saw the Destroyer Shakdun appear from the mist. He swung a hammer at the dwarf, knocking him into the lake and out of harm's way.
Shakdun took out his two-handed Jamadhr as the Elf recoiled. A strange battle cry, half yell, half song, burst from deep within the Orc. The two-edged sword slashed toward Shakdun's neck, but he crossed his metal claws, catching the blade. The small shape that hovered about the Elf emitted a light as it dove towards the Orc's chest. Stepping back, the Orc seized the offensive. The six claws of the Jamadhr flashed time and again. The Elf evaded and parried the attacks.
The Elf's face seemed made of clay and the Orc's forearms seemed like dragon leather. Each was marred with countless cuts, and with each clash, fresh blood flowed, spattering the ground.
"This is not going to work," Erica thought.
Erica picked up a dead archer's bow, and found a stray arrow in the mud. She drew her shot and aimed for the Elf. But the Orc and the Elf moved so quickly that she could not track her target. Knowing she could not seriously injure the Orc, she released the arrow.
The arrow sliced between the warriors, breaking the flow of Shakdun's onslaught. The Elf paid no attention to her as he attacked with a single-bladed sword. Shakdun stood his ground, lashing out with the Jamadhr. The blades collided in an eruption of unnatural flame. Metal slid across metal as the combatants maneuvered their interlocked weapons. With a deft twist of his hilt, the Elf broke the guard of his own sword against the durable claws of the Jamadhr. The Elf withdrew his blade, cutting the Jamadahr's leather bindings, and gouging flesh beneath it.
Blood flowed between the claws of Shakdun's Jamadhr. The straps unraveled, slick with blood. The weapon slipped from the Orc's hand, falling to the ground, heavy and useless.
Erica let out a scream and ran toward the Elf. The single edged blade arced toward her with stunning precision. Erica felt the tip of the blade whip through the loose strands of her hair as she ducked and rolled to the ground. Shakdun lunged, thrusting the remaining Jamadhr forward. The Elf parried with one sword, plunging the remaining blade into the Orc's flank. He howled ferociously. Erica rose to one knee, then pounced.
She threw her entire weight into the dagger, penetrating the Mithril armor, cutting flesh and breaking bone, finally touching the very life of the Elf.
The Elf slowly collapsed. As he dropped to his knees, a strange sadness came over his face. His eyes fluttered and he fell to the ground.
Looking at Shakdun, she saw that he was gazing down at the corpse of his enemy in silence. Blood flowed from the spot the Elf had stabbed him, but it was not a mortal wound. The Orc unfastened the remaining Jamadhr and threw it into the lake.
Erica wondered if the Orc was angry at her for having intercepted his opponent. She stood for a moment and decided to approach him. Touching his shoulder, she spoke with purpose.
"He would not have killed you."
Shakdun looked at her with a severe gaze. His eyes bespoke his uncertainty. Erica turned her face without knowing why.
"I am sorry."
Shakdun walked toward the edge of the lake, where the Dwarf he had saved was nursing a wound. The Dwarf was holding a huge weapon that was twice as tall as his own height. Shakdun took the weapon, waved it around in the air and then looked directly at Erica.
He spoke as if it was a declaration written in stone and then laughed. Erica let out a smile. Then she turned her thoughts back to the battle.
"It looks as though there was more resistance in the castle than we expected. Many foes still remain."
A Dwarf sat in a tree near the encampment, a pipe clenched between his teeth. He held a cylindrical item to his eye and looked out toward the lake.
"The operator seems to still be alive," said a voice somewhere near the base of the tree.
The Dwarf removed the device from his eye and looked down at the source of his interruption. A Human stood next to the tree trunk.
"What did you say?" the Dwarf asked.
"The golem operator seems to have survived."
The Dwarf let out a hearty laugh and put more tobacco into the pipe with his thumb. His fingertips, long-since calloused from doing a Blacksmith's work, could not feel the heat from the burning ash.
"That is a stupid thing to say."
"What? Why?" The man standing under the tree spoke.
"What possible reason could there be for shaking a lantern while operating a golem?"
The Dwarf took a deep puff from the pipe and spoke slowly and deliberately. "And why did the Orc take the device from the Dwarf? Because it was too heavy?"
The Human under the tree opened his eyes wide and looked out over the lake as if in disbelief.
"Then… why did Sieghardt use the lantern?"
"Because he is a fox. With nothing more than a lick of flame, he lured the enemy's finest soldiers to their death."
"But to risk the life of the golem operator…"
The Dwarf sighed. "It was the enemy who assumed that the lantern's light came from the golem operator's hiding place - an assumption that Sieghardt predicted and intended. The enemy has paid the price for their folly."
The Dwarf jumped down from the tree. The Human hurriedly reached out to him, but the Dwarf pushed him away as if to say he did not need the help.
"Quite a successful field test."
The Human nodded in agreement.
"I trust you will speak well of it to those who have invested." The blacksmith of the Black Anvil Guild smiled with satisfaction.
Chapter 7: Lionna (3)
In the hallway behind the throne room, the tension was thick. Only ten remained, including Lionna. She wondered how many of them would even have the strength to raise their weapons when the time came.
The damage was severe, and the situation was grim, but hope remained. If they could prevent the leader of the invading force from seizing control of the castle's heart – a holy artifact – they would emerge victorious. But Sieghardt's forces were very strong. They had swarmed through the courtyard and smashed the inner door. Now they were headed straight for the relic, and the only way to reach it was through the hallway Lionna's group guarded.
Lionna could not help but notice the precarious condition of her rag-tag group. She feared that injury and exhaustion might take them before even having the chance to face the enemy. Some had retreated here out of loyalty, while others had been driven here by the happenstance of battle. Behind Lionna, the Oracle Luellin was still standing. But Dubian had been lost in the chaos. And the report of Vellion's death had come as a blow to the troops.
Even as she surveyed the scene, Lionna noticed that she was bleeding. Luellin spread out her arms to cast a spell of healing but Lionna stopped.
"Save your strength for the others."
The nearby soldiers who had protected them had suffered even more seriously. Luellin did what she could to heal their wounds.
The clashing of swords was replaced by the echo of swift footsteps. Their enemies had dispatched the last remnants of the castle's outer resistance. Lionna lifted her sword. The soldiers created a defensive perimeter around Lionna. The enemy appeared from around the corner and Lionna summoned the strength to shout.
"Glory to Giran! Attack!"
The first wave of enemy soldiers was cut down by a row of spears. The charge was broken, and Lionna's defenders held their ground. A massive Orc waded through the melee, wielding an enormous glaive. Lionna doubted he could put it to good use in the narrow, crowded hallway. But she watched in horror as the Orc broke through the defensive perimeter.
"It's dangerous! Get back!"
Lionna pushed the soldiers and ran out to meet the Orc, tearing away from Luellin's protective grasp.
The Orc's glaive cut through flesh, and smashed the granite walls. Blood and dust filled the air. Half of her remaining force lay amidst the rubble. Another wave of enemy soldiers followed in the Orc's wake.
Lionna ordered her unit to retreat to the Relic Chamber. They stood in a tight circle, surrounding the Holy Artifact, as the enemy surrounded them. Lionna could see that the time to recognize defeat had come.
Lionna slowly looked around her. Even in the second-floor railing that encircled the chamber had been completely overrun by enemy archers. The arrows that were directed at her all glowed blue together with a brief, low hum.
"Hold your fire."
The enemy soldiers that had been blocking the entrance stepped back and Sieghardt Ein came forth, followed by his black panther. He looked at the Orc and spoke.
"Shakdun. There are still some forces resisting in the east of the inner castle."
The Orc didn't budge.
"There is no need for you to remain. She has already lost her will to fight."
The Orc didn't take his eyes of off Lionna.
The Orc turned his back and left the Chamber.
Sieghardt moved his gaze past the corpses to look at the girl who stood holding a sword. He gave her just the slightest smile.
"It's been a long time, Lady Lionna. Or does the occasion require that I call you sir?"
"It is too bad that we meet this time as enemies."
"There's nothing to feel sorry about."
Sieghardt furrowed his brow and looked once again at the girl before him. Her hair was damp with sweat, her skin stained with blood.
"Even scarred by battle, you are no less beautiful than you were on the night we spent in the ruined fortress."
Lionna attacked Sieghardt. He gracefully side-stepped her blow. He drew his sword and parried her next attack as well. In the space of that moment, the entire room erupted into chaos.
Luellin cast her gaze on Sieghardt and began an incantation, but Sieghardt's panther leapt at her. The exhausted oracle was unable to dodge in time. The panther knocked her to the floor, pinning her under its giant paws. The Oracle flailed her staff desperately, but the panther swatted it away. The panther sunk its teeth into Luellin's throat. The Oracle went limp as her blue robes turned to red.
Lionna heard Luellin's last cries, but had no time to feel anything. She was the only one left. She knew that she was surrounded by enemies, but she kept her gaze locked firmly on Sieghardt as she attacked.
For some reason, his response came a split-second too late. The tip of her sword grazed his temple. A drop of blood rolled down Sieghardt's cheek.
Catching her breath, Lionna noticed that Sieghardt's men were no longer focused on her. They began stumbling incoherently, and dropped to the ground one by one. It was only then she noticed the faint purple light that lingered in the air, clinging unnaturally to the unconscious soldiers. At the same time, the archers that had been trying to shoot her from the second-floor were attacked by a strange, catlike creature.
"Lionna! This way!"
Entering the Chamber was Dubian of the Ivory Tower and an Elven Elder. A writhing ball of flames appeared at the end of his hands and flew toward Sieghardt. Together with the explosion, the entire body of the dark avenger was engulfed in dark red flames. Sieghardt crossed both arms to protect his head and rolled to the ground. His black panther sprinted toward the Elven mystic. Dubian let out a scream and collapsed.
Lionna ran over to Dubian. Sieghardt, who had extinguished the flames, blocked her way. Lionna's sword was filled with the energy of the spirits. Her weapon flew toward the dark avenger's head. Again he blocked it.
Suddenly, a red shimmering caught fire under his feet. The ghostly red tendrils spiraled upward and around his legs, immobilizing him.
The Elder finished reciting the spell and called to Lionna. But Lionna was rushing to Dubian's aid. Dubian rammed the end of his staff between the panther's bared teeth and pushed with both hands. The panther fell to the ground with the staff still in its mouth. Dubian rose to her feet. A white flame arose to the side of her body and then a bright flash hit the panther hard. The panther was consumed by a cloud of black smoke and it disappeared – sent back to the nether realm from whence it came.
As Lionna put her arm around Dubian, she saw one of Sieghardt's sleeping soldiers begin to stir. It wouldn't be long before his entire force awoke.
Before leaving the Chamber, Lionna turned around to look at the dark avenger. His dark eyes gleamed as he smiled.
"Goodbye, Lionna Blackbird."
Lionna knew he was looking for an emotional response. She had no intention of giving him the satisfaction. She broke away from his gaze and said nothing.
Lionna, Dubian, and the Elder fled through the corpse-strewn hallway.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
The dark clouds that poured rain over Giran slowly dissipated. Sieghardt, leader of the mercenaries, gathered with his fighters in front of the holy artifact of Giran castle. The soldiers eyed Sir Graham suspiciously as he entered the room to find Sieghardt receiving a report.
"The defending officers have all died or run away. A few continue to resist in some areas of the castle, but they are soon defeated."
Graham clapped his hands and walked over to Sieghardt. He placed a hand on the dark avenger's shoulder.
"You're amazing! Truly amazing! It was a complete victory, Sir Sieghardt!"
Sieghardt smiled humbly and looked at Graham. Graham went over to the holy artifact before speaking casually.
"The Lord will be very happy. There were some misunderstandings in the beginning, but they mean nothing after this great victory. I will be sure to tell the Lord about your hard work."
"Do you really need to trouble him?"
Sieghardt stood next to Graham and observed the holy relic quietly. It had the form of a woman standing on a jeweled pedestal. This object was no ordinary statue. It bestowed absolute power to the holder, over the rich land of Giran.
Graham opened his eyes wide, as if to ask what he meant.
"Looking at it this way…" the dark avenger removed the glove on his left hand, facing the holy artifact and took a step closer.
Graham quickly put out his hand in a defensive gesture. "What, what?" He laughed nervously and spoke. "Sir Sieghardt, your work stops here."
Sieghardt smiled without speaking.
"Stop joking around. Take my share of the compensation. I'll give you as much as you want. Wait until the Lord has communed with the holy artifact, as planned."
Sieghardt's right hand went to his hip and then moved forward again. It was a natural and flowing movement, as if taking out a handkerchief to wipe away sweat. His smile remained as Graham's head fell to the ground. Sieghardt placed the sword back into its sheath without a drop of blood on it.
"I had grown used to his nagging voice. I'm almost sad we won't be hearing it any longer." His underlings laughed heartily.
Sieghardt put his left hand softly on the holy artifact. The statue and jewels turned red and a faint light started to shine. Light spread to Sieghardt's arm, was absorbed into his body, and that was all. Those in the vicinity realized that the castle had just changed ownership.
Sieghardt and his mercenaries walked out. In the middle of the imperial room, a golden carpet was spread. At the other end was a table inlaid with gold. In front of the table was a dark green billowed insignia. Under that insignia, there was a red base and a footrest created in the shape of a wolf's head. Near the throne were the servants and chamberlain who service the castle lord.
"Do you have anything to say?"
The chamberlain smiled softly and shook his head without speaking.
Sieghardt slowly went up to the throne and sat down. He rested his chin on his left hand and lifted one leg up over the other. Satisfied, he smiled. With the chamberlain leading the way, the employees of the castle expressed their courtesies to the new castle lord.
Twenty or so wooden boxes were scattered around in a disorganized way in one room on the second floor of Giran Castle. Erica Ken Weber shook off the dust gathered on the last box and opened the top to see what was inside. There were old tools for maintaining a garden.
Erica exclaimed and hit the box with all her might. She checked again for the items in the box; after a short time, she sighed with resignation and simply left the room.
The item she was looking for had already disappeared.
In the hallway, corpses were lying all around, of both friendly and enemy troops slain in battle. She avoided the corpses in the hall and stopped before a window. Outside, she could see the soldiers reveling wildly in their victory. The noise of celebration in honor of the new lord was very loud.
If the object she was unable to find was still in the hands of the enemy, she would have to leave the castle before the year was up. So too would her allies.
Erica shook her head and returned to her comrades.
Age of Splendor
Chapter 1: Prelude
If you plow the fields, seeds will sprout and new growth will occur. The land of Aden, once devastated by those bloodthirsty for war, has blossomed into prosperity.
While the feudal lords and aged knights, bound by tradition, lamented the collapse of the old order, others aspired to cause destruction behind the scenes. Merchants were willing to placate anyone to make a profit.
Sieghardt Ein had been recognized as the lord of Giran Castle, but he did not actually rule over its territory. He neglected to perform the duties of a castle lord, such as collecting taxes or managing the manor. After three months, he abandoned the castle, disappearing with his soldiers. However, the lord who succeeded him was overly ambitious. While brushing off strong opposition from Giran traders, he treated their decades-old trade war with Innadril as a mere diplomatic issue. Innadril, the manor of water, had been unable to trade with other territories without first going through Giran. Now the lord of the manor made a pact with the lord of Giran and commerce resumed between the two territories.
With the re-opening of Heine Harbor and the completion of Giran Harbor, trade routes connecting Aden, Giran, and Innadril extended to Avella of the Orient. The method of raising striders was propagated among the populace, making it possible to transport a large volume of freight by ground much faster than before. Tea, silk, and spices were accepted by the rich as their favored luxuries. Traditional methods of blacksmithing were revolutionized, thanks to a brave sailor who stole Avella's secret for hardening metal. One of the exotic items that became indispensable was the symbol of Avella, said to have mysterious powers. This symbol gradually spread to the general population, ushering in an era overflowing with money and goods in the eastern region of Aden.
In the fields of Dion and in the Coliseum of Narsell Lake, the Age of Splendor was proclaimed with wild enthusiasm. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow, it is said. Under the bright light of fireworks in the festival called the Age of Splendor, they conducted arrogant explorations.
My one and only mentor, in his book "The Eternal 1,000 Days," alluded to what Baium, the accursed emperor, had symbolized in this world ruled by lazy gods. The crimson-hued treasure flowing in the blood of the most god-like Human absorbed not only the essence of the five tribes fated for death, but also that of angels and otherworldly beings. The names of these creatures will be linked with hatred and fear when they are entered in the chronicles of later days. The first to appear was the one named Hallate.
The three holy arks were once hidden away in Giran, the Cursed Forest, and Aden, the Capital City. They were lost during times of war, then reappeared when the struggle for the emperor's throne commenced. According to rumor, the arks contain the relics of the saint who sold Baium to a god. Many sought the arks, but even the zealots such as Athebaldt and Rodemai made the mistake of underestimating the true difficulty of their objective. They dispatched mercenaries and traders to track down the holy arks. Many of them died during this pursuit, when they clashed with formidable beings called Ark Guardians.
My guess is that Aria FirstMatter is not one of them. Her passionate sense of destiny, noble dignity and blind love would have made her deny herself any form of compromise. Two dark elves from the north approached her. One of them was Scride, a knight of Pavel who was once a Bladedancer, recognized by the elders of the underground city. The other was Esen, who was better known by his nickname Crow Feather. He was once a Phantom Ranger, active in Ruhn. It is a great irony that the one who contributed the greatest for this cause was Tetrarch Thifiell of the underground city.
We all experience success and failure in equal measures. After obtaining something we desire, we realize it was not what we truly wanted after all. Quite often, many are simply dumbfounded when this happens!
Chapter 2: Shadow Fang
On the plains, the wheel of a toppled wagon made a labored, groaning sound. The mountain peaks, crowned with cold rock and permanent ice, were soon cloaked in darkness, as the sun dipped below the ridges. Darkness: a solvent that can melt cruelty where blood and tears are cheap, allowing avarice to rear its filthy head. Even simple mundane pleasures sprang from this harsh environment.
A gang of thugs, whose trade is fighting and killing, slowly approached the wagon, still making its tortured noise. Another gang that had already settled in this territory, but they did not have a warm welcome for people of the same profession. Especially as they turned into lifeless corpses that can no longer shake hands with anyone, nor kill to make money. The thugs, freed from the yoke of their humdrum lives, seemed uninterested in collecting any relics.
A young Elf grabbed the wheel to stop it; else, it might have spun forever. Standing within twenty corpses, he listened to the murmuring whispers of his fellow mercenaries. They were looking for a certain chest. One within the group, who liked to boast of his knowledge, said that the chest was an object that Baron Lewin, former lord of Giran, concealed before he lost the castle. However, he failed to attract his colleagues' attention. They were not interested in the contents of some box stuck in a mud hole somewhere. Rather, they chatted enthusiastically about the women they would woo and the booze they would drink when they returned to the village.
"Natalie's strawberry pie is the best in Aden. I know some accuse me of being unmanly when I go crazy over just a pie. Ah, well. I used to have an attitude like theirs, until the day Natalie baked a pie for me! According to Natalie, the secret of making a delicious strawberry pie is -- Aarggh!"
A gigantic arrow, as big as a javelin, drove through the chest of the pie-loving mercenary, exposing its evil crooked tip. The dying mercenary looked at it as though he had never seen such a thing before, and then turned his eyes toward his fellow mercenaries. He did not have the opportunity to say farewell to his fellows. The other mercenaries sprang to the opposite side of the wagon to ready themselves for the next volley from their unknown attacker.
The mercenaries were hesitant. They were not stupid enough to rush towards the forest without knowing what was lurking there. However, they could not just sit around the wagon without locating their hidden enemy. Again and again, sharp sounds, like the ripping of silk cloth, were heard. Each time, some part of the wagon was destroyed. The wagon caved in on itself, as if it were made of paper. Arrows came from across the road and the mercenaries ran in the opposite direction into the forest. Although the forest looked safe enough during the day, when night fell it turned into an ominous monster. A small root connected to an old tree stump that looked like a witch's hand stretching low on the ground, caught the feet of passersby. Dead dried-up tree branches poked their eyes, and rotting water under fallen leaves besot their shoes. The insects, whose rest was disturbed, expressed their displeasure by violently attacking the mercenaries' eyes, ears and noses. Surrounded by such formidable enemies, they expected the mysterious archer soon to close in on them. They split into groups of three or five and went into hiding, waiting for the archer's attack.
Feeling his chest tighten, the Elf looked up. Unlike those it contained, the forest looked peaceful. The wind-filled sky that ushered in the night was clothed in fine deep indigo fabric studded with pearls. Soon the round, full moon poked its head between the trees. When the wind died down as though it was proclaiming someone's fate, the forest let out the sound of a lonely beast's cry.
Birds hurriedly flew away, roused by the angry shouts, screams of death throes, terrible wails and moans. The shadows showed their sharp fangs and rushed in like lightning to rip, slice, twist, bite, claw, hurl, kick, break, and finally to kill. A few minutes later, the forest was filled with gasping and moaning, soaked in dark red blood. The full moon grinned, coloring the scenery in a lifeless, colorless hue.
The Elf was confused, unsure if he was alive or dead. In the scenery that had turned hazy gray, the two eyes of the wolf he suddenly faced sparkled in bright green neon. The Elf was curious why the gigantic wolf was meeting its eyes with his. This question was soon answered by his head, which felt like it was about to fall off, and his legs that helplessly dangled in the air. The wolf stood up on its two hind legs, grasping the Elf's head with one hand. With its other hand the wolf held a bow that looked similar to the one used by rangers, except much larger. When the wolf opened its mouth, the Elf could see its teeth, which looked like countless daggers covered in dark blood. A phrase was whispered in his ear.
"... World Tree Glade is..."
It took the Elf a little time to realize that the wolf was talking to him, so he missed most of what the wolf had said to him.
"... if you don't want to see the World Tree Glade uprooted, do not touch the Seal."
The wolf threw the Elf carelessly to the ground. The Elf attempted to stand up, but realized he could not control his legs. Barely able to support his upper body with his two arms, he glared at the wolf.
"Why do you threaten me?"
The wolf, having already walked away, suddenly stopped. Each step he took was imprinted with dark red footprints. The wolf answered.
"It was not a threat." Then the wolf disappeared, leaving the Elf behind.
Some time later, when the Elf managed to remember why he came to this place, he returned to where the wagon had been rolled over. Then he realized he had been following the footprints of the wolf. The wagon was lying on its side and dead bodies of mercenaries were strewn all around. Everything appeared the same as it did before, except the chest had disappeared.
Chapter 3: Aria
In order to meet with Warehouse Chief Gesto, she had to waste four days, but not because Gesto made her wait. From the moment angels first descended into the Tower of Insolence, watchful eyes followed Aria from an imperceptible distance. Among them, those who made her especially nervous were the two pursuers who had followed her since Elmore. Aria hid herself in a shabby room at an inn and did not leave until she was certain they had given up searching for her.
Pavel's legendary Knights of Moon Tears, unlike the knights of Aden that consist mainly of Paladins or Knights, consisted of various backgrounds and skills. This must have something to do with the fact that this manor has had a good relationship with the mercenaries of the Ruhn. Two of the major supporting forces of the Ruhn mercenaries are the Cursed Forest and the underground city of Dark Elves. Aria could only guess at the circumstances of the time. The important question was, to what extent did the Underground City show its true intentions to Pavel or Ruhn? Aria could not predict anything regarding this one way or another.
Fifteen minutes after entering the warehouse, Aria came out through the back door and returned to the hazy night air of Giran. During the twenty minutes of her walk to get back to her lodging, she was almost sure that she had evaded all of her pursuers.
When she returned to the inn, she did not see the old Dwarf, who usually dozed at the counter. Holding a small, lit candle in one hand, she climbed the squeaky stairs and walked down the hallway. When the candlelight flickered, her own shadow seemed to waver above her as though it were trying to speak to her. The bluish light of the night poured in through the last window at the end of the hall, providing illumination ahead of her. Finally, she arrived at her room.
She passed by the door of her room without stopping and reached for the doorknob to the next room, which was empty. A sharp sound was heard and a small hole appeared in the window facing the street, causing her to let go of the doorknob. Suddenly, an arrow with a black flag attached stuck in the doorframe. All of this occurred in the blink of an eye.
Muscles flexed and tensed. Blood pumped into her ears and eyes, creating a throbbing sensation. From her fingertips to her arms and shoulders, an electrical current traveled up and down her nervous system.
In order to avoid being hit, she braced her body against the wall, jumped down and reached the landing of the stairs in one breath. Using her dagger, she cut the candle to extinguish it and lowered her body under the candleholder. The hallway embraced her in an abyss of darkness. An arrow came through the window and destroyed what was left of the candlestick. The next arrow flew above Aria's head as she crouched like a frog against the wall. Breathing a sigh of relief, she rolled onto her side. She could sense that the last arrow was targeted where she was just a moment ago.
Aria stopped moving and remained silent, holding her breath. The bedroom door burst open and a knight of Pavel flashed out like lightning, brandishing two swords. Aria aimed for the knight's back and plunged her dagger into it. The knight used both of his swords to cover both his front and back, so he could defend himself against whatever might be lurking in the dark corridor. Although somewhat clumsy, this blocked Aria's dagger from causing a fatal wound.
Through the window of the bedroom where a curtain was closed, a very faint light leaked into the room. As soon as she stepped into this poorly illuminated area, another arrow shot towards her. In spite of the risk that he might hit his own people, the archer shot his arrow where he guessed she was going to move, which was surprisingly accurate.
While running into the bedroom, Aria was hit in the leg and thrown into the wall under a window. The knight who chased after her into the bedroom immediately brought down his sword while she struggled to regain her balance. She deflected the knight's attack with her own dagger and with a loud outcry quickly slashed across her enemy's throat. A disgusting sound spilled out of him, but her tactic was met by another sword.
Aria was able to see her opponent's face for the first time. The young Dark Elf seemed less than 200 years old. He appeared to be strong and surprisingly calm. The young knight slowly glided the blade of his sword across her dagger. The center of balance shifted and the tips of the two swords trembled dangerously against each other.
"Give me the Book of the Saint."
When the sword blade danced across her eyes, Aria grimaced. "Don't ask me! Go to a bookstore!"
With her dagger, Aria drew a big circle and let go of it from her hand. The sword blade of the young knight touched her wrist, creating a long, deep wound, spilling forth much blood. Aria buried herself into the chest of the young knight and embraced him tightly with both of her arms.
With an eerie cry, she threw herself against the window. The window shattered and the entangled combatants rolled down on the eaves and fell down a level. With both of them still in mid-air, Aria gained control of her body and climbed on top of the knight. Just before they hit the ground, she put all of her weight on her knees and crushed them against her opponent's shoulders. Gripped with pain, the young Dark Elf clenched his teeth, with his eyes opened wide. From her wounded wrist, another burst of blood gushed out.
"The Abyss Walker of the greatest power is…"
While pressing down the knight's shoulders with both of her knees, strangling his neck with her left hand, she pulled another dagger from inside her boot. The bright red blood spilling out of her left arm covered the knight's face in red. Without hesitation, she brought the dagger to the knight's neck.
"…the one who walked in Hell for 500 years."
At that moment, as if she were falling on top of the young knight's head, she rolled her body. A burning excruciating pain traveled down her spine and filled her entire body. From this new wound, something lukewarm spilled out and soaked her armor and undergarments, which gave her an eerily vivid sensation.
The arrow of Crow Feather was surprisingly quiet. Aria was only able to detect its faint wind-like sound when it was very close to her. Once she was outside, it was hopeless for her to look for a safe place to protect her from an arrow. She stood up and ran for her life. Although she could not see or hear it, she knew that an arrow was flying directly towards her. After kicking a wall and hanging down from a tree branch like a cat, in one swoop, she sent her body over the wall. The last arrow struck her in the back.
The Bladedancer from the cold northern manor stared blankly at the mercenary guide he had hired -- Esenn, a Phantom Ranger, known by the nickname Crow Feather among the Orcs and mercenaries of Ruhn.
Scryde's body betrayed the will of its owner. Both shoulders screamed with a grinding sensation of bone against bone. He felt nauseous, as though his intestines were being twisted. His lungs breathed discordantly, as if playing an Orcish marching song. Overwhelmed with all of these sensations, his head throbbed as though about to explode.
"Oh, my!" When the Phantom Ranger saw the back of his employer's neck, he dropped the object he was carrying, ran to his employer and sat down next to him. Scryde could only manage to raise his right hand.
"It's all right. The blood is not mine."
Scryde thought that in order to forget the pain, he would rather pass out or try to focus on something else. But the former would only make him look weak. So, instead he posed a question to the Phantom Ranger.
"Did you get her?"
Esenn shook his head in shame and pointed to the item he brought. It was blood-soaked leather armor, torn to pieces from the recent struggle. He slowly explained how FirstMatter, with an arrow stuck in her body, still eluded him and ran away.
"A ranger, unable to catch an injured woman… I'm so ashamed of myself."
Scryde wanted to shake his head sideways but when he heard an awful noise come from his shoulders, he decided against it.
"Without you, my head would be rolling around at your feet by now."
Sitting beside Scryde, the Phantom Ranger quietly began to sort the arrows he had gathered. Since his arrows were custom-made, he treated them like rare treasures. He divided about thirty arrows into groups that were either still usable, needed repair, or to be discarded. The Phantom Ranger put them back into his quiver and spoke again.
"Then shall I continue the hunt?"
Chapter 4: Martien (1)
Originally, Dion was not a rich manor. There were no expansive tracts of farmland. With the exception of Mandragora, there was no unique local product. Mandragoras were mainly bought by Wizards, Shamans, or Herbalists. Considering the risk of growing it, the amount of profit the crop generated was not much. The Mandragoras' blood was wildly strewn by Duke Byron Ashton. The lord of the manor considered them only a source of headache rather than an asset of any value. Since trade with nearby manors or other countries was mainly done through Giran Harbor in the south, it was hard to expect much profit.
As a Human, Duke Byron Ashton was a terrible failure. Others said the worst mistake he ever made was believing he could improve the finances of his castle and manor by squeezing the poverty-stricken farmers. The farmers fought hard against him by rising up, armed only with rakes, hoes, sickles, and pitch forks. The duke ruthlessly executed the rioting farmers with spear, sword and guillotine. When the number of farmers he could exploit dwindled, the Duke even tried to sell his daughter to King Amadeo Cadmus.
Around that time, the era of chaos began, and people who dreamt of war came to Dion. They were thugs who had no loyalty to any country or manor. They overflowed with lust for power and uncontrollable ambition. It was not long before one of them beheaded Duke Byron Ashton and took over his castle.
Even if a goblin were crowned and danced upon the throne, the farmers of the manor would have been so happy they would have hugged each other and wept with joy. They enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the new lord of the manor. However, when the era of war began, or even after it ended and the Age of Splendor began, the residents' pockets did not get heavy overnight. Dion was still a poor manor where downtrodden residents lived.
The new lord of the manor firmly resolved to raise adena. He started a construction project to build a strange looking building in a vacant section of the village. Then he dispatched mercenaries and soldiers everywhere to catch monsters. After that, the only thing to do was to tame the captured monsters.
"Go, Wind Rider, go! Try harder! Faster, faster!"
The Monster Race Track was crowded with many people. Every movement the monsters made, the crowd reacted, either with joy or sorrow. Along with the names of unknown gods, all sorts of blessings and curses spilled from their mouths. But the amount of adena they so willingly used for their bets gave Dion manor and its residents some hope of escaping the poverty long inherited from previous generations.
"Go! Go! Go! That little rabbit can't catch up with you! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
With the winner decided, surging throngs moved wildly, like waves in a high wind. Some of them tore up and threw down their worthless tickets, while others cheered and hugged whoever happened to be nearby. Some of them suppressed smiles, hiding their joy from others, while secretly checking the numbers on their tickets again and again.
Martien, the owner of the South Sea Store, was one of those who jumped about until finally knocking down the person he was embracing. Then he ran to cash in his ticket, cautiously avoiding the scrutiny of others.
"Congratulations, Mr. Martien."
The race manager smiled and casually checked Martien's ticket. From this winning, the race track had to actually give out a significant sum of money. But her face showed no displeasure. Not because she didn't care if her organization suffered a loss. The profits the race track made were significant enough that they could treat Martien's prize money as only a minor write-off.
"My eyes met the eyes of the unicorn in the paddock and my heart almost stopped beating!"
"Because her eyes looked like my mother's eyes."
She laughed aloud, and then her facial expression seemed to imply, "How silly." She handed him a sizable bag of coins.
"After deducting taxes, your prize comes to 328,000 adena. Please double-check the amount and sign the receipt."
When he did not quickly reach his hand out to receive the bag, she looked at him with a puzzled expression. Martien took two steps back and looked up at the racing timetable dreamily. A moment later, he spoke again to the race manager, his voice filled with excitement.
"Look!" He raised his finger and pointed to the bulletin board, although it couldn't be seen from where she was sitting. "It says right there that in the next race the odds are 204 times. What does that mean? My mother - I mean, Wind Rider is running in this race, correct?"
While organizing race tickets into bundles, she briefly answered, "That's because it will lose for sure."
With a sudden glimmer in her eyes, she started to speak. "Think about it. It's a double to win, right? But you cannot win. Cyclone Thunder, in the third lane, is a great prospect that has been very popular lately. In addition, lane two, six, seven and eight - I'm sorry to say this about your mother - but their level is way beyond hers. I think somebody made a mistake to include such a sluggard. Although I shouldn't say this out loud, the odds of her winning the race would be..." She used her thumb and index finger to show Martien, "not even this much."
Martien, whose face had gradually turned red, retorted with an anger-filled voice. "Hey! You're out of line talking about my mother like that!"
"Why are you raising your voice? I was just telling you what other people are saying. Please calm down, Mr. Martien."
With that, she calmly went back to work, sorting the race tickets.
"There is no guarantee that she will always lose. She seems to be in good condition today. When I saw her eyes earlier today, they were burning up with firm resolve to win, no matter what! I believe she will surprise us with her performance in the next race!"
The race manager replied, "What's the point of deciphering the eyes of an ant larva? Mr. Martien, you're Human, aren't you?"
"Be quiet! Because of your nonsense, it has now become clear to me! I have made up my mind that today will be a very special day for me, one that will completely turn my life around!"
For a moment, Martien looked up at the sky above the race track. Like bubbles in a sewer hole, clouds started to gather, blocking the sun. When the wind began to blow in the forest surrounding the race track, leaves of grass flew up in the air with a soothing, calm breeze. For a very brief moment, totally isolated even from the noise of the race track, Martien was gripped by the notion that he was looking directly at something absolutely unchangeable. Martien decided that when he looked back at this moment later in his life, he would call it the Time of Revelation.
Chapter 5: Scryde
"I've done this for over 30 years. It will be done in no time. After getting a customer ready, you poke them with a needle a few times, then it's done. Anyway, the real problem is that…"
The Symbol Maker sat on a stool, took out a pipe from his pocket and put it in his mouth.
With a leisurely motion, he stuffed tobacco leaves into his pipe and set it afire with a cinder. As he puffed on his pipe, bluish smoke flowed from his nostrils. In the darkened room, the smoke slowly moved up towards the ceiling and danced around in snake-like patterns.
"You dislocated your right shoulder and collarbone. Two or three ribs seem to be fractured, as well. Ah, your pelvic bone is also cracked. Even after they are all completely healed, you will have aches during rainy weather."
The wick of the lamp made crackling sounds, while outside the window an ominous rumbling sound emanated from the sky. Soon it started to drizzle with night rain. Inside, the room fell into an absolute silence. Scryde blurted out his response after a bit of a delay.
"You're talking like a doctor."
While still biting the pipe in his mouth, the symbol maker mixed magic dyes in a flask. When the gold and silver liquid were mixed together, it became transparent. He dropped a blood-red dye into the liquid, which began to shine brilliantly. The liquid changed to purple, indigo and then finally to black. The symbol maker held the flask in his hand as though it were a bottle of fine liquor and shook it briskly. Soon, the liquid became transparent again.
"The abilities of the body are finite. You have to sacrifice one ability to obtain another. The essence of a symbol is balance - within the limits of destroying your body. You have to draw out a certain ability, while also minimizing the side effects that are always generated in this process. That is the technique of symbol making, the most important aspect of this work. Only novices try to create the strongest power or the fastest speed, without considering anything else. People like that often end up engraving a Symbol of Death."
The symbol maker stopped for a moment and inhaled his smoke deeply. Blowing it through his nostrils and mouth, he resumed talking.
"What you need to know is that nowadays, we are about two or three levels higher than most doctors. This is because we have a keen understanding of how the human body works and the principles behind it."
Scryde rose from the exam table. Since the table was typically used for making symbols, it was worn out, had spots of various colors, and smelled unpleasant.
"I realize you are a capable person," Scryde made an effort to button his shirt only with his right hand and then gave up. "But, what are you trying to say?"
"You are in very serious condition. Although you are an Orc who looks like a Dark Elf, I can only guarantee recovery from your injuries if you agree to rest for at least two weeks."
Scryde had a strange attitude that cannot be characterized in either Dark Elf or Human terms. Was it because he had lived in a Human territory, killed Humans, while serving a Human lord? Scryde shook his head and smiled. He was about to say something when he heard the sound of a strider snorting nearby. Outside, someone dismounted and walked towards them. Esenn looked at the Symbol Maker to check his reaction.
"I don't have any customers reserved at this hour."
The mysterious visitor lifted the rain-soaked hood of his raincoat and looked up and down at the building that contained Scryde, Esenn, and the Symbol Maker. He seemed to be trying to decide if it was where he needed to go. He started towards the building.
As Esenn noticed the visitor was a male Human, he decided the purpose of his visit was not to attack them. He glanced at the Symbol Maker again, who nodded his head with irritation, still holding the pipe in his mouth. Esenn opened the door for the visitor before he knocked, catching him by surprise. He raised his hand with an embarrassed air, then strode as though he were a vagabond just returning home. Although he looked a little gaunt at first glance, his gait exuded a strange air of ferocity. His skin was relatively pale, but it was difficult to guess his age, due to countless wrinkles and small scars criss-crossing his face. Esenn felt the visitor was extremely wary as he stood behind him.
"Did you close the door?" the Symbol Maker grunted.
The visitor pretended not to understand and looked back at the door he had just entered. When Esenn pushed the door with the tip of his foot, it closed with a loud thud. When their eyes met, the visitor grinned and shrugged his shoulders. Esenn eyed his bow and quiver in a corner of the room.
The visitor spoke to Esenn's employer. "Are you Scryde, the Knight of Pavel?"
The owner of the house looked offended at being flatly ignored. Scryde also showed displeasure, realizing everyone always seemed to already know him.
"Who are you?"
"Oh, great! I wasn't sure. You came a long way, eh? You look very different from another Dark Elf I know, who is a total basket case."
"Once again, who are you?"
The air in the room seemed to turn to ice. Esenn was torn between the idea of grabbing his bow or pulling out the dagger in his belt. At the same time, he suspected the visitor might be hiding something inside his raincoat. However, nothing happened.
"Very well, Sir. This servant of yours is called Gustin. My master is a very noble person, but I just carry out some trivial errands. My master said that he was very grateful to the loyal support and cooperation your lord has provided and sent me to offer you a little help. Heh, heh, heh!"
It was obvious that his speech was filled with sarcasm. Scryde spoke without blinking an eye.
"I don't need any help from a servant, or whatever you are. I don't know who your master is, but say whatever it is you have to say, and then be off with you."
Gustin clenched his teeth. Esenn felt some sympathy for him. If an Orc were to receive such a rebuff, a fight would have ensued, that would have lasted until only one of them was left standing. Only a Human would endure an insult to such a degree.
"I heard that the woman you have been chasing has gone to the Manor of Water."
"Why should I believe you?"
"There is no reason that you shouldn't believe me."
Scryde looked at his Human visitor for a while. Some say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but the pupils of Scryde's eyes looked like bottomless wells.
"Is your master the Witness of Prophecy?"
"Oh, my!" Clicking his tongue, Gustin turned his gaze to the Symbol Maker. "You found me out. You shouldn't have said it aloud, though. Thanks to you, no one will have symbols engraved on them here in Giran for a while. My master told me to execute those who spread evil heathen customs like yours."
The blade of a sword with a bluish gleam suddenly appeared from the visitor's raincoat. An unexpected torrent of vile curses spewed from the mouth of the Symbol Maker as he picked up the largest needle for symbol making within reach on the floor.
"You Bishop's mongrel! Would you like me to carve out a heart symbol for you?"
Gustin smiled coolly and gave a broad grin showing his teeth.
"With both your arms cut off, I wonder how you will do such a thing."
Without clearly knowing why, Esenn felt the need to help the Symbol Maker. However, he was just a hired hand and couldn't tell what was on the mind of his employer. Scryde used his uninjured right arm to lift the three legged stool and throw it down with a loud crash upon Gustin's head.
"What are you doing!" Gustin screamed in anger. "This is none of your concern!"
"I don't like your master." Looking at Scryde's wrinkled brow and the Symbol Maker's concerned expression, Esenn realized the patient's right shoulder was dislocated again. "I don't like the way the two of you behave, either," he said, with a voice devoid of any emotion.
Blood gushed from Gustin's forehead, traveling past the wrinkled corners of his eyes and protruding cheekbones, reaching his mouth. A quivering sound leaked from Gustin's throat, but it was hard to tell if he were sniffling or snickering.
"Dark Elves are all the same. You can't help yourselves. Even when you are about to die, you have to show your temper!" Gustin muttered darkly. Rather than address the others in the room, he was actually talking to himself. "But, what would your master say? Humans are much more complicated and cunning creatures!"
"I guess you don't love your master," Scryde mocked him with laughter. "I truly feel sorry for you."
Gripped by a sense of defeat, Gustin left, unable to take the Symbol Maker's life. Some time later, Scryde received another painful treatment that lasted several hours. Afterwards, he told Esenn to leave for Innadril. Gustin may yet have the opportunity to satisfy his cheap desire for revenge. Esenn thought that if the gloomy Human were there to witness the ordeal of Scryde's treatment, even he would have found no joy in it.
Chapter 6: Martien (2)
The cat pounced on the wolf. Like a circus clown, the cat did a somersault in the air and landed on the back of the wolf. The wolf growled loudly and turned on the cat. A wasp saw what happened and danced wildly, flying in a figure-eight pattern against the sun. A shadow beast ran towards the finish line, with a unicorn following close behind. Further behind, a little white rabbit and a strange-looking clockwork doll with a clock embedded in its belly ran after them.
"Isn't one missing?"
Back at the starting gate, a dust-covered caterpillar wriggled forward. In the afternoon, cicadas chirped loudly from the trees near the racetrack, as if to cheer for the caterpillar.
"Stop it!" Someone screamed and hurled a glass bottle. It hit Martien's head and bounced off, flying onto the race track and landing on the back of the caterpillar. It curled its body into a ball and rolled itself into the next lane, which was probably a better racing tactic, all things considered.
"Ah, Brother! Are you okay?"
"Come on! Come on! Over the Top! You can do it! Wind Rider! Go! Go!"
At the front of the pack, the unicorn and the shadow beast competed heatedly for first place. Covered in snow, the unicorn ran frantically. The two beasts ran side by side for a while. Slowly, the unicorn gained on the shadow beast.
The caterpillar continued to roll down the lane in its spherical shape, until it was run over by the clockwork doll's small single-drive wheel. The doll fell forward and the flame from the torch that the doll was holding kindled the wick attached to its head.
Tick tick tick... BOOM!
The doll exploded, throwing its wheel into the crowd of spectators. Parts of the doll's body flew into the decorative sign above the race track's main gate. The doll's droll-faced head bounced past the finish line with a loud clatter, distracting the already confused crowd's attention.
All eyes turned to another round object flying in the air across the racetrack. The caterpillar barrelled ahead of the unicorn, like a nightmarish orb on some mad, ill-fated mission.
The sun blazed down upon the white unicorn, speeding along at full gait, as if chasing after something long forgotten. The shadow beast was once a ravenous predator of the night, more accustomed to ripping apart the fabric separating this world from that of the spirits. Presently, it continued the chase for the sheer anticipation of capturing its assumed prey, the unicorn.
"Pounce on it now? Not now. Just a little closer..."
"The first arrival: lane number five, Over the Top! The second arrival: lane number four, Wind Rider!"
A tremendous tumult of victorious screams, curses, and laments congealed to generate a raucous uproar that seemed to shake all of Dion. The torn up pieces of race tickets the spectators threw away flew about the racetrack like confetti. A few wolves loitering about the racetrack were startled by the noise and ran away with a flurry.
The crowd pushed together tightly, wildly shaking the wooden rails that separated the spectator area from the race track. The wooden rails finally collapsed. A few unfortunates were buried in the wreckage and trampled as the rest of the crowd disappeared from view. Some spectators rushed to the monsters and their owners, but were soon restrained by mercenaries hired by the race track.
While hugging, kissing, and dancing around with whomever happened to be standing next to him, Martien burned with a religious fervor so powerful that he could have instantly converted to the clergy. He was deeply grateful to the being who bestowed upon him the Time of Revelation.
He hereby determined that from this day forward he would perform many works of charity in an effort to become a respected member of the community. He would also be generous to his subordinates, who had long suffered financial hardships. "I will obtain a cozy clan hall and buy them all shiny, high-quality weapons!" he promised to himself.
Across the lanes, he saw a female Dwarf near the offices of the race track, fending herself from the guards attempting to restrain her. She pointed to the finish line, complaining about something. Well, since the result was totally unexpected by everyone, it was understandable for someone to become upset. Martien even felt sorry for her.
A little later, the judges gathered around the Dwarf, and before all was said and done, even the highest-ranking officials were called down into the fray. Huddling together, they shook their heads and argued for a while. Finally, they seemed to reach a concensus.
"Attention! We have an announcement to make." A race manager stood at the center of the racetrack, shouting in a booming voice. "We have corrected an error that was made when we announced the winner for the 12th race."
Silence seemed to rule the whole world.
"The first arrival was lane number one, Light My Fire! The second arrival was lane number five, Over The Top!
"According to the rules of the Monster Race, when any part of a participating monster's body crosses the finish line, that monster is considered to have crossed the finish line. Therefore, we have determined that Light My Fire, whose head first crossed the finish line, won the race. We would also like to inform you that those who bet on Wind Rider, the third arrival, and missed your fortune by a very narrow margin, will be given a lottery ticket as a token of our goodwill. The winner of that lottery will be drawn tomorrow."
In the blue afternoon sky, a brilliant sun sent golden beams down like indiscriminate arrows.
"Why would you want to read the eyes of an ant larva? Aren't you a Human?" The race manager seemed to ask no one in particular while sorting tickets.
"Let me give you a lottery ticket as a token of solace. Missed it by this much!" The female Dwarf said as she lifted the ruined doll head.
"Come over here, sir. It's a lot of fun."
In the red-carpeted VIP room located at one side of the coliseum, Sir Athebalt and his guards danced about like clumsy Orcs. When his eyes met those of Martien, he flew into the air and shook his waist while drawing the shape of a figure-eight.
"Hey, would you like to meet an angel?" He asked, looking down from above Martien's head.
"This is all because of you," the unicorn said to Martien with sad eyes. "Why didn't you become an angel as I told you? When you were young, you were such an angelic child!"
"In order to become an angel, you have to train for three years in Cedric's Training Hall, another three years at the Ivory Tower and then another three years in the Servitor's Village. After completing all that, you must still win a game of chess against Hardin! It also takes a lot of money!"
Martien wanted to run with abandon in the opposite direction of the sun. While he was thinking that he wanted to run and run, he suddenly realized he was already running and howling like a crazed animal. The startled crowd hurriedly moved out of his way, yelling and cursing at him. "Ouch!" A young female Dark Elf that Martien collided with moaned with a somewhat seductive voice. With a bewildered expression on her face, she stood there for a while and looked around her. "Ms. Leirynn! Ms. Leirynn! Where are you?"
"El! El! I told you not to wander around on your own, didn't I? It's very crowded here. You can easily get into trouble, and then what are you going to do? A place like this attracts a lot of weird characters!"
Although someone who looked like the young female Dark Elf's companion showed up a few steps away, the young female did not open her eyes and continued to hold steadfastly onto her cane.
"Yes, the person in front of me is acting strange. I think he went crazy after losing his money."
"You shouldn't talk like that about a person while he is right in front of you!" The young female's companion was an ordinary-looking female warrior. She wore light armor and carried a sword. She looked Martien up and down and added, "He does look like he has lost his mind."
"Huh? Does he really?"
Something exploded inside Martien's head. This was a terrible nightmare. While screaming ugly things that would go well with his nightmare, he turned on the girl, blubbering loudly. He felt a terrible pain between his legs like he was pierced by a spear and crumpled into a ball.
"Oh wow, that must hurt." The girl and her companion looked down at Martien, who was writhing on the ground. "He was hit by the Staff of Evil Spirit! If he can never function as a man, will you take responsibility for it? We told you not to make trouble!"
"When someone attacks you, they should be willing to receive a counter-attack. Wouldn't you agree?"
"What kind of ignorance is that? You're older than me. Don't you even have a shred of sympathy?"
"What about you? If you have such great sympathy, why don't you even make a gesture to help me up. Here I am, in pain on the ground!" The words pushed up to his throat, coming out as a muffled groan. The companion put both hands on her waist with a perplexed expression and looked alternately at the girl and Martien. Then, with a sigh, she turned her back on them both.
"Let's go back. Our captain must be worried about us."
The girl seemed confused, looking left and right. Then she slightly lifted her rather imposing staff. Martien, who still sat on the ground, was startled by her action and quickly put his legs together. The girl bent on one knee and carefully groped the ground around herself. Her hand touched Martien's foot.
"Hey! What are you doing?"
"I am sorry about everything. I thought you were trying to attack me. Are you still in pain?" The girl bowed her head deeply to him and added as an afterthought, "What are you going to do if you cannot function as a man anymore?"
At a loss for words, Martien opened and closed his mouth without uttering a word. It suddenly occurred to him that the girl was blind. She was shaking the tip of his foot with a worried look.
"Are you badly hurt? If you haven't lost consciousness, please answer me!"
"Ah, I'm, ah, okay... down there."
She sighed deeply with relief.
"Is she really a Dark Elf? For a Dark Elf, she has incredibly diverse expressions." As soon as he was thinking that, Martien noticed her expression darken.
"Something bad must have happened to you. But it's dangerous to attack someone like that." He thought the girl was going to reprimand him for trying to hit a blind girl. But that was not it. "I could have been a murderer who enjoys killing Humans for sport, for all you knew. Were that the case, your limbs would be scattered about and your heart would be bouncing up and down over there."
Her wild imagination reminded him of illustrations from some bloody fairy tale. Martien shook his head, regretting his irrational behavior. He tried to explain why he ran around the race track in such a frenzy. Martien was extremely embarrassed. If the girl were not firmly holding onto his foot, he felt for sure he would have run away screaming once again.
After listening to his story, the girl fell into a contemplative state. Rummaging through her shirt, she took out a piece of paper. Martien became distracted by the Dark Elf's well-developed bosom. He quickly looked at her face, then looked away, remembering that she was blind. He looked at her again, but was disappointed to find she had already adjusted her clothing.
The girl patted him to find his hand and told him, while placing the paper in his hand, "Here, take this."
After waking from his sleep, Martien carefully opened the piece of paper he was holding. The surface of the road was uneven, causing the wagon to shake wildly. Afraid of losing the paper, Martien held it with both hands.
"Brother, are you looking at it again?"
His man let out a sigh and switched his gaze to the window of the coach. His mind was troubled by the sixty-million adena that evaporated, thanks to the evil mischief of the gods.
"Sir Gustaf Athebaldt said that if you failed again this time, he would let you meet with an angel. You must feel the same as I do, don't you brother?"
The thing that Martien received from the girl was a ticket that correctly named the winner of the nightmarish 12th race. Written on the paper was a monetary figure that seemed to be a month's allowance for the blind girl. She had given him the paper in an effort to make amends for an injury she mistakenly thought would prevent him from functioning as a man, and promptly left. Having missed the chance to explain himself, Martien felt a little guilty at the thought of selling his sexual identity for money. But was that all he was worried about?
The wagon rushed forward at breakneck speed towards the capital city of Aden. When the traces of their conversation had almost faded from his mind, Martien suddenly opened his mouth.
"If a goddess suddenly appeared in front of our eyes, she might be in the form of such a thing."
"What?" The voice of his man clearly showed irritation over this foolish talk.
"Blind, unfeeling, and severe, but also filled with good intentions."
"That's certainly a philosophical way of looking at things, isn't it?" Martien's man folded his arms and buried his shoulders in the back of his seat.
Thanks to the coachman who put forth every ounce of his energy and skill, they were already past the White Tower of Wizards. "Oh!" the man who was looking out the window lightly exclaimed. A huge, gray pillar appeared on the horizon. The top of the pillar was buried in the clouds, invisible. In the past, it was a bridge that connected the heavens and the earth. But it had long since been cut off.
"Brother, that's the Tower of Insolence."
Chapter 7: Aria (2)
"Go and report that we found the woman."
Shadow Fang slew all the mercenaries who were searching for the holy ark. Six days after Aria FirstMatter disappeared from the streets of Giran, she showed up again in Innadril. Sir Gustaf Athebaldt, knight of Aden kingdom and head of the historic Athebaldt family, hired several mercenary units to find her. They found a Dark Elf at the Heine Wharf who fit her description.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. When I last saw her, her hair was tied back. She looked like she didn't have a care in the world."
The ocean breeze and southern sun must have loosened the vigilance of the Abyss Walker, who was supposedly the most powerful around. She strolled among the exotic street items and novelty toys the Dwarves made with skillful hands. When she entered a more extravagant area, she bowed respectfully toward the display cases. Meanwhile, several members joined the team of pursuers.
"Isn't this enough manpower? Why don't we get her now? If we wait any longer, others may come this way."
Did she find something she liked from a display case? While her trackers hesitated, Aria stopped in front of a clothing shop by the canal for a moment, then disappeared into the store. About three or four mercenaries also entered behind her, pretending they were customers.
The store carried armor and various types of equipment for adventurers, in addition to beautiful garments for classy ladies and gentlemen. The two types of customers were not always clearly distinguishable. For example, one can often observe the sons and daughters of rich merchant families admiring shiny armor, or female warriors engrossed in front of satin dresses. Inside, the store was noisier than the mercenaries had expected. They were thrown off-guard by the surprisingly large number of customers in the store.
"Where is the female Dark Elf who just came in here?"
One of the mercenaries grabbed the store owner by the throat. The unafraid Elf calmly gestured toward three Dark Elves, who glared back at them fiercely. Aria FirstMatter was not among them.
One of the mercenaries sent a signal and several of them rushed into the store at once. Some of the customers screamed, while some scowled with irritation. The mercenaries were a little discouraged to realize that some of the customers carried sturdy objects that could be used as weapons against those who disturbed their shopping sprees. However, the customers did not attack them. Surely their joyful shopping experiences would have been ruined for the day, so the customers seemed to suppress their irritation as much as possible.
"Is there a back door?"
Shoving aside boxes piled inside the store, a few mercenaries found a door in the back and walked outside. Gulls soared across a clear blue sky while gondolas leisurely glided on the peacefully flowing canal. Noble ladies dressed in white shielded their heads with parasols, enjoying graceful promenades without knowledge or interest in the mercenaries' activities.
One mercenary crossed the store, approached the fitting stalls and violently pulled off one of the curtains. Standing inside was a terrified female, about to burst into tears. The other mercenaries pulled off the second and third curtains of the fitting stalls.
The moment they pulled off the second curtain, a piercing scream pounded the eardrums of all the people in the store. A tiny trembling female Dwarf scrambled to cover her almost nude body with a tunic. When the mercenaries looked inside the third one, they froze like frogs facing a snake. A huge male Orc stood there naked, glaring at them with fierce eyes. The Orc must have been in the process of changing. On the shelf was a pile of tattered clothes and a pair of iron gloves.
The unfortunate mercenary who tore off the curtain gazed at the awesome abdominal muscles and huge green chest covered with scars. He should have stopped his gaze right there, but the mercenary looked further down. When he managed to look back up again, his eyes me those of the Orc. He wanted to apologize, but instead his lips twisted into a foolish-looking grin. He attempted to return the curtain he was still holding, but it fell unrequited to the floor.
"Uh, sir. I think there has been some misunderstanding." The mercenary's tongue betrayed him. The tattoo engraved on the Orc's head crumpled into an odd design. Green fists, bigger than a child's head, clasped in front of the mercenary's eyes, as the Orc made an ominous sound.
"That store seems very busy today. Perhaps some new fabrics from Avella have arrived. Would you like to go take a look, My Lady?"
The gondolier viewed Espen & Verona's Boutique with narrowed eyes. He seemed motivated to satisfy his own curiosity rather than that of his customer.
"No, I don't like going into crowded places," the woman replied.
The gondolier seemed somewhat disappointed, but like one typical of Innadril, he started to hum a tune. The wind blowing over the river was unusually cool and refreshing, and the customer who had suddenly boarded his boat gave him a generous fare. Having a female Dark Elf aristocrat as one's customer was also a rare experience that he could later brag about to his fellow gondoliers.
"Where can I take you, My Lady?"
Aria FirstMatter gathered her skirt, covered her ankles and lifted her head. She held a parasol that protected her against the strong sunlight. When the gondola passed under one of the countless bridges of Heine, she folded the parasol and brushed her hair back with her fingers.
Although she was tempted to stay in her current location under the bridge, she felt her pursuers were still too close for comfort. She looked around and pointed to another bridge above the canal about two blocks away.
As soon as he received her answer, he skillfully pushed his pole, sending the gondola forward. Aria felt the tension in her body slip away a little at a time. She thought it would be good if she could just enjoy her cruise on the canal without any worries.
A little later, when the gondola arrived at the destination, the gondolier silently put the pole in its place and waited. Perhaps the bag of coins she threw to him helped him become an easygoing and pleasant person. She felt tired from being pursued relentlessly, so his consideration was a welcome luxury. Aria did not become upset even when Piriel Aurura showed up half an hour later than their appointed meeting time.
"Finally! How am I supposed to find you in a place like this?"
"You're a Scavenger." Aria replied briefly. After a moment, she added, "By the way, your scream was excellent, as usual."
"The trick is to put your heart into your voice. Once you realize this, even you can do it."
Piriel jumped from the bridge into the gondola. If the gondolier had not skillfully manipulated his pole to balance the boat, they would have been showered with water from the impact. Although Aria regarded this Dwarf highly in terms of her skills, she was generally annoyed by her personality.
After Aria expressed her desire to tour the entire waterways of the city, the gondola started to move again. As soon as they were out of the shadows under the bridge, the sun greeted them with a welcoming smile. Aria unfolded her parasol again to shield her skin. The gondolier introduced different places along the way, as the gondola traveled at a leisurely pace.
"You caused an inconvenience to other people, doing what you did."
With a grunt, the Dwarf pulled her backpack, which was bigger than herself, onto the floor of the gondola. The boat bobbed up and down from the weight, once again.
"I know, you're right."
The Dwarf started unpacking her provisions. Aria had always been surprised by Dwarves' ability to carry great loads on their shoulders. On the battlefield, she even witnessed a Dwarf use the supplies from his backpack to equip all the soldiers of one unit with armor and long swords, as well as to feed them. She guessed this was the reason Dwarves do not grow in height as they grow older.
"By the way, Espen was moping around whining to me. If perverts hear rumors about Dwarves and Orcs geting naked and wild in his store, they will flock to it. It would ruin his business."
Piriel finally found the item she had been searching for in her backpack. She blew on it and polished it with her sleeve. It was a glass flask containing some dark red substance. Arial could tell that it was old, dried-up blood. Before handing over the Blood of Saints, Piriel seemed to have suddenly realized something and spoke.
"I know that this is a funny question to ask a Dark Elf, but I'm still going to ask it. Your complexion doesn't look so good today. Your face is deathly pale. Am I right?"
"Yes," Aria willingly agreed, quite unexpectedly. "I was severely attacked by two men from the north."
Piriel clucked her tongue and said, "Because of those damnable relics, two innocent lives have perished."
Aria put away the Blood of Saints, with a peculiar expression on her face. Piriel became startled and spoke loudly. "Don't tell me! You let them live? What has gotten into you?"
"Nothing. And don't talk to me like I'm some kind of murderer, all right?" Recently, some emotions had been churning inside Aria and she found herself expressing them aloud before she could suppress the urge.
"I must have become weak," she decided. "Although I may look young, I have lived in the same era as that crazed monster who's locked in the tower. I feel like an old hag whose insides have rotted away."
"One thing is for sure," Piriel took out her pipe and put it in her mouth. "Both you and I cannot claim to be young sprites any longer."
Piriel was going to take out her tinderbox, but realized she had put it at the bottom of her bag. The gondolier, silent up to that point, took out a burning twig from the box of coals on his belt and gave it to her. While still holding the pipe in her mouth, Piriel brightly smiled at the gondolier and lowered her head.
"If that's what you think, perhaps you should quit this line of work." After giving it a little more thought, Piriel added, "What you really want to do is meet up with that crazy guy in the tower and talk about old times."
Aria snickered. "I can't deny I've thought about it."
"It is the privilege of old ones like us to let young ones work while we sit back and watch."
When Piriel said this, the gondolier could not hold himself back any longer and let out a laugh. From Human standards, she looked like a girl of about ten years old at most, but she sounded too mature for her age.
"That is a cowardly act of escaping reality."
"What's wrong with that?" Piriel mumbled while looking at the office of the Commerce Guild across the canal. "Some elderly humans often talk like that. Such as Heine, Athebaldt, and yes, Rodemai too."
Aria shook her head with a sad and tired face. "This work should be done by our own hands. The youth are our hope for the future."
Piriel snickered. "Don't be mistaken. Whether you cause a problem or fix it, you should do it on your own. I would say that at least half your motive is to save your old boyfriend. I know you are anxious to get rid of Tetrarch Thifiell. Honestly, I don't entirely disagree with his mode of conduct. After all, what's wrong with Dark Elves allying themselves with Elves? Equality for everyone, I say. Happiness for all! It's even written in Maphr's Tablet."
"Perhaps we have talked too much," thought Aria. A chasm clearly existed between Dark Elves and Elves. Piriel did not force the point any further. However, when Aria handed her the money, the Dwarf uttered an unexpected remark.
"Be careful of your own people, now that you don't have many allies left."
Aria already knew that. What surprised her was the fact that this seemingly cold-blooded Dwarf was concerned for her safety.
"Humph." Rather than expressing gratitude, Aria responded sarcastically. "You should worry for your own welfare. I also heard who the Black Anvil is desperately chasing."
"I think that Master Brikus and Magister Xenovia of the Dark Elven Guild were also ordered to terminate you on sight. The two who attacked you earlier must be heading this way by now. Younger members of your own profession have also showed up in this city's back alleys. I mean the Abyss Walkers. Even when you cry over your own weaknesses, I can't help you. Understand?"
The sun slowly sank below the skyline, then disappeared beneath bridges in the distance. The canal was a ruby river tinged with brilliant red light. Aria felt glad that in this water city of Humans and Elves, beauty could even be felt by Dark Elves such as herself. The Dwarf turned to her and suddenly flung her arms around Aria's neck. Their difference in height made this an even more awkward gesture. Piriel buried her face into Aria's belly. She resisted her initial urge to toss the Dwarf out of the gondola and stopped her arm in mid-air. She didn't know how to handle a situation like this, nor did she comprehend Piriel's true intention.
"Don't… die… Okay?"
The Dark Elf put her right hand on the Dwarf's head. She wanted to caress it, but didn't know quite how to go about it. After a moment, she slowly pushed the Dwarf away.
"I told you I feel weaker than my old self." Aria attempted to stand up, but the gondolier quickly motioned her to sit back down. Instead of obeying him, she slowly started to undress. The gondolier quickly looked away, but this wasn't necessary. Underneath her dress, she wore leather armor. "That's all I meant to say."
She noticed another bridge approaching and slowly turned around, showing her back to the Dwarf and gondolier.
"Whether the enemy is one or many, Human or Dark Elf, young or old..."
Aria FirstMatter gathered her hair and tied it into a pony tail.
"I am still, at least up until this point, the most powerful."
Then, like the shadow of a bird passing overhead, she suddenly disappeared.
Chapter 8: Martien (3)
Countless aristocrats and saints have been buried in the Cemetery of Aden. The tombstone that Martien touched was hidden in a small area of the forest, surrounded by tall trees thick with needles. A few years ago, when Martien first visited this grave, he had the impression that the cemetery was a clean and spacious place. However, he realized that this was only due to its large scale.
"The only grave keepers in this place are those freakish creatures."
Martien and his men held their collective breath as a huge creature whose upper body was that of a female human and lower body was that of a snake slithered away silently. They did not move until the beast completely disappeared from sight. The keepers of this graveyard, unpaid and sleepless, burned with equal hostility toward unfortunate grave robbers and innocent visitors alike. They infested this place around the time when the war between Elmore and Aden broke out. Aden sent as many soldiers as possible, neglecting this vast graveyard. Near the war's end, some argued that the safety of the cemetery should be maintained. However, it was too vast. In order to completely drive the monsters from the cemetery, they would need enough manpower to build a castle. So, a plan for maintaining the cemetery was pushed down the list of priorities. By the time the war had ended, the plan itself was lost.
Once all traces of other creatures had completely disappeared, Martien's attention was again drawn to the small tombstone. "I wonder what kind of person is buried here? Surely, they must have been highly distinguished. Only such persons could be buried in this cemetery." But they could not have been a member of the royal family. A separate section was designated for those of the royal family, and it was still completely preserved. So they must have been someone dignified enough to have their name mentioned in the annals of history. But Martien knew nothing about this. Those who live in the Age of Splendor have no interest in such matters.
Martien was strangely relieved by the thought that the passing of time fades a person's life over time. He continued to caress the tombstone, trying hard to determine why he had such sentiments.
"Are you sad? You must have been a great person who was willing to sacrifice yourself. But now nobody remembers you."
Suddenly, the tombstone opened its eyes and then its mouth.
"What kind of foolish talk is that, you idiot? I'm dead. Why would I need to bother with such trivial matters?"
"But those who buried you here must have erected this tombstone so they could remember you."
"Can you even guess how much time has passed since the gods created this world? A person's lifespan passes in the blink of an eye. Even were my name written in books, how long do you think my memory would last?"
"You must have been a great person. That's why you are at rest here."
"Perhaps I was, or maybe not. There are no absolutes for greatness."
"Did you not try to live an honorable life, so you could be buried in a grand cemetery like this? Although, it has since turned to ruins."
"Who would think such depressing thoughts while they're alive?"
"Only those who devoted their lives to accomplish something."
"You are confusing consequences with purposes."
"You mean, each of us has our own purpose?"
"That's a trite way of putting it."
"I could die today or tomorrow. What do you think I should do?"
"Aha! Finally, you are getting to the point."
"Haven't you been thinking about this all along? You should already know. I'm just a reflection of your mind. Let us take leave of each other. Your men are calling you."
"Brother! Shouldn't we get going?"
Martien and his men moved stealthily through the graveyard, using moonlight as their only guide. They loaded the stolen goods they had collected from the graveyard into their wagon and departed. When they were far away from the cemetery, one of the three wagons headed south. One wagon headed north, and the last one, carrying Martien, headed directly toward the eastern castle gate of Aden. When they arrived in the city, Martien and his men were to be paid some compensation from his employer. If everything went as planned, he would divide his share of the rewards and pay his men, for they had need of food and clothing.
"This can't be…"
The wagon stopped suddenly. Inside the wagon, Martien started to laugh aloud. Soon, the sound of weapons and armor clashing mingled with the sound of angry voices.
"Stop!" He shouted at the top of his lungs from inside the wagon. The fighting suddenly stopped. Martien was overwhelmed by a feeling of satisfaction and excitement. He concentrated to hear what was happening outside. No one was actually attending to the wagon. The top of the wagon was pulled up and one of the men looked inside. Within the darkness of the wagon, someone was sitting on a holy ark.
Martien yelled at someone outside of the wagon, "I am Martien, owner of the South Sea Store! Let's have a talk!"
There was no response. Martien's heart pounded in his chest. His temples throbbed. In the midst of the deafening silence, someone snickered.
"This is getting interesting. I am Staris, from the 'Association of People Concerned About the Forest'."
Martien stood up from the holy ark. He walked to the back of the wagon and lifted the flap to look around. When his subordinates saw him, they brightened up greatly. He asked if everybody was okay, and they slowly nodded their heads. A female Dark Elf's cat-like, shiny eyes glared at him fiercely. A young male Dark Elf stood next to her.
The Dark Elf nodded, with a faint smile on his face. Martien gestured for the Dark Elf to approach him.
"Why don't you come inside?"
The Dark Elf lightly strode into the wagon. Martien's men remained outside the wagon, unsettled by this development. "Brother…" They looked at Martien with desperate eyes, at a loss for words.
"Take it easy, guys. Take it easy!"
A moment later, Martien and Staris faced each other. Martien sat atop the holy ark while Staris stood in front of him. His gaze rested upon the treasure of the Ancient Empire, upon which Martien sat. Martien lit a lamp that hung inside the wagon and observed the Dark Elf's appearance.
"Your face… I remember you from somewhere."
"I worked at the South Sea Store some time ago. Your pay was cheap. Dirt cheap."
"What did you expect? When business is meager, so is the pay. There was nothing I could do about it. Anyway, why did you pick this wagon? You didn't happen to roll dice to decide, did you?"
"If I tell you that I also sent people to the other wagons, would that make you feel better?"
"I can always check to find out. But I get the feeling this is not the case. Why don't you tell me, honestly?"
Martien had devised a trap when he was assigned to move the holy ark from the cemetery to another location. He came up with the idea to prepare a fake wagon as bait, in case a scenario like this were to take place. He discussed his plan with his employer, but did not disclose it to anyone else. Although the details of the plan had changed many times, one thing that did not change was placing the holy ark in the third wagon.
"Was I deceived?" The Dark Elf asked incredulously. "So, this holy ark is a fake?"
Martien was overcome with the taste of victory, which he had not felt for a long time. Rubbing his hands together, he tried to calm himself enough to speak. He knew that his next move was extremely crucial. "Who sent you here?"
"A highly distinguished person in Giran. Shall I say more?"
This was an unexpected answer. The Dark Elf might be lying to him. He could easily have come up with some other name. While Martien considered various possibilities, the Dark Elf spoke.
"Some time ago, a messenger from a society went to see Hierarch Asterios. You don't need to know the reason for this. But the society was a sort of association in which distinguished people gather to promote something more than just friendship."
Martien smiled bitterly as he stood up, and kicked the holy ark. He cursed at someone who was not there. The Dark Elf just stood there with his arms folded during this outburst. "If the holy ark is indeed a fake, why should I care if it's broken to bits and pieces?"
"Can I tell you a secret?" Martien breathed heavily and looked around. An old hammer caught his attention. When the Dark Elf saw Martien heaving the hammer on his shoulder, he tilted his head with a puzzled look. Martien gave him a broad grin and brought the hammer down upon the holy ark with all his might. Although it sounded like something was being smashed, the ark did not even show a scratch. But the floor was broken beneath it. Martien continued grinning broadly at the Dark Elf, showing all of his teeth. "Oh, this is the real one, all right…"
A little later, Martien and Staris exited the wagon. The gangs from both sides looked at them quizzically. Martien called over his subordinates to make sure they weren't badly hurt.
Although some of them had fractured arms or legs, and some had even been struck by arrows, but none were fatally wounded. After whispering a few words to the Dark Elf, Martien left with his men. He uttered some randomly contrived phrases loudly, such as "Aaarrgh… they're too strong!" "We're no match for them!" and "Let's get out of here!"
Staris left with a few of his men, to the outskirts of the graveyard. In a small forest located at the northwestern section of the Forbidden Gateway, he found a tombstone, deserted long ago. With the tip of his boot, he pushed aside the soil in front of the tombstone.
The "Association" obtained the key to the holy ark.
Chapter 9: Aria (3)
The crescent moon smiled radiantly. From the wharf, a horn signaled a boat's departure. Heine's lighthouse, the most beautiful of its kind, sent out a bluish beam that illuminated the night sky. To most citizens of Heine, the day was just like any other. However, a few of the more sensitive types felt that the atmosphere on the street was slightly askew.
The Dark Elven Guild usually appeared vacant, since few people passed through its doors. It was locked as soon as the moon arrived. Even the few adventurers who usually hang out at the stores had not shown up since earlier that morning. On the wharf and around the castle gates, an unusually large number of Dark Elves milled about.
"It seems like everybody is expecting a party to begin," said Flauen, Gatekeeper of Heine, looking at the moon, curved like a Shamshir's blade. As her gaze lowered, she noticed the backs of two Dark Elves walking away from her. One of them seemed badly injured, walking with difficulty. The other Dark Elf helped his companion, carrying an impressive bow, a black quiver, and arrows with black flags tied around them.
"Are they good people, or be they villains?" Flauen mumbled to herself, gesturing at the two Dark Elves. "When I see those who are struggling in their lonely fight called life, I feel the urge to lend a hand."
"I can't believe I get to fight FirstMatter!" Master Brikus mumbled, slowly tightening his belt.
After adjusting his clothes carefully, he rubbed the blood on his armor from previous combat with his thumb to remove it. To Xenovia's eyes, he was charged with tension like a trainee about to be tested by his master.
"Have you ever met her?"
With a gloomy face, Master Brikus counted with his fingers and said, "It was 15… or maybe 18 years ago, when I was working as a Sentry. She was invited over as a special instructor."
"What kind of person was she?"
Master Brikus pursed his lips and looked up in the air. Noticing the deep wrinkle that formed between his eyes, Xenovia guessed that perhaps he was remembering some very bad memory.
"The only thing I remember is that, throughout the training session, she looked very tired. Initially, we thought she wasn't interested in teaching us. For my part, I simply didn't like her."
Xenovia gathered several spellbooks and potions and put them in a pouch attached to her belt. She fastened her sword to her side, hoping she wouldn't need to use it. She could not make up her mind whether she should wear her armor.
"Leave that behind!" Master Brikus told her, and she gave up the heavy armor that would only hinder her from casting magic. "I will always be there between FirstMatter and you."
"If I were an Elf," Magister Xenovia smiled, "I would have said something like 'I will always protect you, no matter what.'"
"What a strange thing to say," Master Brikus clucked. When his eyes met those of the Magister, he laughed aloud. After recovering from his amusement, he placed his arm around the Magister's neck and gently pulled her toward him. Xenovia received his kiss.
"Even when you get old, don't ever become like that woman." Master Brikus told her, held her face gently in his hands.
"A tiresome woman?"
"A woman who is preoccupied with herself and treats herself harshly."
Master Brikus felt discomfort between his shoulder blades and adjusted the position of his armor. He carefully wrapped a long strip of cloth around his torso to minimize potential bleeding. He wore two swords on his side, hiding two daggers in his boots. A small bow hung from his back and its quiver hung from his hip. He donned a pair of gauntlets and then his coat, which adequately hid most of his weapons.
"We didn't leave anything behind, did we?"
When Xenovia shook her head, he locked the door of the guild. While he put his key back to its usual hiding place underneath the stairs, she hung a sign on the door that read "Closed Today" in burnt letters.
About two hundred guards were divided into four units, each consisting of around fifty men, lined up in a lattice formation. They awaited their leader's commands. When Captain Gosta appeared, at the direction of Duphis, a higher ranking guard, everyone saluted him in unison. They marched through the western castle gate of Heine and moved toward the Field of Reeds.
"Oh oh, they are on the move. They're going!"
Inside a wagon, Iason Heine watched this procession with great interest. His wagon was pulled over to the western side of the road, blocked to civilian traffic so the army could pass through. When Innadril was constructed, the Heine family donated a large sum of money to the lord. For this, their name was bestowed upon the city. They also contributed to the large-scale construction project of the Floating City. PrEsenntly, Iason Heine held the position of twelfth lord of the Heine clan, the wealthiest in Innadril.
"You'd better pull down the curtain, Sir. If they recognize your face, you may be in danger."
Iason Heine guffawed loudly at his secretary's concerned urging and replied, "What kind of trouble can befall me? They are willing to fight for me, risking their own lives against the Tasaba clan, my enemy who stole my goods. Don't you think I should at least see them off? After all, in order to mobilize the guards for this mission, I had to bribe the new lord with a great deal of money!"
The secretary's face darkened as he tried to warn his employer. "Sir! If someone overhears you!"
Iason Heine closed the window and sat back in his seat. It was nearing time for them to leave. Tapping the window separating his compartment from that of the coachman, he yelled loudly, "Let's get out of here!" The beasts were urged forward and the coach moved ahead slowly.
From outside the wagon, the restling sound of the Field of Reeds seemed to soothe their minds. While closing his eyes, the great merchant imagined the reeds as they danced. He also imagined the pale-faced assassins trampling the dancing reeds in their march towards the Floating City. His imagination was not far from reality.
After taking the sign that read in big letters "Just Arrived! New Products!" back into the store, Verona put her hand on her waist and straightened her back. She heard her bones crack. "Ouch!" She rubbed her lower back with her fist and went into the store. Closing the door, she locked the bolt and hung up a sign that read "Closed Today."
"What? You're still here?"
"Well, now what should I do?" Verona looked around the store.
The Elf Espen put both his feet on the counter, leaned back in his chair and flipped through a magazine. Two customers still remained in the store.
"Didn't you say you would be leaving today?"
"No!" Piriel Aurura, a Scavenger, sat on the floor and rolled dice with a sulky look. "I don't even want to see the shadow of a Dark Elf. I'll just stay here today."
"You're upset about something, I can tell." Verona gently patted the head of the Dwarf, who had lived several times longer than herself.
"I can't stand it, really!"
Piriel could not get over her frustration. After playing alone with her dice for a while longer, she finally determined the source of her foul mood, although it didn't make her feel any better. She looked at the iron hammer, her favorite tool. She imagined herself striking the head of an old female Dark Elf. Somehow, this thought greatly improved her mood.
"Piriel Aurura." The shop owner was surprised to see the Dwarf laughing to herself. She looked at him as if she had just awakened from a dream. "Do you happened to know anything about Dreviant Wine?
Piriel replied that it is the wine produced in small amounts by hand in the Cursed Forest. Its ingredients are the Pino Rouge grapes only grown in Gludio. The poison is extracted from a spider, fermented using secret methods taught by demons. She also mentioned that the taste has a silky texture and a unique, unforgettable fragrance. The Elf merchant nodded his head and smiled.
"What if I tell you that one out of the twelve cases of wine that were made twenty-nine years ago at a winery called Astaron is now hidden underneath this counter?"
The Scavenger's jaw dropped and her eyes opened wide. Espen asked Verona to bring wine glasses. The three sat on the floor of the store and poured the legendary wine into glasses.
"Hey, Tushku!" Espen called to the Orc High Prefect. The burly Orc was still feeling guilty that half the store was destroyed as a result of his actions earlier that day. To make amends, he had been working on repairing the store. But, proving the common adage that you cannot expect Orcs to do a good job that requires manual dexterity, he only managed to increase the scale of the damage.
"Unless you are trying to develop a new combat technique with that hammer, please put it down. Come over here and have a drink with us!"
The Orc silently sat down with the others.
"It seems like we have one extra glass."
"No, we are just about right."
Espen poured wine for the group, then filled the remaining glass to the brim. "She should show up by daybreak. Why don't we get started drinking while we wait for her?"
With nightfall, the temperature dropped and the wind blew out to the sea. One by one, the townspeople and the guards disappeared. The only creatures loitering among the streets were the Dark Elves with their moonlight-colored skin.
About a dozen Dark Elves rushed out of the alley near Brikus. In secret, they reported the results of their search. Brikus was aware that one of the units dispatched to the city had not returned. It was the unit that left to search the area near the wharf.
Brikus felt his chest tightening. Three hours had passed since beginning their search, still without a glimpse of FirstMatter. During the course of the night, many of the them were disabled from from the fight. The searchers were overcome with tension and frustration. Soon, their sentiments would turn to fear.
In the canal, a fish jumped into the air, twisting its body, reflected by moonlight in sparkling, silvery colors. When the moment passed, the fish disappeared into the depths of the canal.
Brikus gnashed his teeth in a curse. Suddenly, he realized what FirstMatter's tactics were. "Everyone, we will refine the search area!" He divided the canal into different sections and assigned each one to a search unit.
"Make your movements as discreet as possible. No units are to make contact with any other. Bear in mind, we are the hunters!"
Brikus couldn't shake the feeling that he was the target. Along with Magister Xenovia, he boarded a gondola and searched the area between the eastern and southern sections of the canal. The Dark Elves had acute vision, even under moonlight. FirstMatter may have turned herself into a slippery fish, for all Brikus knew, but he still felt he could catch her. He watched a small school of fish quickly dart away as the gondola approached.
"FirstMatter is unpredictable. Maybe she wants to slay all 99 of us with her bare hands."
A young Elf asked with both admiration and disbelief, "Why do you say that, Sir?"
"Because she doesn't want to run away. She wants to impress Tetrarch Thifiell, to prove that she is right. There are many other reasons, but she has only one real motivation. Because she can."
From a distance, Aria watched the gondola carry her pursuers. Two of them were conversing, while the female attentively searched the bottom of the canal.
Aria tensed when she noticed the woman suddenly lift her head and look in her direction. However, she could not see through the veil of deception Aria had created around herself in the darkness. When the boat approached, Aria could identify two of the three on the boat. She knew well the face of Master Brikus and could guess who the woman was that accompanied him.
When the gondola finally passed under the bridge, Aria removed her veil of deception, swooped down and stabbed the young Dark Elf as he held the pole. She was about to attack Magister Xenovia, but Master Brikus blocked her path, brandishing his sword. Since he wore heavy armor, the gondola shook wildly. Aria wavered, trying to regain her balance, as Brikus laughed triumphantly.
Having lost its gondolier, the vessel drifted aimlessly, following the flow of the current. While Master Brikus protected her front, the Magister chanted a spell. Aria abandoned them, escaping up the bank. When the spell of the Magister was completed, an ear-splitting roar issued forth, like thousands of arrows shot at once.
The buildings made of white marble were defaced with ugly scratches. The paving stones that once boasted beautiful patterns were marred by large gashes, as though a giant had jumped up and down on them on one leg.
"Why did you blow her away like that?"
The air pocket of tremendous pressure inflicted enormous damage to the appearance of the city, and pushed at FirstMatter's back with great force. Like a scarecrow engulfed in a tornado, she was blown across the canal, smashing through the second story of a building.
Brikus jumped up on the bank after FirstMatter, signaling to the nearby Dark Elves. Magister Xenovia followed Brikus up the bank. The streets connecting many corridors and stairs in a convoluted maze. The two pursuers jumped across the canal, climbed the walls and walked atop buildings that separated them from their prey.
Brikus found shattered glass and a pool of blood on the floor. As he touched the blood, an arrow flew through the broken window and lodged into his shoulder. With his thick armor, no serious damage was inflicted.
"What a cheap move!" Brikus yelled. "FirstMatter, you must be getting old, too!"
"You don't need to remind me of that, you bastard!"
For several hours now, Aria had been playing hide and seek against numerous top-notch soldiers. How exhausted must she be? Was her sheer bravado a disguise to ensnare him?
In the attic in an old abandoned building, the ceiling was so low that it was hard to maneuver. The smell of decayed paper was overpowering. A door suddenly slammed shut as soon as Brikus entered, enveloping him in utter darkness.
Brikus was thankful Xenovia still lingered behind. As she had never trained as an Assassin, to be thrown into a situation like this would be walking naked into combat. However, Aria was injured, and the scent of blood is stronger than any other body odor.
"It's no use!"
Brikus was confused, because the direction of her scent was apart from where her voice emanated. He walked sideways, to discover another pool of blood on the floor.
"You can deceive, but you can't hide."
With some effort, he undid the buckle of his shoulder armor, which made a loud noise as it fell to the floor. His opponent did not attack. He removed his skirt and thigh protectors, also putting aside his alternate weapons.
"You must have learned something from the training I gave you on that day."
Again, her voice came from a new direction. Some sixteen years ago, he and his platoon refused to receive FirstMatter's instructions. The elders took this as an act of rebellion and imposed what they considered suitable discipline. The captain of the sentries suggested a punishment that could potentially save their lives, but it also inflicted a permanent scar on their pride. As it happened, the captain later lost his life in combat with marsh zombies, attempting to seize an underground fortress.
"All members of the platoon will be locked in the underground fighting complex while fully armed for thirty-eight minutes. Enjoy your punishment."
Locked in pitch-black darkness, they met with Aria FirstMatter. Completely unarmed, she gave them the most painful and humiliating thirty-eight minutes they would never forget.
"Thank you for your compliment."
An arrow whistled toward Brikus, interrupting his reverie. At first, Brikus thought it was some sort of a joke or deception, but more arrows continued to fly towards him with deadly accuracy. She obviously knew his exact location. Brikus haphazardly brought down his sword, causing chips of old paint and wood fragments to fly up and generate much dust in the air.
"Well, if you do that, you will hide the smell."
As soon as Brikus heard her voice, another arrow came towards him. He rolled his body to escape the hit.
"But smell is not the only thing you need to disguise. One can get a hint from the flow of air or one's body heat."
"What nonsense!" Brikus couldn't believe anyone could possess such abilities.
"The objective is…!" The sound of a bow string being pulled back several times successively could be heard in an instant. Five shots? Six shots? Brikus was hit in his left arm and leg. His left ear was also injured. "... if you are focusing on only one sense..." Suddenly the voice was very close. "…you can never catch me, you fool!" The next moment, Brikus received a shocking impact and flew backward. He fell to the floor, gathered himself and readied himself for the next attack.
Meeting and evading the sword Brikus swung at her, FirstMatter's dagger almost split his jaw in half. He stepped back and thrust his sword directly forward. At that moment, his opponent's dagger stuck into his wrist. FirstMatter twisted it with full force, digging between the bones and tendons with a sickening, cracking sound. Crying aloud in pain, Brikus swung his fist, surprising Aria with a blow squarely on the face.
She spit out blood with a grin at the notion her opponent still had the will to fight.
"Yes." Brikus mumbled as though he were spitting the words through his teeth. What fell to the floor was not his weapon. "This was the problem."
He kicked small capsule-like objects across on the floor. The capsules broke for a moment, illuminating the room in bluish aura from the spirits.
"Yes, although it is certainly a great invention, nowadays, young assassins seem to rely excessively on it."
Aria pulled out a large glass fragment stuck in her thigh and tossed it aside. From the wound flowed another gush of blood. She did not want her opponent to realize that she had already bled too much. She maintained her composure and turned in the direction of the door. "Among them, at least you were the one with the most potential, Sentry Brikus."
"I will gratefully accept your teaching, FirstMatter." The Master's face was smeared with blood and sweat. He unwrapped the strip of cloth from his waist. He roughly wrapped it around his tattered wrist and tied it with his teeth. "However, I still have the use of my left arm."
Attempting to finish the fight before the light of the spirits disappeared, Brikus picked up his sword with his left hand and while limping on his wounded left leg, he charged at Aria.
At that moment, a black flame flickered and the door turned into ashes in the blink of an eye. A spell-induced tornado flew in, blowing away the walls and the ceiling. Untold moments passed as the mass of detritus settled. Slowly, Brikus extracted himself from the collapsed attic.
"Xenovia! What about FirstMatter?"
Brikus faced a scene that he never wanted to witness. Aria held the Magister from behind, and several pursuers lay dead around her. More soldiers floated on the water, the canal scarlet with blood. Aria's dagger caressed the Magister's neck.
"You know that taking a hostage won't do you any good."
Brikus was going to continue his talk but Xenovia slightly lifted her hand to stop him. "You know what, I don't think I'm a hostage."
"You're right." Aria whispered something into the Magister's ear.
The Magister opened her eyes wide as blood gushed out of her mouth. Pulling the dagger out of the Magister's back, Aria pushed her limp body into the canal. The water splashed ungracefully and the Magister's body was carried away by the current. Brikus cried out and charged toward Aria with an expression of hopeless abandon and deepest hatred.
"Calm down, Brikus. She is alive." Aria attempted to wipe away the animosity her opponent was harboring.
Aria clucked her tongue because the owner of the voice was the person she never wanted to see again. A familiar face came out of the shadows of the shattered building where this latest tumult had occurred.
"Knight of Pavel…"
"I'll remember you as that from now on."
"Yes, do that."
Brikus, Scryde, and Aria. The three Dark Elves maintained a peculiar stand-off. It was Brikus who made the first move. Masking his intention to attack, he took a step towards the canal. Aria reacted instinctively, positioning herself closer to him. She was aware how dangerous it was to confront multiple enemies so completely exposed. She found herself especially wary of Crow Feather, the other Dark Elf who came from the north.
Scryde informed Brikus, "Her dagger is under a spell of bleeding. You'd better hurry and finish this."
"I don't know who you are, but I already know that without you telling me."
What Aria could not understand was Scryde's rapid recovery. She was confident that she had inflicted enough damage on him to hospitalize him for a month or two.
"Must be some kind of potion that's aided your recuperation."
Some potions had the effect of letting one forget pain temporarily, or greatly enhanced their physical capabilities. But most would turn their users into addicts, with serious side-effects that cause permanent brain damage.
The Master and Bladedancer surrounded Aria from both sides. They were both originally users of Dual Swords, so they could use swords with both hands. However, neither of them could use both of their hands. Aria wondered briefly if maiming and destroying male bodies had become a strange hobby of hers.
The two Dark Elves attacked. Arrows tied with black flags flew toward her continuously from across the canal. Rolling her body to barely escape the arrows, she looked across the canal where the archers might be hiding. The blue light from the lighthouse sharply passed overhead.
Aria attacked Brikus first. Turning backward, she kicked Scryde's leg. With a graceful leap, she plunged into the canal, arrows penetrating the water, several of which struck her. Crawling on the bottom of the canal, she headed for the lighthouse.
Esenn picked up his bow, but had lost sight of his enemy. When he leaned his upper body out of the lighthouse window, he came face-to-face with a profusely bleeding female Dark Elf. She smiled and grabbed his right hand. She reached her other hand toward him, but Esenn struck her several times with his bow. Her head bled profusely, her arms were blackened with bruises, and her face was disfigured with ugly swelling. She desperately grabbed with both hands. With a snap, the finger that guided the string of Esenn's bow could no longer move according to his will. His hunt had failed.
Aria walked out of the lighthouse and flopped down on the ground.
"Oh my love, my dearly beloved!"
She wanted to hear the voice of her lover. Not the hollow shell currently locked up in the temple, repeating the same words over and over, but that of the greatest and most fearsome man she ever met, in the way she still remembered him.
"Only a little more to go. Just a little longer." She buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking.
She lifted her dazed eyes up to the sky. The light of the lighthouse had faded as the sky brightened. She could hear footsteps, heavy and strong. She could tell who it was. With the palm of her hand, she wiped away the tears from her face.
"Did you leave the woman to die?" Aria said to Master Brikus. "That wasn't very nice of you."
To Scryde, who had a concerned look - at least that's how she interpreted his expressionless face - she said, "Just like I dealt with her, soon I will deal with you."
She stood up, but staggered, lost her balance and fell down into a wet gulley. Her vision blurry, she could still see much fear and hatred on the two men's faces, but not much sympathy. Their hands were coming after her - not to offer goodwill, but to apply their weapons.
"All these things are too tiresome for me." She raised up her dagger. "Let's finish this quickly and rest."